17 Apr 2013

Pleasure or Pressure? The Alleged 'Orgasm Gap'

I read this piece from Alternet on 'The Orgasm Gap' with interest. Subtitled "The Real Reason Women Get Off Less Often Than Men and How to Fix It", the piece considers how "Freudian echoes, anatomical mischaracterizations and gender stereotypes are part of the logic naturalizing the orgasm gap - but there is nothing natural about it." In it author Lisa Wade makes some very valid points, including her demolition of the pesky myth that women just don't need to get off as much as men do, that we prefer cuddles to orgasms, and that we're the more "giving" gender (spew). I do agree that she's bang on that "we often bifurcate the sexual experience in line with gender norms: men are sexual (they experience desire) and women are sexy (they inspire desire)" and that  this damaging idea of women as passive objects to be looked at in turn harms women's ability to be active sexual agents. 
(And Christ, if I hear one more person justify the constant objectification of women viz the notion that "the female body is just nicer to look at", I'm going to shove my thread veins against their eyes. Newsflash - the female body can be just as disgusting and fugly as the male body, and I should know: as a care worker I've seen more than my fair share of naked bodies, young and old. The female body that apologists for objectification refer to is a toxic stereotype not representative of the majority of women - it's airbrushed, often surgically enhanced, achieved through the kind of regimes a racehorse would baulk at, and very often fuck-all to do with real, natural femininity. Because Mother Nature actually designed our 'beautiful female bodies' to have cellulite, hair, wobbly bits and funny smells.)
Anyway, back to this old orgasm gap. I agree with Lisa Wade that there probably is a correlation between lack of female pleasure and the fact that women are still told that their "primary goal in sex is to deliver a sexy body can focus her attention on how she looks instead of how she feels." Although I have to say, if it really is true, as Wade spectates (without providing anecdotal or statistical evidence) that some women are afraid to have orgasms because their face or body might contort in a potentially 'unnattractive' way, then I find that sad beyond belief.
And this is where I find myself a little unconvinced by this study. Or rather, by the conclusions drawn from it. The first study the author cites is 13 years old, and I think it's fair to say that the sexual landscape has changed a lot since the year 2000. Not necessarily for the better, sure, but things move fast in this day and age. Who had heard of vajazzles, ass-to-mouth or read openly about bondage on the London Underground 13 years ago? So I'll be taking that one with a pinch of salt to start with, and as for the second study she cites, it's a study of college students. Hardly representative of the population at large in terms of age or class, and it was only a study of heterosexual students so we can't know how the orgasm rate of LGB students compared. I think this is a key omission in terms of the author's determination to paint women as orgasm-starved victims, because although in some cases this may be true, I think it's painting with far too broad strokes to imply we all are, and that this is because of some failure of feminism or victory of patriarchy.
Wade presents the fact that women are much less likely to orgasm during a single 'hook-up' than during a second or 3rd encounter, or a relationship, as some kind of shocking revelation. Personally, I thought the ratio of 3 female orgasms to every 1 male orgasm was actually pretty good going! Not because I consider the female orgasm less valuable than that of a man's - quite the opposite. Making a woman come is a bloody tough thing to achieve. I was put me in mind of an exchange in Kevin Smith's film Clerks, where Dante makes the (admittedly crude statement) "Making a male climax is not all that challenging: insert somewhere close and preferably moist; thrust; repeat...Now, making a woman cum - therein lies a challenge." Much as it is a generalisation, and I do think male sexuality can be oversimplified, I also think most of us would end up agreeing. I remember in my Sexuality & Society classes at university discussing why the female equivalent of Viagra hadn't been successful, and the gist was that female sexual response was still extremely poorly understood, and very difficult to measure. Our tutor summed it up thus - if male sexuality was depicted as a machine, it would be a box with a clear 'ON/OFF' switch. The female equivalent would  be a box covered in numerous mysterious wires, lights and switches without any clear labels or indications of what they did, and you might get a different reaction from flipping a switch the second time compared to when you flipped it the first. Or no reaction at all.
So with this borne in mind, why are we supposed to be so scandalised by the idea that when young women sleep with other young men (who we assume are less experienced in the ways of lady pleasing than say, their 30 or 40-something counterparts) who have never encountered their bodies before, they're less likely to come? To me it's less a sign of a patriarchal victory and more simply evidence that nature is a bitch. The female orgasm is tricky and elusive, and what works for one woman might leave another one completely cold. That's why it also makes sense that when a couple hooks up more than once, or gets into a relationship with each other, the woman's orgasm rate rises. Practise makes perfect, we all know that, and familiarity with your partner's body sure as hell helps too. However, Wade concludes that the lack of female orgasms during hook ups must be down to lack of men's investment in their partner's pleasure, backing it up with a statement from a male who says he's "all about making her orgasm" when with a long-term partner, but "in a hookup...I don't give a shit".
It's an unfortunate quote, and indeed may reflect many other men's attitudes, although it's important to remember we're not told this and Wade has just cherry-picked one depressing vox-pop out of thousands. The quotes she includes from women are also depressing - they speak of not expecting an orgasm out of hook ups, prioritising men's pleasure, and being too insecure to ask for their own pleasure. And yeah, that's a problem in itself. But Wade's article does seem to contain an implicit message that hook-ups are bad in and of themselves, and relationships are the answer to all. And on that note, frankly, I call some serious bullshit. I've been in very long-term relationships, and I've had hook-ups, and I can honestly say that my likelihood of getting an orgasm is increased by one thing and one thing only - me doing stuff to myself. Whether that's solo, or with the guy involved, that's the only way I've ever been able to achieve it. It matters not whether the guy has known me for four years or four weeks, that's the way it's always been. And to be frank, it has actually made me feel more uptight when the guy in question has decided he's going to be The One to manage to give me an orgasm on his own, because it inevitably involves him reading prescriptive sex manuals ('Do this and it'll drive her wild!' Oh really, will it? EVERY woman? All 3.5 billion of us?), trying out various techniques on me that do absolutely F-A for me, and generally decreasing my chances of being relaxed enough to get any pleasure, let alone a climax out of the experience.
I'm not shy of asking for what I want, or demanding that my needs get met, or that I get to be the one lying back having fun stuff done to me. But demanding that my partner be able to give me the Big O makes me feel like my sex life has been boiled down to a bad Cosmo spoof. I don't necessarily want to come during penetrative sex, because the massive amount of concentration involved makes me feel totally disconnected from my partner, as if I'm using him as a dildo substitute. I might want to have my orgasm before penetration, or after, and that's something me and him can do together, which is all groovy. That said, regardless of the radfem sniffiness about such a claim, I also enjoy penetration in and of itself - it doesn't have to make me come. I might feel satisfied without an orgasm at all during the session (this is not BS - it does sometimes happen), and the prescriptive model of sex that dictates your sex is a feminist failure if both of you don't come is not any more helpful to me than the model that dictates male pleasure is all. A readthrough of Shire Hite's Report on Female Sexuality is telling, with women stating,"Now there is such much emphasis on orgasm, a person would feel abnormal not having one" and "I feel a lot of pressure both from men and from women's liberation, to have orgasms or insist on having an orgasm". One interviewees response to the pressure to be coming all over the shop sums up my exact feelings - "I'm not...a two-ring circus".
Wade's focus on apparent male selfishness also doesn't reflect my own experiences at all. Sure, my evidence is personal and anecdotal, but then so are the statements she uses to imply men 'don't give a shit' about female pleasure. As I mentioned above, I've had partners who are eager to a fault to try and resolve the orgasm gap between us - after my first sexual experience, the guy in question rather sweetly apologised for the fact I didn't come. I almost laughed out loud and snorted "I didn't expect to!", but held back out of politeness. But I was secretly thinking, 'C'mon dude, go read some feminist responses to Freud. What we just did may have been lovely, but my body ain't set up to orgasm from that'. I wasn't bothered - I had learnt at an early age that orgasms were a gift I could give myself, and let's just say I was always very generous with myself throughout my teen years. And me and this guy were young and inexperienced - yes, we were college students - so I hardly expected to be hitting heights of tantric amazingness anyway. While I agree with Lisa Wade that a model of sex where female pleasure is included and given equal weight to men's is certainly one that can never be promoted enough, I don't think measuring feminism's success by counting orgasms is accurate or helpful. Especially when you're focusing on a very skewed portion of society, who as well as being young and inexperienced, are often obnoxious, impulsive, selfish, insecure and crap at communicating. I might expect academic excellence from college students (sometimes), but I sure as hell don't expect maturity from them, and that includes in sexual matters.
As a commenter in the Hite report put it, the 'right' to have orgasms "has sometimes turned into an oppression". And in a society where there's far too many forces dictating How We Should Be Fucking, that's hardly better than when women were considered to have no right to an orgasm at all.

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