My first boyfriend and I were breathless from making out for about an hour and a half. I’m not exaggerating here; I don’t know how we survived those marathon make out sessions. For the first time in our relationship, his hand started wandering south towards my underwear. He smiled at me, and I smiled a crazy, hormone-addled smile back at him. As his hand reached the top of my Fruit of the Loom waistband, he whispered into my ear, “What should I do?” It was a beautiful moment.
And I, of course, ruined it immediately by making a vaguely constipated face and incredulously snorting “Wait, what?” into his mouth. I was seventeen at the time and “sexually active” in that I had made my boyfriend orgasm more than once, but I honestly had no idea that I could have an orgasm myself. It’s not that anyone had ever said that I couldn’t; it’s just that I’d never heard of it, and given my nerdy proclivity for research, it seemed impossible that I could be ignorant of something that important. I’d seen American Pie and I understood the mechanics of giving an (admittedly shoddy) blow job. I should have had some inkling as to my own sexual possibilities, but I didn’t. How did that happen?
I know that I’m on the later end of the curve in terms of sexual awareness and that many women figure their clitorises out at an early age and have far more interesting childhoods than I did, but at the same time, I don’t believe that my ignorance of my own sexuality is that aberrant. As women, we grow up with a relative dearth of honest information about our own sexuality. In this culture of dick jokes and viral videos like “Jizz in my Pants,” how is female sexuality still being left so far behind?
In a completely unscientific perusal of online magazines, I found what I believe to be a clue. If you look at the top headlines in the most popular magazines for women (Cosmo, Glamour and the like), they typically read along these lines: “25 Surprising Things that Turn Men On,” “Naughty Oral Tricks to Try Tonight” or “Bad Girl Sex Tips.” If you check out the top headlines in Men’s Health, they are things like, “15 Surprising Reasons She’ll Have Sex with You.” This is not to say that magazines for men don’t publish information about pleasing women or that women’s magazines don’t publish articles about female pleasure – because they do – but the predominant themes seem to be:
“Here’s how to get her to sleep with you” for men and “Here’s how to make sure he enjoys it” for women.
It’s fascinating to me that women’s magazines focus so much on performance tips for women when the reality of the situation is that, no offense to guys, it’s generally easier for men to achieve orgasm during sex than women. The male equipment, so to speak, is designed to orgasm quickly and efficiently to propagate the species. The female orgasm, on the other hand, has no scientifically substantiated purpose. Plus, in many cases, it involves the clitoris, an organ that is in no way necessary for penetrative sex. Sure, I bet it’s cool when you bust out one of these “Sexpert Approved!” moves during a blow job, but let’s be honest: it’s like whipped cream on a piece of pie. The whipped cream is a nice touch, but it’s not like you wouldn’t enjoy the pie without it. More beneficial articles for women would be “How to help your partner get you off,” “How to tell if your difficulties with orgasm are truly a problem” or “Tips for incorporating sex into a busy schedule.” This is information that women can use to improve their own sexual experiences. I have many friends who haven’t had orgasms or struggle to have them with a partner. Women’s magazines are missing an opportunity to empower women to learn about their own bodies when they focus primarily on how to please a (specifically male) partner. Ironically, this sexual empowerment would undoubtedly improve the experience for partners as well, while simultaneously saving the cash that might otherwise have been spent on the French maid costume and stilettos that he’s “secretly always been into.”
To me, this discrepancy represents the persistence of an age-old misconception that female sexuality is comparable to male sexuality and can therefore be constrained within a penetrative sex-centric model of sex. This attitude was the entire basis of the medical phenomenon of “hysteria,” which was actually a medically recognized diagnosis for female sexuality until the 1950’s. Physicians used to believe that women who were unsatisfied with the purely penetrative sex within their marriages (read: most women) were ill with “hysteria,” and, as a treatment, they used vibrators to induce orgasm to relieve them. (I’m not even kidding – for an amazing account of the history of the vibrator, check out The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines). Physicians couldn’t understand that female sexuality is actually quite distinct from male sexuality and that the mere act of thrusting isn’t enough for many women. Though I’m happy to say that this perception has changed, and that doctors are no longer allowed to use vibrators on their patients, a tendency to discuss female sexuality from within the context of heterosexual sex persists in today’s media and makes it challenging to bring up the complexities of female sexual pleasure. If you are thinking of sex from the perspective of male sexuality, the female orgasm doesn’t really matter that much. This is a real shame since most people who sleep with women feel very strongly that their partner’s sexual pleasure is actually a large part of their own.
This is not to say that female sexual pleasure is being ignored. The booming sex toy industry is a testament to the fact that women can, and very much want to, have orgasms. The women’s magazines I was picking on earlier write reviews of some vibrators and run articles about how and where to buy them. While I am glad that women are being encouraged to explore their own sexuality, I think that pop culture’s representations of vibrators can sometimes be detrimental to the overall goal of accepting female sexuality. There is a culture, made popular by shows like Sex and the City, that venerates the image of the take-no-prisoners single woman, who can’t find a good man but is more than capable of (literally) taking her sexual pleasure into her own hands by investing $130 in a vibrator. These women use vibrators to replace men and to fill the void that their crushing loneliness leaves in their lives (how many times have we all heard jokes about women being in a “long term relationship” with their vibrator? OMG this rabbit-shaped piece of vibrating silicone is totally exactly what I want in life!). To me this seems like another pidgenholing of women’s sexuality: that we can take full ownership if it – when we’re single.
Pop culture has two distinctly “acceptable” versions of female sexuality: one in which a lonely single woman invests in technology in order to get hers, and one in which women in relationships totally blow his mind! But what about the reality for most women, which is wanting to get hers within the context of a relationship (while of course simultaneously pleasing her partner?). And this is where I fear the information about female sexuality in mainstream culture falls short; this is what we censor out. A prime example of this is the controversial initial NC-17 rating of the film Blue Valentine (which was successfully appealed and changed to “R”). The rationale behind the NC-17 rating seemed to be that an emotional sex scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character went down on Michelle Williams’ character was “too emotional and realistic.” It’s not as though oral sex on women doesn’t make it past the rating council (Black Swan, anyone? Although I wonder if to the movie rating council the fact that it was being performed by a woman made it less “realistic.” That’s a whole other issue.) but I can’t imagine an oral sex scene in which a woman went down on a man being censored for being “too realistic.” In fact, movies can very clearly imply oral sex on a man and still walk away with a PG-13 rating (The Social Network being a recent example).
Movies are not by any means the be-all end-all of culture, but they are a convenient lens through which to examine of how society portrays and feels about female sexuality. Oral sex performed on women is contentious because it doesn’t fit into either of the accepted paradigms for female sexuality: pleasing men or saying “forget it – I don’t need ‘em!” and pleasing themselves. The role of female pleasure within a sexual relationship is complicated. It typically requires some extra attention and effort. For most women, it is not the same as penetrative intercourse the way it is for men. I think it gets simplified in a way that can be detrimental to the women growing up surrounded by these messages. They learn about tips and tricks for his pleasure, then when they’re older they learn what a vibrator is and the role it’s supposed to play while they wait for Mr. Right, but they are left in the dark in terms of how to get their sexual needs filled (or, in fact, what those sexual needs might be) within a sexual relationship.
While there’s no “curing” society of its lopsided views of sexuality, I think it’s important to keep the messages we see regarding sexuality in mind. With the rise of the Internet, more and more women are going to be learning about their own sexuality from mainstream media. It would be great if healthy female sexual pleasure (including oral sex for women) eventually achieved the same validity within culture that men’s sexual pleasure enjoys. Until that day, however, I think I’ll just say “Forget all of ‘em!” and buy myself a vibrator.
Julia Bond is a sex-positive blogger who describes herself as “a comedian/neuroscientist/beer nerd who’s dedicated to making accurate and helpful information about female sexuality more readily available to women.” Check out her posts on “It’s Not That Weird” for more amazing commentary on important issues relating to feminism and sexuality.