Sexual inequality: in search of the female orgasm

Male sexual dysfunction is a multi-million pound business, while women are taught that scented candles and ylang-ylang should get them in the mood. There has to be another way.

The female orgasm has always been shrouded in overpriced lingerie and mystery. Why doesn't it happen the same way as it does for men? Why can't biology just make everything a little bit fairer and stick the clitoris inside the vagina, so we can all have a whale of a time during straightforward penetration? What the hell is the G-spot and how does it contribute? And, perhaps most cruelly, what's the necessity for its existence at all?

Of course, there was a time when so-called medical professionals genuinely thought that women were having them on, rather than having it off, when they spoke about experiencing orgasms. It took years for the powers-that-be to accept that men and women undergo very similar feelings, generated by very similar muscular contractions, when at the peak of a particularly fun game of ins-and-outs. But the female orgasm is a lot more difficult to prove, identify, and quantify than the very visual proof of a male climax. This has given rise to a twofold problem: medically, almost all research into female sexual experience becomes fixated on developing the “female Viagra” and other such money-spinners, which is at best reductive. And socially, we normalise the idea that girl-cum is so very mysterious, so hidden and so rare that we should all accept its absence or scarcity between the sheets, and put it down to a case of biological misfortune.

But is the female orgasm really that elusive? For most women, it doesn't happen as reliably or mechanically as in the case of most males (general consensus: stick some kind of implement down there and something will happen.) But at the end of the day, the clitoral tissue is basically the head of the penis, being as it is a foundation of penis formation in foetal development. In other words, we've got some good plumbing going on down there. And so we shouldn't take it lying down (pun intended) when a partner or a newspaper tells us – as they are wont to do, now and then - that we should have seen cumming as a bonus, not an expectation.

In her amazing analysis of sexual history, Bonk, Mary Roach noted that if a woman's clitoris is more than a thumb's distance away from the entrance of her vagina, it renders it virtually impossible for her to climax through penetration alone. Self-reporting suggests that the lucky few comprise about 25 per cent of the female population, so we'll most likely never be able to solve the woes of female sexual dysfunction with bendy vibrators or extra-ribbed condoms. Our orgasms may be almost identical to men's in terms of sensation, but the road to them is different. And that difference shouldn't be an excuse for dismissal: unfamiliar territory should be explored and understood in its own context, rather than fobbed off as “probably unfathomable”.

If we start to see the world in terms of the sphinx-like orgasm and the unknowable clit, it just doesn't bode well for anybody's sex life. If, as was reported this week in Jezebel, women are reporting in their droves that they hardly ever achieve the big O during casual sexual encounters, then something about our culture has gone awry. This is a culture that has boldly trod where men previously feared to tread: we've discussed premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, and the menopausal dips in sex drive with an increasing awareness and sensitivity, all the while acknowledging that almost all of us will come across sexual roadblocks in our lifetime.

We live in a world where solutions to losing your boner are plastered across tube trains, and Viagra is as well known a drug as Paracetamol. But when it comes to women being unable to reach orgasm, we are all too often sold the line that it's just part and parcel of being female, most likely our own fault for being so unlike men. The message is that cumming, if you're one of the ladies, is an addition rather than a legitimate demand.

When women speak to women in the media about their orgasmic woes, it isn't much better. Magazine tips on female masturbation always suggest lighting candles or treating yourself to your favourite bubble bath before an attempt to hit the point of no return, as if your vulva is genetically programmed to recognise and respond to a romantic setting (with the actual partner presumably an unnecessary appendage.) Rags for teenage girls suggest that you have to scatter rose petals across your duvet and bang on the whale music rather than merely tune into your sexual identity when it comes to a spot of wanking (although J-17 did once manage to dedicate a feature to tackling the issue head-on, pillow-mounting tips and all, which was a welcome break from a media shitfest in which a couple of drops of ylang-ylang was supposed to get you seeing stars). It all seems a bit of a tall order. Nowadays, most men don't even have to pay for the dinner to expect a mutually enjoyable session of heavy petting in the carpark, so the idea that you have to court your own clitoris like a fleshy pink princess is really pushing the boundaries of twee.

It goes without saying that most partners aim to please; it was way back in 2003 when Outkast sang in “Hey Ya”, with characteristic honesty, that they “don't want to meet your mamma, just want to make you cum-ah”. While that might not have seemed like the most profound message at the time, it spoke enough about the kind of sexual liberation that we all need: one where our bodies aren't seen as linked by some glittery umbilical cord to old-fashioned courtship, teddy bears clutching cuddly hearts, and boxes of Thornton's chocolate. Instead, they're flesh-and-flood manifestations of human sexuality that deserve equal participation in an amorous encounter.

Your nearest squeeze should never dismiss your lack of orgasmic incidence because “women never cum anyway, and we didn't have a scented candle”, and neither should your doctor or your nearest sociological researcher. Everyone deserves a partner who takes more than a passing interest in making sure that the sesh was reciprocal - and the science of sexuality needs to become less pharmacologically inclined if we are to see the appearance of genuinely helpful advice. While we may have progressed in leaps and bounds since the dark days when our hymens were seen as our husband's rightful property, the sexual landscape remains unequal. And everyone deserves a damn good orgasm, so let's get experimenting.

 

An exhibit about male and female orgasm at the Amora Sex Academy in London in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.