Social Constructs Around The Female Orgasm
Maya Lavie-Ajayi of the Open University has attempted to analyze the female orgasm in the context of women's subjective experiences. She interviewed 50 women aged between 25 and 67 in an attempt to understand exactly what constitutes female sexual dysfunction.
She started from the widely accepted proposition that a high proportion of women have some kind of sexual dysfunction. The problem, as she observes, is that how many women are classified as having a sexual dysfunction will depend entirely upon how narrowly the definition of dysfunction is drawn.
Some observers may wish to propagate the view that sex without orgasm is unsatisfactory, that it is a real problem which needs a medical solution, while others take the view that female sexual dysfunction has been invented to serve the interests of industrial and professional bodies and not the interests of women.
This is, of course, a feminist position which takes the view that any pharmaceutical solution to the "problem" of a lack of orgasm during sex makes women subservient to the demands of a medico-legal-industrial-social culture which is essentially patriarchal.
And that might just be true, though with the advent of the medicalization of men's sexual issues, it is no less true for men.
Why men want to know how to give women orgasms
In other words, female sexuality has to be put into a socio-cultural context. For example how you define "normal", and whether or not you believe that an orgasm during sex is a criteria of normal sex, will rapidly define whether or not a woman has a "problem".
It follows quite quickly, at least in some minds, that a problem needs a solution to bring women back to the norm.
The interesting thing is that both sides of this debate justify their case on the grounds that they are meeting women's needs.
What has been termed the "biomedical" position is based on the proposition that women's entitlement to sexual satisfaction should not only be acknowledged but also promoted.
The opposing view, that is to say the feminist view, takes the position that medicalization of female sexuality in general and orgasmic response in particular is simply a way of enforcing women's subservience to the medical profession and the means of exploitation by the drug companies.
The correct approach from this position would be to promote a woman-centered definition of a satisfactory sexual experience, a definition that empowers women and challenges the imposed view of female sexuality.
You may well imagine how powerful the cultural conditioning of men is in this are, in the sense that they believe they are responsible for the female orgasm and the woman's sexual satisfaction. You see this in how many men search for the term "how to give a woman an orgasm" - about 9900 exact match searches per month in fact. Plus around ten times as many derived variations.....
As the author of the paper observes, the curious thing is that there has actually been very little research on what women themselves experience and need during sex, and even less into the meanings that they attach to their sexual experiences.
However, some studies have tried to investigate the connection between orgasmic frequency for women and the women's self-reported measure of satisfaction with their sex lives. Unfortunately most of the studies have found no correlation between these two factors.
Often here, though, the problem is that the social definition of what constitutes normal sex overrides any other factors: in one study where women with low rates of orgasm were interviewed, their most frequent complaint was the fear that they were not pleasing their partners.
This is a contextual view of orgasm -- that is to say, it's not about the women's own level of satisfaction, it's about the view that good sex must be sex in which they please their partners.
And, as anyone knows, women have a whole variety of sexual experiences and a whole range of responses to them.
So the absence of orgasm, and a woman's ability to reach orgasm during sexual intercourse, is not just about the pleasure that is or is not achieved during sex but is also about the social position into which anorgasmia places the woman and her concerns about her partner's negative response.
It's arguable that no bodily event has an absolute meaning: only by putting a bodily event into the social and cultural context can meaning be applied to it.
When you apply this thinking to orgasm, the conventional view that an orgasm is always necessary to have "good sex" becomes somewhat more questionable.
But of course many men would disagree, because in their efforts to please women, many men believe they are responsible for giving women an orgasm every time they have sexual relations.
Certainly we tend to see orgasm as the peak of sexual satisfaction, literally the climax in a process that begins with the development of sexual arousal in some way and culminates with the release of sexual tension through orgasm.
This is indeed the socially dominant view of sex, a view that's become very powerful and, according to some commentators, impossible to resist.
