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.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.