Since the time of the Ancient Greeks up until the modern ages of the 19th century, sexual desire in females has been commonly associated with symptoms of female hysteria. It might come as a shock, but back then, sexual desires and sexually-forward behaviors in females were considered a chronic female disease resulting from a disturbance in the uterus. Historian Rachel Maines, the author of The Technology of Orgasm, posits that the vibrator was developed in the 1880s to automate the relief of sexual tension in female hysteria patients, often culminating in orgasm as part of the treatment. Medical practices have no doubt evolved since, and with the 1953 publication of Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female authored by sexologist and biologist Alfred C. Kinsey, the modern movement towards females as sexual beings began its slow progress.
“We need to educate women and give them permission to experience what they find pleasurable, and to let them know they don’t have to fit into a single model of desire and sexual pleasure.” — Beverly Whipple, Professor at Rutgers University.
Birth Control and The Sixties
Oral contraceptives in the form of birth control pills were first introduced during the sexual revolution in the 1960s — a movement toward female sexual empowerment that, despite being run by females, still adopted a warped view of female pleasure that was largely male-dominated, which is the idea that females should be able to find pleasure in traditional intercourse alone and not through independent means such as masturbation.
“The 60s were a time when women were still very much second-class citizens, and the way sexual pleasure was conceptualized was the way men, rather than women, thought about pleasure.” — Sexologist Zhana Vrangalova, PhD
Nevertheless, the introduction of birth control pills marked the beginning of normalizing a female’s right to sexual pleasure. Oral contraceptives had become a “symbol of a new, freewheeling sexuality” — in providing females with the autonomy to engage in sexual relationships without the fear of pregnancies, it allowed females to have non-procreative sex (just as their male counterparts could).
The Modern Age
The movement’s progress through the modern age saw the unprecedented access to vast amounts of information on sexual pleasure and liberal sexual values. From the development of video cassettes in the 1980s and digital video discs (DVDs) in the 1990s that made adult films easily accessible and available to not just the male audience, but female audiences as well, to the rise of the internet, the cultural and technological advancements of the modern age contributed to the normalization of female pleasure.
Despite the strides made in the movement towards female sexual empowerment, there still remains a pleasure gap, which results from a combination of the conventional belief that pleasure can only be attained through traditional penetrative intercourse, and the stigma surrounding open dialogue on the topic of female sexuality.
Starting the conversation and raising awareness on female sexual pleasure still remains an issue in today’s climate, as the pleasure gap continues to be seen throughout society. Various female sexual pleasure companies have had their advertisements repeatedly removed from social media and labelled as inappropriate. In 2019, sex toy startup Dame sued the New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for having their advertisement of female sex toys rejected as they believe the agency was exercising a double standard in rejecting its ads while permitting the display of other sexually-based ads catered to men.
The long and arduous journey towards normalizing female sexual pleasure continues, but not without the army of organisations, brands and activists that stand behind it.
Bailey, B. (1997). Prescribing the Pill: Politics, Culture, and the Sexual Revolution in America’s Heartland. Journal of Social History, 30(4), 827-856. Retrieved November 20, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3789785
Hills, R., 2014. What Every Generation Gets Wrong About Sex. TIME, [online] Available at: <https://time.com/3611781/sexual-revolution-revisited/> [Accessed 20 November 2020].
Maines, Rachel P. (1999). The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria”, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 23. ISBN 0-8018-6646-4.
Tasca, C., Rapetti, M., Carta, M. and Fadda, B., 2012. Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 2, pp.110-119.