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SEX , DRUGS, AND ROCK 'N' ROLL Once, the female orgasm was the icing on the cake. Now, it's seen as the sole reason for going into the kitchen and baking. Come off it, says Decca Aitkenhead
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Indy Lifestyle Online
new Year's resolutions can be an instructive business. This year, in a rush of ill-advised enthusiasm, my friends and I found ourselves disclosing them. The boys' offerings were charmingly banal - "Be kinder to bald people", "Scowl less in the street" - but Kate's was grave.

"I," she declared, "am going to stop faking orgasms."

A splendid intention, we all cried. Well done! Alas, scarcely had the ink on our resolutions list dried when the pitfalls of the plan became apparent. Kate and one of our number paired off. Like a fog of Catholic guilt, the spectre of Kate's declaration hung heavy over the bed. Mounting passion gave way to mounting panic. After little more than some cursory kissing, the gentleman made his excuses, drank up his tea, and left.

An orgasm is a magnificent occasion, and justly deserving of our attention. But it is also, as Kate will confirm, uniquely troublesome - a personal and political millstone, whose elusive delights we have been grimly grinding away at for the best part of a century. Easy come, easy go? I fear not.

How did we go from regarding the climax as the icing on the cake to considering it the only legitimate reason for getting into the kitchen and baking at all?

Early literary references to the female climax are hard to find (John Fowles wrote of the Victorian age: "It was universally maintained that women do not have orgasms; and yet every prostitute was taught to simulate them"). It was in the 20th century that the climax came of age.

"She felt the soft bud of him within her stirring and in strange rhythms flushing up into her,with a strange, rhythmic growing motion, swelling and swelling till it filled all her cleaving consciousness. And then began again the unspeakable motion that was not really motion, but pure deepening whirlpools of sensation, swirling deeper and deeper through all her tissue and consciousness, till she was one perfect concentric fluid of feeling."

Or, alternatively: "Tiny quivers of sensation built up inside her, a quivery shivery tension that wouldn't let her go, that drove her to incite him to take her with him to that place where the boundaries of flesh and mortality exploded in a vast shimmering ball of sensation." DH Lawrence and Mills & Boon, respectively.

Not all offerings are as lyrical. An orgasm, wrote one poet, is "like an anchovy, little, long and very salty. No, it's a caterpillar, undulating, fat and sweet." For Ernest Hemingway it was "a dark passage which led to no-where, then to no-where, then again to no-where, once again to no- where, always and forever to no-where, heavy on the elbows in the earth to no-where..."

A shimmering anchovy going no-where? If the murk of Victorian hypocrisy led to sexual confusion, it is unlikely that the modern literary orgasm did much to clear the air. And so it fell to Kinsey, Masters and Johnson and a long line of other doctors to tell us all about this slightly shameful mystery - who is coming, how often, when, why, and how.

And tell us they did. We learned all about the clitoral orgasm, the vaginal orgasm, the multiple orgasm; we got top tips on premature ejaculation and how to beat it; vibrators, we were told, can be "fun" and "jolly useful"; masturbation now comes with a clean bill of health; a simultaneous orgasm, they reassured us, is not essential, but very nice, all the same, should you happen upon one.

What more could we want? Well, plenty, judging from any local bookshop. Nestling next to Sports Nutrition for Women sit The Big 'O' - Understanding and Improving your Orgasm; Women's Pleasure, or How to Have an Orgasm - As Often as You Want; The Ultimate Female Orgasm... and so on. The self- help auto-orgasm oeuvre just, so to speak, keeps coming.

Written largely in the manner of a How To Get The Best Out Of Your PC manual, these come brimming with useful information. Some 1 per cent of women, we learn, had their first orgasm while sleeping, and masturbation in public (at your desk, they suggest), is an essential step on the path to the perfect orgasm. Young men will "reach the finishing line more quickly if someone shouts out the word 'breasts'." The orgasm exercises the modern mind quite as much as any young hopeful has ever exercised her pelvic floor. But the more we think about it, it seems, the harder it gets. We have, in those few explosive seconds, invested all our sexual aspirations, insecurities, identities, and the climax of every conflict of sexual politics.

"I always felt that because I couldn't come, I wasn't a proper woman," wrote one woman. "I simply couldn't stand the snooty look when I told them I hadn't come. As if they were getting second-class goods," said another. A century of feminist insistence on a woman's right to come has meant sexual satisfaction for an estimated 70 per cent, but left nearly one in three women feeling no longer just frustrated, but a frigid public failure. In a terrible subversion of the feminists' desires, women who once faked it for the sake of a man's vanity are now faking it for their own reputation.

