Once it was a secret; then it was a “right”; now it is a duty. So daunting a duty is orgasm that men, as Jonathan Margolis admits in his 400-page paean to sexual climax, go wild with glee when offered an electronic implant that can relieve them of the onerous duty of bringing their girlfriends to ecstasy all by themselves. Women, for their part, fake it rather than risk the traumatization of their mate. Sex in the twenty-first century is a performance sport: We are told we must “demand” orgasms; we are told we must demand lots of orgasms (for we are “multi-orgasmic”); we are told we must seize our own orgasms and offered an array of fancifully colored vibrators to stash in our bags lest any toilet break go unexploited. Men know this and they feel intimidated. Women know this and they feel inadequate. The bedroom, too often, has become a site of fear.
It’s not that the sexual revelations and revolutions of the recent past have not brought considerable good. It’s great that men know more about women’s bodies than they did, great they no longer imagine, like the cad in Milan Kundera’s 1972 novel The Joke, that any sexual exchange short of intercourse is emasculating. What’s bad is that now we have books like Margolis’s O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, which insistently and insipidly fetishize orgasms–adding, thereby, not just to our fears in the erotic realm but also, paradoxically, to our boredoms. What may be worse is that such books are in sync with the zeitgeist.
To call Margolis’s volume a “history” is a stretch, since he can’t get basic dates straight. Shakespeare’s early modern verse, for example, is discussed in a chapter on the Middle Ages. The book is better viewed as an amorphous compendium of sexual trivia, a cluttered attic of erotic curiosity. The only organizing principle in evidence is Margolis’s impassioned desire to persuade us all to orgasm more “swiftly, reliably,” promiscuously, frequently, independently and, above all, with less emotional and moral hocus-pocus. To this end, he tells us of Mangaia, an island in the South Pacific where everybody sleeps joyfully with everybody else and boys “are taught always to bring their partner to orgasm several times before allowing themselves to ejaculate…. The female’s final orgasm should coincide precisely with the man’s. The typical 18-year-old Mangaian couple,” according to a 1971 study, “make love three times a night, every night.”
Margolis lauds the “unusually healthy acceptance of masturbation” in Indonesia, where “parents of young children reported happily watching…their children masturbate to orgasm” and approvingly quotes a “respected academic anthropologist” who laments that most “high school students [are] induced to enjoy Elizabethan drama but in virtually no school system offered helpful hints on enjoying physical pleasure by themselves.” Masturbation, it would appear, is Margolis’s cause célèbre. He assesses the liberation of a society by the warmth of its celebration of masturbation.
Margolis’s book provides endless opportunities to observe the limits of social science. The study that showed Mangaian women as sexually delighted was followed by studies that showed them as severely battered, for example. Margolis mentions these studies, but they in no way move him to question the initial study or to qualify his judgment of Mangaia as “a South Pacific paradise.” “How do I know that [my husband] loves me if he doesn’t beat me?” a typical Mangaian research subject asked when quizzed about her wounds. Suffice it to say that it is hard to imagine a man about to beat his wife to a pulp bothering to selflessly provide her with “several orgasms” beforehand. It is equally hard to believe the first study could have obtained any of its precise figures credibly: exactly three simultaneous climaxes a night, every night, always? Know the Mangaians no variety, no fatigue? Or were they simply misleading the scientists as surely as the Sudanese women who told their interlocutors they had earth-shaking climaxes after their clitorises had been cut out: “This was verified,” writes the anthropologist in charge, “by their happy and highly animated demeanor as they described it.” If this is science, don’t give us literature.
Alas, Margolis does, and a mighty mess he makes of it. It is hard to imagine anybody reading Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World and taking the anonymous copulation and orgasm-inducing machine in its pages for a beautiful ideal rather than bitter satire, but Margolis manages. In fact, he gamely remarks, some of Huxley’s vision had already been “aspired to and achieved” in the 1960s! Only the machine itself, the “Orgasmatron” made famous by Woody Allen in Sleeper, remains frustratingly unavailable. What Margolis does for Huxley he does for the King James Bible. Champion of the clitoris that he is, he finds instructions for its use all over the Old Testament. When the female speaker in the Song of Solomon says, “Let his left hand be under my head and his right hand embrace me,” Margolis can reach no other conclusion than that the Song, in this line, “certainly advises a man as clearly as possible to stimulate manually his lover’s clitoris.” As clearly as possible, indeed: With directions like that, no wonder it took men a few more millennia to catch the drift.
