A couple of weeks back, the Strib published a front-page story with the cheerful title: "Sex woes? You're not alone." According to "the most comprehensive U.S. sex survey since the 1948 Kinsey Report" (i.e., 3160 people), 31 percent of men and 43 percent of women reported "regular lack of interest in or pain during sex" or "persistent problems achieving lubrication, an erection or orgasm." Inside, the Strib broke the percentages down by education, income, age, and history of childhood abuse. The study co-author blamed "magazines like Cosmopolitan" for promulgating an unreachable, airbrushed ideal of sexual pleasure. But search the article as I might, I could find no definition--whether from the researchers or the researched--of precisely what "sex" entailed.
My curiosity does not stem from some deluded Clintonesque desire to wall off certain activities as "not sex." As Rachel Maines proves in her righteous, if plainly written, The Technology of Orgasm: "Hysteria," the Vibrator, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction (Johns Hopkins), what gets written off as "not sex," not "normal," and especially "not normal sex" becomes pathology. And then some people start thinking they're sick and other people start making money off "treating" them. Consider, for instance, that reported whopping 43 percent of women experiencing sexual "dysfunction." When the researchers asked their questions, did they define sex as intercourse? Did they not define sex at all, and thus leave it to their respondents to define it as intercourse, as many Americans have learned to do? Either way, the results are screwed by definition, since the majority of women do not live in bodies that will reach orgasm through coitus alone.
If that statement surprises, you might want to track down Maines's slim volume and watch her chart the continuing obfuscation of female sexuality through two millennia of medical literature. Should the statement come as no shock, you may still take great amusement reading the rationalizations of a parade of physicians going back to Galen of Pergamon (ca. A.D. 129-200) and beyond, who with complete sincerity advised the genital "massage" of female patients as a temporary cure for "hysteria."
It is Maines's well-footnoted argument that this longtime, extremely common female "illness" was simply a medical explanation for sexual expression not contained in the official idea of sex as penetration and male orgasm. As Maines notes, citing a variety of Western and Arabic texts, the symptoms for hysteria changed over time, ranging from insomnia to lack of interest in intercourse with one's husband. What didn't alter was hysteria's continuing diagnosis--and its accepted treatment. I feel compelled to quote Galen's translated description, which Maines discovers echoed in medical papers across the next 18 centuries:
Following the warmth of the remedies and arising from the touch of the genital organs required by the treatment, there followed twitchings accompanied at the same time by pain and pleasure after which she emitted turbid and abundant sperm. From that time on she was free of all the evil she felt.
"There is no evidence," writes Maines, "that male physicians enjoyed providing pelvic massage treatments." They could last up to an hour, for one thing. Writings from the Middle Ages on indicate that the duty was often dumped off on a midwife, or a husband. But the patient was at the same time warned against helping herself, or "rubbing, among other women" (as the influential Islamic physician Avicenna, who lived from 980 to 1037, put it). Indeed, Maines shows more than one earnest treatise recommending such therapeutic massage to treat masturbation--the point being that admitting women's sexual pleasure outside of coitus dislodges the primacy of the penis in sex. Office massage was by the 1800s a highly lucrative prescription for Western doctors, Maines claims, because hysterics tended to be perpetual patients, good for weekly appointments over years. As the book's subtitle suggests, this practice culminated in the late 19th century, when electrical vibrating gadgets allowed American physicians to get off four or more patients in the space of one treatment.
Maines has compiled photographs and diagrams of these early vibrators and other hydroelectric contraptions, and though they're enormously funny, they're also quite perplexing. In the face of their obvious application, how could the charade of the "hysterical paroxysm" continue? Maines believes some women knew what was up, citing the great numbers that flocked to late-19th century spas, with their "ascending douches." But she can quote no testimony. And, although vibrators were acknowledged as sexual aids by the 1920s, the Western world still lay down before Freud and his theories about "immature" clitoral orgasm. At once whimsical and disheartening, this is the kind of history that makes you wonder about the idiocies we're right now swallowing as fact.
What Maines labels the "androcentric model of sexuality"--normal hetero sex defined as penetration until male orgasm--serves as a sort of, er, black hole around which A.L. Kennedy's novel Original Bliss (Knopf) revolves. Kennedy's two protagonists could be poster kids for the logical extremes of that sexual philosophy: Mrs. Brindle is a Scottish housewife who has lost her Christian faith, along with any sense of self-worth, as a result of Mr. Brindle's belief in her servitude; Edward E. Gluck is a perverse Tony Robbins type selling a "mind makes reality" doctrine while secretly drowning in a hard-core pornography fetish. Mrs. Brindle seeks out Gluck, thinking he may help her with her spiritual despair, and he does, through his gentleness as much as his advice. Trusting in this sudden intimacy, Gluck reveals his own devouring thirst. Mrs. Brindle not only flees, but relapses into something very like hysteria.
You can't blame her: Horrid and explicit, Gluck's confession rips through the pretty wrapping of their smart, almost screwball repartee. And once Kennedy discloses the extent of Mr. Brindle's brutality, the base of Gluck and Mrs. Brindle's attraction comes clear: She is the eternally fuckable and unknowable woman of Gluck's dreams; he, the greedy God who would fill her again with His bliss. Their gradual negotiation and healing can be read as a brilliantly perceptive modern romance--battered Adam and Eve stumbling back to ground zero Eden to begin again. But as evidenced in her earlier short stories and novels, this Scottish author quite enjoys the lurid, and Original Bliss also works as a teasing tale of horror: hell envisioned as successive, supposedly healthier versions of the same violent dependency. Either way, I can guess what Maines would say: Power up!
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.