Sex without pleasure
May 22, 2009 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Does there exist a culture where sex doesn't result in orgasm?

Just finished reading Do They Hear You When You Cry? I started trying to write a story about a futuristic society, and I am coming up short with my limited knowledge. I am wondering if there exists a culture where men ejaculate, but neither the man nor woman experience pleasure when having sex? Links, books, movies (or any other pop culture media), etc? I am familiar with some countries and cultures that practice female circumcision, but are there cultures/countries where men and women BOTH do not derive pleasure from sex? Or even where a man does not derive pleasure from sex?

Follow up (in the event that no such culture exists) - I would assume that this type of culture would have a huge effect on power relations and sexuality and relationships. With my limited knowledge, I feel ill-equipped to say exactly what the effect may or may not be based on actual evidence. Would this be negative or positive [to use generic terms]?

Full disclosure: I'm not a professional writer. I would just like to make sure my story has realistic undertones. Fauziya Kassindja's story moved me, and I am afraid my preconceived notions and lack of concentrated study in this area will lead me to make broad, sweeping wrong generalizations.
posted by alice ayres to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Orgasm is physiological, not based in culture.
posted by sanko at 10:23 AM on May 22, 2009 [7 favorites]

The English?

But seriously, you are a writer and your imagination seems to be running fine with this idea. The realistic undertones you speak are more often than not the result of a confident writer. If you tell the story like there really is a small Brazilian nomad tribe that supresses their orgastic capabilities by eating the root of a rare and poisoneus plant, who are we to argue?
posted by Orchestra at 10:30 AM on May 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

As sanko says, it's a body thing, not a mind thing. I suppose one's brain chemistry could be tinkered with so that sex could be robbed of pleasure. And the body could be surgically altered or perhaps (for the "benefit" of future generations) genetically manipulated. I think Orwell talked a bit about this in 1984, but I haven't read it in ages. Happy Wikipedia-ing!
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 10:33 AM on May 22, 2009

You might want to try to watch the movie Cafe Flesh which centers around a post-apocalyptic society where most people get sick if they have sex and the people who don't are forced to perform for everyone else. It's disturbing but would probably be good to see if you're considering this story.
posted by jessamyn at 10:33 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm no expert, but I'm not sure it is possible for a man to ejaculate without having an orgasm. They are pretty intrinsically linked. There are nocturnal emissions, but they're called wet dreams for a reason, i.e. there is some level of pleasure involved. That said, I could well imagine a futuristic society managing to remove the pleasure from sex. It would be a "simple" matter of suppressing various signals in the brain. The physical function would be unchanged.

Presumably a society would opt for removing pleasure from sex to make reproduction more of a business arrangement. After all, if sex is a pleasure-neutral act, like a swift hand shake, that would remove a lot of interest in it. The only reason for it remaining would be for reproduction. From the perspective of writing about this culture, it could be one that is heavily religious or otherwise feels that pleasure is sinful or wrong.

Another thing to think about would be how this would affect relationships among parents. Would they still stay in a "traditional" marriage? Would the stress of raising the child without the bonding moments of sexual intercourse break the relationship? Come to think of it, would your future society still have attraction? That could be the source of a lot of dramatic tension, especially if your main characters are somehow caught up in a movement to experience sexual pleasure.

Certainly a lot of interesting questions to think about!
posted by dellsolace at 10:34 AM on May 22, 2009

I'm going to go with "no" to your question since ejaculation without orgasm is a medical condition that indicates things like damage to the central nervous system.
posted by Justinian at 10:34 AM on May 22, 2009

Based on this, I doubt it.
posted by exit at 10:35 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

In real life, I would doubt it as well. IIRC, sex was reduced to a necessary-but-repugnant act in 1984.
posted by jquinby at 10:38 AM on May 22, 2009

You should also check out Welcome to the Monkey House. The story itself, not the whole collection.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2009

Given what I know about the mechanics of reproduction, I suspect such a culture would find itself not lasting beyond a single generation.
posted by Kellydamnit at 10:44 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm going to go with "no" to your question since ejaculation without orgasm is a medical condition that indicates things like damage to the central nervous system.