Nicholson and Burr (2003) found that women are comparatively unconcerned about achieving orgasm for their own enjoyment during heterosexual intercourse, but they still thought of it as important so that their male partners would be satisfied.
This is an interesting observation, because it implies that women see themselves as normal or abnormal by means of an external reference point: notably the satisfaction of their sexual partners.
But what about the women's own subjective experiences of orgasm?
If you take the view that women's experience of orgasm is grounded in their bodily experience before being developed into a cognitive experience molded by the social context in which they live, it becomes rather interesting to discuss British women's experience of the "problem" of lack of orgasm.
Our researcher interviewed 50 British women between 25 and 67 within three age groups: 25 to 32, 48 to 55, and 60 to 67 years of age. Half of the women in the study defined themselves as having problems with orgasm, while the other half did not.
The research, which was conducted on mostly white, heterosexual, and degree level interviewees who were in relationship at the time of the interview, used a systematic content and thematic analysis developed by Joffe and Yardley (2003) to identify themes that run through the women's accounts of their sexual experience.
The women unsurprisingly gave a variety of accounts about their experience of orgasm. And, equally unsurprisingly, the effects that "problems" with orgasm had had on them varied considerably: for some, orgasm was a significant factor in their lives.
For others orgasm had negligible importance, but the way that the women made sense of their experience was almost universally drawn from what can be seen as the dominant social context.
Is the absence of orgasm a real problem?
Many of the women in the interview did speak about the absence of orgasm as a relationship difficulty, an emotional difficulty, and a sexual difficulty.
Starting with the emotional difficulty, unsurprisingly, anorgasmia tends to be associated with feelings of frustration and anger and sadness and something less definable - "missing out".
The absence of orgasm induces feelings of frustration and anger in many women, whether at the time of the sexual experience or later in a more general sense beyond the context of the sexual relationship. Indeed, some women felt pervasive anger and sadness because they did not reach orgasm.
It was with particular poignancy that one woman described how she believed her lack of orgasmic experience set her aside from the "huge experience so many people have" -- an experience that she saw as inspiring people to "write things" and motivating people to "make the most dreadful mistakes in their lives because it is so wonderful".
She said she really felt that she had been denied something, and if she could have three wishes, being orgasmic would be right at the top of her list - even before winning the lottery.
With comments like this it's not hard to see how powerful the image of orgasm is in the cultural context in which we live. And living with such a powerful image is bound to create difficulties for women when it does not match their experience in relationship. The consequence of this can be a sense of inadequacy and embarrassment in all kinds of situations, especially when talking to friends about sex.
(This has a resonance for me of the way in which adolescent boys and some older men boast about sex, but rarely tell the truth about their actual experiences.
It's almost as if boasting about sex makes up for any perceived inadequacy, and forestalls the negative reactions of other individuals who may believe that a man is not up to the mark sexually if his performance falls below the implicit group standard of sexual activity.
One of the great tragedies of the dominant cultural context of orgasm is that women may be led to believe that they are inadequate in some way because they do not reach orgasm.
It seems that many women believe "real women" have "real orgasms" through "real sex" -- a surprising finding because there are many sources of information available which demonstrate very clearly that only a small number of women reach orgasm during heterosexual penetrative sex.
Even worse, many of these women are in fact orgasmic through masturbation or oral sex, but still feel it is a problem that they can't enjoy an orgasm as the result of heterosexual intercourse.
In many cases, the reason that they felt this would be a more desirable form of orgasm was because they saw it as a somehow "superior" orgasm, one that matched up to all the images presented in romantic literature and the media.
Absence of orgasm as a sexual difficulty.
Many women believe that the absence of orgasm is a sexual difficulty because it interferes with their sexual pleasure and perhaps even the level of sexual desire that they have.
Some women explain that the absence of orgasm demotivates them from engaging in sexual activity; others do not see the absence of orgasm is a problem in itself, but they believe that if they are demotivated about engaging in sex it will cause a problem because saying "no" to their partner might make him unhappy.