Meanwhile, the good Doctor Freud's odious distinction between the "immature" clitoral orgasm and the "mature" vaginal orgasm still lingers on between the sheets. As she sinks back, confirmed once more among the ranks of life's sexual winners, the woman who got there via the "immature" route (and that's 75 per cent of them, the sappy little misses) still has that nagging doubt that she actually only got there by cheating. Nor is sex coming good for the boys. Six out of 10 say they sometimes come too soon. For one in 10, premature ejaculation is a fact of life. Sadder still, my dear friend Adrian would welcome either affliction - at 22, and sexually active, he harbours a terrible secret. Adrian has never had an orgasm.

Tragic for Adrian, but, one would imagine, possibly appealing to his partners. A man who cannot get you pregnant or leave you high and dry has an obvious and unique appeal. Yet one after another, women leave him, defeated by the absence of the very thing which is so often such an inconvenience when it's there.

There is no good explanation for why, in the orgasm as in so many other matters, the sexes remain so singularly ill-suited. We are not so much sexually compatible objects as "ships that pass in the night". One friend who recently jumped ship, tells the following joke: "What do straight women do after sex? Come."

Perhaps, in a perversely puritan thrust, we are just enthralled to the notion that nothing worth having comes easy.

THE FEMALE ORGASM

The clitoris, vagina and labia minora all increase in size because of a rush of blood, which is also responsible for the increase in breast size, nipple erection and the so-called sex flush that occurs in some women. At orgasm, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration all reach their peak, and this is accompanied by involuntary contractions of the outer third of the vagina, and often also of the uterus, rectal sphincter and urethral sphincter. There are usually between three and 15 contractions, at intervals of about 0.8 seconds to start with, and then slowing down.

THE MALE ORGASM

Friction on the shaft of the penis stimulates pleasure receptors, which send nerve impulses up to the erotic nerve centres in the spinal cord and brain. At orgasm, a massive discharge of nerve impulses sweeps down from the brain and spinal cord, causing seminal fluid to be released into the urethra - the moment of 'ejaculatory inevitability' - and forced out of the penis by muscular contractions occurring every 0.8 seconds. The initial surge is followed by anything between four and 10 further contractions, which cause smaller amounts of semen to be ejaculated.

Male, 24: It's more spasm than ripple, with this wash of heat over your whole body while the intense core of the release is concentrated round the groin. There's no awareness of time for the seconds when it's happening, but you're aware of this amazing ability to sense everything in minute detail - I seem to light up with an enhanced physical sensitivity.

Female, 31: I have two different kinds of orgasm. One comes from manual stimulation, usually masturbation on my own, and it's fairly mundane. There's a feeling of warmth, like being slowly infused with vodka or whisky and then the climax is like a quick rush of spirits through your veins. With someone else and manual stimulation there's more of a throbbing and an ability to control the orgasm just before climax to get a rippling, lots of mini explosions. I'm more likely to gasp or shout out when I'm with someone else, but I don't know if that's because I feel more inhibited on my own or whether I feel I should make noises when I'm with someone else. Maybe it's just more intense and less controlled with someone else.

Male, 32: It's like a shuddering feeling in my groin, but it strangely doesn't ever seem to get past my waist. My feet kind of ping in a weird spasm where my toes stretch out, like that reflex that babies have until they start walking. It can almost be so unconnected with the top of my body that I could think myself out of it while it's happening, but who'd want to do that?

Female, 23: In the run-up it feels like the aftermath of an electric shock, this sort of zinging, almost painful sensation round the clitoris and sweeping up my back. It's sometimes a really squirmy feeling, which all adds to the relief when the orgasm reaches crisis point. That feels like a foot spa in your womb, that bubbling, rippling, massaged feeling, but there's an explosive tingle round the clitoris at the same time. There are lots of physical spasms as well, in the top of my thighs and my belly, so I can be thrashing around a bit while it happens.

Male, 36: There's a sort of difference between masturbation orgasms and orgasms you achieve with somebody else. In a way it's a more specific localised pleasure with masturbation because it's more functional, something you might do because you can't go to sleep. With intercourse or mutual masturbation it's a whole body experience. Part of the pleasure of an orgasm is that it's ego-less, it's almost a small meditation, it suspends time. Physically, during the lead-up, your balls get tighter and your body gets a little bit hotter all over. There are tinglings, then you cross a point where you know you're on the home strait, when the orgasm becomes the focus. Then there's the most intense, urgent sensation of the hot semen spurting out.

Female, 21: My face goes funny, in this stretched-out smile, like the pictures you see of astronauts under G force. There's an involuntary opening and closing of the vagina, what people usually describe as a rippling. It doesn't last very long, but while it does, your stomach churns and it feels like you're squeezing a lemon to get all the juice out. Two minutes after it's over you feel wetter and that's it.

Female, 23: It's a feeling of sheer frustration, a tingling right until the last minute when it's the most overwhelming feeling of release, heat and gasping. It's almost like having a really good shit, but there aren't any convulsions and throbbings with shitting!

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