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A Vagina Monologue

The Dian Hanson column

When a woman says width is what really matters, she isn’t just soothing your penis anxieties, though we can be nice that way. There is solid biology behind her preference.

It was once gospel that there were two types of female orgasm: clitoral, deemed immature and dangerous, and vaginal, considered adult and desirable. Also coincidentally produced by a penis. The clitoral orgasm was vilified because of its association with masturbation, the sin of Onan, in feminine form. Masturbation was a huge issue for Judeo-Christian faiths across the centuries. The Torah calls it “adultery with your hand.” Eleventh century priest Thomas Aquinas ranked the greatest sexual sins, in descending order, as bestiality, homosexual acts, contraception, masturbation and incest. He considered rape far less sinful because the semen ended up where God intended, with the bonus of no pleasure attached (for the woman). In later centuries heavenly retribution was found insufficient to keep hands off genitals, so a litany of disease was attributed to self-pleasure. Fondling the clitoris was said to cause indigestion, hysteria, consumption (tuberculosis), epilepsy, foul vaginal discharge, fatal agitation of the uterus, gonorrhea, lesbianism, and, most egregious, resistance to marriage.

And yet women, and, of course, men, continued to bravely masturbate. Sterner measures were needed and were described in 1866 by Dr. Isaac Baker Brown, England’s premier gynecologist, in his book On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy, and Hysteria in Females.

“The clitoris was seized by the forceps in the usual manner,” he wrote. “The thin edge of the red-hot iron was then passed around its base until the organ was severed from its attachment, being partly cut or sawn, and partly torn away…” He went on, describing how the iron was applied to the entire vulva “till the parts were more effectively destroyed.”

An outcry ensued; he had gone too far, but only because the complete obliteration of vulvas might infringe on husbands’ conjugal rights. What if the resulting scar tissue restricted a man’s ability to satisfactorily penetrate his wife and provide her with a mature, fulfilling vaginal orgasm? The good doctor responded by outing all the other doctors in London performing the same procedure. The public was justly outraged and this routine treatment for masturbation ended, but not the notion of improper female orgasms.

In 1897 Sigmund Freud had the epiphany that masturbation was “the primary addiction” and that “The role played by this addiction in hysteria is enormous.” Hysteria was then a common diagnosis in upper class women, derived from the Greek word hystera, meaning uterus. The symptoms of depression and dramatic emotional outbursts were blamed on uterine congestion, caused by reckless clitoral stimulation. Only penetration by a husband’s penis, followed by a good old vaginal orgasm, could clear things up. Freud codified the difference between good and bad female orgasms in his 1905 Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and tried to wean women off the clitoris to the end of his career.

It wasn’t until William Masters and Virginia Johnson invented machines to measure sexual arousal in the early 1960s, then convinced people to masturbate while attached to them, that we learned all female orgasms originate within the clitoris. It was a crushing blow to some, as it suggested penises were unnecessary to female satisfaction, that a hand, or better yet, a vibrator, could do better.

And yet.

Some women always claimed to have vaginal orgasms. They felt a distinct difference between one rubbed out on the nubbin and one with a penis in place. How was it possible?

A model of the clitoris, complete with clitoral crus and vestibular bulbs.
A model of the clitoris, complete with clitoral crus and vestibular bulbs.

It’s because the nubbin is the tip of an iceberg, or rather a wishbone. The clitoris arches up and back from the visible tip and then divides into legs, called the clitoral crus, that straddle the vaginal entrance. Between the legs are vestibular bulbs corresponding to the erectile body of a penis, arising from the same embryonic structure. These bulbs engorge with blood in arousal, and when something enters the vagina, they compress the clitoral legs to create a voluptuous sensation. The penis may not touch the hypersensitive clitoral glans during intercourse, but it directly impacts the clitoral crus, and the wider it is, the more it stimulates these legs and their erectile leg warmers.

For some 25% of women this stimulation is enough to produce orgasm, for others it’s an adjunct to glans stimulation, but for all it’s a definite, quantifiable plus, and generally superior to being stabbed in the kidneys by a long thin penis.

So, we’re not lying, guys. Stop trying to hit the back wall and spend more time in the doorway.

Do you have comments or questions? Email Dian at askdian@taschen.com