Book Review: Orgasm in Contemporary Western Culture

Scholarly Book Review published in Feminism and Psychology journal (2018)

Firth, Hannah. Orgasmic bodies: the orgasm in contemporary Western Culture. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; (192pp). ISBN 9781137304377 1137304375. Reviewed by Nicole Ohebshalom,, RN, PCCI Tel Aviv University

Hannah Frith’s Orgasmic Bodies: The Orgasm in Contemporary Western Culture is an accessible text within the growing scholarship of critical sexuality studies. It provides a concise and comprehensive examination of the historical and pop culture assumptions of heterosexual orgasm which is oen interpreted as purely biological. Building upon her previous published essays, Frith critically analyses representations of orgasm in sex education and sociology literatures and two popular lifestyle magazines - Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health . From her analyses, Frith focuses on orgasm not as a natural or pre-social act, but as an experience that is formulated by highly structured social arrangements which maintain the rules, norms and rituals that underpin gender relations and social inequalities. Frith draws on myriad theories in the book to investigate the meanings given to orgasm in Western culture and to probe ‘why orgasm maers.’ In contrast to the considerable number of scholars who make assumptions about ‘knowing’ the orgasmic body, especially the female body, Frith seeks to show how the embodied experience remains ambiguous and ineffable even as scienfic and lay discourses seek to make it concrete and unmistakable.

Frith’s historical look into different approaches that have informed Western comprehension of orgasm offers us ways to answer the queson: ‘what is an orgasm?’ In the first chapter, she fastidiously reviews four key theoretical positions, which she then uses to critique constructions of orgasm throughout the following eight chapters of the book. The first of these theoretical positions is a biomedical frame that is characterized by an objective ‘clinical gaze.’ The meanings of orgasm within this frame reflect a focus on isolating the exact physiological location of orgasm, which is positioned as the peak of sexual experience. Thus, a biomedical frame categorizes and measures orgasm as healthy or dysfunctional and constructs men and women as having similar sexual responses. The second theoretical position Frith presents is a behavioral one which constructs the nature of male orgasm as indubitable but places importance upon the number of orgasms a male produces. Underpinned by medical discourse, this concept permeates discussion in Chapters 2 and 3 about the way in which the absence of orgasm is constructed as a female problem, one so widespread as to become an ‘epidemic’ of female dysfunction that can only be ‘fixed’ by medical interventions. This pathologisaon of orgasm’s assumed absence in women, and its implications for treatment, are evident in Masters and Johnson’s influenal account of sexual dysfunction as well as the DSM model of sexual response in which orgasm is key to the diagnosis of dysfunction. Frith outlines an experiential frame as a third theoretical position. This frame is concerned with the lived experience of orgasm and what orgasm feels like, but, like the biomedical frame, also constructs orgasm as the pinnacle of sexual intimacy. Frith describes a fourth position as ‘contemporary shifts,’ a theoretical frame of more recent mes which is characterized by an ethic of reciprocity in heterosexual relationships. In Chapter 2 Frith contextualizes this position within the emergence of a post-feminist neoliberalist discourse that constructs orgasm as a self-actualizing and individualistic goal, one that requires the acquisition of knowledge in order to improve sexual performance and to achieve ‘liberation’ through sexual pleasure.

The four heterogeneous frameworks function to construct female orgasm as necessary but at the same me elusive. Lack of experiential information about the presence of female orgasm in the literature Frith analyses, leads her to inquire: ‘When do women who experience orgasm infrequently feel that they have been unjustly treated and when do they feel that they are simply inadequate?’ ‘How long does the average person take to have an orgasm?’ and do clock me and subjective me coincide? If a woman is told that she is experiencing orgasm due to her brain lighting up on a PET scan -how likely is she to be convinced she is experiencing an orgasm unless it looks, feels and sounds like she culturally expects it to? Does she require an interpretive process or does she know by her body alone? ‘How do individuals, couples or partners make sense of bodies which do or don’t live up to expectations?’ This book is as ambitious as it is successful in helping us think about those questions.

The central focus of Frith’s book is the idenficaon of orgasm norms, rules and rituals embedded in biomedical, science and media discourses that shape ways sexual subjects are constituted. Within this focus she highlights the gendered power relations that flow through these discourses of orgasm. In Chapter 3, where Frith discusses ways the subjective orgasmic experience is not taken into consideration, for example, biomedical and media discourses construct women’s absence of orgasm as deficiency rather than men’s poor sexual technique. Further, she also underlines how, despite a postfeminist media construction of orgasm as mandatory for the sexually desiring, always being ‘up for it’ young woman, women’s subjective experience is all missing, their orgasm represented as merely a response to, and responsibility for, male orgasm.

