Sexism diminishes female pleasure. What women need to know.

Humans have a long history of misunderstanding and misrepresenting female pleasure. Centuries of male-centric science have bolstered erroneous theories about women's bodies and their desire. Hollywood commonly offers tired depictions of sex in which most women would find it impossible to climax. In the bedrooms of some heterosexual couples, women's pleasure is not a priority but an afterthought.

"The depiction of women's sexuality is criminally bad," said Elisabeth Lloyd, an American philosopher of biology and a scholar at the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. "[There are] really sexist, really demeaning lies about women's sexual response."

Sexual behavior is associated with a number of mental and physical health benefits, but sex researchers and educators say there's a significant orgasm gap between men and women, with heterosexual men climaxing 95% of the time they are sexually intimate and heterosexual women climaxing only 65% of the time. While orgasm isn't the only marker of sexual satisfaction, experts say cultural forces entangle women's sexuality with shame, fear and guilt, which can make it difficult not only for women to experience sexual pleasure but also for them to explore it at all.

"We don't teach about sex, because a woman who is knowledgeable about sex must be a whore and thus she is unmarriageable," said sex therapist Donna Oriowo.

"Many women grow up reading articles, seeing TV shows or even watching porn that perpetuates a culture in which women feel like they should be noisy in the bedroom, despite pleasure or orgasm, often faking it due to pain, time constraints or a general lack of enjoyment," said Kelly Gordon, inclusivity lead at sex toy company Hot Octopuss and the host of Pleasure Rebels Podcast. "Until recently female pleasure wasn’t really on the agenda." 

Sexual educators say it is difficult for women to resist internalizing messages that center on male partners, narrowly define sex, and depict pleasure in ways that suggest dysfunction if orgasm isn't achieved from vaginal penetration alone. When women aren't aroused by things they believe they should be, they can feel defective.

"It's very hard to change the messages that we've gotten, but we can change. We can change ourselves. And sometimes we can even change our partners," said Jane Fleishman, a sexuality educator who focuses on senior communities. "We need to imagine new possibilities, to silence inner critics, to leave the guilt outside of the bedroom, to try something novel."

Sexual behavior contributes to 'happiness, immunity, longevity'

A white paper published by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 2003 found regular sexual activity can contribute to "happiness, immunity, longevity, pain management, and sexual and reproductive health." A 2002 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found sexual activity may be associated with reducing the risk of heart disease and a 2000 study in the British Journal of Cancer found it may reduce the risk of cancer. 

But sex educators say understanding of female pleasure has been limited by sexist attitudes that pervade relationships, inform science and permeate culture. 

"Women don't often know what they find pleasurable. We have been taught and groomed to please men. We are faking our pleasure so that a man can feel good about himself," said sex therapist Donna Oriowo. "It ends up being about all the ways that a woman can diminish herself in order to make a man feel bigger. ... Many men don't feel the need to learn. They don't feel the need to know."

Sigmund Freud, considered the father of modern psychology, suggested the only real adult orgasm for a woman was a vaginal one. Yet anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of all women have trouble orgasming with vaginal penetration alone.

"Freud did us no favors, because he ... claimed that clitoral orgasms were juvenile orgasms," said Aubri Lancaster, a sex educator who focuses on asexuality and aromanticism. "We've spent the last hundred plus years trying to figure out why women aren't having more vaginal orgasms."

Lloyd said when she wrote her book, "The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution," she laid down a number of scientific challenges to a male-dominated community of biologists, geneticists and psychologists on how little we actually know about female orgasms.

Women respond differently to intercourse, she wrote, and background assumptions about female sexuality "have had a detrimental effect on much of the science thus far produced on the question of female orgasm."

"They just assumed that women responded the same way men did. It was locker room science from the very beginning. And that is a form of sexist research," she said. "It's a bias that is invisible until you shine a light on it."

What many people don't realize about female pleasure

Research shows most women orgasm from masturbation, but a smaller proportion regularly experiences orgasm from intercourse. 

A 2017 study found women were more likely to orgasm if their last sexual encounter included deep kissing, genital stimulation and/or oral sex in addition to vaginal intercourse.

Sex researchers say the clitoris, which science has historically ignored, is complex. Fleishman said most people may not know that the clitoris has legs that come down inside the body, and women can get excited, stimulated and aroused to orgasm based on stimulation of the exterior portion of the clitoris as well as the legs.

Research shows women's anatomy may also be a factor in whether they achieve orgasm from vaginal penetration.

Lloyd said there is a correlation between the distance between the external clitoris and the vaginal opening. Women who have a long distance between their clitoris and their vaginal opening don't tend to have orgasms from vaginal penetration alone, while those with a short distance are highly predicted to.

Complicated sexual responses

Mechanics are not the only factor impacting female pleasure.

"We have to take the biology and the mechanics into understanding, but we also have to think about the ... obstacles that our minds put us through when we're feeling, 'Oh, I just have no interest at this point,'" Fleishman said.

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Sexual responses are complicated, the result of a balance between the things that excite us and the things that inhibit us, informed by all the messages we've gotten about sex, pleasure and safety throughout our lives. Sexual pleasure can be the source of physical and psychological well-being, but it can be difficult to achieve in a culture with pervasive sex-negative attitudes that stress risk over pleasure and equate sex with immorality.

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"Women that I'm working with, who are I'd say 40s, 50s, 60s, and up, they have gotten so many bad messages," Fleishman said. "Even if they had sex education in school, it was generally 'keep your legs together and don't get pregnant.' When we start to think about the possibility of pleasure in the form of love, or sex, or intimacy, many of us start to feel shame."

Sexual response, Fleishman, is also influenced by the way we view ourselves. This includes body image, which can be an issue for women at any age, but especially older ones. A 2010 study in the Journal of Sex Research found the more middle-aged women perceive themselves as less attractive than before, the more likely they were to report a decline in sexual desire.

Arousal is much more complex than biology. It's how we think about who we are and our relationship to the bodies around us. It's our environments, which are full of things that stimulate and inhibit us, and in some cases our stimulators aren't sexual at all. Someone can be stimulated by a foot rub, cuddling or a darkened room. They can be turned on by talking.

"I'm a lesbian for my whole adult life, almost 50 years," Fleishman said. "What we laugh about in the lesbian community is that lesbians like to talk and cry before they have sex. And if we can feel comfortable and close and what we'd call intimate on that level, then you are willing to take your clothes off."

A 2014 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine shows lesbian women have a significantly higher probability of orgasm than either heterosexual or bisexual women. 

'Power within pleasure'

There are many challenges for white, cis, heterosexual women who want to experience sexual pleasure. But women who belong to other marginalized groups face additional barriers. 

Sexual tropes such as the jezebel, in which a Black woman is portrayed as sexually promiscuous in contrast to the pure white women, objectify Black women and deny them sexual agency. Women with disabilities are often almost universally excluded from conversations about sexual pleasure, Gordon said. Women who identify as asexual, a sexual orientation where a person experiences little to no sexual attraction to other people, face similar challenges, despite the fact that many still desire sex and asexual pleasure, according to Lancaster.

Sex educators say women should give themselves permission, without shame, to explore what they like and especially what they don't. 

"There's power within pleasure," Oriowo said. "It means that are you unlikely to stay in relationships that you do not want. You're probably a little bit less likely to accept sex that you don't enjoy from a partner. You're more likely to be verbal about what it is that you're wanting. And you're more likely to be corrective. All of these things go against what we are taught about sexuality being specifically for male pleasure ... It requires men to work harder."

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