In response to:
Anti-Climax from the November 30, 1972 issue
To the Editors:
The fine review of Dr. Mary Jane Sherfey’s and Seymour Fisher’s books by Irving Singer, as well as a number of other reviews which deal with the male-female polarity on a more sophisticated level, (NYR November 30) bring to mind how even in this age of science the most fundamental facts of embryology, anatomy and psychology are confused and misrepresented. Anyone can publicly utter the most outrageous statements and find a respectable publisher. The reviewed books form only a small part of the abundant lib-literature on the “Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” (Ann Koedt) or similar literature. Singer criticizes justly the fact that the books do not even provide a clear definition of orgasm, and indeed, if the arguing parties would, for a moment, stop and think, most of the violent arguments about clitoral and vaginal orgasm would evaporate in thin air. Freud or no Freud, poor daddy who is supposed to have started it all could sleep in peace.
Once and for all, there is no such thing as the alternative between different forms of sexual climax. An orgasm is the cataclysmic, total response of an organism to a series of lustful stimuli which produce in the central nervous system, as a peak-response, a shift in the tension of the nervous system, in producing waves of contractions which in the male are centrifugal and catapult the sperm into the outside, while in the female, the waves of contraction run centripetally, milking the masculine member and drawing the sperm inside and up the vagina. In intensive orgasm, even the uterine orificium is supposed to open and draw sperms inside the womb, protecting them from loss and elimination, and facilitating the encounter with the ovum. Moreover, breasts and other organs participate in the convulsive discharge, which produces the orgastic “lust,” but is sometimes experienced as exhausting, painful and causing tears or compulsive laughter. The shift in autonomic, nervous control causes the reversal of circulation and the detumescence of the swollen organs in both sexes.
A completely different chapter in sex is the question, how to reach an orgasm or in other words, what type of stimulation and what “erotogenic” zones are experienced by each woman (or man) as exciting. There is general agreement that the vagina is relatively insensitive due to a rather sparse distribution of nerve endings. What a woman experiences in the vagina in an orgasm is, thus, the wave of contractions and the forceful squeezing of her glands and not any particular touch of a particular area.
Every child knows that the genitalia are body-zones of a unique and indefinable sensation which is usually called lustful. But every grownup knows also that people have orgasms from being touched in other areas, as the breasts, earlobes, tongue, armpits, thighs, causing ecstasy and even orgasm without genital touch, which may be embarrassing as in premature ejaculation. Moreover, any sensitive person knows that orgasms in dreams can be the most lustful experience, out-doing any form of sober reality. In contrast to masturbation, love-making involves the bodily contact of all erotogenic zones which causes in lovers ecstasy and joy. This may be highly fulfilling so that the actual orgasm appears insignificant or not even desirable. Many cultures have developed techniques of love-making (like carezza) which appear to them preferable to the aggressive, animalistic thrust of violent intercourse.
For over sixty years, the sexological literature argues whether in intercourse a mutual contact between the male organ and the clitoris is necessary. Yet, even here, anatomy gives the answer. The clitoris is contingent with the minor labia, which are as sensitive as the clitoris, and no penetration is possible without the closest contact between the lips of the vagina and the entering member. If, therefore, some women are unable to achieve an orgasm in intercourse or only by direct clitoric stimulation, this is and remains a merely psychological problem.
It is not a difference in orgasm, since the other areas like the vagina are equally involved and participate in the convulsive climax. There is no reason for inferiority feelings or guilt. However, there is some mental fixation on the clitoris as the only acceptable, excitable focus, and psychology of any depth suggests strongly that such a woman has some hostility and unconscious reservation against her femininity and role in loving interaction. It is on this point that hostility has gone beyond the partner in love and spread against the whole psychoanalytical psychiatry as an unfair masculine conspiracy.
Father Freud—if you read him in his original texts—made not half as many generalizations as his enemies and disciples attribute to him. When he dared to say that most women are able to overcome a childhood fixation on their clitoris—which derives from the preadolescent experience that the clitoris is the only lustful area available at that time—and are able to enjoy human sex in which male and female act in the rhythmic encounter of their whole bodies, he did not want to offend any future liberated woman and ask her to “surrender” or be “submissive” to the beastly male: he suggested only that sex is not a one-sided affair for the benefit of hungry males, but a deep human experience in which the woman receives the male in freedom and takes him physically inside as a symbolic act of full acceptance.
In spite of all the popularity of the salesmen of vibrators and other surrogates, the human sex act is—admittedly in rare instances—an expression of complete reciprocity. The meaning of sex is forever a psychological experience in which all the unconscious hangovers play havoc on the fun.
Clemens E. Benda, MD
Irving Singer replies:
The books I reviewed are very different in character; and certainly Fisher’s study cannot be considered “lib-literature,” as Dr. Benda suggests. Sherfey does provide a definition of orgasm, which she derives from Masters and Johnson. Their definition is not the same as Dr. Benda’s; but like him, they insist that all female orgasms belong to a single physiological model. I am not of that opinion, and I would be most unhappy if anything I said was taken to imply that there is only one type of female orgasmic response. In my forth-coming book, I argue that there are at least three for which there is now considerable evidence. The type that Masters and Johnson observed in their sample does not answer Dr. Benda’s specifications. The data from other women do not match either of these alternatives. Women are not all alike in their sexuality. Perhaps the hostility which many of them have felt results from the fact that some psychiatrists, as well as some experimental physiologists, have failed to appreciate the implications of such diversity.