O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm by Jonathon Margolis

This review was originally written for The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health

The culture and knowledge of sex has progressed and regressed throughout history. Margolis uses mythology and research to discuss the orgasm, which is often misperceived due to reluctance by many to have a frank discussion about it.

Beginning as a (largely unauthorized) celebrity biographer, Margolis was shunned for his work by many of the celebrities about whom he wrote. So, while it is understandable that he would decide to take a break from getting glared at by the glamorous, I am interested in what drove him to write about orgasms, and, thus, probably get glared at by a much larger audience.

This is intended as a research book, so there are a few dry spots where I found my mind wandering. For most of the book, I found myself intrigued, which was surprising screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-6-28-22-pmconsidering the dense research. However, Margolis is a strong writer who makes the history an enjoyable read.

O is organized in historical order, and does not limit itself to the last few centuries of North America. Knowledge of modern tribes is used for guesswork on how orgasms may have been viewed in the BCE, and texts such as the Kama Sutra are explored for information on orgasms in other countries and eras. The journey of the orgasm throughout time and place is discussed in this dense and engaging history.

The French saying “la petit mort” or “little death” may have come from the rare case of loss of consciousness upon orgasm, or from the folk belief that an individual is born with a certain number of orgasms in them, and when the last one is used, they die. It may also be no more complicated than the fact that erection literally dies after ejaculation.

Three theories on female orgasm were discussed when evolutionary theorists realized that sexual pleasure didn’t relate to chance of pregnancy. The first theory suggested female orgasm was “an adaptation to enhance the monogamous pair bond,” because, through familiarity, a long-term partner would know how to make the female partner climax. Theorists of the second theory saw monogamy as unnatural, a social value brought about by political repression, and stated that multi-orgasm was evidence of insatiable desire. The final theory discussed female orgasm as part of the similarity in the womb between developing fetuses. Female orgasm was, essentially, an echo of the male orgasm.

Chinese erotica was notable for its lack of insulting and misogynistic language and objectification of women. The terms Taoists used to describe women’s genitals, metaphors of “beauty sweetness, artistry, rareness and fragrance” were thought by Naomi Wolf to have given young girls entirely different feelings about their developing womanhood if the slang they heard of female genitalia used “metaphors of preciousness and beauty,” and every account of sex was centered on their pleasure.

When Christianity came about, the Old Testament contained an acceptance of “a veritability throbbing carnality,” while the New Testament showed a lack of concern with sex. As the Old Testament is usually disregarded by Christians, this seems odd, since it is the testament that makes the boldest statement concerning sex. The rejection of sexual enjoyment has also never been seen by Christians as an insult to God, who created the orgasmically responsible parts of the body, suggesting that pleasurable sex is therefore free from sin. The ‘Song of Solomon’ was muck that must have been published in God’s name for a reason, so was reinterpreted as a metaphor of Christ’s love of his Church. Margolis goes further to call the followers of the Christian cult ‘killjoys,’ which makes sense considering that, at one point, sex was outlawed on Sundays, Wednesdays, Fridays, during Lent (the 40 days preceding Easter), penance, the 40 days preceding Christmas, the 3 days prior to attending Communion, Saints’ days, and from the time of conception to 40 days after giving birth or the end of breastfeeding. God’s call to “be fruitful and multiply” would have been nearly impossible to follow through under these guidelines.

Protesters against society’s decisions concerning the morality of sex are present throughout time just as they are now. Egon Schiele painted self-portraits of himself masturbating in order to protest against the conservatism of Austrian society. The intimate history of the orgasm proves to its researchers that despite the decisions of medical professionals, religions, and others, people frequently draw their own conclusions as to how to lead sexual lives, and what they should or shouldn’t do with their own bodies.

Readers of O may be interested in looking at some of the books mentioned in text, such as The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction by Rachel P. Maines, A History of Orgies by Burgo Partridge, or Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm can be purchased online or from your local bookstore. This review was based on my interpretations of this literature. Curious about what else I’m reading? Check out my Goodreads profile and my bookshelf.

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