Sex

Challenges to Women's Sexuality and Pleasure

Pleasure is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

Posted Mar 11, 2020

I recently had the pleasure of appearing on The Today Show, along with gynecologist Dr. Jessica Shepherd. Maria Shriver interviewed us about the current state of women's sexuality and pleasure.

How did I end up on the show?

In honor of Women's History month, Today conducted a poll to see how women feel about their physical, financial, mental, and sexual health. Some of the biggest surprises from the results had to do with sex. For example, 46% of females reported not being sexually satisfied. 

This statistic comes as no surprise to me.  For starters, people (both males and females) are having less sex. This sex recession is a trend across many countries. You need to be having sex to be sexually satisfied. But the General Social Survey (2018), a representative survey of Americans over 18 years old, reported that 23% of adults had no sex in the previous year. 

I view the dwindling of our sex lives like the canary in the coal mine. It focuses our attention on what I call a "pleasure crisis" in which people struggle with enjoying life in general. Data from the survey also show a record plunge in levels of general happiness for young adults. 

At the same time, there's a steep rise in stress-related disorders, anxiety, and depression. According to the World Economic Forum, depression is now the leading cause of illness and disability worldwide.

The sex recession and associated pleasure crisis is a big reason why I wrote Why Good Sex Matters. In future posts, I'll write more about how to work with our core-wired emotional systems. I call this approach operational intelligence, a kind of emotional intelligence 2.0.

What is driving the sexual recession and pleasure crisis?

Continuous partial attention is a term that describes how we constantly divide our attention. Think of it as being plugged into our devices always on standby. We wait for notifications, messages, likes, and other input. We are no longer present to the moment. We are no longer present to the people in the room. This hijacks our emotional brains and sabotages our capacity to connect to others. This contributes to the sexual recession and pleasure crisis.

This also results in higher levels of emotional distress. Our defenses of fear, rage, and panic increase. This robs us of the benefits of satisfying intimacy—both in and out of the bedroom. As it happens good relationships (intimate and otherwise) are the best natural mood stabilizers and stress-management tools known to man.

Why are we afraid to talk to partners about sex? 

According to the Today.com poll, sexually unsatisfied women were also afraid to talk about it with partners. This fear sabotages any possibility of improving their sexual lives. And fear drives yet more stress and disconnection. It becomes a negative cycle.

The first step is recognizing that this fear is part of a bigger picture. Our culture has an ambivalent love-hate relationship with sex. I call this "lewd/prude nation." Don't forget that our Puritanical roots are sex- and pleasure-negative. This shows up as a preoccupation with sex and avoidance of accepting our sexuality. Case in point? We don't do an effective job of providing sex education that is pleasure-positive. We don't empower women to speak up about their sexual wants and needs.

This same ambivalence shows up in big gaps in the literature when it comes to research. Sex scientists can't get funding. We are asked why we don't do something" important" like studying cancer. Case in point: It wasn't until 2011 that my lab mapped how sensations from the female genitals (clitoris, vagina, and the cervix) are processed by the brain. Basic wiring.

And there are still debates in the scientific literature about the existence of "the G-spot" and whether female ejaculation is a "real thing." These debates continue because of the stigma that prevents comprehensive research from being conducted to give us better basic information about our sexual selves. 

Our ambivalence about sexuality is even more glaring when it comes to women. We have a deep and wide double standard when it comes to women as sexual beings. 

Women are expected to be sex objects, based on appearance. We are flooded with images of the perfect female form. We obsess about our bodies. Some girls and young women develop eating disorders and body dysphoria. Females get the message that how our bodies look is way more important than how we feel in our containers. And when I discussed this with Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks, we agreed that one of the most toxic narratives we have as a culture is equating youth with beauty, particularly for women. Old equals ugly. We are simultaneously taught that our primary value is based on being sex objects, and that comes with an expiration date.  

No wonder women seek procedures such as plastic surgery, breast augmentation, and even labiaplasty—in which the erectile tissue of the inner lips of the vulva are "trimmed"—so that the vulva looks more like the "ideal" as pictured in porn

Pleasure is not a luxury, but a necessity for overall wellness

Women have an incredible capacity for sexual pleasure. As I have written, "When women learn to cultivate the pleasures of masturbation, we radically challenge some of the sex-negative notions pervading our culture. Rather than focusing on being a sex object for someone else, masturbation allows us to focus on being intrinsically sexual beings whose bodies are places of pleasure that exist at times just for us. It puts our pleasure first. And even more importantly, we take our bodies back as the source of our pleasure."

When we feel more entitled to pleasure, we can take matters into our own hands. We learn what feels good and what works. We can then feel more entitled to talk to partners about having more fun and fulfillment in bed. We become more equal in and out of the bedroom.

Facebook image: George Rudy/Shutterstock

References

Wise, N. (2020). Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Houghton Mifflin.