"An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away"?
This riff on the old adage appeared on a 2009 British National Health Service leaflet touting the health benefits of regular orgasms, but it could easily be the tagline for "Hysteria," the upcoming climax-centric film that Hollywood is already buzzing about.
The movie, a laugh-out-loud rom-com about the invention of the electronic vibrator, hits the big screen on New Year’s Day 2012. Starring the ever-adorable Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal, it will treat audiences nationwide to a fictionalized version of the Victorian era’s medicalized sexual repression, the early rumblings of women’s liberation, and of course, a love story. But it also touches on an age-old question still debated today: Do orgasms make women healthier?
THE CURE-ALL O
The idea of the orgasm as a prescribed remedy dates back as far as the second century, when medical practitioners decided to use it to treat the catch-all, exclusively female diagnosis of hysteria. Coined by Hippocrates in 450 A.D., the term "hysteria" literally means "womb disease."
“It described [a feeling of] suffocation, discomfort, sleeplessness, nervousness,” said Rachel P. Maines, Ph.D., author of “The Technology of Orgasm: ‘Hysteria,’ Vibrators and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction.” “Whenever a woman didn’t feel right or was ‘causing trouble’ for the people around her, she could be diagnosed with womb disease.”
In the 19th century, the condition was commonly treated by massaging the patient’s clitoris and inducing a “hysterical paroxysm” -- the clinical euphemism for orgasm. And (surprise, surprise?) after a massage, many women did report feeling better. But some doctors complained that the treatment was an inefficient use of time and therefore a waste of money, as some patients might require up to an hour of treatment. According to Maines, this was the driving force behind the invention of the vibrator. “Think of how many more patients you can treat [with a vibrator],” Maines said. “You don’t have to learn any skills, the machine does all the work.” By 1918, Sears, Roebuck and Co. featured the product in its home catalogue.
The medical community has long since abandoned hysteria as a legitimate diagnosis, and the vibrator is now known as a purely recreational device, but the idea that orgasms serve a medical purpose hasn't faded. Many influential publications have printed stories on the subject with headlines ranging from “Not Just Good, But Good for You” (msnbc.com) and “The Secret Health Benefits of Sex” (iVillage), to “Why Bad Sex Is Shortening Your Life” (Cosmopolitan) and “Orgasms, Health and Longevity: Does Sex Promote Health?” (Psychology Today).
Lots of the claims made in these articles are legitimate. “There’s a lot of positive health benefits [of an orgasm],” said Logan Levkoff, Ph.D., a sexologist and certified sexuality educator. “And the emotional [and] psychological benefits are even better.” Jennifer R. Berman, M.D., co-founder of the Female Sexual Medicine Center at UCLA, said that “[orgasms] are a component of general health and wellness.” These benefits run the range from the physical (i.e. the contractions inherent in an orgasm can help temporarily relieve pain from menstrual cramps) to the emotional (i.e. gaining a sense of ownership over your own pleasure).
One of the main reasons that orgasms have been touted as beneficial to our health is the fact that a number of hormones are released during arousal. Oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins are secreted -– all of which have powerful mood-enhancing effects. Orgasms (and sex in general) serve the brain in a similar way to cardiovascular exercise. In this vein, a 2000 Duke University study found that 30 minutes of cardio three times a week was just as effective as drug therapy at relieving certain symptoms of depression (at least in the short term). And though having an orgasm can’t be a substitute for hitting the gym, it does burn calories (up to 200, according to Forbes), increase your heart rate and work your respiratory system.
THE PROBLEM WITH 'DO IT FOR YOUR HEALTH'
Yet even with all of these benefits in mind, it would be highly unusual for a physician today to prescribe an orgasm as a cure for any illness. There may even be a downside to promoting orgasms as a source of health, rather than simply a source of pleasure.
Touting orgasms as "healthy" suggests that not having them isn't -- and that could mean big money for pharmaceutical companies. Since a 1999 study published in JAMA claimed that 43 percent of American women experienced FSD (Female Sexual Dysfunction), drug companies have been looking to corner the market and find a “cure.” The study came out just a year after Viagra went on the market in the U.S. –- and became a fiscal success story for Pfizer. The movie “Orgasm Inc.” documents this “race for the cure,” profiling the companies involved in the development of these drugs, as well as manufacturers of orgasm-aiding gadgets –- including a device called the Orgasmatron.
Lenore Tiefer, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center and an expert on the subject of medicalization and women’s sexuality, said the framing of orgasms as "healthy" is invariably tied to consumer capitalism. “The current wave of medicalization has much more to do with economic issues [than in the past],” she said. “There’s more of an industry involvement now.”
While Levkoff urges women not to write off the idea of sexual dysfunction completely, citing conditions such as vulvodynia, she believes that the figures surrounding FSD are probably overblown –- and that the medical community’s approach to a “cure” is somewhat misdirected. “How a woman learns about her body and sexuality and ability to communicate, all contribute to her ability to be aroused and have an orgasm. It’s not as simple as ‘just have blood flow and you’re good.’ Women need more than that.”
Touting orgasms as beneficial for women could add to the shame that some women may feel for not being able to experience -- or, as it is often phrased, achieve -- orgasm.
A recent survey found that young women experience orgasms about half as often as men. Yet many articles written for women discuss orgasms as though everyone can and should consistently have them. (Just a few weeks ago, our Twitter feeds were lighting up with reports of “yogasms," those elusive, downward dog, kegel-muscle induced orgasms that supposedly any woman can achieve.)
Tiefer and Levkoff agree problems begin to arise when the importance of an orgasm is disproportionately emphasized. “The crucial thing is not to overvalue [the orgasm] or make it sound as though it’s essential for normalcy or enjoyment or intimacy or maturity or femininity,” Tiefer said. “People agonize over it.” And although many of the benefits of orgasm are very real, agony over having one probably isn’t necessary. After all, it’s only one part of a sexual experience.
BACK TO PLEASURE
A way to acknowledge the benefits of having orgasms, while avoiding unnecessarily pathologizing and shaming women, might be as simple as redirecting the conversation. “The discussion should be about pleasure,” Levkoff said, “[and] the importance of understanding your own pleasure.”
Still, all of the experts we reached out to said they were happy to see pop culture keep this discussion going with the release of “Hysteria.” “The fact that we can have a fairly mainstream movie where we talk about vibrators and women’s pleasure is a great jumping off point for our discussions,” Levkoff said. “It legitimizes what women and men have … been experiencing for a very long time.”
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