Medical Tuesday Blog
The Pleasure Gap
How can more women allow themselves to experience sexual pleasure?
That’s one of the central questions in The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution, a book published this month by public health researcher and journalist Katherine Rowland.
Rowland explores why American women aren’t happy with their sex lives — and what they can do about it. A landmark study from 1999 found that over 40% of women surveyed experienced sexual dysfunction — the inability to feel satisfied by sex. A contributing factor, noted the researchers, was the lasting psychological effects of sexual trauma.
Interviewed by MALAKA GHARIB on NPR
The Pleasure Gap highlights how desire and the mind are linked for women. “Pleasure is inextricable from our social status, compressed and constrained by financial factors, by safety factors, by objectification,” she says. We need to remove these barriers, she says, to experience sex with the “full freedom, expression, range and truth that we’re endowed with.”
Rowland argues that it is possible for women to take charge and reignite their libidos. She talked to NPR about why fake orgasms are a cause for alarm, how much sex couples should have per week and “sexological bodywork.”
Our national obsession with sexual frequency and the terrifying specter of dead bedrooms overrides the fundamental importance of sexual quality. There is no volume of sex that’s more or less good.
For whatever reason, researchers have embraced this idea that we should be having sex once a week — that it’s enough to sustain relationships and that it keeps depression, heart disease and obesity at bay.
But none of that research looks at how participants actually feel about that sex — other than feeling good that they can check the box for having done it.
You interviewed more than 120 women for this book. Many in heterosexual, long-term relationships told you that sex was an act of drudgery and that they often did whatever it took to get the job done. This felt sad to me.
I found myself feeling beaten down by the near ubiquity of stories of faking it in that context.
We tend to treat faking it as such a jokey matter. When the media reports on studies that try and capture the percentage of women who fake orgasm during sex, it tends to be from a male perspective saying “ouch” — focusing more on the bruising of men’s feelings that occurs when women are lying to them as opposed to concerns surrounding the fact that women aren’t feeling good.
That women are feigning their pleasure in order to hasten that experience along — I think we need to treat that with real alarm. We need to ask: What’s going on in that women are engaging in spectacle as opposed to actually allowing themselves to feel sensation?
Your book explores how some women have a low desire for sex. How does this happen?
Among the women who I spoke to, the persistent low desire was heavily associated with the idea that sex should revolve around penetration as the main course, with maybe a polite prelude of a foreplay, rather than thinking about sex as a broader universe of intimacy.
It’s the combination of a larger culture that privileges male sexuality over women’s, a culture that doesn’t teach women that pleasure belongs to them. A lack of anatomical self-knowledge. And feelings of sort of persistent danger and women being often censored and censured for expressing their desire.
You push back against the idea that the female orgasm is mysterious and elusive, which is how the media has sometimes described it. What would be a more accurate way to understand the female orgasm.
It’s more like riding a bicycle. You learn how to do it. And what we see is that as women become more versed with what their body can do, orgasm becomes more readily achievable.
The female orgasm tends to get wrapped up in these fuzzy terms like “elusive” and “hazy” and “mysterious” because women aren’t encouraged to explore what actually feels good. But if they were encouraged to self-pleasure and explore in real, sincere ways by themselves and with their partners, I think they would find that there is a world of pleasurable sensation available to them.
In your book, you say that the goal is for women to have a “profound sexual experience.” What do you mean by that?
It can mean a number of things, and I don’t think it necessarily has to be a sexual encounter in terms of our often narrow understanding of sex. The women who I spoke to describe it to me as feelings of transcendence, of approaching sex not just as a way for getting off or feeling good, but as a portal into a deeper state of self-knowledge.
They often use the word “spiritual” — the alignment of self, sensation and possibility. Pleasure so deep it felt like a homecoming, like they had been restored to themselves, to the depths of their potential. . .
Society tends to overly complicate female sexuality, we oversimplify men’s, and they also benefit from shifting dynamics around. . .
The Book Review Section Is an Insider’s View of Medical Writing.
* * * * *