Sexual Politics in the 90s: The kick inside

Which is the best kind of orgasm? Yes, it's up for debate - again, says Markie Robson-Scott
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"I know someone who can't do clitoral orgasms but she can do vaginal at the drop of a hat. It's a big gift. It's scary," says a friend. Twenty years ago such an idea would have been anathema - we were all clitorally focused then, having just got over Freud's ruling that the "masculine machinery" of the clitoris should be rejected in favour of the "normal femininity" of the passive vagina being penetrated by the penis. As Naomi Wolf says in her new book, Promiscuities, the clitoris had been discovered and forgotten over and over again for centuries, but in the Seventies Kinsey, Masters & Johnson and Shere Hite rediscovered it and feminism rejoiced: we didn't need a penis to climax because all orgasms originated in the clitoris. The vaginal orgasm as such didn't exist.

But this is the Nineties and nothing's simple. Is the clitoris in danger of being demoted again? Post-Aids, says Sophie Aspen, sex columnist at Minx magazine, there's a smorgasbord of sex on offer, and people are realising that sex is a wider thing than clitoral or vaginal. But in reality, "the female downstairs area is still a bit of a mystery". We're no longer out there with our mirrors and speculums, a la Boston Women's Health Collective, and maybe that's creating more confusion. "There's still a street wisdom that everyone has vaginal orgasms, that there's a body-shaking thing out there and that oral sex and clitoral orgasms are just an hors d'oeuvres. Women are still very bad at talking about specifics. They're shy of saying what kind of good time they're having in case it's the wrong kind."

Communication with partners has improved, but men are worse than women at talking about sex. There's a long way to go, says psychosexual therapist Sue Pacey, and people are under more pressure now to achieve that elusive, total-body orgasm. What they should be paying attention to, she says, are feelings and thoughts. And are orgasms such a test of good sex anyway? After all, you can have one with a complete stranger. And there is the disturbing, rarely mentioned fact that it's possible for a woman to have an orgasm even if she's being raped - fear has a complex effect on physiological reactions.

Analysing types of orgasms may not be worth the bother. Some of us, though, are trying hard, practising female ejaculation (fluid can gush from the urethra during a G-spot orgasm) with our lovers, after months of practise in a tantric sex workshop. But are G-spots only for those who've been to the university of sex, probably in San Francisco? And do we need partners at all or do gadgets work better?

The G-spot, says David Delvin, co-author of The Big O and former agony uncle for She magazine, is not a major source of orgasms despite publicity, but Sh!, the "women's erotic emporium" in London, has sold out of its special G-spot vibrator, which comes with instructions. Owner Kathryn Home is sceptical about whether it will work for everyone. Like most sexologists, she's not sure if everybody has a G-spot. "I know who designs these things - fellas," she says. "There's a lot of ignorance but ours is the best shape." If you feel like you're going to wee, then that's a G-spot orgasm on its way. "If you just let go, you'll come. I think."

On the one hand, New Age therapists tell us to be more holistic, not so performance based, that sex is a whole body experience rather than genital. On the other, there's a whole new world of orgasmic toys and books (77 self-help titles with the word orgasm in, at last count, though none with the word vagina). So, are we being recidivist when referring to the vaginal orgasm?

It's confusing. Sujata Bristow, who runs tantric workshops, says what matters is "not trying to drive things along, but to allow what's happening to happen", and that "it depends what you mean by orgasm". But when she gets down to her own nitty-gritty, it's all rather Freudian. She was "very focused" on the clitoral orgasm as a child, but stopped abruptly in her teens once she realised that what she'd been doing all these years was, in fact, to do with sex. Then came a boyfriend, whom she let take the lead, and very boring it was, too - no match for the clitoris years. But she finally found a man who "knew what he was up to" and led her to the vaginal orgasm through skilful love-making.

All this talk of which orgasm is which is a red herring. What we need is to improve our GCSE biology. "People's understanding of anatomy is very limited," says John Lenkiewicz, director of the Institute of Sexuality and Human Relations. The clitoris is no button - it extends back around the vagina in a branching interior system of erectile tissue. Diagrams are confusing - for years the clitoris was left out of school textbooks and there still seems to be a conspiracy of silence: most books don't show all of the tissue, the structure of which is the same as in the penis. So vagina, clitoris and G-spot are part of the same erotic network. What an orgasm feels like depends on many things - age, hormones, mood, passion.

Lynne Segal, author of Straight Sex: The Politics Of Pleasure, says that what Seventies feminists left out were the troubling aspects of sex which were about desire and fantasy, romance and passion and pain - not where muscular contractions took place. Talk about clitoral orgasms was a shorthand for women being able to ask for what they wanted, but that new empowerment didn't make up for a lack of understanding about what sexuality is.

As novelist Kathy Lette puts it, "Sexual liberation can be very oppressive. Vaginal, clitoral, multiple - we're all so anxious about how we're being laid, we've somehow mislaid the essential ingredients of romance, adoration, devotion. And great passion, not an all-night performance and a well-read penis, is really the whole point."

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