The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Getting Off

Ms Magazine tweets:

“Why are we willing to bleach, shave, starve, decorate, lift, implant, glue—while we meekly give up sexual pleasure?”

Now, the article it links to is a fascinating one about the over-use hysterectomies in the US, but that’s not what that tweet made me think about. (If anyone would like to write a post about hysterectomies, either a fellow lady gardener, or a guest, feel free. It is not my area of expertise.)

There’s been a number of articles floating around of late about the female orgasm (usefully summarised here). And of course, they all include the fact that 1 in 10 women don’t/won’t/can’t orgasm. And that makes me sad. That means I know at least a handful of women who have never felt their toes curl. Which is odd, because unless all my female friends are holding out on me (and given what they do tell me, I’d be highly surprised) I know one. One woman who has never had an orgasm. And believe me, I have given her some advice.

But it raises an interesting question. Why, when we expend so much time and money getting it, are we even happy treating the female orgasm as a separate scientific question? Why are we happy that it is treated as a rarity? When I am willing to bet few of us would put up with it being a rarity in our own lives.

We spend, as women, so much time making ourselves look attractive. (To whoever it is we want to look attractive to.) Not that men don’t, especially in recent years. But there is no comparison. We wax, shave, pluck, straighten, blow dry, diet, pierce, uplift, struggle into stockings. You’d think an orgasm would be a small price to pay for all that. So why do scientists keep trying to explain why we have them – as distinct from men – and not just get on with telling us how to have more?

Now, the question of why we do all that – the primping and the corseting – is bigger than one blog post. I can tell you that for me, it’s partly because I know that someone else likes it (the stockings) and partly that I like it for myself (the red lipstick). Feel free to tell me that shaving my legs, or waxing…other parts…is institutional sexism, and that I’m letting the team down. I don’t much care. I’ll do what I need to feel good about myself, thanks very much.

And so, I wonder about those mythical 1 in 10 women. (Not that I think they don’t exist, but I wonder if that is one of those numbers that gets bandied about with little statistical reasoning.) What is it stopping them? Biology? In which case, that’s awful, and heartbreaking. Is it just that they’ve never figured out which combination of buttons to push to get there? Or is it that we’ve been taught for so long we shouldn’t want sex, shouldn’t want pleasure for its own sake, and God forbid we actually ask for it? That sex is just for making babies, and anything else is an (albeit enjoyable) by-product. That really, what we as women want doesn’t matter. We’re just here to look pretty, and that sex is something someone takes from us, something we give up, not something we can legitimately go after for its own sake?

43 responses to “Getting Off

  1. Deborah September 14, 2011 at 6:45 am

    So why do scientists keep trying to explain why we have them – as distinct from men – and not just get on with telling us how to have more?

    Great point, Tallulah.

    This is why the god in whom I do not believe invented vibrators. ‘Though clearly, that’s not going to be the answer for lots of women who do not experience orgasms. My untutored guess is that there are as many reasons for not experiencing orgasms as there are women who don’t have them.

    • Jackie Clark September 14, 2011 at 7:27 am

      Yes, lots of different reasons, I would guess – and a multitude of reasons as to why some women have multiple orgasms, and some do not, no matter how very hard they have tried over the years. 🙂 More seriously though, I have always wondered how much better womens’ lives would be (I speak only of women in situations, of course, where survival isn’t the main priority in life) if young girls were taught properly about how their bodies work. Not something for schools maybe, but would that we all had a kindly someone in our lives who showed us that the way we move and place our bodies is so very important for sexual pleasure. Young women, in my experience, have to find this out through trial and error. Or do they? No-one really ever talks about it at that burgeoning sexual age, do they? I remember seeing a woman once on Oprah, who was talking about how important it is for mothers to encourage their daughters to masturbate, to claim their own sexual power before finding a partner to have sex with. In my little world, that would be the ideal situation. But of course, once again, not every woman would be comfortable with that. Let’s hope, Tallulah, that there are some young readers of this blog who can at least have somewhere to go where someone’s at least talking about orgasms.

      • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 7:34 am

        It’s called the Internet, Jackie. 😉

        • Jackie Clark September 14, 2011 at 7:46 am

          Can you imagine being at that age – whatever age that was – , seriously, and having all these tools at your disposal, that we never had? Mind, it’s all very well to be able to google sex instruction videos and another thing altogether to actually do it.

          • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 7:54 am

            Actually, in some ways, I think it is possibly worse. Because even googling “sex instruction video” is hardly gonna to land you immediately on Betty Dodson’s site. (which, if you are one of those young people, is brilliant). And I suspect, the messages around sex are for today’s young women, even more confusing than they were when I was a kid.

          • Jackie Clark September 14, 2011 at 7:57 am

            Oh I completely agree. And I believe the pressure to have sex, and with whom to have sex, may have gotten worse too. Which leaves the lovely orgasm as something somewhere over the rainbow, for some women. I think about this alot, funnily enough.

          • Jackie Clark September 14, 2011 at 7:59 am

            Oh, and Betty Dodson? BOOKMARKED.

          • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 8:12 am

            She’s a fucking legend.

    • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 7:31 am

      The young woman to whom I gave advice – it basically went like this:

      “Chill out, get yourself a vibrator, a couple of hours to yourself, and a glass or two of wine. Because no one else is going to be able to give you one, until you figure out how to do it yourself.”

      I wouldn’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with women who don’t orgasm. In fact, I’d like to see us spend a lot more time on them. So to speak. But is there any wonder that some women can’t, when there’s so much wrapped up in the act of sex, aside from which bits go where.

      • Jennifer September 15, 2011 at 7:46 pm

        I appreciate the sentiment and definitely agree with women getting to know themselves but…I still can’t give myself an orgasm but my partner can give me one. For the first four to five years of my sexual life I couldn’t orgasm with a partner (or without) but eventually a partner was able to bring me to orgasm. I still can’t do it to myself though, despite many attempts!

  2. Cate September 14, 2011 at 7:33 am

    “So why do scientists keep trying to explain why we have them – as distinct from men”

    Could you mind clarify this further?

    • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 7:48 am

      Sure. From the wired article I linked to:

      While the male orgasm is, in evolutionary and practical terms, a fairly straightforward thing — it makes men want to have sex more often, thus continuing their lineage, and is achieved with ease — the female orgasm is a far trickier beast.

      Really? Is that true? So the male orgasm is so easy to explain (and thus, doesn’t need to be studied), and the female is this mysterious thing that we need to investigate?

      Certainly, women have a harder time of it (again, so to speak) but a lot of that can be explained by the attitudes towards sex and towards women, as well as biology and evolution. I wonder how much these scientists look at what role living in a patriarchal society plays on how women achieve orgasms.

      • Cate September 14, 2011 at 7:51 am

        Okay, so removing all societal factors, males orgasm in a totally different way to females…due to biology?

      • Emma September 14, 2011 at 9:55 am

        I love the implication in that quote that the female orgasm doesn’t make women want to have sex more often. No wonder lesbians never bother.

        I think there are at least two profoundly different things here: women with naturally low or no sex drive who aren’t bothered (can’t miss what you’ve never had, etc), and women who really ARE bothered. I’d been sexually active for four years before I had my first orgasm, and while before that sex was still enjoyable, it wasn’t, “Right, now I have completely lost all judgement and will do amazingly stupid things for sex.”

        So while I have no wish to get all down on the first group of women (because there have been times from the other end of the bell curve when a low sex-drive has sounded at least very simple), having had the experience of not being able to orgasm even with a high sex drive, I do feel for that second group. For a start, I would advise doing the exact opposite of what your pastor would recommend.

        • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 10:19 am

          In the Amanda Marcotte piece, there’s a quote from someone saying an orgasm is “”a nice thing,” but “it doesn’t last very long, and it’s not the easiest thing to have, so I think it’s overrated”. To which my immediate response was “Have you ever had one?!”

          I understand there are people with low, or even no, sex drive for whom yes, all this talk about orgasms must be over-rated. But for, as you say, that second group…well, if it’s not the easiest thing to have, why is there not a lot more research going into WHY, and how the hell do we make it easier? Speaking as someone who is famously easy, that is.

          And yeah – if the evolutionary argument is that orgasms make men want to have sex more, to encourage procreation, why doesn’t that hold true for women? Because we don’t want children OR sex? Just men to want us?

        • Curvaceous Dee September 17, 2011 at 12:19 pm

          I was sexually active for seven years before I had my first orgasm. That orgasm was with solo play (why did no one tell me about masturbation and how awesome it was?). It was another few years before I had orgasm/s with partners.