You can see here how the absence of orgasm has a negative effect, both directly and indirectly, upon a woman's ability to express her true sexual nature in a way that would be genuinely satisfying for her.
Relational difficulties caused by the absence of orgasm
Many of the women in the interviews said that the absence of orgasm was a problem in their relationships. This was mostly because there was an expectation that men would be able to satisfy their partners by providing them with an orgasm, and that they would always be disappointed if this did not happen.
It seems that the cultural context of female orgasm includes a belief that the masculinity and sexual competence of a man is dependent on his ability to give his partner an orgasm.
It follows, that if giving orgasms to their sexual partner is so important to men, they will put pressure on women to have orgasms. However, not all women see a man's desire to provide an orgasm for them during sex as a source of pressure. Some women take a different view: they believe it to be a sign that the man cares about them, an indication of his sensitive nature.
It is therefore no surprise to learn that a number of women regarded their partner's lack of concern as to whether or not they experienced orgasm during sex as a sign that their partners did not care about them.
Indeed, further investigation revealed that when women believed they had a relationship problem with lack of orgasm, the difficulty was usually about a lack of communication.
Specifically, women had difficulty in explaining their sexual needs and desires to their male partners: one of the most commonly expressed frustrations was that when women gained pleasure from sex in ways other than by achieving orgasm, they were often unable to persuade their partners of the fact.
Many women expressed discomfort with the idea of saying what they wanted during sex, or with turning down sex "too often".
All in all, it seems apparent that the social context of orgasm is such that a man is expected to give a woman an orgasm during sex, and if he does not do so, it is almost an indication that something needs to be done to put the relationship right.
Absence of orgasm and its significance for women
But over half the women who were interviewed for the study said that they did not see orgasm as a "big deal". These women did not see anorgasmia as a problem, let alone a serious one.
These women had a context for orgasm where the variable nature of sex and their own sexuality explained the absence of orgasm, or the role of orgasm in their lives was not especially important.
By affirming that they were both consistently and orgasmic, and not bothered by it, the women were able to put the absence of orgasm into a context which normalized their experience.
The interviewer observed that some women started by expressing the view that orgasm is important to women, and then later in the interview contextualized the absence of orgasm as of minor significance.
There is clearly an inconsistency here: it's as though women are only able to express their personal context when being specifically questioned about their own experience. As a generality, they tend to accept the widespread socially accepted context for sex and orgasm.
It may not surprise you to learn that some women appear to relish the status of anorgasmia as a real problem, one that requires attention, and holds the promise of some kind of cure.
Everyday psychology tells us that some people would wish to medicalize anything that could be a medical problem: either so that they can justifiably seek out attention from their GP, or so that they can complain about the fact that attention and resources for this problem are not available.
Either of these positions must be seen as a way to justify an internally helped set of beliefs. Equally, some women used the explanation that they were anatomically different to account for the fact that they did not reach orgasm during heterosexual intercourse.
Interestingly, none of them blamed their male partners for not knowing how to bring a woman off. Culturally, that is little bit surprising.
One woman said that "maybe she didn't have a G spot": the physical problem is being used here to distance herself from whatever implications anorgasmia would have for her gender identity. A sexual problem which impinges on one's sexual identity is very different to a physical problem which is just an anatomical variation.
Yet these can be incredibly important. When men look at the size of their genitals, nowhere is that fact more obvious. The distinction between a small cock (see many cock pictures here) and a large one can be very significant in how a man see himself and his ability to give a woman an orgasm - as well as trying to establish sexual confidence. Similar variation in clitoris size can be seen in the clitoris pictures here.
What if the female orgasm is in fact a social construct created by the dominant social context -- one that is inevitably influenced by men?
The feminists have responded to this by stating that we need to consider the ways in which female sexuality involves in our society and within the social relationships that populate our society.
