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The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality

by Mary Jane Sherfey MD.
Random House, 182 pp., $5.95

The Female Orgasm: Psychology, Physiology, Fantasy

by Seymour Fisher
Basic Books, 521 pp., $15.00

In these days of sexual politics it becomes necessary to separate the scientific study of female sexuality from its misuse by theorists who wish to establish strategic positions in the struggle between the sexes. For this reason, and because her ideas have already assumed importance within the women’s liberation movement, one cannot ignore Mary Jane Sherfey’s The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality.

Dr. Sherfey is a New York psychiatrist whose research originated with an interest in premenstrual tension but now extends into many other fields. Her book is mainly the reprint of a long and very technical article which appeared in 1966 in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. A later issue of that journal was largely devoted to papers by fellow psychiatrists who attacked many aspects of Sherfey’s argument. Marcel Heiman, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, went so far as to conclude that “Sherfey has completely misunderstood and misinterpreted the facts established by embryology.”1 Others documented her “inconsistencies” and lack of scientific objectivity.”

In reprinting the article, Sherfey answers none of these criticisms; and in the brief introduction that now precedes the original text she merely informs us that letters of congratulation “came pouring in with each mail delivery,” that to this day she has a “special stack…from people you would call the ‘big names’ in psychiatry,” and that “there was not one letter denouncing the article or arguing with its chief propositions.”

Sherfey’s position consists of three major theses: first, that the early embryo of all human beings is female; second, that by the nature of their physiological structure women are sexually insatiable; and third, that civilization arose as a means of suppressing the inordinate demands of female sexuality that result from its inherent insatiability.

The first of these theses challenges the Freudian belief in an embryo that is sexually undifferentiated and therefore bisexual. The question is important in psychoanalytic theory because Freud assumed that the clitoris served as a residual organ of the masculine element in women, and that this condition interfered with the development of vaginal interests which he considered to be “normal” in mature females. Against this, Sherfey asserts that “the early embryo is not undifferentiated; ‘it’ is a female.” She argues that without a great deal of androgen after the first five or six weeks no embryo would become a male, but that the female does not require additional hormones of any sort. She presents us with the image of a female development in the early embryology of all human beings, who would continue to be females if the androgen bath did not deflect some of them into becoming males.

But it is only by a crude sleight-of-hand that one could reach Sherfey’s conclusion. Genetic or chromosomal sex is determined at the moment of fertilization; and while it is true that male embryos develop as they do because of the androgen bath during the fifth or sixth week, whereas females require a lack of androgen at that time, it does not follow that the males are in any sense female prior to their androgen bath.

Having made this non sequitur, however, Sherfey then takes the “innate femaleness of mammalian embryos” as a reason for thinking that the penis is an exaggerated clitoris and that “the original libido” is always feminine. She calls this an Adam-out-of-Eve myth, obviously designed to counter the Eve-out-of-Adam myth which she ascribes to Freud. But one finds it very hard to believe that the embryological data support either myth. The clitoris and the penis are biologically homologous, but there is little or no evidence for thinking that either is derived from the other. As for the libido, that is so obscure in psychoanalytic theory that one can hardly imagine what it would be like for it to be originally masculine or feminine (or neuter) in all human beings.

Sherfey’s second thesis results from her interpretation of Masters and Johnson’s research. In her introduction she describes the effect that an early paper of theirs had upon her: “It was truly a Eureka-experience for me. This was it! Freud was wrong. Men were wrong. Women were wrong. Common sense was wrong.” Apparently, only Masters and Johnson were right; but even so, Sherfey speculates in ways that go far beyond anything that they may have reported.

For instance, in experimenting with some women, Masters and Johnson found that if the clitoris is given mechanical stimulation, as with an electric vibrator, these women would sometimes have between twenty and fifty consecutive orgasms, and would stop only when they were totally exhausted. Sherfey takes this to mean that “from the standpoint of normal physiological functioning,” the more orgasms a woman has, the more she will continue to have unless inhibited by fatigue or external repression. This implies: 1) that all women are inherently and basically multiorgasmic; 2) that the more orgasms a woman has, the more she can have and will want to have; 3) that the physiological criterion of “healthy, uninhibited sexuality” in the female is a function merely of the number of orgasms which a woman may attain; and 4) that “to all intents and purposes, the human female is sexually insatiable in the presence of the highest degree of sexual satiation” (her italics).

