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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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.