Killing Venus: The Crisis of Female Sexual Dysfunction in the Western World By Jacquelyn White

Class: Argument                                                                                                   Major: Writing ’13

    Becca, a senior in college, is dating a young man she met in her Senior Seminar. She finds herself extremely attracted to him. They have great chemistry, can talk for hours, find one another attractive, and have a lot in common. After several dates, they end up in bed together. Though the sex is overall pleasant, Becca does not achieve orgasm, but she lets it go. It was their first time sleeping together and she excuses her lack of pleasure because of the short amount of time they have been together. After several other sex sessions, they become accustomed to each others’ likes and dislikes, but Becca still finds herself unable to orgasm. And now here she is again, laying beneath him. She is enjoying herself, but is never able to reach climax. After the young man finishes, they lay side by side.“That was great. Did you cum?” he asks. Becca pauses for a moment. She doesn’t want to make him feel bad. She doesn’t want him to not like her anymore. She doesn’t want to make it awkward. Her choice is simple.“Yes, I came,” she says.

The young woman pictured in this scenario is not a rarity. She is one of millions of women who regularly lie to their sex partners about reaching orgasm. If you are a sexually active woman, it is incredibly likely that you have lied at least once to a partner about orgasming. If you are a sexually active man or woman who has female partners, it is incredibly likely that you have been lied to at least once—if not more—about your partner reaching orgasm during intercourse. Aside from simply leaving one sex partner unsatisfied, this epidemic of female sexual dysfunction has larger consequences ranging from individual to society and reflects issues in both the personal and societal attitudes of the Western world.

Killing Venus

Now that female sexuality is receiving more attention than ever before, Western society is becoming increasingly aware of female sexual dysfunction and its prevalence. And yet women do we not receive enough information on the topic, as we should. There is no single reason why women experience sexual dysfunction, but sometimes we cannot get past our dysfunction because do not communicate with our sexual partner(s) or seek the help of a professional. Instead, we might conceal it hoping that it will disappear or that we can deal with it alone. However, when we deny or lie about our orgasmic capabilities, this often worsens the problem.

Female sexual dysfunction is a broad term that can be defined in a variety of ways, depending on what kind of article you are reading or what sort of professional you are speaking to. It can cover a wide span of issues relating to the full sexual experience, ranging from lack of desire, to the inability to become aroused, to experiencing pain during intercourse, etc. The list of possible problems could go on and on. Though I do not wish to simplify such a complex issue, for the sake of this essay, I will define female sexual dysfunction as the inability to regularly reach orgasm through either manual, oral or coital stimulation, as it is the second most common form of female sexual dysfunction (see Figure 1). In this portion of the essay, I will be focusing on how social attitudes and psychological factors cause female sexual dysfunction.* A woman’s reasons for hiding her inability to reach orgasm are varied, stemming from different social, psychological, and sometimes biological sources.

Enculturation into the Feminine Ideal

Walter Stokes, an experienced marriage counselor who writes about the role of female orgasm in marriage, points out the fact that female sexuality has been marginalized in Western societies for centuries, based on Judeo-Christian beliefs that have defined the perfect woman as being virginal and free of sexual instinct.1 Women who are promiscuous or sexually aware are portrayed as evil and are often punished for their actions, such as the biblical figure Eve. Conversely, virginal women—such as the Virgin Mary—are put on a pedestal as an ideal of womanhood. These Judeo-Christian values were carried through into Victorian ideas of sexuality, which greatly influence contemporary views of the subject. All of these constructs cast women as “passive, devoid of desire, and subordinate to male needs and desires,” as Deborah L. Tolman, Meg I. Striepe, and Tricia Harmon point out in their article about sex education in relation to gender.2 These expectations of women’s sexuality—or rather the lack thereof—have not changed much since the Victorian age. Women are encultured into a society that demonizes female sexuality and we internalize these ideas in a way that inhibits us from reaching our full sexual potential.

This may seem an extreme viewpoint considering we live in a post-sexual revolution society. But contemporary Western society is still initiating women into a cult of purity that measures a woman’s value by the state of her virginity. Stokes cites a case where a woman describes her upbringing in a house where the code of morality was staunch, following Victorian ideas of sexuality. Before her wedding, the woman’s mother finally brought up the physical act that would result in children. The mother said that her daughter must “submit to revolting physical contact with her husband,” implying that sex was a woman’s duty, but not one to be enjoyed.3 This was further emphasized when the mother says, “I am sure you will not enjoy the sex act but if you should, never let your husband know, for no decent man can respect a woman who does”.4 This lecture the mother gave to her daughter embodies everything that is wrong with society’s attitude towards female sexuality. Not only is it considered normal for women to be dominated by the sexual desires of our partners, but we are expected to not enjoy the act for fear of admonishment. In this model of sexuality, a woman who is openly sexual and abandons herself to pleasure is a woman who can never be considered respectable.

Some might point out the fact that Stokes wrote his article during the sixties and that the woman Stokes interviewed grew up in different cultural circumstances than today’s average woman. But this is not the case. Many women are still raised with these Victorian, sexist attitudes towards sexuality. Josie Butcher, an experienced gynecological practitioner, refers to a story told by a woman who lost her sexual desire after having a child. Butcher came to the conclusion that nothing was physically wrong with the woman, but she had lost her desire for sex because she had made mothering her primary role and society constantly emphasizes “mothers are not sexual beings”.5 This contemporary example shows how society continues to ingrain archaic attitudes into women, even after the sexual revolution and the second wave of feminism.

