How Feminism Freed The Orgasm


National Orgasm Day was way back on 30 July. No one consulted ME about this and I’m a little bit annoyed about it. I’m annoyed about it because someone wrote a shabby half-arsed article in a major Australian newspaper and slapped a photo of me at the top without asking my permission, telling me about it or mentioning the reason why I was being featured as the poster girl for National Orgasm Day. Also, they got my name wrong.

But the main reason that I’m annoyed is that this article, which argues that anyone who fakes an orgasm is lazy, rude and impolite, had nothing to do with me, or the principles of sexuality I stand for. Yesterday was International Female Orgasm Day so they're definitely worth revisiting.

Perhaps I should explain who I am. I am an Australian cabaret artist, (read actor and singer) who wrote a theatrical show called La Petite Mort – The Orgasm. I created the show in response to historical, scientific and medical opinions I discovered, which treated female sexuality as a disease called hysteria. This “disease” led to the invention of the vibrator – a labour saving device to be used by the medical community.

The show served as a comic reminder that while modern women consider their “right to orgasm” as a given, this hasn’t always been the case. It has taken the work of some very brave feminists to progress western society to a place when a woman’s orgasm is commonly considered an entitlement.

Back in the day, women were diagnosed with hysteria for all sorts of quack reasons. “Symptoms” included all manner of bullshit including irritability and arguing with one’s husband. The treatment, which dates back to the time of Plato, was clitoral massage. This “medical treatment” was performed by doctors of western medicine (because women couldn’t possibly touch their own clitorises, for heaven’s sake!) to induce what was known as a hysterical paroxysm, or what is now recognised as female orgasm.

Historically, the privilege of orgasmic pleasure was reserved for men, whose wives were expected to lie back and think of England. Naturally, the clitoral massage along with the paroxysm weren’t regarded as sexual because they didn’t involve penetration.

Medical doctors regarded the treatment method as “laborious and difficult”. One doctor even described it as a similar feat of co-ordination as “rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time”. Enter the vibrator! Initially an instrument powered by steam engine and later in its advances, one of the first electric household appliances, predating the vacuum cleaner and the toaster.

The acknowledgment that women are capable of orgasm is an enormous step forward for feminism. As is the consequent permission women have been granted to enjoy sex. This step forward is still in its infancy as demonstrated by the stubborn slut-shaming and victim-blaming that persists in everyday life. So, the idea that people who fake orgasms are lazy, rude and impolite disgusts me.

Sexuality is a precious and delicate issue, steeped in a difficult history. It is an issue that needs to be handled gently, lovingly and with care. It takes enormous courage to take steps towards healing sexual issues and I find this negative labelling of people who struggle with orgasm as lazy or rude to be ignorant and careless.

I found the article to be potentially hurtful and damaging and while I’m sure it was written with the intention of being sex-positive, I fail to see how brashly condemning “orgasm-fakers” creates a safe space for sexual healing or positive growth.

The bottom line is that talking about sex openly is hard. Talking to your partner about possible problems in your sex life is even harder. These issues need to be handled with kid gloves, in a loving and supportive manner. They need time and patience and most importantly, they require a deep level of intimacy.

While I am grateful that the western world has evolved socially to a point where orgasms are taken for granted, I feel it is deeply important to acknowledge how recent this phenomenon is. Hysteria was only thrown out of the medical textbooks in the 1950s; they decided after 2500 years, that female sexuality was normal. As I say in my show, La Petite Mort – The Orgasm, “I am eternally grateful to the women who have cum before me. Who risked their marriages, their friendships and their involvement in society for my right to have an orgasm.”

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