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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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.