The History of O

Jonathan Margolis Observes the Orgasm

On the fair island of Mangaia, floatingsomewhere in the South Pacific between Samoa and French Polynesia, there live a people who, according to Jonathan Margolis's O: An Intimate History of the Orgasm, enjoy "a profoundly erotic culture":

"Young boys on the island are instructed at the age of 13 or 14 in the erotic arts by older women. A typically 'good' girl has three or four lovers between the ages of 13 and 20; and all women are said to orgasm, usually several times, during intercourse . . . young male Mangaians . . . learn several techniques of intercourse, plus cunnilingus, kissing and sucking of breasts, and are taught always to bring their partner to orgasm several times before allowing themselves to ejaculate—and only then in time with one of their partner's climaxes. . . . Perfect sex on the island consists of . . . five minutes of foreplay, followed by 15 to 20 minutes of energetic thrusting, with active female participation. . . . The female's final orgasm should coincide with the man's. The typical 18-year-old Mangaian couple make love three times a night, every night, until their 30s, when the weekly average drops to a mere 14."

Here's my question: What the hell is wrong with the non-Mangaian world?

But first, a COCKTAIL-PARTY DISCUSSION TOPIC: "Cleopatra was said to have fellated a thousand men, including a hundred Roman noblemen in one night; the Greeks referred to her as Merichane–'gaper', 'the ten-thousand-mouthed woman' and Cheilon, the 'thick-lipped.'"
Now, back to us non-Mangaians and what's wrong with us: according to Margolis, a British journalist who's written this fine, funny and ever-so-informative history about a subject dear to all of us (and who blanchlessly admits that "my children . . . are so accustomed to their parents walking around in the nude that they have been known to remind my wife and me to 'put some clothes on' when they have friends to stay"), what's wrong with non-Mangians is, not to put too fine a point on it, repressed Christians. I would add to this a little thing called Modern Capitalism, which, as Wordsworth put it, "lay[s] waste our powers" by hypnotizing us into endless "getting and spending," and a Foucaultian thing called the Rationalization of Sex, which has to do with putting sex under the disciplinary pressures of modern science, reason and morality and squeezing the juice right out of it. But still, repressed Christians, especially this month, sounds about right to me.

PARTY TOPIC:Semen, which contains mood-altering hormones like testosterone, estrogen and prostaglandins, is essentially "an antidepressant . . . when entering the woman's body topically through certain internal tissues," e.g., the walls of the vagina or the inside of the mouth. Furthermore, the act of orgasm itself releases in both men and women a bunch of pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which facilitate the flow of happiness-inducing endorphins, which happens to be what some antidepressant drugs are designed to do. Coming, it turns out, is a fabulous antidepressant, which should arrive as interesting news to those on Xanax or Zoloft who've lost just about all their sex drive.

Margolis takes up several fascinating themes early on, among them: why are men's and women's sexual equipment sort of mismatched, so that "penile penetration is rarely involved other than in a peripheral role with the attainment of orgasm for women"? Women may get "plenty of psychological fulfillment conducive to orgasm from penetrative sex" that doesn't stimulate the clitoris, "but, according to every serious study and the vast majority of anecdotal evidence, it is downright unusual for a woman to reach orgasm solely through the friction of conventional sexual intercourse." Theories attempting to answer this "evolutionary paradox of orgasm" abound, but the most endearing, if not persuasive, belongs to researcher Lionel Tiger (apparently his real name), who suggests that the relative elusiveness of the female orgasm is one of nature's enigmatic tricks. The time and care it takes for a woman to come works "as a selective mechanism for women to choose mates not as an animal would, by body size, ferocity or aggressiveness, but by qualities such as intellect, sensitivity, kindness, reputation and popularity–plus a little dexterity with finger or tongue, for added spice." Metrosexuals everywhere, raise a glass.

PARTY TOPIC:"The average ejaculatory volume" (2.5 to 5 cc's) "contains about 60% of the American recommended daily intake for vitamin C." (Subtopic: Why some people never catch cold.) Most of O is a history, starting from "Orgasm B.C.," when men apparently hadn't yet figured out that sex led to pregnancy and offspring (and whoa, the domination of women that ensued when they caught on to that tidbit of cause and effect), and on through the Greek, Roman, ancient Eastern and early Christian eras. Margolis is interested in everything orgasmic and treats us to evidence from anthropologists, scientists, historians, poets and diary writers, which he uses in the service of the thesis that by and large—and male domination aside (admittedly, a big aside)—Western culture was doing all right in the sack until St. Paul and St. Augustine came along: "St. Augustine . . . crystallized the belief that sex was fundamentally disgusting." Until the Church got into the act, masturbation, extended foreplay, oral and anal sex, and homosexuality (the primary ways people come besides straight missionary sex) ran fairly rampantly and guiltlessly. Europe's sexual dark age (almost a millennium long) lifted with the Renaissance, darkened again during the Victorian Era, and lifted again in the 20th century. Margolis is much subtler than this capsule argument suggests, of course—he brings out, for instance, how the public face of sexual discourse during the supposedly sex-dead Victorian era is partially belied by the bawdy delights recorded in diaries of men and women of the time.

PARTY TOPIC:"Women's orgasms, with their satisfyingly multiple muscular contractions, are an infinitely bigger and more expansive experience than the sensation men have when they ejaculate." Back in the halcyon 1970s, the poet Richard Howard wrote that "the Bible calls it 'knowing' while the Stuarts called it 'dying,' the Victorians called it 'spending,' and we call it 'coming'; a hard look at the horizon of our literary culture suggests that it will not be long before we come to a new word for orgasm proper—we shall call it 'being.'" Howard, of course, turned out to be a poor prophet: AIDS took care of the idea that coming could take center stage in modern life, and what a virus didn't accomplish the new great awakening of American evangelism, if this election means what a lot of us are thinking it means, might: a lot of people seem to want to make sex Augustinely disgusting again. Which means sex looks to be turning genuinely political again; buying and reading this book may be the patriotic act a lot of us need right now. Not to mention coming. Remember, coming is very, very good for you.

Have yourself a wonderful Mangaian night.

O: AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF THE ORGASM BY JONATHAN MARGOLIS; GROVE PRESS. HARDCOVER, 416 PAGES, $24.

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