Controversy over vaginal versus clitoral orgasm is nothing new; it's a debate that has consumed sexologists and psychoanalysts for the last 100 years. Modern research has just added fresh fuel to the controversy.
Orgasm image from Shutterstock
In 2014, a team of Italian sexologists published a review in the journal Clinical Anatomy that concluded vaginal orgasms don't exist. Female orgasm is only possible if the clitoris is stimulated during masturbation, cunnilingus, partner masturbation or with a finger during intercourse. Penetration alone is not enough.
This latest swing of the pendulum – from the view that vaginal orgasm is the ideal that women should aspire to and anything else is second rate – is unlikely to have affected women. Indeed, one of the more interesting threads in this whole debate is the predominance of men's voices. Perhaps what we should be talking about is why male experts dictate the parameters of women's pleasure.
Frigidity and failure
Sigmund Freud was one of the first to investigate the "dark continent" of female sexuality. He declared the clitoral orgasm "infantile and immature". A woman could claim sexual maturity only when she experienced a vaginal orgasm, he said, ignoring her "amputated penis", the clitoris.
Inability to achieve vaginal orgasm meant a woman was "frigid" or "not a real woman", claimed Freud and many of his followers. This failure was attributed to deep-rooted neurotic problems.
The pressure was on. To be "normal" and "mature", women had to orgasm during sexual intercourse. And successive generations were diagnosed with sexual dysfunction when they failed to achieve this holy grail of sexual response. Many felt like failures; their bodies had let them down.
Unsurprisingly, faking orgasms during intercourse became the norm. No one wants her partner to think she is failing to be a "real woman".
Celebrating the clitoral orgasm
Then US sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson came along. Observing couples having sex in the laboratory in the 1960s, they concluded women's orgasms started in the clitoris and then extended to the vagina.
Any pleasure women experienced through penetration was due to the connection between clitoris and vagina. They reported "frigidity" as resulting from poor sexual technique, not women's ambivalence about their social role. And that women were capable of multiple orgasm, while men were not.
Feminists in the 1960s took up this research with glee, declaring the clitoral orgasm the mark of a liberated woman. Some went further, arguing women should eschew penile penetration altogether. Now a symbol of women's oppression, it was unnecessary for sexual pleasure.
The feminist argument went mainstream when Shere Hite appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1987. She had interviewed 1,844 American women and declared the "true" female orgasm was clitoral. The female sexual revolution seemed to have been won with women speaking for their own sexual pleasure.
Then came the inevitable backlash. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of sex research attempting to establish the superiority of the vaginal orgasm, and the role of the penis in producing it.
Women who don't have vaginal orgasms are described as emotionally unstable, with immature defence mechanisms and low emotional intelligence. Apparently, you can even identify a woman who has a history of vaginal orgasm by her walk – it is that central to her very being.
So what causes a vaginal orgasm, according to these researchers? Not stimulation of the clitoris during intercourse. Rather, a long penis, which allegedly gives an evolutionary advantage to well-endowed men. Or long-lasting intercourse, which we are told is much better than "foreplay", with simultaneous orgasm during intercourse being the best of all.
Would it surprise you if I told you this phallocentric research is all conducted by men? Would their interest in the vaginal orgasm possibly have something to do with maintaining the primacy of the penis?
After all, the implications of the clitoral orgasm are grave for heterosexual men. Women can pleasure themselves (or be pleasured by each other) as effectively as they can be pleasured by a man if the penis is superfluous to their ability to orgasm. A man's fingers become more important, or his smell, which some heterosexual women rate more highly than penis size.
A woman's perspective
From a woman's perspective, this whole debate is a little irrelevant.
Some women enjoy vaginal penetration – with penis or fingers – and gain considerable sexual pleasure as a result. Other women prefer to be touched, use a vibrator, or receive oral sex. A lucky few have orgasms in their sleep, in the absence of any physical stimulation. And some prefer to have a cup of tea.
To imply that all women are the same, that we should have any sort of orgasm and are dysfunctional if we don't, is the most damaging part of this controversy.
Regardless of how orgasm is achieved, it is, by definition, an extremely pleasurable experience. And no woman I know would rate one form of orgasm as more "mature" than another. Most would just be happy to have one, any old way.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.