Moving on from her discussion of subjective orgasmic experience, in Chapter 4, Frith discusses the discrepancies and implications that the ming of orgasm has, together and alone, for men and women. She documents how ming norms, have been created from the Masters and Johnson’s model and subsequently popularized through Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health advice columns. The gendered narrative of orgasmic ming in these magazines focuses on the ‘fast’ male sexual response as the benchmark to monitor performance of both genders. Frith argues this narrave reinforces a gendered cultural model which focuses on disciplining the body in a gendered fashion, requiring women to adjust their own sexual ming to fit men’s needs.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Frith adds further layers to the meanings of orgasm by challenging the idea that ‘faking’ orgasm is rooted in the insecurities and inadequacies of individual women. Instead, she describes the meaning of ‘fake’ orgasm as a socio-cultural condition in which women’s access to pleasure is being negotiated because the gender of women have ‘more at stake.’ She states, pointedly (p.111-112):

(women fake in order) to avoid hurng their partner’s feelings…to avoid problems in the relationship…wanted to end sexual encounter…avoid feeling abnormal.

Frith argues that cultural constructions of femininity make women accountable for performing and managing emotions (their own and others) in relationships and shows how this idea informs women’s participation in faking orgasm: if women’s “orgasm is absent, it is accountable and has to be explained” (Frith, 2013a). Therefore, women’s ‘faking’ of orgasm is an anecdote to the “position of orgasm as an obligation in a cultural context in which they have unequal access

to sexual pleasure, (p.125)” which is further embedded in ideologies of love and intimacy. Breanne Fahs (2011) similarly makes the distinction that faking orgasm may symbolize a paradox: an effect of deeply internalized cultural oppression but also a gesture of care, affecon, love and nurturance. Frith discusses how men, on the other hand, may be questioned if their investment in women’s pleasure appears to be more about their own performance than pleasing women. In this way, Frith discusses ‘faking’ orgasm favoring the complexity of heteropatriarchy; it maintains a reciprocal exchange of caring. Men are rewarded in ‘providing’ an orgasm whereas women are solely responsible for men’s pleasure.

The final chapter concludes with the uncertainty of women’s orgasmic experience - men are assured of the presence of their orgasm by visible ejaculaon while women’s orgasmic experiences are ‘mysterious’ thus leading them to question their own bodily sensations. In this closing chapter of the book, Frith addresses possibilities of intervention through challenging the key discourses which structure the meanings around embodied sexual desire and orgasm . In particular, she explores whether or not there are processes that might facilitate learning about how to make sense of physical sensations and to understand them as sexual and pleasurable or not. Frith suggests that women's magazines and social media may offer this kind of information about sexual experiences which is missing from school-based sexuality education. On the other hand, Frith more critically argues that the neoliberal poseminist tools that the two particular ‘expert’ media outlets (Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health) she analyses offer influenal information about the body, but little in the way of understanding how the body subjectively feels.

One of the great strengths of this book (and there are many) is the way that Frith draws upon, traces, and maps out the cultural context surrounding absences and subjective experience, in particular the educational formats through which sexual values and norms are taught. However, the main disappointing feature of Orgasmic Bodies: The Orgasm in Contemporary Western Culture is its sole focus on white Western cultural experiences. Although, the text references contemporary Western culture, the volume does not include any case studies or examples that examine various experiences of others, such as Asian-American, Hispanic-American or Middle Eastern-American, who live within Western cultures. As such, it seems one dimensional and heavily weighted on an Anglophone narrave. At a me when the West is becoming more multicultural, it is important to include more cultural and ethnic narratives in research. Without these narratives, the book could potentially alienate culturally hyphenated readers for whom the content might not speak to their own culturally informed experiences. These readers might therefore find it difficult to engage with the text and the concepts it presents.

However, Orgasmic Bodies: The Orgasm in Contemporary Western Culture is a powerful and encouraging read. It highlights the challenges concerning the gendering of heterosex that still have to be overcome. Frith writes well-researched chapters that continuously challenge assumptions about orgasm, particularly in relation to commonly held ideas about gender idenes and authentic bodily experiences. She provides a spirited account of the complex meanings of orgasm within the Western culture. Frith’s book would interest a wide range of readers from feminist academics, to sexuality educators and psychologists who are seeking a concise and keenly critique introduction to an interdisciplinary history of orgasm and the changing narratives and gender norms through which it is expressed and understood,

References Fahs, B. (2014). Coming to power: Women’s fake orgasms and best orgasm experiences illuminate the failures of (hetero)sex and the pleasures of connecon. Culture, Health & Sexuality,16 (8), 974-988.