A curious scene was playing out underneath the dining table in Lahore, Pakistan. A man had his feet intertwined with that of an overweight woman in her fifties, his wife. Her shalwar rode up and exposed her dark-haired legs, a typical sight in Pakistan. She laughed at his amorous advances, turned toward him, and the night and the roar of the air conditioner curtained off the rest. There were no sex manuals in this household and this woman had gone through no sexual education; her reading material extolled the thickness of his moustache and hair and sketched a Puritan version of hanky-panky. Does she even know the Urdu word for orgasm? For clitoris?
An even more curious scene appears on magazines marketed for western women: a thin woman with high breasts is postured on the cover surrounded by article titles like; "How to find your G-Spot," "Sexercises that will double female pleasure," and "SEX: four hot new tips for you."
Sex advice for the typical western woman in search of her elusive orgasm is indicative of a larger problem in western thought.
Explanations and descriptions of sexual excitement continued throughout the millennium. Tudor and Stuart England thinkers wrote neutrally--rather than with the hysterical tone that would characterize the later Victorian authors--about masturbation and lesbianism. They also strongly believed that women who weren't sexually sated could fall ill. In a midwifery book written in 1540, Mrs. Jane Sharp preached the significance of the clitoris in relation to conception.
Even the societies that people consider repressed today developed philosophies and medics of sex and orgasm. An Arab Muslim, Muhammad al-Nafzawi, wrote a sex manual called The Perfumed Garden in the 15th century. Ibn Sina--a prominent intellectual who lived 10 centuries ago--lamented that a man with a small penis would leave the woman unsatisfied and lead her to seek fulfillment by "rubbing, with other women, in order to achieve amongst themselves the fullness of their pleasures." Thus, the onus of bringing women their natural pleasure is placed on the man.
The orgasm continues to be taken for granted in these societies; Naomi Wolf, who wrote The Beauty Myth, said circumcised women in Africa had more orgasms than women in today's western societies with their clitorises intact. In the Islamic republic of Pakistan, families ritually decorate the bed that the new couple will sleep in with rose petals and other flowers for the wedding night or suhaag raat, stringing up more of them all around the bed to ensconce the couple in fragrant privacy, building an atmosphere conducive to seduction and romance.
Today, the orgasm is elusive and something western women have to work hard to achieve. The very construction of orgasm as such leaves the impression that female pleasure is not a given--that it doesn't come effortlessly like hunger and thirst.
A few years ago, medical research found that girls were more likely to complain of pre-menstrual syndrome if their mothers and others around them had told them that PMS is an expected side-effect of menstruation. Those who were unaware did not experience irritation or other negative feelings. Based on this evidence of the self-fulfilling prophecy, it's not inconceivable that when women are told they must labour to achieve an orgasm, they may report experiencing it less.
Another problem in understanding the orgasm today is the emphasis placed on the imagination and fantasy. Wolf learned from women she talked to that in their fantasies they didn't imagine themselves as they were. Instead, their noses were straighter, their breasts larger, their thighs smaller. In other words, in their fantasies they achieved perfection while cellulite was their reality.
In her quest for orgasm, if the woman turns to imagination and fantasy, it's not reality that she will love and that will arouse her--it's a fabricated world. Strangely, however, this is the advice offered in women's magazines and prescribed in a previous article by the Gauntlet's self-proclaimed "sexpert," Fiona McLay. Her advice to a woman trying to achieve orgasm is to, in effect, tell her the female orgasm isn't natural and to experience it she must turn to fantasy.
"Society," Maurice Godelier wrote, "haunts the body's sexuality."
It doesn't have to be that way.