          I was very damned persistent. Sex was pretty good. Sex with orgasms was one hell of a levelling up!

          xx Dee

      • Moz September 14, 2011 at 4:18 pm

        women have a harder time of it…

        This is where I think experiences are sharply mixed. Some women definitely struggle to orgasm at all, and a lot more struggle to have on enjoyable (sex) life. I suspect so do some men, but because they can ejaculate no-one bothers to look, just like women being able to get pregnant used to be the only goal.

        I think teaching both sexes about sexual pleasure is more useful than just focussing on teaching girls how to get off. Maybe we could teach boys equivalent things about themselves, or even both sexes about both. Wouldn’t it be nice to to be able to say “the 10% or so who only care about their own gender will just have to put up with it” rather than “can we teach kids about sexual pleasure please?”

        I think it would also be useful to expand the view of sexuality. The whole “everyone is either a male heterosexual dominant top or a female heterosexual submissive bottoms” doesn’t go away just because we add “or homosexual” to the end. One of the things I love right now is the pansexual movement, where they’re actively trying to make sexuality an individual thing to get away from the FHSD/MHDT dogma. That, IMO, is much more likely to lead to greater happiness.

        • Hugh September 14, 2011 at 5:31 pm

          Some men struggle to orgasm at all, too. Perhaps not as often as women, but it happens.

          I’m not sure about “teaching sexual pleasure”, though. It’s so idiosyncratic that I’m not really sure there’s anything to be meaningfully taught on the group level.

          • Moz September 15, 2011 at 12:25 pm

            To men, even mentioning that sex is pleasurable seems to be a major step forward that needs to be taken. This isn’t a topic I really follow, but my impression from the kids I know is that it’s still a topic that’s skirted around rather than addressed directly.

            But implicitly the picture that is put across is heteronormative and reporduction focussed. The reasons why people might have non-reproductive sex are not addressed, even though the whole point of the exercise is to encourage kids not to have reproductive sex.

            or maybe I’m missing the point.

          • Moz September 15, 2011 at 12:26 pm

            men/me, sorry

          • Draco T Bastard September 17, 2011 at 4:01 pm

            I remember reading many years ago that men may actually reach orgasm less often than women. I haven’t heard anything since about any more research being done on it though. Essentially, the mistake that most people were/are making is equating ejaculation with orgasm.

          • Cate September 17, 2011 at 8:25 pm

            How does a man ejaculate without orgasm? I didn’t think that was possible. I know they can orgasm without ejaculating, but not vice versa.

        • Max Rose September 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm

          It’s probably too long since my childhood sex education for me to know whether these days the message that “sex is pleasurable” is part of it. I may have been lucky at intermediate school, but I seem to recall a lot of emphasis on emotions, relationships and the stages of arousal. It was more than just reproduction-focussed, though it was certainly heteronormative (it would have been hard not to be, since homosexuality was still illegal).

          But kids learn about sex from many more sources than just formal sex education, and there’s no lack of messages telling us that sex is pleasurable. Sure, most pop culture promotes an unrealistic, commodified, male-focussed and visual-dominant idea of what that pleasure might be, but it certainly promotes the idea that sex is not just for reproduction.

          I suppose I had a relatively unusual early (theoretical) education in sexuality. As well as the sniggery school lessons and the typical experience of some kid bringing his uncle’s stash of Playboys into the playground, I also discovered my parents’ copy of The Joy of Sex. Despite its flaws (heteronormativity and beards) I think that was a positive influence overall, and I wonder what the contemporary equivalent might be that would cater for all genders and sexualities. A more mixed influence was reading my mother’s Broadsheet magazines while a teenager. While an early exposure to feminism was no doubt valuable overall, there were some Dworkinesque articles that scared the bejeebus out of me, and it took me quite a while to learn that actually, (most) women do actually enjoy sex with men.

          • tallulahspankhead September 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm

            Hey, there is nothing wrong with beards.

            (Sorry all, I am manically busy today, but I will respond to some points soon.)

          • Hugh September 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

            Finding my parent’s copy of the 1970s edition of Joy of Sex, yea, complete with beardy illustrations, was a formative moment in the discovery of my own sexuality. In retrospect they probably knew I was reading it. But it did leave me with a lingering suspicion that a man couldn’t have sex unless he looked like he was auditioning to be the new bassist for “Yes”.

