How Psychology Stigmatized Female Orgasm (and How We Got It Back)

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For most of us, orgasms are, simply, awesome. Yet from the origins of modern psychology in the late nineteenth century, a combination of cultural stereotypes, pseudoscience, and plain old misogyny created an enduring notion that women’s orgasms were a problem to be solved, rather than a normal part of sexual pleasure and mental wellbeing.

From the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, many psychologists, inspired by Freudian psychoanalysis, argued that women should only achieve orgasm through vaginal penetration by a man. Any other kind of female sexual pleasure — including masturbation, queer sexuality, and any stimulation of the clitoris — was considered a sign of “masculinity,” imbalance, or even insanity.

While historical stigma against women’s sexual pleasure contributes to an orgasm gap that persists today, contemporary psychologists are drawing on the work of pioneering feminists and sexuality researchers to correct misinformation and celebrate the diversity of healthy female sexuality.

Here’s how contemporary women came to take our sexual pleasure (and our clitoral orgasms!) back.

Frigidity and Freud

The notion that women’s clitoral pleasure is disordered was evident in a number of Victorian ideas about sexuality. You may have heard about hysteria, a so-called mental illness which supposedly resulted from excess female sexual desire. The “treatment” for hysteria was orgasm stimulated by a doctor or even (and horrifyingly) removal of the clitoris entirely.

It was in this atmosphere of stigma that the father of modern psychology, Sigmund Freud, produced his influential work. According to Freud, while female children experienced pleasure from the clitoris, adult women had to shift their focus exclusively to vaginal intercourse or risk psychological disorder.

As a result, until the mid twentieth-century psychologists considered women who orgasmed from clitoral stimulation immature and even prone to psychosis. “Proper” sexual pleasure was defined only through married, vaginal heterosexual intercourse. Women who couldn’t orgasm this way were often considered “frigid,” disordered, or automatically assumed to be lesbian — which was also considered a mental illness.

Feminists Fight Back

With the sexual revolution of the sixties, feminists and researchers embarked on a mission to reclaim the clitoris.

In psychology, the pioneering sexuality research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson challenged the theoretical ideas of Freud by using direct observation to study a wide range of human sexual experiences. Their more woman-centered approach saw women’s sexuality as important in and of itself, not as a mere reflection of their male partners.

Second wave feminists virulently critiqued the idea that female sexuality should be centered around married, heterosexual vaginal intercourse. Feminists like Luce Irigary, Monique Wittig, and Adrienne Rich argued that the Freudian focus on the vagina was simply a way to make women subservient to men. They argued variously for a reclaiming of the clitoris as the source of women’s pleasure and orgasm, for a more holistic experience of sensuality beyond the genitals, and for the liberating potential of lesbianism.

Other feminists didn’t merely write about female sexual pleasure: They showed women how to obtain it. The Boston Women’s Health Collective pioneered medically accurate, frank, and sex-positive information about sexuality with their 1971 publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves, which is still in print. Tee Corinne’s 1975 Cunt Coloring Book celebrated the diversity of vulvas (not just vaginas!) with detailed illustrations. And starting from the late sixties, sex educator Betty Dodson began championing the transformative power of women’s masturbation through writing and group masturbation workshops — with much emphasis on the wonders of the clitoris.

Finally, with the full removal of homosexuality from the DSM in 1987, psychologists acknowledged that a wide variety of sexual pleasures and orientations were not only normal — they were healthy.

The Current Clitoral Consensus

Most contemporary sexological research agrees that, in contrast to Freud’s unscientific view, female orgasm does not, in fact, come from the vagina, where there are few nerve endings. Rather, women orgasm from stimulation of the “clitourethrovaginal complex,” a structure of nerve endings which extends from the visible clitoris deep into the body.

That means that rather than there being anatomically different “clitoral” and “vaginal” orgasms, with vaginal being superior, women may experience different orgasmic sensations from stimulating the clitourethrovaginal complex in different places. Clitoral stimulation thus isn’t just healthy — it’s the basis of orgasm.

Today, many psychologists are focusing not on sexual “normalcy” but on sexual equality, the idea that people of all genders should have access to healthy sexual pleasure stemming from good communication, mutual respect, and accurate information about the body.

Bring on the Orgasm Equality

From making your skin glow to helping alleviate the symptoms of depression, orgasms not only feel great — they’re good for you. Centuries of stereotypes about women’s pleasure, many perpetuated by psychology, have left a lasting legacy of sexual inequality that many women continue to struggle with. But today’s mental health professionals have turned over a new leaf.

By correcting longstanding stereotypes about female sexuality — especially the idea that all people with vaginas should be able to orgasm from intercourse alone — we can make sexual pleasure more accessible to everyone. So don’t let stereotypes about what’s “normal” hold you back. Partnered, group, or solo; clitoral, vaginal, and everything in between — sexual pleasure is totally normal, and totally good for your physical and mental health.

Published by

Reina Gattuso

Contributor