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.