How far have we come?
A machine that promises sexual satisfaction at the touch of a button has long been the stuff of fantasy. Now a US doctor claims he can deliver the goods. A likely story, says Virginia Ironside
At least, that's what is promised by the Orgasmatron, a device invented by a Dr Stuart Meloy of the Piedmont Anaesthesia and Pain Consultants clinic in North Carolina. When researching pain-relieving gadgets, Meloy was surprised when one of his patients switched from squawking with pain to moaning with pleasure. When the gadget was given a proper trial, it was discovered that the improvement in women's sexual pleasure was 91 per cent.
The pursuit of the female orgasm has been going on since the Kama Sutra. And it's always been fantastically elusive. "What do women want?" asked Freud, in frustration. And one can't help imagining that it was a phrase he shouted out after a night with Mrs Freud who, having perhaps liked a bit of nipple-twisting on a Monday and been very horny on a Thursday, suddenly changed to preferring being on top on a Friday followed by a headache on a Saturday that lasted two weeks.
Women's sexual responses are not simple. Their orgasms are exceptionally elusive. Between 10 and 15 per cent of women never experience orgasms in their entire lives, and up to half of women only have them occasionally. Another survey reveals that 58 per cent of women fake orgasm during intercourse anyway, and there are other statistics that show that only 30 per cent have orgasms during intercourse.
I know from letters that women's sexual moods can change dramatically over the months - some find they feel sexier in the middle of the month, some just before a period - and what turns them on on Sunday may turn them off, if they suspect it's become routine, on Monday. I also know that many women simply enjoy the pleasure of sex, orgasm or no orgasm - an idea incomprehensible to most men, for whom an orgasm is the whole point of sex - and love the variety of sensual effects it produces.
Even what actually constitutes a female orgasm is constantly under review. It's like a will-o'-the-wisp. Freud thought that women achieved sexual maturity by switching focus from the clitoris to the vagina. He wrote that the role of the clitoris should be to "set alight" the vagina - "pine shavings which can be kindled to set a log of harder wood on fire". This led to the most frightful anxieties among many women about whether they were having "proper" orgasms or not.
Then Alfred Kinsey came along and, in 1953, argued that the clitoris was the sole locus of female sexual sensation - an idea endorsed in 1966 by Masters and Johnson. The idea continued with Shere Hite, who announced that, far from being an inferior kind of orgasm, the clitoral orgasm was actually the "real" orgasm. Anyone who said they had an orgasm during penetrative sex alone was kidding themselves.
More recently, there has been not just the "discovery" of the female G-spot (hitting it produces vaginal orgasms, according to its discoverer, Professor Beverly Whipple,) but Desmond Morris recently wrote a book saying that there are actually four G-spots that can result in orgasm. Another recent book, by the British scientist Catherine Blackledge, described research showing that Freud may well have been right after all; that there are in fact two sorts of orgasm, clitoral and vaginal.
At least the crazy Seventies idea that you were required to have an orgasm simultaneously with your partner in order to have the perfect sex life has gone out of fashion. But now the Channel 4 series The Sex Inspectors, with its very public and microscopic examination of people's sex lives, has put the wind up most of us again.
I can't help suspecting a male hand in all this. It's interesting that the first vibrator was invented by a man - Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville produced an electro-mechanical vibrator in 1883, which was sold as a cure- all for female health problems. Naturally it was shaped, like all vibrators until quite recently, exactly like a man's penis, men believing that the only way a woman can achieve orgasm is via, if not an actual bloke, at least something that looks like a bit of a bloke.
The inventor of the Orgasmatron is also a man, and the whole concept of instant orgasms at the flick of a switch is a wonderfully loopy male idea. Say goodbye to searching for the erogenous zones and her saying: "No, down there, left a bit... slower..." or "I can't come if you look at me in that funny way..." It can all be done at the touch of a button - ideal for the British male, who is still pretty clueless when it comes to sex.
No, this will be efficient, nerdish... and, quite honestly, pretty dull after a time. If you depended on an Orgasmatron to have an orgasm, you could come much quicker, but it would always be the same. It would be just like masturbation and, pleasant as masturbation can be, it's not a patch on pleasure given and taken and shared.
And I wonder whether men, although they may fancy the idea in the abstract, would actually like to have sex with a woman equipped with an Orgasmatron. Many men can feel threatened enough by a vibrator, which is only a piece of whirring plastic, after all. Sex toys can often make a man feel redundant. And the machine would take away from a man that awful macho pride involved with having "given her an orgasm".
But how important are orgasms to most women, anyway? I have far fewer letters from women complaining of not having orgasms than I do from women complaining that their partners get upset about it.
I remember once, in the Seventies when everyone was obsessed with orgasms, printing a letter in Woman magazine, where I worked, which read: "I love sex, but have never had an orgasm. What is wrong with me?" Usually, I'd answer such a question by saying that the woman in question probably did have an orgasm, but that it was such a tiny ripple she didn't notice it. It was a way to reassure anorgasmic women that there was nothing wrong with them.
But this time I decided to go out on a limb. "Who cares whether you have an orgasm or not as long as you enjoy sex?" I wrote. "What is an orgasm anyway compared to the wonderful feeling of closeness, intimacy, relaxation, tenderness and love that comes through sex?" I thought this would halt the flood of letters about orgasm worries, but no. I had created another worry. A reader wrote in despair: "I have three orgasms a night! But I never have those wonderful feelings of closeness, intimacy, relaxation, tenderness and love that you talk of. What is wrong with me?"
I suspect the Orgasmatron has come too late for the orgasm boom. An estimated 3 per cent of the population have no interest in sex at all, with more women saying they prefer a night in with a bottle of wine and something good on the telly than a night of sex. An American survey of 18- to 27- year-olds found that 27 per cent said they took no pleasure from sex and considered it a necessary ordeal.
It's easy to say that 40 per cent of women suffer from a sexual dysfunction, and gadgets such as the Orgasmatron will help to put it right. But perhaps it is the highly orgasmic women who are the odd ones out here, not the rest.
I have a feeling that the Orgasmatron will, in 10 years' time, join the likes of the rusty old toasted-sandwich maker and the dusty exercise bike as another fad that swiftly ended up in the attic before finally getting dumped in the next car-boot sale.
`Bodyshock: Orgasmatron' is broadcast on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm
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