These are bold and fascinating speculations, but the available evidence does not support them. The electric vibrator does not have the same effect on all women; and even if it did, what happens when women are stimulated by a vibrator tells us hardly anything about the diverse circumstances in which the female orgasm generally occurs, and possibly very little about female sexuality itself. It seems incredible that something as intimate as female orgasmic experience should be a function of purely mechanical or numerical considerations. Surely one must doubt that the sexual needs of all women can be gauged by the fact that some of them enjoy and even require a large number of orgasms. Masters and Johnson themselves say that “the average female with optimal arousal will usually be satisfied with three to five manually-induced orgasms.” There is a great deal of evidence from other researchers—including Seymour Fisher, whose book I will discuss later—to indicate that many women are totally satisfied by one orgasm alone.

Furthermore, even multiorgasmic women do become exhausted eventually. Are they or are they not “satiated”? And if a woman says that she is wholly satisfied, whether she has had one orgasm or many or even none, who is to say that she is not? Sherfey insists that such a woman “usually wills herself to be satisfied because she is simply unaware of the extent of her orgasmic capacity” (her italics). But how does Sherfey know this? It is always possible, of course, that some women will declare themselves satisfied even though they are not wholly satiated, but Sherfey gives us no reason to think that this is what usually happens. She claims that insatiability is a biological necessity because every instance of female orgasm leads to further vasocongestion in the pelvic area, which must then be released by another orgasm, and so on indefinitely. In view of what women actually report, however, it seems more likely that Sherfey’s theories about an unending series of vasocongestions are mistaken, or at least inapplicable to a great many women.

In theorizing about the female orgasm, Sherfey seeks to overturn Freudian doctrine about clitoral and vaginal sexuality. It seems to me that she is justified in feeling that the doctrine needs radical revision. But her argument often slips into blunders. For instance, at one point she asserts that Kinsey has “demonstrated…that roughly 90 percent of American women prefer relations during the luteal or premenstrual phase.” Periodicity of sexual desire is related to vasocongestion; and if Kinsey had said what Sherfey cites, his evidence would be highly relevant. But Kinsey says nothing of the sort. He states that 59 percent of his sample reported variations in sexual desire at one or another phase of the menstrual cycle; and of these only 69 percent had an increase during the premenstrual phase. In other words, the correct figure is 41 percent of all the women in his study—a significant difference from what Sherfey says.

Elsewhere she remarks that “the usual situation in the higher primates” is an “extremely short foreplay period followed by quite intense orgasms.” She cites no references, however, and one would be hard-put to name a primatologist who believes that any female primate other than the human has recognizable orgasms as a usual concomitant of coital behavior. In fact, one can argue that it is the occurrence of a satisfying orgasm, in some women at least, that enables them to achieve a biological satiation not available to other primates, making an endless number of coital occasions unnecessary.

Sherfey’s third thesis presupposes that no such evolutionary change has occurred. In several (but by no means all) species of monkeys and apes, an estrous female will consort with one male after another until sheer exhaustion terminates the process. Sherfey maintains that if the repressiveness of human civilization did not intervene, their sheer biology would cause women to behave in a similar fashion. On the assumption that primitive people live at the level of this “biological norm,” she hypothesizes that all modern societies came into existence by “the forceful suppression of women’s inordinate sexual demands” (her italics). She thinks the process took 5,000 years or longer, and she suggests that it may have been one of the reasons why family and urban life came into existence when it did.

It is remarkable, however, that she cites virtually no evidence from anthropology or archaeology to support this hypothesis; and her mention of Bachofen’s discredited theories about a matriarchal society which preceded the present one is not especially reassuring. We know nothing about precivilized women that would indicate that they were ever in a state of total promiscuity which was later curbed by civilization. There seems to be no reason whatsoever for believing that the human species went through a major phase of the sort that Sherfey suggests.