It's not an unreasonable position to take, because common sense would suggest that female sexuality is deeply influenced by the social milieu, that the female orgasm is glorified, and that women therefore feel under pressure to have orgasms (on the grounds that any woman who does not have them is de facto abnormal).
Potts (2000) has suggested that our society sees orgasm as indispensable too a woman's sex life, which is the view mirrored by many of the interviewees in this study. Certainly that view is true among men who see themselves as largely responsible for knowing how to give a female an orgasm.
Indeed, many women saw orgasm as integral to the experience of having sex. But to suggest that orgasm is the only goal of sex, or even the most important goal, distorts sex for both men and women.
Those who promote this view of sex not only distort the reality of the human interaction that occurs during sexual activity, but are putting considerable pressure on women to conform to an idealized state which may not be appropriate either for them or for society at large.
And orgasmic can indeed be seen as stigmatizing women; very interestingly, many of the women interviewed for the study took a view against the "orgasmic imperative" when talking in the broad social context about cultural images of female orgasm, but when talking about their own experiences they presented a clear conflict between the pressure to have an orgasm in every sexual situation and their own experience.
The internalization of this conflict emerges as self blame which creates difficulty for the women who do not regularly experience orgasm.
They may see themselves as failures, or they may blame themselves, and they may be critical of themselves for such feelings.
They compare themselves with a standard in which they believe that everybody has orgasms - you only have to think of the magazine Cosmopolitan to see how true this is. It's a distorted view of female sexuality in society.
Journalists and editors on magazines like Cosmopolitan clearly have a responsibility to educate their readers about the reality of female sexuality, not to portray an idealized version in which a woman is regularly orgasmic whenever she wishes to be, with minimal stimulation.
It is not to say that promoting education and information about how to become orgasmic is a bad thing - far from it...it's just that a balance needs to be struck.
Female anorgasmia ultimately leaves women alone with an experience that does not fit into the wider cultural context. It seems that this could be the biggest problem that women have with orgasm!
Another problem is the comparison with men's orgasmic frequency which inevitably leaves women at a disadvantage: sexual normality cannot be imposed on women, because it places responsibility on women to somehow make up the difference between them and men and to adapt their sexuality to satisfy male expectations.
The absence of orgasm gains meaning for a woman through both the social context in which she lives and her interaction with a partner within short or long term relationship.
For example, he may convey his anxiety that she is not going to have an orgasm during sex, which will put pressure on her to do just that. Equally, if penetrative sex predominates in a relationship, and the partner is unwilling or unable to either provide orgasms through oral or manual stimulation, or he believes that a woman is abnormal if she doesn't reach orgasm during penetrative sex, the woman is bound to be impacted, probably adversely, by the subtle psychological, or even the direct, pressure which her partner puts on her.
The summary of this research was that the absence of orgasm and be experienced in several different ways by woman. Whether it is an emotional, sexual or relationship problem is massively impacted by the social context and relationship issues within which a woman lives.
That will also be true about whether or not a man regards himself as responsible for knowing how to please a woman and knowing how to give her an orgasm.
The author of the paper in question argued that the significance of orgasm is not independent of the social context. To sum up her views: sexual activity is a social process, one which allows people to express both their experiences and themselves by demonstrating and adapting their understanding of sex for both their own and the other gender within the culture of society.
Clearly, orgasm gains a meaning both from cultural context and relationship context. It's possible that women wish to medicalize the absence of orgasm because there is a link imposed upon them that suggests the absence of the female orgasm equals an absence of femininity.
Woman can openly acknowledge anorgasmia and reduce the social stigma only if orgasm is not universally regarded as the ultimate or only aim of sex and an indication of femininity and female sexuality.
The reality appears to be that many women do not in fact attach a high importance to orgasm through penetrative sex, and may not do so (albeit rather less frequently) for the experience of orgasm either. It seems clear to me that the medicalization of both female and male sexual problems should be resisted.
Furthermore, any negative associations attached to the absence of orgasm should be changed by changing the cultural beliefs around sex and orgasm.
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