The setting is an undergraduate classroom at a large public Southern University where 640 students are enrolled in a class on Human Sexuality and Culture.
On the second day of class, the professor asks the class to brainstorm the meaning or purpose that sex has in various cultures, including our own American culture. "Procreation" one brave young woman calls out. "Pleasure" calls out an equally brave young man. "Is sex always for always for procreation?" the professor challenges. "No" say the students in unison amidst laughter and side conversations. "How about pleasure?" she queries. "Is sex always pleasurable?" A resounding "NO" erupts from the classroom. An observer in this classroom, I notice that this chorus of voices has a distinctly female ring to it.
How sad, I think to myself. Why, I wonder? My two best educated guesses follow. I certainly welcome other thoughts readers have on why these college women instantly, and vehemently, proclaimed that sex is often without pleasure.
My first explanation concerns the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, a grave problem that was the focus of a 2005 United States Justice Department report. According to this report, which compiled an array of research on the topic, one in five college women will be raped during her college career. In the vast majority of these crimes (between 80 and 90 percent) the victim and her rapist know each other. In fact, says the U.S Justice Department report, "...the more intimate the relationship, the more likely it is for a rape to be completed rather than attempted." It is no wonder, then, that half of all student victims do not label the incident "rape." It is with despondency that I guess that at least some of the voices who shouted "No" were not referring to bad sex but to rape--a crime of violence.
My second guess about the chorus of no's relates to a lack of understanding about women's sexuality that permeates our culture. Especially problematic are cultural myths about vaginal orgasms. In an interview for the Huffington Post, Liz Canner, the director of the must-see film Orgasm Inc., said, "One the most damaging sociocultural beliefs popularized by psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud was that women were supposed to have fabulous vaginal orgasms every time they had (heterosexual) intercourse. We know now, from the groundbreaking work of Shere Hite in the 1970s, that this is not true. In fact, 70 percent of women need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax." The importance of clitoral stimulation, and the myth of the vaginal orgasm, has also been the topic of some of my past PT blogs, including Orgasms: You Can't Fake it Till You Make It. The bottom line: Most women need direct clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm, yet culture still promotes the notion that women should orgasm through heterosexual vaginal intercourse. In her Huffington Post Interview, Canner talks about a woman in her film, Charletta. Canner explains:
Charletta participated in the clinical trial of a medical device called an Orgasmatron. She underwent painful surgery to have the device installed in her spine. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble having an orgasm, but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a "normal" way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don't climax through intercourse alone. According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies.
Movies portray intercourse as the route to orgasm for women. Strikingly, the movie Kinsey, showed in this same undergraduate sexuality class in which the resounding "NO" was heard, has a scene in which Kinsey's wife has a screaming orgasm through intercourse. In the movie, the character that plays Kinsey educates students about oral sex and manual stimulation of a woman's clitoris. Yet, when portraying Kinsey's sexual encounters with his wife, intercourse-induced female orgasm is front and center.
So, maybe the women in this class screamed "NO" because they are equating sex with intercourse and they either aren't aware enough, or assertive enough, to educate their sexual partners about the clitoris. Maybe this is why research finds sexual satisfaction in women increases with age; we older women finally know what we like and feel comfortable telling our partners about it.
I hope the women in this class don't have to wait another 20 years until when someone asks, "Is sex pleasurable?" they scream YES! Let's work to stop sexual violence on college campuses (something Joe Biden is behind) and to educate women about their bodies (with great books like I Love Female Orgasm) so that these young women can be a chorus of affirmative voices.