Do women like sex?

Michael Mason

  • Making sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Laqueur
    Harvard, 352 pp, $27.50, October 1990, ISBN 0 674 54349 1

The other day I came across an article by Professor Laqueur, written some fourteen years ago, which makes a striking and dismaying contrast to the book he has just published. The contrast is fairly significant of the destructive potential of the New Historicism for the writing of history. Happily Professor Laqueur’s case is unusual, for the community which has shown by far the most susceptibility to this new and potent intellectual virus is the literary one, rather than the community of historians. And there is no great loss to culture if literary academics turn into New Historicists – to such lengths has the process of self-disablement as an intellectual enterprise been carried by literary studies in the last two decades.

The article which Professor Laqueur wrote before he succumbed was about the working-class demand for elementary education in England around 1800. He argued with considerable force that working-class families not only strongly desired basic education for their children, but were discriminating about what they were offered: preferring to pay at more old-fashioned local establishments when the new free schemes seemed too regimented or ideological. This, it seems to me, was good history. It came up with a novel but plausible insight about our ancestors. Laqueur’s argument may not stand the test of time: it was more than tinged with political prejudice about parental choice in education (and in this Thatcherite bias one may detect the first signs of a fatal liking for intellectual glitz rather than intellectual probity). But it was well-documented, and it was clear what would be involved in refuting it.

Admittedly, the subject he has now taken on is very much more intractable – indeed is fraught with problems of method – but it is nonetheless well worth attempting because of its exceptional interest. His topic is nothing less than the history of biological theories of gender in European culture down to the early 20th century, and their relation to the social perception of the sexes. This hasn’t been undertaken before, and needed to be undertaken, despite the formidable difficulties of the enterprise. But what was always at risk of heading towards incoherence and opacity has taken a nosedive in that direction with Professor Laqueur and his sparkling New Historicism in the pilot’s seat. Perhaps oddest of all, the author of the 1976 article has forgotten that society is stratified. If he had remembered this he might have brought a bit more coherence to his subject in its later stages.

The first part of the story, up until the Enlightenment, is relatively uncomplicated, and I shall not dwell on it. With a narrow band of surviving medical wisdom running from Classical to Neoclassical times, and a relative dearth of commentary on the political relations of the sexes, Professor Laqueur’s main task here is to explain what the authorities taught about sexual anatomy and physiology. He has obviously surveyed a great deal of material, and he brings to bear more sense of what is tellingly counterfactual in the traditional Aristotelian and Galenic teaching than is usual. His father, he tells us, was a pathologist and he himself has attended medical school to pick up basic knowledge. I cannot judge if Laqueur’s accounts of pre-modern medical ideas on gender are accurate, but I must say that he sometimes seems to have been rushed into errors in the later periods. He writes of ‘the advent of ovariotomy in the 1870s’, but he should look in the autobiography of A.B. Granville (1874) for a very much earlier date.

It is around 1700 that the fascination and complexity of the subject really get under way. Professor Laqueur is now trying to follow three themes or levels: the technical understanding of genital structure and function, notions of the masculine and the feminine, and the power-relations of the sexes. These three things are at once closely linked and exasperatingly independent, and in their linkages there are bemusing possibilities of feedback. But it strikes me that Professor Laqueur has made a confusing picture unnecessarily, indeed falsely, more confusing because of certain dogmas he brings to it.

To start with, behind the appearance of tracing a complicated interplay of the cognitive, the conceptual and the political lies a Foucaultesque determination that the last of these must be ascendant. In particular, the cognitive level (in this instance, what medical science was coming up with) is denied the possibility of being independent, and formative of thinking at the other levels. Professor Laqueur shows signs of writhing somewhat under this prohibition. The centrepiece of his book is a claim which is to a considerable extent a claim about scientific discovery – namely, that a ‘one sex’ idea of the human body, in which the genital functions and genital structures of men and women were supposed to be largely equivalent, was replaced or at least supplemented in the 18th century by a ‘two sex’ picture, in which there was scarcely any equivalence between them.

