What we’re not saying when we talk about the female orgasm

The female orgasm has been talked about in the papers plenty in this past week. And for good reason: The Journal of Experimental Zoology published a study hinting at a breakthrough in determining its evolutionary origins. It seems it all began over 150 million years ago, from a mechanism in mammals when ovulating after sex.

To break it down: there are some mammals that only ovulate when they’re ready for that egg to be fertilised. Uterus-bearing humans ovulate every month, whether or not they’re having sex, and whether or not they’re ready for their eggs to be fertilised. The authors of the study consider that the female orgasm began life in the first camp as a mechanism linked to selective ovulation, but through evolution became unnecessary in the reproductive process. Now, it remains only as the pleasurable rush of sensation when a woman is at a peak of sexual enjoyment.

Naturally, debate has ensued. Does the female orgasm really have no biological function? Is it a byproduct from the development of the male orgasm? Elisabeth Lloyd of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction points out that the researchers have defined the orgasm exclusively in terms of hormonal surges: “there’s a lot more to female orgasm than hormonal surges”, she says. Barry Komisaruk of Rutgers University disagrees, and argues instead that because female orgasms have unique properties, and are different from a man’s, they are likely to have a unique (and unknown) function.

What nobody is talking about, however, is how most people don’t talk about the female orgasm, and how that feeds into hidden sexual problems and a destructive culture of shame and silence.

If you’ve ever tried to Google helpful information about anything to do with the female orgasm, you’ll know how frustrating it is to be met with literature that is either saccharine pages of publications like Cosmo (‘What the big O feels like for me’), or watery medical sites that tell us that some of us *might* experience it, others not. Sorry about that, Dear Reader! There’s also the odd Men’s Health article in there (“Give her the big finish she deserves”). Sigh.

Aside from sensationalising something that should be celebrated as one of the purest, and most intimate feelings and functions of our body, literature like this encourages ideas of competition around sex. We’re indirectly told that successful sex invariably leads to an orgasm, with increasing pressure on both men and women to perform ‘properly’ to get there. There’s a clear right and wrong way to ‘do it’, with the female orgasm the coveted trophy to reward an hour’s hard work.

I went to an all-girls, strict Catholic school. My parents are conservative and Catholic. I learned of the female orgasm by accident, during my first sexual relationship. I had no frame of reference and no clue what was happening. I didn’t think to question or explore; I thought what happened to me was just what happened when girls had sex. Something that wasn’t up for negotiation.

As an adult looking back, it’s strange to think how narrow my understanding of sex, and sexual sensation was at that time. I learned years later that what I experienced then was only the tip of the iceberg in discovering my body, and the different ways it coalesces with the mind in responding to sensation. Thinking how little I understood of myself then is a bitter pill to swallow.

I was never told, or grew to imagine the possibility of exploring or considering non-genital sensation where it came to sex. Masturbation was something boys did; certainly not spoken about as a girl. When sex was spoken about at school it was always in terms of who had done what; gossip about whose social standing might benefit from their new sexual status, and who would be branded ‘slutty’.

Why? Because the culture surrounding sex is fraught with shame and fear. The word ‘slut’ rings out in almost every young teen’s vocabulary (or at least it did when I was at school), while conversations about sex almost invariably exist in areas where all players have their defenses up. Sure, there’s a visible competitiveness in sexual bragging in lad culture, but among girls, there lingers the fear of judgement. Fear for being called slutty; fear for others thinking you’re prudish or ‘not good’ at sex. The myth that women and men need to have a certain type of ‘successful’ sex to be inherently worthwhile pervades.

The latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found that there’s a lot of young people who experience sexual problems, including anxiety during sex and having an inability to climax. For women, the most commonly experienced issue was reaching orgasm. Around 1 in 5 participants reported having trouble experiencing climax. The results, as reported by The Guardian, are a concerning read.

This tells us that many young adults are discovering their sexual selves in a process where the stakes are too high. There’s a fear you’re not ‘doing it right’; not feeling the ‘right’ things, or experiencing what both pop culture and social messaging tell us we’re meant to be experiencing.

Of course, my upbringing cannot masquerade as a mouthpiece for a generation, a gender, or a universal experience. It can however expose social patterns of taboo, and structures of power and judgement. It can highlight a way sex can be socialised into human experience, how it can be repressed, and how it can be misunderstood. And, for some, how it can be discovered.

There is now a sex start up called OMGYES that seeks to break taboos surrounding the female orgasm. They conduct and share new research in the field, and for a one-off subscription fee offers a range of interactive, educational videos. Vice bills it as “a position book for the future”. It’s a brilliant step in the right direction.

Germaine Greer notes in her eternal classic The Female Eunuch that we’re largely socialised to imagine sex as something purely genital. “Women’s sexual organs are shrouded in mystery,” the chapter Sex begins. Later, she hits the nail on the head as she implores us to imagine sex instead as a whole-body experience:

“Real gratification is not enshrined in a tiny cluster of nerves but in the sexual involvement of the whole person. Women’s continued high enjoyment of sex, which continue after orgasm, observed by men with wonder, is not based on the clitoris, which does not respond particularly well to continued stimulus, but in a general sexual response. If we localize female response in the clitoris we impose upon women the same limitation of sex which has stunted the male’s response.”

The same survey found that young people are very unlikely to seek help for sexual problems: just 4% of men, and 8% of women had visited a GP, psychiatrist, or qualified sexual health professional. More had turned to family, friends, or the interwebs (36.3% of women; 26% of men), but I ask you: in a culture of silence and shame, what new information can they hope to uncover? When the social price to pay for being seen to be ‘bad’ at sex; to not be doing it right is so high, how can we really trust the veracity of responses we mine?

Stigma, fear, and silence surrounding sex need to be addressed and consciously fought against. Sex, and our sexual identities are things that sit at the core of meaningful human relationships and the way we understand ourselves. Living inside your body without understanding it can hardly be worth the price of self-preservation that staying tight-lipped affords.

Mon

Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.