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Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the 16th Century to the Present

Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the 16th Century to the Present

Robert Muchembled, David Fernbach (Translated by)

ISBN: 978-0-745-63875-1

Dec 2008, Polity

224 pages

In Stock



Can the orgasm be explained in historical terms? An almost incommunicable individual emotion yet also a cultural reality, the orgasm is part of, but also escapes, collective experience. The history of the orgasm is that of the hidden body, of forbidden desires, of flesh constrained by taboos and morality. Buried deep in archives and libraries, the documents that shed light on this physical, sometimes libertine, life are nevertheless surprisingly plentiful and have a surprisingly evocative charge. Robert Muchembled's book unearths fascinating sources which suggest that we need to look with a fresh eye at the past and realize that the sublimation of the erotic impulse was far more than simple religious asceticism: it was the hidden driving force of the West until the 1960s.

In the sphere of sexual pleasure, England and France have followed parallel paths. The United States remains deeply influenced by this common repressive model, which hedonist Europe has recently abandoned in favour of a malleable sexuality of which woman are the chief beneficiaries. Liberated by the pill from the dangers and anxieties associated with the obligations of reproduction, they can now claim equality with men and uninhibitedly claim pleasure and the orgasm for themselves.




Part 1 Orgasm and the West.

Chapter 1 Carnal Knowledge.

The birth of the individual.

The Renaissance or capitalism?.

The individual and transgression.

The envelopes of the self.

Beyond the Subject.

Is everything sex?.

Foucault’s paradigms.

The three stages of sexuality.

The family and the flesh.

Frustrated young men.

Sodomites: a ‘third sex’.

A new sexual system.

The conquest of female pleasure.

The erotic revolution of the sixties.

‘Cherchez la femme!’.

The fountain of pleasures.

Part 2 Imprints. Pleasure in Pain (Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries).

Chapter 2 Masculine, feminine: the person and their body.

Representing and talking about oneself.

The individual enmeshed.

The fragility of the Self.

The role of women.

Weak women.

Female roles.

Women rebels.

The fluidity of bodies.

Chapter 3 Carnal Pleasures, Mortal Sins.

Forbidden passions.

The joys of sex.

Peasant eroticism in Somerset.

Bawdy culture in France.

L’École des filles, a libertine gem.

Pleasure and sin.

Homosexuality in transition.


The burning of a pornographer.

Pleasure and the disruption of the established order.

Part 3 Cycles. Vice and Virtue (1700-1960).

Chapter 4 The Eroticism of the Enlightenment.

The pornographic flood.

A literature of transgression.

The market in desire.

These books that dimmed the lights of the Enlightenment.

Measuring sex.

Pleasure - in moderation.

Orgasm and marriage.

The masculine double standard.

No pleasure outside the vagina.

The crusade against onanism.

The art of the ‘I’.

Whores, drunks and vicious apprentices.

Demonized biographies.

The pleasures of the imagination.

Chapter 5 Beneath the Victorian Veil (1800-1960).

Controlling sex.

Social roles.

The new medical religion.

Nudity and body hair.

Sexuality, a shameful, even fatal, sickness.

The age of anxiety.

Semen wasted, death assured: the great fear of masturbation.

Venal pleasures and fallen women.

Through the looking glass.

Walter the Victorian.

The ‘hell’ of sex: pornography prospers.

Making the ‘transgressions’ ordinary.

Proletarian pleasures.

The ebbs and flows of the desire for pleasure.

Part 4 Revolutions? The heritage of the Sixties.

Chapter 6 The era of pleasure (from 1960 to our own day).

A sexual bombshell: the Kinsey Report.

The origins of the ‘culture wars’.

Homosexuality and masturbation.

A hidden erotic culture.

The survival of a sexual double standard.

The discovery of the female orgasm.

Female pleasure.

The contraceptive revolutions.

Good vibrations.

Towards a new sexual contract?.

Changes to the code of love.

The right to sexual pleasure.

Gay marriage.

Erotic equality and simultaneous orgasm.

The sexual revolution today.

Conclusion The narcissistic society.

The values of the hedonists.

Narcissism and culture

"A bold book by a great historian."
American Historical Review

"A book that is readable AND sexy, the history of Orgasm and the West is the sort of cultural history that enables one to connect our bodies to our past – and our future. A brilliant and exciting addition to the newest thinking about the history of the body!"
Sander Gilman, author of Sexuality: An Illustrated History

"Sexual repression has never had such a good press ... Muchembled's encyclopaedic knowledge of European culture from the Renaissance onwards invites intricate dissection."
History Today

A major cultural history of the orgasm and sexual pleasure in the West, from the 16th Century to the present day.

Muchembled shows how our contemporary ways of thinking about sexual pleasure are shaped by our histories.

He argues that a powerful repression of carnal appetites was established at the heart of Western civilization around the middle of the 16th C and it only lost ground in the 1960s.

The author is well known in the English-speaking world as one of the leading cultural historians of his generation.