Professor Laqueur has an extraordinary variety of contorted formulations in which he seeks to express the relationship of this alleged scientific development to the ideology and politics of gender at the time. I have been unable to judge whether he thinks the former was created, and/or prompted, and/or simply exploited by the latter. Granted that this is a complicated matter, there seems to be an almost capricious refusal to get it at least as straight as possible. But the primacy which is thus hazily attributed to the ideological and political certainly makes Professor Laqueur’s book duller than it should be. The one-sex/two-sex argument is, so to speak, the counterpart to the parental demand argument in his work on education. It is the lively, novel claim which has rightly fired him up, and which most of his original research is focused on. By comparison, the rest of the picture is tired stuff, mere cliché about 18th and 19th-century society.

This is a familiar effect in studies of this sort, and the reason why they are eventually boring, however ingeniously and briskly conducted. They don’t say anything new. They are horribly like the worst kind of theology. There is no radical enquiry, but just a fancy presentation of the evidence for a set of uncritically received doctrines. And usually these doctrines are gloomily disparaging of the past, which makes this kind of history-writing additionally uninviting. Who wants to hear that the science or the literature or the art of a particular period are just sorry tokens of the well-known political shortcomings of our ancestors? Only, I think, potential authors of new books in this vein, who need to see which relics of the past have not yet been flayed ideologically.

One of the oppressively orthodox features of Making sex is that it is mostly about women. This is justified on the grounds that in the history of anatomical and physiological beliefs it is the female body which has been ‘problematic, unstable’ and the male body which has been ‘unproblematic, stable’ – presumably reflecting political realities, though this is typically unclear (Laqueur does, it is true, have some interesting if awkward pages on how 19th-century feminists latched onto the two-sex model). It all depends what you mean by ‘problematic’, but ‘seminal weakness’ was a novel, disturbing and controversial disease-category of the 18th century (rechristened ‘spermatorrhoea’ in the 19th), and the functions of the testicles and seminal vesicles were much debated through this period. There are no modern surveys of this history.

But the major cliché where 19th-century attitudes are concerned is that of the ‘passionless woman’, who did not want and did not enjoy sex. This is a very pure example of the sneering stereotype which cannot be questioned, or at least not overtly; whether the evidence presented actually tends to support it is another matter. Professor Laqueur hastens to show that he is a true believer: ‘as a 19th-century historian,’ he tells us in his first paragraph, ‘I was accustomed to doctors debating whether women had orgasms at all.’ Not that any example of this ‘debate’ is cited in the three hundred pages which follow – for the good reason that there wasn’t one. ‘Accustomed’ is a pretty cool piece of insolence.

Then, four pages into the first chapter, we have ‘in the late 18th century, it became a possibility that “the majority of women are not much troubled with sexual feelings.” ’ I wonder how Steven Marcus feels about the reputation acquired in the last twenty-five years by the fairly minor Victorian medical figure, William Acton, whom he rescued from oblivion in The Other Victorians. Whatever he feels, he has released a genie of formidable energy. Laqueur doesn’t give a footnote for his quotation from Acton: that would be like footnoting a phrase from Hamlet or the Bible. And the scope of the great mantra about ‘the majority of women ... ’ now extends back some sixty years before it was uttered. Acton is unstoppable. The most knowledgeable historian of the Mid-Victorian medical profession, Jeanne Peterson, has called him ‘perhaps the cleverest quack of his generation’. With New Historicists like Professor Laqueur around, she was wasting her breath.

The real shame is that Laqueur, again, is not doing justice to his own capacities as a historian. He has read very enterprisingly, and with a sure sense of the significant, in the English and Continental medical literature. And he has become aware of one of the most intriguing stories in the sexual-medical realm: the growing awareness that women don’t produce eggs in the way that men do. They ovulate spontaneously and cyclically: men ejaculate when sexually aroused. This is a splendid and cardinal example of the ‘two-sex’ model, crystallising later than other aspects, but justly regarded as part of this innovation.

It obviously opens up a promising line of investigation into the status of women’s orgasm in the 19th century. One could seek in discussions of the new hypothesis of spontaneous ovulation references to the non-occurrence of orgasm in fertile women, perhaps. If Actonian views had any currency at all it is hard to think that they wouldn’t be brought forward as very strong evidence for the new theory. In fact they never were, and no doctor appealed to women’s sexual indifference as confirmation that the female seed must be produced independently of intercourse. But this is no more than an a fortiori consequence of the fact that no doctor agreed with the cleverest quack that women were mostly apathetic about sex.