Reading Sherfey, one often feels that her leaps from an alleged sexual biology inherent in all women to unverified generalizations about earlier stages of society are motivated by a desire to buttress the egos of women who are not satisfied—sexually or socially—in the world they now inhabit. I am not prepared to say that these, or any other, women ought to be satisfied with things as they are. But I do believe that Sherfey’s kind of mythologizing does many women a considerable disservice. It encourages them to feel that “science tells us” all sorts of things that, in fact, science does not tell us: for instance, that the nymphomaniac is somehow closer to the biological norm than other women, and that all men are derivative from a basic and primordial female pattern. In her recent book Free and Female: The Sex Life of the Contemporary Woman,2 Barbara Seaman provides a summary of Sherfey’s philosophy and then expresses delight in this new-found primacy of female sexuality: “The latest scientific evidence indicates that, sexually, the male is but a pale imitation—of us” (her italics).

Once they have outlived the wildly polemical stage, I think that liberated women will transcend this need to inflate their argument by means of pseudo science. They can then benefit from studies that reveal to women their own uniqueness and their own diversity. As a contrast to Sherfey’s book, one should therefore mention The Female Orgasm: Psychology, Physiology, Fantasy by Seymour Fisher. After surveying the extensive research about the psychology of female sexual response which others have done thus far, Fisher presents that data he himself acquired in investigations with 287 women divided into seven samples. Although his generalizations are limited by the fact that most of his subjects were student wives and between 50 and 67 percent of them were on the pill, his findings are often very suggestive.

In his samples Fisher discovered no correlation between the consistency with which women achieved orgasm and their degree of psychological mal-adjustment, the extent to which their mother or father may or may not have been permissive in sexual matters, their information about sex prior to marriage, their “femininity” as convention ally defined, their aggressiveness, passivity, religiosity, or preference for clitoral versus vaginal stimulation. Contrary to the teachings of so many sex manuals and how-to-do-it books which flood the market nowadays, his data indicate that the number of intercourse positions, the length of foreplay, and even the duration of coitus have no consistent correlation with a woman’s ability to achieve orgasm regularly. He states as one of his primary findings that “the greater a woman’s feeling that love-objects are not dependable…the less likely she is to attain orgasm.” He also thinks that women who grow up with an absent or emotionally unreliable father may encounter orgasmic difficulties in their later life.

In general, Fisher suggests that sexologists may have underemphasized the importance of male dependability as a determining factor in the female’s orgasmic responsiveness. While criticizing Masters and Johnson for blurring the differences between clitoral and vaginal types of sexual response, Fisher also attacks the Freudians for thinking that the woman who prefers vaginal stimulation is more normal or more mature than any other. He even claims that she may be more “anxious,” less sensitive to erotic possibilities, and in greater need of a supportive husband.

These conclusions seem quite plausible to me. Unfortunately, however, Fisher’s work is marred by a lack of precision in its terminology. In spite of its title, the book never defines the word “orgasm,” and Fisher’s questionnaires seem to assume that all the respondents will be using the term in some identical way. Moreover, one can only marvel at the interpretations Fisher sometimes gives to the check marks that people make when they fill out multiple-choice questionnaires. He finds deep implications, leading to very enterprising generalizations, in the fact that some women tick off “happy” as a description of their orgasmic response while others check “ecstatic,” and still others “satisfied” or “relaxed.”

Fisher’s computer has worked through a vast amount of empirical data about many psychological indices which have never been studied adequately as yet; but in his tables Fisher always presents means and standard deviations rather than the original figures. As a result, his tabulations indicate something about “the average female” (whatever that is), but they never tell us how many women actually belong to one or another of the categories which are being averaged out. Still, Fisher and his computer seem to have refrained from sexual politicking. Is it too much to hope that other sexologists—and those who use their findings—will do the same?


Come, Come Now March 8, 1973

  1. 1

    Marcel Heiman, MD, “Discussion of Sherfey’s Paper on Female Sexuality,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (July, 1968), p. 415.

  2. 2

    Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972.

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