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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses