You Like It Like That: Pop Culture and Science Finally Care About Your Sexual Pleasure

Earlier this month, Cardi B stunned at the Met Gala in an elaborate scarlet Thom Brown gown that was an unmistakable ode to the clitoris. Almost exactly a year before, she told the world exactly what she likes, and exactly how she likes it, in “I Like It,” an unapologetically assertive anthem about female preference, female power, and most of all, female pleasure.
Cardi’s dress, like much of Cardi’s work — “I Like It,” “Money,” and “Please Me” — drive home the message that women want. They want morning sex, texts from exes, and a guy who can sweat their weaves out. But with her lushly sexual gown and mega hits, Cardi and her millions-strong fan base also signal a meaningful social shift: a growing conviction that what women desire and what gives them pleasure is interesting. More than mere icing on the cake, female pleasure is the cake — it matters. In the words of Dr. Victor Corona, a sociologist of gender and sexuality, “Pop figures like Cardi B can open up new terrain in how we discuss intimate behavior, and impact what we believe.”
From mainstream press proclamations about a female “pleasure revolution” to the growing #cliteracy movement to scripted series such as Wanderlust and Fleabag to cannabis products developed to enhance female orgasm, female pleasure is in the spotlight as never before. Now the question remains: How can we make this sentiment last?
Cardi’s cultural coup was on my mind and my iPhone playlist when I landed in Toronto recently for the 44th annual meeting of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research. The weather was chilly, but the conference vibe was warm, and I was struck, as soon as I stepped into the hotel buzzing with sex therapists, researchers, and educators, by just how many people doing sex research in the U.S. and Canada today are women (currently about 75% of SSTAR members identify as female). Looking out at the assembled, it occurred to me that we might call sex researchers — like our closest non-human primate relatives, bonobos — a female-dominant species.

More than mere icing on the cake, female pleasure is the cake — it matters.

Wearing red lipstick and standing tall in a black partly-leather ensemble a la Sansa Stark, Dr. Chris Creatura, a gynecologist, sexual medicine specialist, and abortion provider, shared her perspective on why female sexual pleasure matters. “It’s a reproductive justice issue. The ability to be sexual without fear of violence, and to control when or if we have children, is the most powerful gender equalizer of all,” she told me. Dr. Elisabeth Gordon, a psychiatrist with a passion for sex ed, playfully accessorized her pastel jacket with a travel vibrator necklace that looked like a long gold pendant, but her take on pleasure was serious. “The C.D.C. removed the word ‘pleasure’ from its definition of sexual health in 2011,” she observed with a shake of her head. “But we know increased sexual pleasure and sexual health correlate with higher self-esteem, economic gains, and improved quality of life.” Cake, not icing. “Yet in our culture, due to discrimination including double standards, women must learn how to allow, if not demand, all this for themselves.”
Bringing new perspectives and new forms of empathy and curiosity to their field, women researchers are improving the science of sexuality, sometimes by focusing on women’s subjective experiences of sex. Canadian biopsychologist Dr. Meredith Chivers’s all-female team, for example, shared her exciting new work on developing a way to measure women’s sexual desire, which tends to be responsive (many women feel desire for sex after they’re aroused, rather than the other way around). After viewing their preferred erotic stimuli in Chivers’s lab, female study participants reported increased sexual activity within three days. Women’s desire and pleasure aren’t more complicated as we’ve often been told, we just don’t yet have all the tools we need to understand, quantify, and support them — and neither do they. Yet.
Dr. Serena Corsini-Munt, whose work focuses on motivation theory as it relates to sexual desire, told me that she was intrigued to learn that many women who lack interest in sex continue to have it with their partners anyway. Why? With desire largely out of the picture, Corsini-Munt discovered that many women were having sex to meet a partner’s demands, avoid partner conflict, or live up to expectations — extrinsic rather than intrinsic reasons. This matters because data suggest that when motivations are more intrinsic (sex for pleasure), we experience greater well-being. In contrast, extrinsic sexual motivation could create desire difficulties: it’s hard to feel turned on when you’re doing it for someone else’s sake or to simply keep the peace with your partner.
Photographed by lula Hyers.
Of course, having an orgasm might be the best motivation of all to have sex, but even that isn’t immune to bias. Dr. Laurie Mintz, the author of Becoming Cliterate, was at SSTAR to discuss the phenomenon of gendered orgasm inequality. “Our culture is broken when it comes to female pleasure,” she told me over lunch, reminding me that women masturbating or having sex with other women don’t have an orgasm gap — while women who have sex with men who do. In part, this is because we have fetishized intercourse, from which men can orgasm relatively easily. Women, on the other hand, rarely come from intercourse alone. Most of us need clitoral stimulation like what we do for ourselves when we masturbate, such as with a vibrator. Yet a woman who uses a toy during intercourse may feel or be told she “shouldn’t always have an orgasm like that.” Meanwhile, it’s pretty hard to imagine telling a man he shouldn’t always have an orgasm from intercourse — because we just don’t police men’s sexual pleasure the same way we do women’s.

If women don’t expect pleasure, they will tolerate pain. We need to teach women to feel entitled to sexual pleasure

Taking it a step further, Dr. Debby Hebernick shared her research on what she called “The Everything Gap.” Crunching a decade’s worth of data from the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, she revealed that three times as many women as men had had sex that was only a little or not at all pleasurable; and that women were five times as likely as men to have had painful sex. Mintz’s words rang in my ears: “If women don’t expect pleasure, they will tolerate pain. We need to teach women to feel entitled to sexual pleasure.”
Important words right now, when your pleasure has never been more political — or more imperiled. Mostly male politicians are currently making a grab for not just your uterus, but your sexual autonomy as well. Their message is clear: we will not allow women to have sex without consequence. Particularly poor women and women of color. Shattering the pleasure ceiling, like breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, is meaningless if we aren’t all included.
The good news is that after researching female sexuality intensively for several years, I’m convinced there is no denying pleasure’s strong pulse right now. In addition to the women at SSTAR, there’s also Deesha Philyaw who shares the desires of Black, bisexual church women in her works of fiction and essays and Dayna Troisi, a self-described “queer bionic babe” with a sexy AF prosthetic arm, who does inclusive sex positive activism. These women and others are insisting that female sexual pleasure is a fundamental right that we won’t surrender without a fight. So go get it. It’s your right.

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