But could the theory of spontaneous ovulation have led to a downgrading of the female sexual response? It was accepted by medical specialists, as far as I can determine, in the course of the 1840s. Professor Laqueur says that it remained insecure, even at this level in the profession, for a long time after. These are difficult issues, but I note that he seems to have shifted ground on the matter since his ‘Representations’ article of 1986, at the same time giving a subtly reduced emphasis to William Baly’s 1848 discussion of spontaneous ovulation – a discussion which shows the theory well entrenched by this date.

As a result, the idea of the ‘passionless woman’ is cut free from cognitive moorings in new theories of conception, for it is taken clearly to precede the recognition that ovulation in the human female is spontaneous. The main evidence Laqueur brings forward is an ambiguous anecdote from Michael Ryan’s Manual of Jurisprudence of 1836 about a comatose girl conceiving. He is misleading in not quoting Ryan from his more directly medico-sexual Philosophy of Marriage: ‘amorous impulse ... appears indispensable to the generation of a new being.’ It is much to be deplored that this tendentious use of Ryan is given an early and prominent place in the book.

This is a good example of the New Historicism disdaining mere causality when the latter could have been preserved if the facts had been unravelled with more subtlety. Professor Laqueur does just touch on the important medico-social dimension of the topic: ‘whatever the vulgar might have believed – and ... ordinary people might very well have continued to subscribe in a deep, inarticulate way to old notions still widely circulating in books and gossip – the learned world firmly rejected the connection of female pleasure and conception.’ (The period here is the 1820s, and it needs to be explained that the last part of the quotation concerns not the specialist acceptance of spontaneous ovulation – which of course no one would claim had yet occurred – but an extra limb of his argument which Professor Laqueur introduces with some hesitation and not much support, that in the early 19th century the medical experts had a technical concept of female orgasm ‘without any concomitant sensation’. This does, unconvincingly, restore to the author’s picture some element of influence from cognitive beliefs on ideology.)

It may strike the reader that there is wavering of outlines in the sentence just quoted. Is the perhaps marginal category of the ‘vulgar’ the same as that very important sounding group, the ‘ordinary’? Whoever its members are, they can read books – although their ideas are ‘inarticulate’. It seems that what is being referred to here is perhaps the whole lay world, plus even non-academic doctors, but in such a way that you might mistake them out of the corner of your eye for grunting members of a working-class oral culture. Professor Laqueur is trying to sweep under the carpet the abundant evidence that men and women of all grades in 19th-century England continued to think that female orgasm – with sensation – was a necessary condition for conception. In 1866, for instance, the American gynecologist Marion Sims (working in this country) was exasperated by the way his attempts to help sterile couples were hampered by ‘the false philosophy’ which had ‘gained almost universal credence’ that there should be ‘exhaustive satisfaction to both parties at the same moment’. This is a doctor of real eminence, writing in the BMJ.

Why didn’t practitioners put their patients right on the matter? Professor Laqueur’s belief that spontaneous ovulation was not academically accepted for much of the century will of course not help here, for he thinks that doctors had decoupled orgasm and conception much earlier (or perhaps just orgasm with ‘concomitant sensation’). I believe, on the contrary, that the specialists had come to accept spontaneous ovulation by the mid-century, but that the great mass of the medical profession (90 per cent were ‘general practitioners’ – a term already in use by the early 1820s) were not aware or did not choose to be aware of these rarefied advances in medical science. The idea that orgasm is necessary for conception can be found quite high up the hierarchy of the literature right into the 1870s – in Copland’s Dictionary of Practical Medicine, for example.

It must be remembered that there were other mechanisms, in addition to that of female ejaculation, whereby a woman’s orgasm could be thought to assist fertilisation. It might in some way open up the womb, for instance. A textbook of 1876 contained an alleged per vaginam witnesssing of an orgasm: ‘five or six successive gasps’ of the cervix. In America, in 1879, the remarkable Mabel Loomis Todd records in her diary how she made her husband delay ejaculation until well after ‘my highest point of enjoyment had passed and when I was perfectly cool and satisfied’, so that ‘no fluid could reach the fruitful point.’ Bizarrely, Professor Laqueur himself cites this anecdote, and in the very next paragraph speaks of the ‘early 20th century’ as being ‘more than a century after the abandonment of the universally held view linking orgasm to generation and women to passion’. But that’s the standard of consistency which prevails very generally in this book.