Real Life: Come as you are

On TV, in magazines - now there's even a photographic exhibition devoted to the female orgasm. Enough, says DEBORAH ORR
In case you were wondering why any newspaper might see fit to publish this series of snapshots, these are photographs of women ostensibly in the throes of orgasm. Together they form an exhibition entitled Time After Time, created by Nick Berkeley, whose best known work to date is Finishing Line, his "acclaimed and award winning reconstruction of race finish images". The show opened on Friday at the fashionable Dazed & Confused Gallery in east London and the publicity issued for these images is a great deal more creative than the pictures themselves.

"Berkeley's original vision," the blurb informs us, "was of entering a space suffused with female intensity ... the work gently probes the fallibility of photographic media and our own sexual relationships." Entering a space? Gently probing? Is this some kind of publicity-seeking, smutty joke? Are these people - chief among them Rankin, the Dazed & Confused magazine co-publisher and photographer who commissioned the exhibition, Berkeley himself, and the women who answered an advertisement for volunteers who would masturbate for the camera - having us on?

It seems not. They are serious about this, as is confirmed in several publicity paragraphs about the bodies in the exhibition being revealed less than they are in adverts let alone pornography. Voyeurism, they say, is "complicit as well as implicit", and allows men to share the experience of female orgasm indirectly. Their aim is to disseminate and celebrate the female orgasm.

So what are we sharing and celebrating? The fact that among this small sample of women, most prefer to keep their eyes shut while being photographed bringing themselves to climax? No, not even that much. As the masterly blurb for this show finally admits "the women remain caught in a mythical space, iconoclastic and untouchable". Oh, I see. It really is just as pointless and uninformative as it appears to be, then?

Which at least is contextually appropriate, because most of the fervid interest that has been focused on the female orgasm over the last 30 years - and there has been a great deal - has helped us to understand it not one whit more.

Take, around 15 months ago, our first televisual view of the female genitals at the point of orgasm. Appearing in the BBC's po-faced inside-us-photography showcase, The Human Body, the accompanying voiceover from the uncharismatic Robert Winston sought to explain what part these parts were actually playing in the story he was telling us - which in that particular episode was "the drama of conception".

"It's possible the contractions of her orgasm help to draw sperm into her uterus, or even that the junction between the vagina and the uterus, her cervix, is dipped time and time again into a pool of waiting sperm. It's also likely that in the hours after sex the uterus itself contracts, helping the sperm on their way."

"Possible" and "likely" are just a couple of ways of saying "we don't really know", and it is our lack of knowledge about the female orgasm that continues to be the most interesting thing about it. Having nothing new to tell us, though, hasn't stopped the media, which over the last couple of months has given the subject a comprehensive, though utterly unrevealing, going over.

A few weeks ago there was Channel 5's The Female Orgasm, which interviewed sex experts and "ordinary women" about the subject for hours on end. I found it all quite shocking, but only because I hadn't realised how little anything had changed since I first joined the ranks of womanhood in the Seventies.

Many women told of how they'd never had an orgasm, or how they weren't sure of the difference between clitoral and vaginal orgasms, of how they'd never masturbate, of how they weren't sure where their G-spot was, or how they weren't sure what was meant by "multiple orgasm". All said that they had faked orgasms, many of them explaining that it was usually to "get it over with". One elaborated by saying that she would fake an orgasm so that she could "watch Neighbours".

In "How Was It For You", part of BBC2's much mocked but little viewed Adult Lives series, the women said pretty much exactly the same, with the honourable exception of the woman who claimed that she faked orgasms so that she could "watch EastEnders".

I found it rather pitiful, all this evidence of joyless sex and joyful soap-watching, all this debate, so limited, so ignorant and so similar to that which informed my own adolescence. The "debate", of course, is at its most sterile when it explores the great question of why a man only has one orgasm during the perfect sexual act while women can have loads and loads, even though his one climax is so much more "useful" than her many.

I do have a theory about this actually, and I was rather disappointed that it wasn't aired in any of the above programmes. It's so embarrassingly obvious that there surely can't be anything in it. However, since this subject is one that is almost defined by the ability of all involved to avoid the embarrassingly obvious, I'll just run it past the world at large anyway.

While Dr Robert Winston in The Human Body told us that the millions of sperm in male ejaculate are needed because the vaginal wall is coated in an acid that is deadly to them, Dr Roy Levin, expert in female arousal at Sheffield University, told us in The Female Orgasm that the fluid secreted during female orgasm is the same as that in which male semen is suspended.

So could it be that women have the ability to pump wave after wave of semen-free seminal fluid through their genitals in order to offer a vastly less hostile environment to the sperm they want to impregnate them? Could it be that women have multiple orgasms not only to dilute the acid in her vagina but also to make it more likely that they are climaxing at the time of male ejaculation? (Which could also explain our charming obsession with "coming at the same time.")

I like this idea, because it suggests that consensual and enjoyable sex is the kind of sex that is most likely to result in efficient procreation and even bonded parenting. As for all those women who rarely or never have an orgasm, perhaps that's the awful legacy of many centuries in which female sexual pleasure has been denied as essential to successful intercourse. Who knows? Not those women in the photographs. No amount of staring at them will tell us anything at all.