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The Big O”: Ancient Discourses on the Process of Female Pleasure

Erin McKenna Hanses

Fordham University

Studies analyzing ancient conceptions of the female orgasm are misguided in that the Greeks and Romans appear not to have been focused on the woman’s experience of the completion of the sexual act, but rather on the process that leads to it. In other words, there was no female orgasm in antiquity. I argue that the ancient medical discussion of a woman’s pleasure in sexual intercourse focuses on her desire before sex and her pleasure during sex—not on the culmination of pleasure in the orgasm. The frequent conflation of our contemporary understanding of the female orgasm with what ancient medical texts refer to as a kind of female “ejaculation” (e.g. the Hippocratic Generation 4: μεθίει δὲ καὶ ἡ γυνὴ ἀπὸ τοῦ σώματος) only impedes understanding and plays into the androcentric biases still present in sexology studies today (for an analysis of these biases, see Lloyd 2005; for the persistence of male-centered terminology, see Puppo and Puppo 2015).

The canonical medical authors and texts that discuss female pleasure in sex—the Hippocratic corpus, Soranus, and Galen—are often misinterpreted as talking about the female orgasm or female ejaculation (see King 2011 on Flemming 2000). In fact, their interest is ultimately in a woman’s desire for sex and her pleasure during sex (ὄρεξις, ἐπιθυμία, ἡδονή)—not in climax. Interestingly, an author not typically considered a medical writer, Lucretius, brings this phenomenon into sharper relief. His De Rerum Natura asserts that women, too, seek shared pleasures in sexual intercourse with men (nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore /…communia quaerens / gaudia, DRN 4.1192-6) and it uses the word gaudia to describe this same pleasure process—a usage unique in the Latin discourse up to and including Lucretius’ time. In looking from Lucretius back to the Greek medical texts, we see that the emphasis is the same: that the ancient discourse on pleasure was process-based rather than goal-based. Lucretius’ text (and contemporary intertexts), then, provides an important link to discourses of female pleasure in the Roman world, and fleshes out a topic on which the more canonical Celsus is silent.

         What the correlation between these Greek and Roman discourses demonstrates is that modern scholars of the History of Medicine—often working off of translations of ancient texts that use the modern vocabulary of “orgasm” and “ejaculation”—misunderstand what these ancient authors are actually writing about (a problem keenly revealed by King 2011 in response to Maines 1999). The potential benefit, then, of Classicists including non-canonical authors like Lucretius in discussions of medical reception is the potential to further clarify important medical discourses and remove modern notions—like that of the female orgasm—from an ancient discourse in which they had no part.

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Afterlives of Ancient Medicine

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