The following passage is an extract from What Would De Beauvoir Do? by Tabi Jackson Gee and Freya Rose.
The female orgasm is a biological mystery and it is also a cultural one. It has remained something of an enigma, thanks to being largely ignored and in many cases even censored out of literature, movies and the media. But this is about you, not the media. Or is it?
If you are struggling to climax, you are most definitely not alone. Research conducted by the condom brand Durex in the Netherlands (published as "The Orgasm Gap") shows that almost 75% of women in the Netherlands and Belgium do not orgasm during sex, whereas only 28% of men say they don’t always climax. Durex calls this "orgasm inequality". It also found that lesbians have more orgasms than heterosexual women, so this affliction is more specific to women in straight relationships than any other group.
There are many reasons why feminists believe women feel the need to fake orgasms, and a lot of them have to do with, well, being a woman. Maybe you don’t want to hurt your boyfriend’s feelings. Maybe you feel like it is your fault. Maybe you are worried you will topple him off his masculine perch if you admit that you have never orgasmed and have been faking it all along. Maybe you just think it is the easy way out. Whichever it is, you are probably doing yourself and your boyfriend an injustice by pretending. But it may not all be your fault.
The myth of the vaginal orgasm
One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the female orgasm is: why does it exist in the first place? It serves no purpose in the exact act of reproduction (men can have sex with women and produce babies with the woman experiencing no enjoyment at all). Scientists have still not found an answer to this question.
Some people even go as far as doubting the very existence of the female orgasm. Feminists – and women full stop – have been fighting this misconception for a long time, and the importance of this battle cannot be underestimated. There are still cultures around the world where female pleasure is a sin, hence the horrific practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). This, many feminists would argue, is one of the main reasons why we still need feminism today.
The first scientific study of women’s sexuality was undertaken by American research team Masters and Johnson, who published their findings in a book, Human Sexual Response, in 1966. Two years later Anne Koedt (born 1941) wrote an essay on women’s sexuality, looking at the findings of Masters and Johnson from a radical feminist perspective. This essay was called The Myth of the Female Orgasm and it looked at evidence for the clitoral orgasm, female anatomy and reasons why the "myth" of the vaginal orgasm was (and still is) maintained.
Koedt explored how Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and his approach to women’s sexuality, or their lack of it, had reinforced misconceptions borne in the Victorian era about things such as hysterical behaviour and the notion that women were inferior to men. But she also considered whether his idea that women learn to be frigid as a natural reaction to men’s dominance may have some truth in it. Perhaps women and men are both afraid of female sexuality? It was these sorts of topics that Koedt was not afraid to tackle and, in doing so, she set a new precedent for what could and could not be discussed in the public sphere.
Are women simply frigid?
If you are "faking it" to your boyfriend, then clearly you belong in the group of people who do believe in the female orgasm. So what is going wrong? Australian-British writer Germaine Greer (born 1939) laments in her 1970 book The Female Eunuch that the reason women are so unfamiliar with their own sexual needs is because, from a young age, unlike boys, they are encouraged not to understand themselves. "The little girl is not encouraged to explore her own genitals or to identify the tissues of which they are composed, or to understand the mechanism of lubrication and erection. The very idea is distasteful."
Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86), who was remarkably ahead of her time in talking about female sexuality, took this comparison between men and women and used it to initiate a debate about the politics of sex. In The Second Sex (1949), she proposed that if a man has the desire to have sex, he will have sex, climax and then no longer have the need for it. For women, this progression does not appear to be so linear, or so simple.
The chances are, if you are finding it hard to orgasm, it could well be due to lack of experience and not knowing yourself well enough. As much as the female orgasm has been ignored, it has also been underestimated. How can you understand something so complicated if you are taught it is supposed to be easy?
Are the media to blame?
We see examples of this over and over again in the media. You and your partner have both seen movies and TV shows where women come at exactly the same time as their male counterpart, with zero foreplay and straight, penetrative sex. If women are learning from movies, books and porn that women can come like that, the next step is to suspect that if you can’t, there must be something wrong with you. You learn to improvise to avoid failing to fulfil your own and your partner’s expectations. You learn to lie.
As radical American feminist John Stoltenberg (born 1944) said: "Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men." In the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, Meg Ryan’s character famously tries to debunk some of these lies when she demonstrates how easily she can fake an orgasm, attempting to persuade Harry that he may not be the sexual impresario he thinks he is. "It’s just that all men are sure it never happens to them and most women at one time or another have done it," quips Sally. "So you do the math."
The feminine mystique
During the so-called Sex Wars of the 1970s, feminism focused a great deal on sex, pornography and censorship. In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan (1921–2006) used popular psychology of the time to try to understand women and their sexuality. She argued that in the absence of agency and exploration, women "evade human growth" and "will never know sexual fulfilment and the peak experience of human love until they are allowed and encouraged to grow to their full strength as human beings".
Friedan quotes a 1930s study by psychology professor Abraham Maslow (1908–70) where the relationship between sexuality and "dominance feeling" or "self-esteem" or "ego level" in women was examined. Contrary to what you are often shown on TV and in movies, the research found that the more dominant the woman, the greater her enjoyment of sex and the more easily she orgasmed. These women were more themselves, Friedan noted, and therefore they could give themselves to love.
But in reality this does not happen often, says Friedan. During a woman’s first sexual experience she understands that she is there to facilitate the male orgasm. She is playing a part in a fantasy where the woman must be submissive and please her partner, as she does in everyday life.
YES, YES, YES!
Making a decision
Friedan and her contemporaries argued that only a woman who is able to express herself in everyday life can reach orgasm and thus take a leading role in her own (sex) life: "The transcendence of self, in sexual orgasm, as in creative experience, can only be attained by one who is himself, or herself, complete, by one who has realized his or her own identity," she wrote (Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, page 263). The female orgasm does exist. And your right to orgasm is a woman’s right. A human right. Seize it.