This guest post revisits Anne Koedt’s ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’–and asks whether women in the 21st century are still being ‘defined sexually in terms of what pleases men’.
In 1970, Anne Koedt described in detail the myth of the vaginal orgasm-the shape of the myth itself and the reasons it continues to be reinforced.
The myth says: the vaginal orgasm exists and is separate from the clitoral orgasm.
The myth says: the vaginal orgasm is the True Orgasm.
The myth says: if a woman cannot orgasm from penetrative sex, she is broken in some way, she has failed, she is “frigid”.
The myth says: women ought to get pleasure from pleasuring men.
Today, the word “frigid” has come to be used slightly differently-a frigid woman is not necessarily a woman who can’t achieve that (mythical, magical) vaginal orgasm, but usually a woman who refuses sex in the first place. A woman who spurns a man’s advances is often dubbed a “frigid bitch”–cold, unfeeling, withholding something imagined to be his due. Frigidity is not just about failing to be pleased by pleasing a man, but about refusing to please him at all.
The myth is still real, and frigidity–in the sense that Koedt describes it– is still pathologised. What Koedt did not write about, though, was the way in which some level of frigidity seems to be expected of women, even as it is pathologised. Women’s sexual pleasure isn’t just imagined in terms of men’s, it does not belong to women at all: women cannot be seen to embrace their own sexuality. Even today, ‘respectable’ women must appear, at least initially, as frigid beings.
For women’s sexuality to be acceptable, it can’t be on their own terms. Nude leaks inspire hype and excitement in the online sphere, but when celebrities like Emily Ratajkowski voluntarily release nude photo-shoots the reaction is disgust and misogynistic shaming. Women who embrace their own sexuality are decried as sluts, whores, slags, hos—made dirty by their own desire. They’re only sexy if they are sexualized by someone else. Eventually women are expected to submit, but they must be “hard to get”- just frigid enough to maintain their respectability.
Even if they play the game right, women often end up frustrated: the myth of the vaginal orgasm still lives. Nothing appears to have changed since Koedt observed that men did seem to understand the importance of the clitoris
during “foreplay,” when they want to arouse women and produce the necessary lubrication for penetration. Foreplay is a concept created for male purposes, but works to the disadvantage of many women, since as soon as the woman is aroused the man changes to vaginal stimulation, leaving her both aroused and unsatisfied.
A general lack of awareness of how female bodies work has to be partly to blame, and the lack of a compulsory and comprehensive sex education curriculum in schools must take some responsibility here. When I was 16, my sex education class consisted of an awkward explanation of “how babies are made” and a vague allusion to how that can be prevented (though as it was a Catholic school, the only mode of safe sex defended explicitly was abstinence). The only description of male and female anatomy made available to us was in our biology textbooks, in which the clitoris was absent and the vagina was presented as permanently open and ready for penetration. With this kind of education, supplemented only by pornography for most of my male peers, is it any surprise that the myth of the vaginal orgasm still reigns?
Koedt tells us that our model of sexuality cannot be improved or adjusted, it must be rejected:
What we must do is redefine our sexuality. We must discard the “normal” concepts of sex and create new guidelines which take into account mutual sexual enjoyment. While the idea of mutual enjoyment is liberally applauded in marriage manuals, it is not followed to its logical conclusion. We must begin to demand that if certain sexual positions now defined as “standard” are not mutually conducive to orgasm, they no longer be defined as standard. New techniques must be used or devised which transform this particular aspect of our current sexual exploitation.
A look at the “sex-positive” feminism of the new century suggests that this project, if it ever got off the ground, has failed. Male fantasies have been repackaged and sold back to women as not just “empowering” but also “feminist.” Lip service is frequently paid to the idea of mutual enjoyment, and yet in practice women continue to be expected to perform above and beyond what they will ever be repaid.
The writers of the popular self-help manual Being Orgasmic encourage women to try anal sex if their male partner wants to, advising that ‘If any discomfort does occur, try again some other time’. It seems that a woman’s comfort–not even her pleasure–is considered secondary to a man’s desires.
The bar for “frigid” women has been raised. Now, possibly even more than before, we need to follow Koedt and reject the dominant model of sexuality. As Natasha Walter puts it:
If this is the new sexual liberation, it looks too uncannily like the old sexism to convince many of us that this is the freedom we have sought.