Women’s Sexuality – Past and Present

As strange as it may sound today, up until the 1950’s it wasn’t acceptable, respected or understood, that a woman has the right to enjoy sex. It was always just assumed that she was enjoying it. As a general rule, a woman’s role was to become pregnant and bear children. Because women got pregnant, men assumed they also enjoyed the intercourse.

Men’s enjoyment of sex was always granted, tangible and visual while women’s enjoyment depends on many factors and in any case is not tangible or visual (moaning doesn’t count).

Alfred Kinsey was the first to raise the questions regarding women’s sexuality. In 1953 he published his book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female”. The book delved into women’s sexuality bringing to light the Who, What, How much, When, and How women have sex. This was done through a series of interviews that Kinsey and his team conducted with around 6,000 women. Much public criticism was raised following Kinsey’s publications, mainly on the statistical nature of the research and the fact that his study group did not represent the entire population, making it difficult to reach any viable conclusions.

The men of 1948 enjoyed very much reading about themselves in Kinsey’s first research “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male”. But they enjoyed much less the research that shed light on women’s sexual activities. After the second book about women’s sexual behavior was published, many men had a hard time wrapping their head around the simple fact that their wives, sisters, daughters, and even mothers practice sexual behaviors and even want sex as much as they do.

The main contribution of the book was less in its findings and more about bringing the subject of female sexuality to public discussion. The book led other researchers to continue investigating the sources of women’s enjoyment of sex. Kinsey’s data showed, to men’s amazement, that although women of the time were less sexually active, they were still much more active than many had previously believed. From that point on, it was impossible to ignore that women have sexual desires of their own and that they act to fulfill them.

Following Kinsey, two researchers by the name of Masters and Johnson decided to continue the research. Masters began his study by paying prostitutes for letting him watch them have intercourse. During interviews he had with these women, Masters learned for the first time in his life that women fake orgasms. He was very much surprised. Why would a woman do such a thing? Is she not having fun? The answer he got was unanimous: the sound they made while faking orgasm increased the enjoyment of the men and made then come faster.

This finding led Masters to start a study in which men and women volunteered to have intercourse while connected to instruments that measured the changes happening in their bodies during the act. Masters and Virginia Johnson, who joined him as a research partner, watched the subjects during the act. They documented the pulsation of genitals in both men and women during orgasm and developed an instrument that registered different signals from the body such as heart rate, temperature, sweating, etc. Additionally, Masters and Johnson developed a type of “telescope” that allowed to directly look at what was going on in a woman’s vagina while she was having sex.

In 1966 Masters and Johnson published their first book “Human Sexual Response” which was both revolutionary and became a corner stone in understanding human sexuality. This book contributed much to the sexual revolution of that decade. Masters and Johnson had sex themselves during the time they conducted the research, in order to verify their findings and to make sure they don’t have sex with the volunteers, thus skewing the results of the study. It would be interesting to see what the legislators of today would say about this… but in the past, the atmosphere was different. Their work laid the foundation to much of what is known today in the field.

Masters and Johnson discovered that there are different types of female orgasms and that two types – the clitoral and vaginal orgasms – were the main types. It can be debated why certain women orgasm in a certain way and what that tells us about them. But these first empirical findings formed the conceptual groundwork we have today for how women reach orgasm.

Masters and Johnson focused on the sexual arousal process in women and first described the fact that lubrication comes from the vagina and not from the cervix as was previously thought. They also proved that the physical reaction to orgasm was the same when the clitoris was stimulated or the vagina penetrated.

Their findings proved that while men required time to recuperate after orgasm before they can reach full erection and ejaculation again during one sexual encounter, there are women that don’t need such recuperation time and are multi-orgasmic. This finding contrasted the thinking of the time that women were less interested in sex and cared less about reaching an orgasm.

Masters and Johnson’s findings doubted Freud’s thinking that vaginal orgasms were more mature than clitoral orgasm, since over 80% of women reach orgasms only through the clit and not via vaginal penetration.

Masters and Johnson also formulated a shared model for men’s and women’s sexuality, which included 4 steps: excitement, Increase in sexual tension, orgasm, and closure of the sexual response cycle where the body returns to it relaxed state. These finding were sensational at the time. Until then, women were thought not to be interested in what makes them feel good during sex.

Just as Kinsey’s research, Masters and Johnson’s research was also criticized for not being representative of the entire population. The social criticism came mainly from the conservative establishment that thought of women who were interested in sex and in enjoyment of sex as promiscuous. But the revolution that Masters and Johnson started was unstoppable at this stage.

Virginia Johnson was considered the first woman that gave other women the legitimacy to express their sexuality. The research positioned woman as an equal partners in sexual intercourse, just like Johnson was an equal partner in the research. There are those who think that her contribution was even greater than Masters’ because she was the one that focused on recruiting volunteers for the study and was responsible for crafting the message in a way the public could hear.

There is no doubt that the methods employed by Masters and Johnson weren’t acceptable beforehand. Not on an academic level and most certainly not socially. These methods were never employed again by other researchers and were considered then, as today, as not ethical and amoral. Watching people have sexual intercourse is not acceptable today, not even for research purposes. That said, their contribution was invaluable to understanding and unearthing women’s sexuality and sexual behavior.

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