            More seriously, I actually seem to remember a section of The Joy of Sex that said “this book is aimed at heterosexual couples”. So I don’t think it was -too- heteronormative, although I guess the title could have been a lot more specific.

          • Max Rose September 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm

            Yes, not so much heteronormative as heteroexclusive (or the other way around – I’m not sure) in that it explicitly excluded anything not heterosexual. I do remember a heading “Inversion”, which discussed a certain rather ambitious wheelbarrow position, and had a note saying something like “this section is not about homosexuality, which is not covered in this book”.

          • Hugh September 16, 2011 at 7:32 pm

            Reply to Max: Yeah, I don’t really have a problem with it being heteroexclusive, it’s just a shame that they didn’t title it in a way that telegraphed that fact. Having “The Joy of Sex” / “The Joy of Gay Sex” sort of implies that gay sex is it’s own little thing off to the side, while straight sex is somehow the default sex-having. But that didn’t ruin it for me the way it would have if the book refused to own the fact that it wasn’t for gay people.

          • Curvaceous Dee September 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm

            Mmm, beards. I do like the beards…

            xx Dee

  3. Isabel September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    At risk of drifting into over-sharing on what feels like an epic level….I wonder if some of the issue is that the female orgasm can be a bit harder to spot than the male one. For *ahem* some time after I became sexually active I thought I didn’t orgasm. What was really happening was that my belief about what an orgasm should look and feel like was so far removed from what happened to me that I was holding back from it expecting “the real thing” to sweep over me. Once I was able to recognise things for what they were and relax into it, I never had a problem in that department again. Better education would have helped a lot as would depictions in literature and film which were neither coy nor over-blown.

    • Max Rose September 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      I think that the relaxation aspect is often very important. I’ve had a few lovers who said at the start that they didn’t have orgasms, or at least not with partners, and it took a while to work through a time of exploration and in some cases reassurance before they could relax and just enjoy themselves.

      I’ve noticed this most with sexually inexperienced women, or those who have had less than attentive lovers. Sometimes it’s about feeling at ease in one’s own skin, or not being self-conscious with someone, or getting over some residual guilt or feeling of not being worthy of pleasure. Sometimes women who take a while think that their lover might be getting bored, which sets up a kind of vicious circle of distraction. A couple of times I’ve been told not to bother going down, because “it doesn’t really do anything, and guys don’t really like doing it”, and it’s taken a while to convince them that actually, we love it for its own sake as much as for the pleasure of the recipient. And once that happens, the first objection is usually disproved soon afterwards.

      But while mental and emotional aspects are important, it would surprise me if there were no physiological variations in sensitivity, given the vast range of responsiveness from having difficulty reaching orgasm at all through to coming in seconds. And as you say, there’s also a range of intensities, though it’s hard to tell from the outside whether it’s a difference in felt experience or just a different level of expression. While in my experience, most women seem to have quite well-defined orgasms, a few times I’ve been feeling a little frustrated when a lover seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself but never quite reaching orgasm, only for her to tell me afterwards that she came several times, but as a series of little crescendos rather than a full-on climax. I suppose that this just shows that as much as one would like to think that as mature adults we’ve learned about the importance of communication in sex, there’s still room for improvement.

      • Isabel September 16, 2011 at 4:32 pm

        I think that the relaxation thing is pretty big and I wonder if it doesn’t tie into the original point about all the primping and plucking and squeezing we do – it can be hard to give yourself over to sexual pleasure when you are worried about imperfectly shaven legs or trying to prevent your tummy from wobbling.

  4. johnsonmike September 15, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    More seriously, I actually seem to remember a section of The Joy of Sex that said “this book is aimed at heterosexual couples”.

    Well there was also The Joy of Gay Sex, which was clearly aimed at homosexual coupling 🙂

  5. Laura September 16, 2011 at 10:09 am

    This brings to mind the scene in Shortbus where the sex therapist is masturbating furiously in the rain (and crying?) because she just wants to enjoy sex the same way as everyone else. I can identify with wanting desperately to be a sexually strong, modern woman but resigning myself to being one of those people who just couldn’t orgasm. How wrong was I?! I imagine it’s hard to engage in these sorts of discussions if you have resigned yourself to never having an orgasm. I think it shows something of the value young women place in themselves, I can’t imagine many teenage boys wondering if they’ll ever get to experience the mythical orgasm.

