So anything goes, but what about orgasms?

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THE PURSUIT of pleasure, apart from the production of babies, is apparently what unites men and women. Yet all the great surveys of sex in the West in the 20th century have revealed that the climax of their connection, the sexual act, is a great disappointment to women.

This conundrum has vexed all the significant research into sex. The mystery of the orgasm - where it happens and, more often, why it does not happen - has been the object of scientific scrutiny for a century.

The great post-war inquiries by Kinsey in the Fifties, Masters & Johnson in the Sixties and Shere Hite in the Seventies brought science and statistics to something we are all supposed to know, and what they all show is that the sexual act, while demanded by most men, is a disappointment to most women.

Now we have the Janus Report into Sexual Behaviour, the most demographically comprehensive survey of thousands of Americans in the late Eighties. Written by Cynthia and Samuel Janus, it reveals that only 15 per cent of women always have orgasms when they make love.

Before the feminist Hite reports challenged the sexual agenda, one theme preoccupied all studies - Freud's questions, what is a woman? and what is her pleasure? The puzzle was a function of a fantasy: that woman was an inert object to be awoken from its slumber by a magic wand, a willie.

Early sexology urged men towards Herculean effort and hydraulic humping, and women to faith, hope and charity. Woman was rendered a contingent creature whose desire was always dependent, never self- determined. The crisis of femininity was frigidity. For women of a certain age sex was haunted by the spectre of frigidity. Good girls waited for boys to make the earth move. Bad girls knew how to move mountains all by themselves, but they were nymphomaniacs. Happily, both terms have disappeared from modern discourse; like gas masks and rationing they belong only to folk memory.

Kinsey and Masters & Johnson at least confirmed what lucky girls already knew, that they did not lack a sexual organ, that they were more than a hole, that they possessed a place whose sole purpose was pleasure, the clitoris. But the researchers retreated from this revolutionary revelation that finally put Freud in his place. They did not go on to ask the critical question: what produced this clitoridectomy of the imagination?

Instead of promoting a new sexual agenda they promoted a new defence of the sexual act. They taught women to arrange their persons so as to produce their own pleasure without disturbing the willie or his master's commitment to the missionary position. But it was not until the Hite reports that the anatomical evidence was mobilised as an argument. The researchers had been asking the wrong question, she said. Instead of wondering why women didn't have orgasms, they should have asked why anyone would expect them to in that context.

It is odd then that the Janus Report should go back to Kinsey circa 1953 rather than to Hite. The common disregard of Hite appears to be part of a concerted attempt to diminish her findings. Although she offered an archive of statistics and stories, her sample, it seems, was not scientific enough for her critics. Maybe they couldn't take the sadness of her story, a chronicle of disappointment.

The Janus Report is an impressive train spotters' guide to current sexual mores. There are statistics on how political conservatives rather than liberals are into sado-masochism, on homosexual experiences among 20 per cent of the population, on the prevalence of early sex in the chauvinist south and of varied sex among career women.

It confirms the contested but consistent data showing that a fifth of children are sexually abused, that as many working women masturbate as men, that old people do it as often as young people, and that about a third of the population approve of anal sex. So, we know that child abuse and buggery are as normal as no-orgasms-during- intercourse.

All this is offered in promiscuous detail smiled upon by indefatigable liberalism. But, like Kinsey and Masters & Johnson, the Janus Report shrinks from the pain it reveals and presents the modern sexual scene as, simply, progress - as a penumbra of innocent pleasures.