Margolis relishes the Old Testament for lines like this one but condemns the New Testament for its “blithe lack of concern” with the sexual quandaries by which he is so exercised. What was Jesus thinking? He should have written a treatise on masturbation instead of founding a religion. Columbus is taxed with the same failure. Having quoted with admiration from the Ananga Ranga, an Eastern sex manual written in the 1100s, Margolis sourly notes: “That Christopher Columbus was engaged in the rather more macho business of exploring the globe as the Ananga Ranga was being written provides a fitting illustration of the apparent austerity that was the norm under the Christian sphere of influence in the Middle Ages.” Quite aside from the spectacular conflation of dates here–Columbus did not live in the Middle Ages, and the Ananga Ranga was done well over 300 years before he began his work–it’s a preposterous point: Columbus, apparently, shouldn’t have bothered with the discovery of America; his time would have been better spent exploring his privates.
Like many sexologists, Margolis is harsh on Christianity: Its restriction of sexual freedoms leaves him extraordinarily bitter, often understandably. On the other hand, he gets a huge amount wrong about medieval and Renaissance Christianity. “Thinking of sexual and religious rapture in the same breath is, of course, anathema” to Christians throughout history, he states with trademark self-assurance. If American hippies tried to conflate the two, it is “obviously,” he continues, for just this reason. But Christianity did not need hippies to mingle religious and erotic rapture; its own greatest and most persuasive voices have done so since the, um, Middle Ages. Medieval religious lyrics routinely refer to Jesus as the speaker’s “lemman,” or “lover.” In the Renaissance era and the seventeenth century, deeply Christian poets–from the parish priest George Herbert and Richard Crashaw to the Dean of Saint Paul’s, John Donne–wrote verses to God that ring with erotic passion: One of the most gorgeous sonnets in English, “Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God,” concludes with Donne essentially inviting his God to rape him: “For I,” he declares, “Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor even chaste, except you ravish me.” Earlier in his life, the dean had written to his mistress in similar ecclesiastic-erotic language, “canonizing” her in his poetry and elevating her to the status of a saint–the very thing, indeed, Romeo calls Juliet in Shakespeare.
Early modern Christianity was all about mingling the passions, far more so, it is true, than present-day Christianity–and far more so, in particular, than Margolis. For it is he who wishes to keep sex and spirit surgically separate, he who views spirit as a pox upon sex, and vice versa. It is he who mocks “woolly” thinkers who would see carnal love as an occasion for mystical union; he who scorns Simone de Beauvoir as “pretentious” for suggesting a woman can feel “borne by waves, swept away in a storm” in the embrace of her lover, that “her ego is abolished” and “she becomes one with” something larger than herself. For Margolis, sex is a simple little convulsion, akin, as he so charmingly puts it, to a “sneeze,” a “hiccup,” an “urgently needed bowel movement” or “common-or-garden urination from an overfull bladder.” And herein lies the gravest problem with Margolis’s erotic agenda: In wanting to keep sex unencumbered by emotion, morality or mysticism so that we can have as much of it as easily as possible, he altogether depletes it. He makes it dull and small–at best an agreeable snack for the sensations and at worst a forgettable hiccup, but never a sublime experience.
And that is tragic. For sex is a powerful force; if harnessed rather than simply sprinkled hither and thither, it can take us places. It can burst through barriers that would otherwise remain unbroken, accomplish in one explosive clap what decades of whittling away at someone else’s or our own defenses could not. It can throw us into the core of a Strange Other or into the still center of our own souls. At its best it is two things Margolis disdains: mystical and transgressive. That is why it has so often been shot through with spirituality–by twentieth-century hippies, seventeenth-century poets and contemporary Tantric theorists alike. That is why it has so often been curbed: But to curb, in many such cases, is to strengthen. Much as nudist beaches are not erotic, people sitting around openly masturbating, as Margolis envisions, are not erotic. It is secret love that is the strongest. It is forbidden fruit that is the sweetest. In that sense maybe we can thank Christianity for making sex harder; in so doing it has made it more intense. Women comfortably comparing vibrators over lunch are not for that reason in possession of the most beautiful erotic experiences. Portnoy masturbating around the clock is not the happiest guy on earth–though Margolis’s arguments would make us think so.
We have demystified orgasm enough over the decades; perhaps it is time, now, to remystify it. Margolis rightly blames the church for having attempted to make sex a mere tool for procreation: God, he says, gave us a race car; why use it as a tractor? No, God has given us a chariot to the sun, and Margolis, alas, is using it as a Honda Civic. Always reliable, generally available, but just not a lot of magic. Sex is many things to many people and that is as it should be, but the last thing we want is orgasms on tap; an erotic culture of infinite availability and amiable innocuousness is an erotic culture that is bland. There will always be those for whom sex is a snack or a sneeze, but let us leave room for sex as communion, sex as spirit made flesh, sex as a brush with the feathered glory of Leda’s swan, a brush with the divine.