The History of Orgasms
July 31st is National Orgasm Day. Finally, a holiday everyone can get behind! Or under, or on top of. . . it’s whatever you’re into.
Whether you’ve got a partner or all about that single life, you’ve got endless resources to ensure that you can climax whenever you want (within reason). But what did people do before they had vibrators or Tinder?
Both a lot, and not that much.
Human understanding of sex and sexuality is constantly changing and involving. Our current sexual climate is the culmination of years spent pioneering pleasure. Keep reading to learn a short history about orgasms through the ages.
People of the Middle ages had some unique beliefs surrounding sex. During this era, sex was understood primarily to be a procreative act. As such, much importance was placed on the male orgasm in order to create a baby. The female orgasm was also a key piece of the sexual experience, but for all the wrong reasons.
At that time, it was believed that both partners must have an orgasm in order for a woman to become pregnant. Lelo’s blog on the topic writes that nudity, foreplay, and even kissing were nonstarters among pious couples.
Virginity in the bride was a high priority among the aristocracy, but peasants enjoyed much more sexual freedom. Peasant men and women were free to discreetly get to know each other in a deeply intimate way. Aristocratic men, and likely at least some women, engaged in premarital sex but it was more taboo. This was one of the rare cases in which people of a lower class arguably had it better than the folks at the top of the social ladder.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian era was full of contradictions: ornately carved furniture that had to be covered by a tablecloth to conceal the table’s salacious design, equal importance being placed on modest clothing and sumptuous fashion, and repressive sexual morals during a thriving pornography industry.
Whores of Yore discusses the decadence of Victorian pronography and the importance it placed not just on pleasure, but on the female experience. In sharp contrast to the era’s overall attitudes, pornography often featured women in power positions taking charge in their own pleasure. LGBT+ experiences were also captured and circulated in the modern phenomenon of printed erotica.
Science in the 1800s had a differing view on female sexuality. American physician Theophilus Parvin is quoted saying, "I do not believe one bride in a hundred, of delicate, educated, sensitive women, accepts matrimony from any desire for sexual gratification; when she thinks of this at all, it is with shrinking, or even with horror, rather than with desire."
Many aspects of the human body were still a mystery at this time, including mental illness. Hysteria became a catch-all diagnosis for anything perceived to be “wrong” with a woman (which could mean anything from chronic depression to being outspoken). It was believed that unresolved sexual tension was the cause of hysteria, which led to the invention of the vibator.
Rachel P. Maines’ book The Technology of Orgasm discusses the development of the vibrator as a device used to treat hysteria. At the time, best medical practices included massaging female genitalia in order to treat mental and physical illness. The mechanical vibrator was developed by a British physician in the 1880s to treat female patients, and the invention would become both a medical and commercial success.
In the years that followed, vibrators became available to the public for at-home treatments.
Editor's Note: Was this the beginning of sexual wellness used for health care? We now know that regular attention to sexual wellness contributes to decreased blood pressure, pain symtoms and depression, while improving your immune system, sleep and mental stamina.
Along with the vibrator, a landmark invention in the history of orgasms was the advent of birth control. People had been relying on luck and the pull-out method for centuries, but the invention of the diaphragm in 1842 was the first real headway humanity had in reducing the risk of pregnancy.
The Guttmacher Institute explains the vaginal diaphragm as “one of the oldest contraceptive methods. Despite several decades of legal restrictions in the United States that slowed the method's introduction into the market, the diaphragm had become the most frequently prescribed form of birth control in America by the 1930s.”
The diaphragm would pave the way for the contraceptive pill, and The Pill paved the way for a movement. First approved by the FDA in 1960, oral contraceptives would go on to become a widely available and successful form of birth control.
Premarital sex was frowned upon in large part because of the risk of pregnancy and the stigma around having a child outside of wedlock. With the pill, women could painlessly and easily avoid pregnancy and enjoy a fulfilling sex life before tying the knot—or not. The world became a world of possibilities.
Where men for most of history have been encouraged to explore their sexuality, or at least were not socially penalized for any adult activity, these same freedoms being offered to women was a new concept. The feminist movement in the 1960’s interrogated many social conventions from the concept of breadwinner/homemaker relationships to traditional attitudes around sex. PBS reports that “societal emphasis on virginity and marriage were slowly replaced by a celebration of single life and sexual exploration.”
At that time, more women than ever before were free to explore their sexuality unencumbered by the risk of pregnancy. Sex could simply be something fun, something to be celebrated between two people instead of a risky (but also still very fun) interaction.
Nowadays, attitudes toward sex are much more evolved compared to even 50 years ago. (Psst: Lion's Den is celebrating 50 years!) Sexual wellness has now become an important component of overall health. Never before has it been easier to have an orgasm when a vibrator of your very own (and not one in a mental asylum) can be purchased online and shipped straight to your doorstep. The internet has given rise to a discourse about sexual pleasure and how to take charge of it.
This National Orgasm Day, celebrate with yourself, a partner, a friend or with anyone you want. You’ve got more tools at your disposal to not just have a good time, but have a great time—more than one if you’re up to it— than most humans have had in the history of time. Enjoy it! It’s taken a while to get here.