The idea of the female orgasm has shifted constantly throughout history. Is sex successful without an orgasm? Can women achieve true pleasure without a man? Is Sigmund Freud right that a vaginal orgasm is the mature way to climax?1 While many ideals have changed since the early 20th century, one pattern has remained constant. There is an explicit link between the role of women in society and the expectations for those women in the bedroom. While this generalization of expectations may not have applied to all women at the time, it is what was portrayed in the marital sex manuals compiled by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Many pivotal moments related to women’s pleasure have occurred following major historical events such as World War II and second-wave feminism. However, these ties cannot be seen without specifically diving into the timeline.
The ideal woman of the early 20th century was submissive and gentle, crafting her life to make her husband’s life easier. The experiences within her sex life were dependent on her partner’s ability to give her an orgasm. The sexual experience itself, therefore, was dependent on whether the male could please the woman. Marital sex manuals focused on the male partner’s form, critiquing his sexual skills and showing him how to please his wife. While it may be surprising that the woman’s pleasure was at the forefront of these manuals in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s important to note that this pleasure was given to women strictly by a man. This type of sexual enjoyment could only occur at the hands of one’s husband, and it was his duty to do so. If there wasn’t enough pressure on the man to perform well already, it was also believed that a good marriage was dependent on the ability to have good sexual intercourse.2 Some even went so far as to tie women’s health to their orgasms. The unsatisfied wife may be led to infidelity or other poor choices, in contrast with the healthy and beautiful “orgasmic wife.”3 Once married, the man could spark the woman’s “sexual awakening,” again enforcing the idea that the woman had to depend on the man for sexual pleasure. This can be tied to the female role in society as well, with the husband serving as the sole provider.
Moving towards the 1940s and 1950s, as World War II strikes, a shift can be seen for women in the United States. With their husbands away at war, women stepped up to fill the now-empty roles at home. Women had jobs in factories and grew more independent. However, this did not last long once WWII ended, and the soldiers returned home, looking to reclaim their previous stations in society. Women were forced back into the home, and “normal” life continued. As for the male’s sex lives, a new fear had emerged: a loss of masculinity now that the men had to readjust to their lives at home. When a woman couldn’t orgasm, the blame was now placed on her. This aligned with the idea at the time that women who showed any excessive emotion were perceived as neurotic and needed some form of mental rehabilitation. In this era, the idea of the “frigid” woman reemerged. Sigmund Freud is a controversial figure for more reasons than one could cover in this chapter, but, for one, he was the creator of this idea. A frigid woman is one incapable of orgasming, ruled so strongly by her own insecurity and immaturity that her husband could not pleasure her.4 Now the blame was shifted onto the woman, as she only had herself to blame if she could not climax. Some also tied this lack of orgasm to the idea of the “modern woman” that emerged after WWII, as the modern woman “experienced dissatisfaction in her sex life mostly because she refused to submit fully to her role as a wife and mother.”5 This again shows the link between the societal role for women and their transitory right to sexual pleasure.
Anne Koedt was one of many radical feminists to take issue with the expectations for their sex lives in the 1960s and 1970s. Her book, The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, challenged Sigmund Freud and his beliefs, which had come to be looked at as factual. As the clitoris was still largely unexplored and misunderstood, it makes sense that some would believe his idea that it was just a smaller, inferior penis. This was just one of his many sexist claims, all based on the fact that women are undoubtedly inferior compared to men. Koedt goes on to explain why it’s easier for men to keep perpetuating these harmful ideals regarding female sexuality - one of her main points being that if a woman can experience clitoral orgasms, there is no need for penetration (or a man).6 Just as a man is capable of pleasuring himself, women are too. She also mentions that perhaps one of the most harmful results of Freud’s widely accepted ideals is that “women who were perfectly healthy sexually were taught that they were not.”7 While claiming their sexual freedom, women were also working towards liberation societally. From this point, sexual and societal expectations have slowly shifted to what we know them to be today. It is important to keep in mind, though, how even as the sexual and professional roles of women have shifted, the patriarchy’s control over these roles has not. There is still a lot of work to be done on educating the general public on and normalizing the idea of female pleasure, but we have fortunately come a long way since the early 20th century.
Emma is a third-year student at Wake Forest University from Upstate New York. She is majoring in Health and Exercise Science with minors in Chemistry and Biology. She is very passionate about women’s health and hopes to attend medical school upon graduating from Wake Forest.