Marilyn Monroe: A Sex Goddess Searches For Her Elusive Orgasm

You said there was an obstacle in my mind that prevented me from having an orgasm; that it was something that happened early in my life about which I felt so guilty that I did not deserve to have the greatest pleasure there is;…That it was buried in my unconscious. Through analysis we would bring it to my conscious mind where we could get to the guilt and free me to be orgasmic. Well, we sure worked it and got nowhere. I’d go home and cry and vomit from the frustration.”
– Marilyn Monroe

The above paragraph is part of a transcript made from tapes Marilyn Monroe allegedly recorded for her psychoanalyst, Dr. Ralph Greenson, not long before her death. LA prosecutor Joseph Minor was probing into Marilyn’s death, and he compiled the transcript from tapes Greenson handed over as part of the investigation.

No one knows for a fact that they are legit, but Minor was a credible, though solitary witness. I kind of think that the tapes are authentic. There’s too much in them that feels like a real woman speaking.

In these tapes she talks about many things – her feelings about herself, her body, Lawrence Olivier (he was an arrogant prick) –  and the fact that she couldn’t orgasm until shortly before her death.

Yep, the twentieth century’s greatest sex symbol was anorgasmic

That’s the current, politically correct term; her analyst would have called her frigid back in 1962. And as the quote makes plain, it weighed heavily on her. Though she never won an Oscar, apparently, her bedroom performances were worthy of one – a fact that she wryly acknowledges to her shrink.

“Speaking of Oscars,” she says, “I would win overwhelmingly if the Academy gave an Oscar for faking orgasms. I have done some of my best acting convincing my partners I was in the throes of ecstasy.”

She was a goddess. A woman’s whose bountiful, Rubenesque curves got the entire world off, but she never came. Everybody got off, but poor Marilyn – her lovers, her husbands, the guy who watered her lawn, even Joan Crawford. According to the tapes, Marilyn had a onetime sapphic encounter with the legendary “Mommy Dearest” during which Crawford had a thunderous orgasm (she was a “shrieker”), and during which there were most assuredly no wire hangers in sight.

Greenson was a psychoanalyst, and so Marilyn’s initial therapy consisted of free-association (saying whatever comes to mind). The process is supposed to work like a therapeutic version of Drano – blasting away psychological blocks so the analysand can “turn hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (Freud’s exact words).

Sound’s fun.

I can’t help but have this mental image of Marilyn propped up on her analyst’s couch, blond curls spread on the pillow, and in a feathery, little girl voice free-associating like a bat shit fiend (…let’s see, orgasm makes me think of organ… and organ makes me think of prick…um… and that makes me think of my ex-husband who was one…you know..). But I digress…

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Not matter how much emotional sludge she pulled out of the convoluted drainpipe of her unconscious (an unconscious that housed such traumas as parental abandonment and childhood sexual abuse), it wasn’t enough to torpedo through her anorgasmia.

But lucky for her, Greenson hit on a novel idea (novel for a psychoanalyst anyway, not novel for any woman with a right hand). Dispensing with the Drano, he told her to masturbate. And just in case she got lost, he gave her a road map. That is, explicit instructions as to how to actually accomplish this task.  It’s no exaggeration to say that this advice was a revelation for Marilyn. Finally, a breakthrough:

“By now I’ve had lots of orgasms. Not only one, but 2 and 3 with a man who takes his time.

It is so good … Doctor, I worship you.”

I never cried so hard as I did after my first orgasm. It was because of the years I had …never had an orgasm.

Think of a light fixture with a rheostat control. As you slowly turn it on, the bulb begins to get bright, then brighter and brighter and finally in a blinding flash is fully lit. As you turn it off it gradually becomes dimmer and at last goes out.

What wasted years. How can I describe to you, a man, what an orgasm feels like to a woman. I’ll try.

I think Marilyn makes an amazing case study on this issue. Our culture consistently equates desirability in women with the ability to desire. Indeed, women often confuse the two themselves and assume if they were thinner, had better breasts, they would have better sex. But the fact is being sexy looking, according to social norms, has nothing to do with feeling sexual.

I find it an ironic metaphor that the 20th century’s greatest sex symbol was a woman who was both infertile and anorgasmic. How appropriate. Over the last century, sex has become increasingly disassociated with reproduction but not necessarily more associated with female pleasure.

According to the National Health and Social Life Survey, around 24% of women have problems experiencing orgasm (other studies have put the figure lower). The DSM-IV (the diagnostic guide of the mental health field) refers to this issue as female orgasmic disorder.

Generally, there are two flavors for your displeasure: generalized (no orgasm  under any circumstances) and situational (orgasm occurs under certain conditions but not others e.g., masturbation but not partner sex, with Joe but not with Bob, or the planets have aligned, the moon is blue, and Johnny Depp is your midnight pal ). Marilyn had the generalized variety.

The New View Campaign has an interesting way to conceptualize women’s sexual issues. Rather than focusing on limited diagnostic classifications, they look at the situation more holistically, including both medical and socio-cultural factors. So, using Marilyn as a case study, here’s how it works:

1. Sexual Problems due to Sociocultural, Political, or Economic Factors:

Being a follower of Freud’s (the original father of the vaginal orgasm) probably didn’t help Marilyn’s sex life much. Traditional psychoanalysis regards the clit as a child’s play toy to be put aside when a girl sprouts boobs. At that point, it’s time to come like a “real” woman- vaginally. The fact that Marilyn didn’t learn to masturbate until she was 36 tells me that she was probably too indoctrinated by a theory (and a clitaphobic culture that denied her sexual reality) to take charge of her sexuality. Most likely, she was too afraid of getting fixated on her clitoris.

Plus, Hollywood  regarded her as a joke. She was seldom given the parts that she desired as an actress, and instead was stuck playing humiliating roles that made her look like a fool. Her sexuality was her meal ticket. And Marilyn, like many women, may have looked at it as a way to get things: love, attention, work, money, fame. In other words, it was a commodity to be traded – not something for herself to be enjoyed.

2. Sexual Problems Relating to Partner and Relationship:


I don’t know much about Marilyn’s relationships, but with three divorces, it’s safe to say that they may not have been very satisfying. She picked extraordinarily successful men who were from very different worlds than her own, which isn’t usually a recipe for a harmonious marriage. People tend to do better with partners  like themselves.

3. Sexual Problems due to Psychological Factors:


Marilyn had a history of sexual abuse, a mentally ill mother, an absentee father, problems with infertility, and three husbands – that’s a lot to deal with. She grew up in foster homes and as an adult had problems with depression and substance abuse. Her death was officially ruled a suicide, but Minor didn’t believe she killed herself. But that’s a whole other kettle of worms.

The fact is feeling like “a candle in the wind”, without a strong center, doesn’t make it very easy to be sexually authentic. To fully own your sexuality takes tremendous inner strength. And sex is the female Achilles’ heel – a weak point that’s pushed to the side when issues like relationship stability, or economic security are more important.

I am glad to know that Marilyn didn’t die without ever knowing how to orgasm. I sometimes wonder what her life would have been like if she had lived. Would she have won an Oscar, married again, adopted? At least, she would have had some ownership over her sexuality, and maybe that would have empowered her.

Who knows, maybe she would have run for president.

***

Previously Published in Lilithland.net

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