I don't think that's entirely true. Certainly it is well-known that some men can inherently or through practice separate the act of ejaculation from the feeling of orgasm. In my somewhat limited experience with men, every single one has reported a few cases where such a thing occurred (sometimes referred to as "premature ejaculation", although that name can cover several different experiences).

The wikipedia article on sexual anhedonia lists several causes for anhedonia, one of those being damage to the spinal column.
posted by muddgirl at 10:53 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out the ideas of the Oneida commune. Specifically the sections on Male Continence and Complex Marriage.
posted by clockwork at 10:55 AM on May 22, 2009

It's possible to induce ejaculation in males without a traditional orgasm via electrical stimulation. It's not uncommon in animal husbandry. And there are communities of people into heavy S&M play where this is part of the practice, with varieties of tuning of pleasure, orgasm, and ejaculation. I don't have any links for you but no doubt hours of amusing Google searching awaits. "Electrostim" is one keyword to look for.
posted by Nelson at 11:10 AM on May 22, 2009

I don't know if such a culture exists but certainly pleasure of any sort is culturally determined, at least to some extent. What we find pleasurable is different than a simple matter of what feels good or what brings us relief or release. I can imagine that a culture that deeply thinks of sex for procreation only experiences little "pleasure" in the orgasm, though certainly they experience a physical sensation of release. The naming of it as "pleasure" is culturally determined.
posted by Pineapplicious at 11:14 AM on May 22, 2009

There's some Tantra traditions that attempt to separate orgasm from ejaculation as a means of spiritual liberation. Most stuff you find on the web will be more about orgasm without ejaculation, but I've heard something of ancient practitioners who sought the reverse. I can't think of find details about them at the moment though.
posted by and hosted from Uranus at 11:17 AM on May 22, 2009

I have an impression that the pleasure of orgasm is evolution's way of ensuring that the species reproduces.
posted by jasper411 at 11:18 AM on May 22, 2009

I don't know how relevant this is, but this is what Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) believed to be how things worked in the Garden of Eden. Obviously it's not a real culture, but it's the imagined "perfect world" of another culture... Augustine thought before "the fall" humans were biologically capable of reproducing rationally, and there would be no overwhelming sensory pleasure, and thus no shame involved with it - he imagined that if this were the case, we could reproduce in public, because it would be a sacred act, not a "dirty" one, and the man inserting semen into the woman would not be associated with anything but the forthcoming baby (just like adam & eve were supposedly not ashamed of their nudity).

Basically it's a mind/body sort of split where either the body or the mind is going to rule, and the conclusion is you don't want to think with the lower body. But as others have said, it's tough to reproduce if you get castrated, so the options tended to be, become celibate, or get married, rather than give up pleasure or keep it. But I imagine plenty of christians would have liked to have the option to give up the orgasm & still reproduce if they could have. There's also a speech in Plato's Republic about how that's the best part of getting old, no longer being motivated by your sex drive, now you can think more clearly...

It's kind of the total opposite view of "welcome to the monkey house". In any case, interesting way to see how medieval / classic western/ christian culture has got associated with anti-sex attitudes (even though in modern times xtians try to be pro-sex-in-marriage etc). It all starts with a love of the mind, but the dualistic tendency makes the body the enemy of the mind, irrational, illogical...
posted by mdn at 11:24 AM on May 22, 2009

The wikipedia article on sexual anhedonia lists several causes for anhedonia, one of those being damage to the spinal column.

