The Stigma Against Satisfaction: Looking at Women’s Sexual Health Through the Ages

By: Miriam Renz  |  May 9, 2017


There is a variety of topics that the discussion of which is considered to be taboo in Modern Orthodox Judaism. From questions regarding belief in God to eating at non-kosher restaurants but keeping a kosher kitchen at home, there is no shortage of hushed conversations and hidden actions. One topic that is avoided or, at best, frowned upon is masturbation. Of course, the halakhic (or rather, non-halakhic) component of male masturbation is more openly discussed merely because it is of legal importance for young Jewish men to know when they’re sinning. However, female masturbation—and one might go as far as to say a woman’s general knowledge of her body—has been deemed irrelevant to the individual and immodest within the public conversation. This standard, though strongly-held and fiercely instilled in young women and girls, is not reflective of the outside world’s movement towards a more body-conscious and accepting discussion about female masturbation.

In Rachel P. Maines’s book, “The Technology of Orgasm,” Maines reviews the history of female sexuality as it has been viewed, (mis-)diagnosed and treated through centuries of one-sided views of sexual drive. She begins by detailing a 17th Century physician’s guide to other doctors who encounter “hysterical” women. This physician, Pieter van Foreest, advised—through extraordinarily graphic language—that doctors help bring their female patients to orgasm. This practice continued to be implemented by doctors through the 1920s, and hysteria remained an official illness until 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association removed this condition from its list of disorders and illnesses.

While this treatment succeeded in calming women who told their doctors of feeling uneasy or restless, the absence of vibrators prolonged each appointment, creating a demand for a faster and easier method of achieving a female orgasm.  However, because the cultural definition of healthy sexuality has long been—and very much remains—the idea of penis-vagina penetration that results in a male orgasm, the development of a vibrator was ignored until it was suggested to make male doctors’ medical practices more lucrative.  In addition, Maines notes that this version of sexuality was perpetuated in marriage, as men expected pleasure and women were expected to provide it. Maines writes, “Doctors inherited the task of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted.”

On the positive side of this bizarre progression of medical treatments, this “therapy” was a painless, continuous and safe alternative to the optional cliteridectomy (surgical removal of the cliteris)—a treatment we would now call female genital mutilation. In a saving grace quest for survival, female sexuality “asserted itself through one of the few acceptable outlets” of cultural normativity; that is, as a disorder. However, since these statements were made and female sexuality has developed, there remains a stigma—or at least a confusion—regarding female arousal.

Insight into this topic is rapidly developing through research and surveying of various populations, while also taking into account the neglect this field has received until essentially modern times. Throughout the centuries of developing scientific studies, the question of female arousal remains. Arousal of female genitalia “lack[s a] correlation with fertility and conception,” causing the acts of female masturbation and orgasm to appear counterintuitive to any practical purpose (assuming the singular practical purpose is procreation).

Placing questions of and interest in female masturbation on the periphery didn’t end when vibrators were invented. The purpose of the first vibrators was to expedite the process of arousal and eventual orgasm when doctors ‘administered’ massage-therapy on their female patients. The first vibrators, created by the Weiss Company in England in the 1880s, began the trend of electric and battery-powered massagers. However, the creator, Joseph Mortimer Granville, was adamant that these vibrators be used for male sexual stimulation—advice that most physicians and vibrator manufacturers ignored, thereby catapulting women’s sexual health into a quickly developing field.

Pre-electricity, water-pressure appliances were used as far back as Ancient Greece and in other cultures that used natural springs for luxuriating. Closer to modernity, however, the douche was developed—a cold-water stimulant that became quite popular in upscale circles. French doctor Henri Scoutetten wrote that as a woman was “reestablishing her equilibrium” after an orgasm produced using a douche, she “dries herself off, refastens her corset, and returns with a brisk step to her room”—quickly reverting to her constrained roles. Between the reference to a corset and the expenses involved in admission to a hydrotherapy spa, it is assumed by scholars that the female orgasm was often commodified to be accessible only to wealthy clientele.

By the early 1900s, vibrators were developing in a variety of models, for a variety of women. Battery-powered, steam-powered, electric and otherwise, vibrators were made as large-engine machines, designed to roll across household floors, and some even “could be suspended from the ceiling of… clinic[s] like impact wrenches in… modern garage[s].” The prices also began to vary depending on the model, so that female sexual pleasure was a realistically achievable goal, regardless of one’s class standing.

As a an American doctor warned fellow physicians to monitor a woman’s arousal when applying vibration-therapy, he explained that this was necessary to “prevent overindulgence” that the woman would surely request. This hesitant attitude continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, really until the women’s liberation movement gained momentum in the 1960s. In prior decades, vibrators were advertised as home appliances similar to the standing mixer and the toaster-oven, amongst other neutral, but “womanly” essentials, a faux-acceptance of female sexuality.


Jumping ahead to the 21st Century, female sexuality and the goal of reaching orgasm is far less taboo and far more accepted as part of sex, but still far from where it needs to be.  On April 30th, an all-day panel and open-house-style event called Cycles & Sex was held in New York City as a completely immersive education for women of all ages to learn about their bodies.  Aside from information about menstruation and basic reproductive health, there were sessions on finding the G-spot, choosing the right vibrator and celebrating one’s overall “sexual health, overall well being and autonomy.” It seems to be promising that an event like this took place, however, the women who organized this did so in reaction to a lack of education and a lack of pride that women feel about their bodies.  

Returning to the current state of masturbation openness in Modern Orthodoxy, people like Bat Sheva Marcus—Clinical Director of Maze Women’s Sexual Health—have made waves in this otherwise dormant discussion. Though she does important work and offers a variety of solutions to painful sex or other related issues, many women who speak with her then tell Marcus that they must “take the list home to [their] husband[s], and [they] would take it to their rabbi[s], who would rule, one by one, on whether these interventions were allowed.” This is a step in the direction of making female sexual pleasure a priority in a relationship, however, it does not entirely confront the issue of women feeling proud of their bodies and committed to satisfying their sex drives.

While Orthodoxy may be lagging in this arena, there are a variety of secular resources that encourage women to know themselves, and for their partners to know them too. The Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health is an organization founded and run by and for women to improve their sex lives, by educating women about their bodies and what a sexual experience can and should be. Their tagline, “e provide the sex ed that you deserve,” implies that many women have previously been swindled out of receiving the sex education that they need and are entitled to.  From a different angle, a non-profit organization called Sexy Liberation has taken on the burden to provide sex toys (these include more than traditional vibrators) for people who could otherwise not afford them.

An article in the Huffington Post recently drew attention to the improved access to sex toys, later discussing the impact this can have on women’s pride when discussing or even thinking about—and exploring—their bodies. It said, “Now that you can buy vibrators at stores like CVS and Target, it’s probably safe to say that sex toys are becoming more mainstream than ever.”  Though these advances and changes to the industry may be slow-going and not yet within the realm of Modern Orthodoxy, the field of women’s health and especially women’s sexual health has taken ownership of the study and attention it deserves, which many “hysterical” women of the past would surely appreciate.