  6. Msconduct September 17, 2011 at 10:03 am

    The optional orgasm is just one of a range of things that there seems to be an expectation on women to put up with. Others include crazy bad period pain and walking around in adult nappies because you have bladder leakage after having children. None of these are acceptable and all women should be able to feel that they are entitled not to have to suffer any of them. I may be wrong, but I struggle to come up with similar examples men are meant to put up with as part of their lot in life.

  7. David Winter September 20, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    so why do scientists keep trying to explain why we have them – as distinct from men – and not just get on with telling us how to have more?

    Well, that’s not so much science as the way science is reported. The only ‘scientists’ that think female sexuality is much more mysterious than male sexuality are evolutionary psychologists (a group who richly deserve scare quotes around the scientist bit). Evolutionary psychology is mainly built around the same cartoon version of evolutionary biology that’s often presented to public (everything is the result of selection, human evolution happened entirely on ‘the savannah’ then stopped etc etc) so when it’s no surprise people trying to attract eyeballs grab on to these stories.

    But human sexuality is interesting. It’s worth finding out why we are the only ape to not have a penis bone, or to live in groups containing males and females but generally be monogamous, or one of only a couple of species that for which most sex is non-reproductive. I suspect the answers to these questions are related and have a lot to do with the unique ecology of our species. The widely heald, cartoon version of the question is pretty stupid, but I don’t why we shouldn’t ask why females have orgasms.

    (And it hardly needs saying, but,understanding the reasons for which something developed won’t tell us anything about how we should take advantage of it today).

    • tallulahspankhead September 21, 2011 at 8:48 am

      Thanks for commenting, David. It’s good to have someone bring the actual knowledge.

      You’re absolutely right, it is the reporting, and it is the evo-psychs, causing the problem here. But we have issues in _all_ reporting about the way women’s sexuality is expressed, and I think it is still worth calling it out when we see it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t ask why females have orgasms – just that I wonder if it needs to be held up as the holy grail? Because in doing so, we perpetuate the idea that it is hard for women to orgasm, and then we’re in a viscous cycle. And seriously, why can’t we spend more time finding out how to make women have more?

      Human sexuality _is_ fascinating. That’s why I spend so much time thinking about it. 😉

    • Max Rose September 21, 2011 at 10:21 am

      I agree with the critique of standard evolutionary psychology, but I’m not sure that I agree with the statement that “we are the only ape … to live in groups containing males and females but generally be monogamous”. That “generally” might be generally true for post-forager societies, but it might be an exception when viewed across the whole of human history. And I wonder whether it might be truer to say that human _society_ is generally monogamous (in its structures and strictures), but that individual people are less so.

  8. Moz September 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    (sorry, can’t reply directly to Cate above)
    Cate September 17, 2011 at 8:25 pm: How does a man ejaculate without orgasm? I didn’t think that was possible.

    That was the point being made. Your misperception is common, widely shared by men, and probably obscures the extent of the problem. I suspect there’s wider knowlege in the BDSM community where orgasm spoiling is practiced by/on some male submissives. Or you could look at some of the medical research carried out during WWII involving prostate massage to force ejaculation. In both cases I advise caution when researching as the practices are squirm-inducing. But anyway, it’s definitely possible for a man to ejaculate without orgasm.

    Most men who can tell the difference say they have had the experience from time to time, voluntarily or otherwise. Which suggests that it’s at least possible that other men do the same, and even that there are men who have never had an orgasm (a group that probably overlaps with the ones who have never ejaculated, but is not identical to it). Studying this will require more work in a tricky area (both in terms of funding and social change), and I can’t imagine that it would be particularly lucrative so there’d be no real profit push for it.

  9. tallulahspankhead September 21, 2011 at 8:31 am

    OK, I am going to reply to a bunch of people at once, because I was off being fabulous for the weekend, and did not have time…

    Maybe what we need is a system by which every person, when they are ready, gets to spend 24 hours with a licensed, extremely experienced and attentive lover? Though I’m told I’m not suggesting anything that hasn’t been written about in any number of sci-fi novels, and so now I will shut up.

    Certainly, sex education has a lot to do with this, but as the herald this week has shown, we have a long way to go before we can discuss sex as something for pleasures sake.

    Thank you to everyone who has shared their experiences. It’s not an easy topic to talk about.

  10. Pingback: Fourty First Down Under Feminist Carnival | A Touch of the Crazy

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