Very true, but it doesn't change the point: The other causes are also medical in nature.
posted by Justinian at 12:02 PM on May 22, 2009

Given the rabidly anti-sex attitudes that have been promoted among certain groups, it is very easy for me to imagine being brought up to not interpret an orgasm as pleasurable. The anticipatory moment before could map to fear/panic, the shudder of orgasm itself could map to revulsion, the relieved elation afterward could map to sadness.
posted by desuetude at 12:11 PM on May 22, 2009

General Jack D. Ripper: Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh... I do not avoid women, Mandrake.
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No.
General Jack D. Ripper: But I... I do deny them my essence.*
posted by mosk at 12:34 PM on May 22, 2009

This could possibly work for your story if you wrote in some reason that orgasm doesn't occur AND some compelling motivation to have sex despite this. In other words, if brushing my teeth felt REALLY, REALLY good, I might be inclined to do it more than twice a day. As is, I do it because I don't want my teeth to rot. And its become an important and meaningful routine in our culture, albeit perfunctory.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:11 PM on May 22, 2009

The other causes are also medical in nature.

But not necessarily debilitating. For example: "low testosterone" could be a heritable trait for a future human culture that would not prevent viable offspring and would satisfy the constraints of the OP.
posted by muddgirl at 1:12 PM on May 22, 2009

This is just a data point for you, but male orgasm and ejaculation are distinctly different physiological processes. It is completely possible to ejaculate without feeling anything more than the same "substance passing through the urethra" sensation that urination provides. Most men of course don't make it their aim to do so and most, sans those who stumble upon the phenomenon by accident or in medical literature, aren't even aware that the two are separate.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 1:50 PM on May 22, 2009

"I'm not sure it is possible for a man to ejaculate without having an orgasm"

It certainly is if you get the timing right. And vice versa. They're almost always associated, but you could definitely practice.

Gotta point out that absence of orgasm is not the same as "deriving no pleasure from sex", as anyone who's had a good time without actually getting off can attest.

You might find inspiration in reading about so-called Karezza, which is not quite what you're after, but heading in the same direction.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:31 PM on May 22, 2009

Two specific examples of what i_am_joe's_spleen means about timing (NSFW, kinky, etc.): 'ruined' orgasm and prostate milking.
posted by CKmtl at 3:28 PM on May 22, 2009

Just as another data point, it is actually possible for women who have had various forms of female genital cutting to experience orgasm (there is at least one researcher who had a clitordectomy herself, and who had experienced orgasm before the surgery, who said that she continues to have orgasms. Other women have reported orgasm to researchers, even with the most severe surgery, infibulation.)

As an anthropologist, I have not heard of a culture in which sexual pleasure was unknown to men and women. However, there are many very fascinating ways in which sex and sexual pleasure are regulated. If I were going to attempt such a story, I would probably work on creating a culture in which sex was strictly regulated and considered appropriate for reproductive purposes only (there have been such cultures, as I'm sure you know). But you could knock it up a few notches from the classic Euro-Christian repressions. You could play around with age (maybe men are only allowed to marry--where "marry" is the word I'm using for entering into a sanctioned procreative relationship--when they are quite old); with process (procreative acts must be anonymous and through a barrier that limits touching to genital penetration); with technology (reproduction is mechanical and all sex is prohibited).

I think that a culture can limit the pleasure one derives from sex by inculcating feelings of shame or guilt around it; there might be some success in relegating sex to a perfunctory biological act that might feel good (like sneezing does) but isn't fantastic the way we think of orgasm as being. But I also think you're going to find either deviants or culturally sanctioned outlets for sexual desire/pleasure in such cultures. Basically, there might not be that much pleasure in sex as it is proscribed, but there are going to be people exploring other options, sanctioned or not.

As for how it affects relationships, sexuality, and power, these are good and interesting questions worth exploring. But if you are using genital cutting in Africa as your inspiration/jumping off place, you should do more research. A lot of genital cutting is not about limiting sexual pleasure. What it is about and what effects it has really depend on the culture and the specific practices. In a lot of West Africa and in America*, it's often about creating an unambiguous gender for boys and girls. From my research (based on literature rather than fieldwork), I think that the social messages that the cutting carries are huge factors in how it affects the power and relationships of the individuals affected.

If you do want to make some comment on genital cutting through your story, I can point you to some things to read before you get started so that you don't end up making big sweeping generalizations.

*I refer here to sex assignments done on intersex children.
posted by carmen at 11:51 AM on May 25, 2009

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