What do we know about orgasms? Do both males and females experience them? Are they purely physiological? What social stigmas and implications do orgasms hold? …And why are they such a hot topic of discussion??? Here they appear in a medium of pop culture:
In her article, “Orgasm,” Juliet Richters addresses the conversation around orgasms. She begins by recognizing that there is a physiological definition of orgasm, but argues that it is the way in which we explain these physical sensations that make the topic a social focal point (Richters 102). Richters explains that there are multiple perspectives on orgasms as well as a variety of experiences and practices that surround this event. For example, she contrasts a conservative culture with a more liberal one to display how norms and environment influence sexual activity. Further, this example demonstrates how gender roles are also observed in the sexual nature of orgasms. In the conservative culture, men are expected to reach orgasm while the female orgasm was virtually unheard of (Richters 101). In contrast, a culture that is more sexually liberated perceives sex and orgasms to be equally pleasuring to each gender (Richters 101). The ideology of gender roles ties into Deborah Tolman’s perspective on sexual subjectivity because as Richters portrays two different types of cultures, it is evident that a more conservative environment reverts to male dominance and ultimately women servicing men (Richters 101).
The most basic, physiological definition, of orgasm is defined as “a reaction to sexual stimulation in both males and females” (Richters 100). That’s about as simple as this discussion can get. Various interpretations, perspectives, and experiences have complicated the idea of the orgasm to the point in which it is now a topic that social constructivists feel the need to analyze and decode. It exists in the social world, medical field, and shows traces in the politics of sexuality, all according to Richter’s article. It is impossible to think of “orgasm” and not consider the social constructions surrounding it, since the physicality of it has essentially been defined and is being defined by multiple facets of society.
Amongst discussion of the orgasm in relation to the physical sensation it induces, there is a wide range of variation. The most evident difference is that between men and women. As Richters discusses in her article, there is a common conception that male orgasm directly coincides with ejaculation. She goes on to discredit this assumption by saying that ejaculation is not always so closely tied to the pleasure associated with orgasm. This leads into the discussion of the female orgasm. Because men ejaculate, this is seen as the climax to their sexual experience. Women, on the other hand, have a more ambiguous indicator of their climax. In society’s attempts to define orgasm, female orgasm specifically, it has created these ideas of what is “normal,” as in what should happen when women orgasm or climax, how it should happen, the timing that this should all occur, and so forth.
In this article, Richters complicates these ideas of normality by breaking down what society deems “normal” or “natural”. Richters suggests that orgasms are discussed in terms of penetrative, vaginal intercourse because society equates this sexual act with what society defines as the male orgasm, ejaculation (Richters 100). In this way, it is clear that society inherently links orgasms to heterosexual relationships and has distinct definitions of what constitutes an orgasm. This type of logic aligns with what we have come to recognize as heteronormativity, the belief that men and women fall into “natural” binaries and carry out distinct gender roles. However, Richters provides evidence to prove that orgasms are not just linked to heterosexual sexuality. In reality, orgasms are experienced through masturbation, homosexual relationships, and even without any sexual stimulation can orgasms occur. The term “orgasm” is surrounded by false constructs that essentially limit what is an extremely versatile and complex idea that is tied to our physical and emotional being.
Through discussion of the formalities of orgasms, as in when they should occur, what they should feel like, and who should feel them, society has alternatively defined what orgasms SHOULDN’T be. Social constructs tell us that if our experience varies from what is considered to be “normal,” then we are actually facing a type of dysfunction. In this sense, Richters says that “dysfunction” is defined as an inability to “perform sex in a way that is socially acceptable” (102). Such a strict definition of orgasms leads to psychological schemas and the need to feel “normal” in society. There is pressure to meet social expectations, and again, we see the issues of gender becoming part of the conversation. Whether male or female, Richters explains, there are social constructs that dictate our behaviors and tell us what our experience of orgasm should be like. It isn’t surprising that Richters attributes these constructs to the masculine/feminine dynamic (Richters 103). Each gender is similarly and diversely influenced by the masculine/feminine binary, from which the ideologies diffuse into sexual practices, formulating the framework for correct sexual behavior and orgasms.
So how do we see this discussion played out in our everyday lives? Pop culture regularly mentions orgasms or has discourse that alludes to all of the constructs we have discussed that surround orgasms. For example, an episode of Grey’s Anatomy focuses on a type of orgasm dysfunction. The patient is a woman who says she experiences orgasms “seven or eight times a day.” Interestingly, no sexual stimulation needs to occur for these orgasm fits. Doesn’t this go against society’s definition of how to experience orgasm? It also coincides with Richters comment that we may view orgasms as strictly “physiological,” and not necessarily “as sexual” (Richters 101). Here is the clip from Grey’s Anatomy”:
Another example also comes from television, from the movie “When Harry met Sally.” In this clip, Sally is proving a point that Harry can’t actually tell if a woman is faking an orgasm or not.
As Richters suggests in her article, the social expectations of orgasm sometimes lead women to fake it because they feel as though it is a necessary part of the sexual event in which they are partaking (Richters 102).
Evidently, orgasms are much less of a natural experience as they are a social behavior. With behaviors come definitive guidelines and expectations, determining what’s right and what’s wrong, too specific to allow for any variation. Is it possible for us to separate orgasm from its social constructs? Or are orgasms inherently their social definition?