Come Again? Orgasm privilege, casual sex, and female pleasure
Lauren Ingram, Medium.com, Oct 11 2016
Illustration by Charles Dana Gibson, 1901
Say the words orgasm and privilege in a sentence, and what comes into most people’s minds is the privilege men have during sexual encounters; the ability to ‘spill their seed’ on most occasions, and the focus our culture has on male pleasure over female pleasure. But here’s the thing; I have orgasm privilege. (Hashtag humblebrag). In a world where many women find orgasms elusive, they’re a common occurrence for me, solo or partnered, even if my bedfellow isn’t trying very hard. I can only name a handful of times a sexual encounter in my adult life didn’t result in orgasm, mostly because I was very drunk when they occurred. Consensual sexual encounters, and the associated orgasms I experienced, were always extremely pleasurable experiences, ones I have craved and enjoyed in various forms since I was a teenager. I am a rarity. Sometimes I feel a tad like a real-life Samantha Jones (although without the witty comebacks, fabulous PR job, and colourful wardrobe).
Samantha: I lost my orgasm.
Carrie: In the cab?
Charlotte: What do you mean, lost?
Samantha: I mean, I spent the last two hours fucking with no finale.
Carrie: It happens. Sometimes you just can’t get there.
Samantha: I can always get there.
Charlotte: Every time you have sex?
Carrie: She’s exaggerating! Please say you’re exaggerating.
Samantha: Well, I’ll admit I have had to polish myself off once or twice, but yes! When I RSVP to a party I make it my business to come!
The fact is that whilst the majority of men, around 90% to 95%, reach orgasm during heterosex, the figure is much lower for women. In the Australian Study of Health and Relationships conducted in 2013, 92% of men said they came the last time they had sex, compared with only 66% of women. An informal survey conducted in Pindostan by Cosmopolitan last year reported similar findings, with 57% of women reporting they regularly experienced orgasms during sex, but saying that their partners climaxed 95% of the time. This difference between men and women’s experiences with sex has been referred to as the ‘orgasm gap’. With more discussion and research on the topic, young women are speaking out about feeling disappointed by their experiences of sex. The sexual revolution, pop culture and porn had promised them everything and given them nothing. With better access to birth control and less social stigma around women having sex before marriage, women today seemingly have it much better than the generations before them. But whilst many women are now free to have sex on their terms, they may not be having good sex. This has led, Alana Massey says, to a new age of not sex positivism for women, but what she dubs ‘sex blah-sitivism’. Massey writes:
For women who have sex with men, some of the most disappointing experiences in life are sex with men. We tell women to have sex with as many partners as they like, but then don’t vigorously encourage those partners to be any good at sex.
Apps like Tinder and OKCupid are flourishing, and the millennial ‘hookup culture’ is leading baby boomers to have heart attacks and write scathing op-eds. We’re being told that we live in a sexual utopia, with gender norms all but gone and new partners only a finger-swipe away, but women are still having mediocre sex. Meanwhile, men fed on a diet of pornography and objectification of women are demanding more hardcore sex acts from women for their own pleasure. The question remains, are women any more free now, if they’re having more sex but it’s just as average as before the advent of the sexual revolution? Quality matters and whilst it’s an imperfect method, the statistics on the orgasm gap are being used as an example of the inequalities in the way men and women experience sex. In Cosmo’s survey, 40% of women said that they are most likely to experience an orgasm when masturbating, indicating that it’s not that women can’t orgasm but that their partners aren’t pushing the right buttons during heterosex. This is partially biological; most women require clitoral stimulation to orgasm, which penetrative heterosex does not provide. But there’s also historical and social factors which affect women’s experiences and the way men approach female bodies.
It’s only in the last fifty years that everyday women have begun to embrace their sexuality and sexual desires. Whilst there were certainly exceptions like Madame du Barry or Betty Page, largely ‘respectable’ women were not allowed to express an interest in sex, at least not openly. Those who did were outcast from society, and in extreme cases committed to asylums. In many cultures, it was determined that female sexuality was either non-existent or dangerous, and must be controlled by men. Sex was purely for men’s pleasure; women were advised to ‘lay back and think of England’ until it was over. These perceptions and prejudices are still evident in the modern world, from dress codes in high schools banning teenage girls from showing their shoulders to the prevalence of the Madonna-whore complex to female genital mutilation. But they’re also present in consensual heterosex. For years, the majority of anything relating to sex, from pornography to articles in magazines to research into sex-based disorders has focused on ‘heterosexual’ men. It’s the reason we have Viagra, why AIDS wasn’t treated seriously when first discovered, and why porn finales centre on the male orgasm. This imbalance misconstrues the idea of sex and pleasure for both men and women. A staggering 72% of women Cosmo surveyed said that they had a male partner climax but made no attempt to help them reach orgasm.
It may be decades since the sexual revolution, but for many women sex is still largely about men’s pleasure. Whilst women are now allowed to enjoy sex, the act itself is about what feels good for a man. Many women who have resigned themselves to orgasmless sex feel pressured to act like they’re enjoying it, even if they aren’t. Sex becomes performative, lest women hurt their partner’s feelings. So it comes to this: women must act like they’re enjoying sex, even if they aren’t, because men want to feel like their partner is having a good time whilst only focusing on their own pleasure. It’s a strange Catch-22. We’re being told that women should like sex but only as a side-effect of the sex that feels good for men. Some of what is causing the orgasm gap and ‘blah’ sex women are experiencing is a general ignorance about women’s bodies. Despite the importance of clitoral stimulation to most women, people of both genders are actually unsure of its location. But it can go beyond simple ignorance about stimulation. Society has entrenched a hatred of vulvas into men, and into women too. Cunt is generally considered the most obscene, insulting word in the English language. Vaginas are seen as dirty and ugly, especially during menstruation. Some straight men openly express their disgust with vaginas, leading to incredible feelings of self-conciousness for their female partners.
A question submitted to The Guardian’s advice column
In the end, part of the reason men don’t put effort into pleasuring women is because they don’t appreciate or understand body parts that are not their own. They barely comprehend the functions, let alone the beauty of the vulva, labia, clitoris. At best they are intrigued but mystified. At worst they only see a cunt as a hole to enable their own pleasure. Women shouldn’t have to put up with subpar sex and fewer orgasms. The very personal is political, yet for years women have been putting up with orgasm-less sex. We should be fighting for equality not only in boardrooms and on the streets but in our bedrooms. Nicki Minaj, feminist hero and icon, says she speaks up and doesn’t accept being with a guy who won’t go to the effort to give her an orgasm. Nicki said:
I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that. I have a friend who’s never had an orgasm in her life. In her life! That hurts my heart. It’s cuckoo to me. We always have orgasm interventions where we, like, show her how to do stuff. We’ll straddle each other, saying, ‘You gotta get on him like that and do it like this.’ She says she’s a pleaser. I’m a pleaser, but it’s fifty-fifty.
I’m lucky in that I rarely need to demand orgasms. I’m a magical unicorn that perpetrates the myth that having enjoyable sex means you need to have multiple orgasms. My body just happens to react well to penetrative heterosex amongst other things, so even if a guy isn’t making an effort, it’s easy for me to come. But the fact is, every woman’s body is different. The problem lies, it seems, with preconceived ideas about what constitutes sex, and what you need to do and experience to have good sex. As Rachel Hills pointed out, these ideas are reinforced by our culture:
Media and popular culture sell us the idea that good sex can be achieved by following a formula: do X move for Y duration and mix it up with a bit of Z and you’ll be amazing in bed.
Part of the formula for ‘good sex’ is, according to representations of sex in the media, orgasms from both parties. And whilst orgasms are great, the reason we focus so heavily on them is a result of a male-dominated culture, as well as a hangover from puritanical notions that sex is only for reproductive purposes. Why do we make orgasm the sole marker of what is an acceptable and pleasurable sexual experience? Maybe orgasm privilege isn’t a privilege at all. Maybe it just feels that way because whilst we have more freedom to have casual sex, we’re still clinging onto other old-school thoughts about what sex is and isn’t. Letting go of orgasms might make for better sexual experiences for both parties, free of the pressure to reach the big O. That being said, orgasms do feel good. Very good. And if women want them, but they’re being held back from getting them because of stereotypes, miseducation and male disinterest, then that should change. Part of that change will come from empowering women to talk about orgasms without shame or embarrassment. Orgasms are creating a divide between women; those with ‘orgasm privilege’ who can reach climax easily, and the rest who feel left out in the cold. It’s time for women to demand that their bodies be given the intimate attention and pleasure that men enjoy without a second thought. Second wave feminists fought for the right for women to have sex without consequence. Let’s fight for the right for women to actually enjoy it as much as possible. Now is the time to bring this issue to a head and demand equality. It shouldn’t be up to individual women to school their male partners. We need to change our culture so that men are expected to put in all effort necessary to pleasure the women they’re sleeping with. This is a dawn of a new sexual revolution, and we should all come together to make sure that women get the orgasms they are rightfully owed. I enjoy sex. I enjoy orgasms. And I enjoy creating a society where women not only posses the freedom to have the sex that they want but the justice to have the good sex that they deserve, whether that includes an orgasm or not.