Sex Education’s Role in Enculturation

The debate over what model of sex education should be used in the United States provides further proof that these Victorian ideas are still alive and well. Jessica Valenti, feminist writer and founder of the women’s rights blog Feministing.com, points out in her book The Purity Myth that contemporary morals being drilled into young women derive their value as people on the state of their virginity. Many of these ideas begin at home, but are greatly perpetuated by abstinence-only models of sex education. Valenti refers to a story told by a girl on Feministing.com who had been taught about premarital sex using a wrapped gift metaphor. To an audience of young women, the instructor said that the gift was their virginity, and then displayed premarital sex “by passing [the present] along…with each person stomping on the wrapped gift”.6 Using a wrapped gift to represent a woman’s virginity implies that it is our only virtue, and losing it ruins or destroys our value as people. This demonstration states a woman should not have or enjoy sex unless she is married, reinforcing ideas that make guilt-free sex incredibly difficult for women. Not only are these ideas misleading, but it communicates them with traumatizing tactics.

Abstinence-only education commonly teaches that women are not sexual creatures. Valenti cites an interview in which abstinence educator Janice Turner tells a reporter: “Girls give in to sex not because they want sex—it’s like a hug. If they can get that from their fathers, they won’t need it from a boyfriend”.7 Despite the disturbing comments about girls’ relationships with their fathers, she also implies that we would not have premarital sex were we given adequate attention at home. Here, Turner defines female sexuality as something that exists in the absence of love and affection, ignoring sexuality as something inherently existing in human beings. It is a point of view that completely rejects female sexual desire and harkens back to the simplified Victorian Magdalene archetype, or the fallen woman.

Enculturation and the Female Psyche. 

The aforementioned psychological issues that contribute to the need for denial or lying about orgasmic issues returns to the internalization of societal pressures and expectations inflicted upon women throughout our lives. I have already shown how social attitudes affect women’s psychology, which leads to sexual dysfunction. In these conditions, it is impossible for women to partake in guilt-free sex, a vital factor to achieving orgasm. Tolman, Striepe, and Harmon state that the internalization of gender norms such as these has “lead some girls to dissociate from their bodily feelings of…desire”.8 It is aggravated even further by the fact that female sexuality is heavily based on psychological factors such as fantasy and comfort level.9 This disassociation and repression of our own sexuality makes it difficult for us to discuss sex without embarrassment, which could possibly lead to the denial of a sexual dysfunctions or lying about orgasming. These sexual dysfunctions often perpetuate themselves when ignored because of the psychological aspect of female sexuality.

The Aftermath of Enculturation 

All of these factors are woven together to create a vast web of obstacles between women and our ability to seek help for sexual dysfunction. Though the denial of female sexual dysfunction presents a clear problem, some may see it as one with little consequences. An individual woman’s inability to orgasm—and her failure to communicate this inability—may have a negative effect on her sexual experiences, but what other problems does it cause?

The stresses of daily life can make maintaining a healthy relationship between spouses or long-term partners a difficult task, even when the couple has a satisfying sex life. A woman’s inability to orgasm during sexual activity—especially when she does not communicate this problem to her partner—can erode the foundations of an otherwise happy relationship. Stokes refers to a number of women becoming emotionally exhausted from “pretending a good erotic relationship with the husband” and attempting to solve their sexual dysfunction through cheating and/or extramarital affairs.10 He also states that he has “seen hundreds of marriages break up in the face of poor sex response by the wife,” further proving that lack of communication between partners can put cracks in even the best relationships.11 This not only applies to marriages, but any couple who attempts to stay together for an extended period of time.

Even if a woman does communicate her problem, continual failure to orgasm can make things difficult for a couple. Richard C. Robertiello, a therapist that focused his efforts on matters of sexuality, points out that achieving orgasm can become the sole focus of sexual activity for a couple, wherein sex is “[robbed] of its essence, which is a goal-less free surrendering of one’s self…without any plans of preconceptions”.12 This can also cause each member of the couple to feel inadequate, the woman experiencing the dysfunction feeling as though she is a poor sex partner and her partner feeling as though he or she is not doing enough to induce her orgasm. This could also lead to feelings of animosity towards one another.13 The couple needs to reach a mutual understanding of the problem, so that each partner may support the other with this difficulty.§

Female sexual dysfunction and the failure to properly talk about it can also take a huge toll on the psyche of the woman experiencing it, negatively affecting her relationships. As previously mentioned, a woman may feel pressure from her partner to achieve orgasm. This puts stress not only on their relationship, but on the woman experiencing the dysfunction as well.14 LeMon Clark, a gynecologist and sexologist who intensively studied vaginal sensation, discusses the case of a woman unable to achieve orgasm with her new spouse. The woman did not tell her husband about her problem, fearing she might hurt his feelings. Her inability to reach orgasm combined with the lack of communication left the woman “nervous and depressed” and “very upset emotionally”.15 The emotional stress that comes from being silent about the sexual dysfunction only worsens the problem, making a woman more uptight during sex, therefore rendering orgasm even more difficult to achieve.

This is an issue with very real and resounding consequences in Western society. The collective attitudes of this culture are inhibiting women sexually, making us feel unable to appropriately discuss our dysfunctions and—in some cases—inhibiting us to the point that it causes the sexual dysfunction itself. It is a problem that contributes to the ruining of relationships, divorces, and the psychological unsettling of women everywhere. It is a problem that needs to be solved sooner rather than later.

The Individual’s Resurrection of Venus

Because this problem is so deeply tied in with both individuals and society as a collective of people, the solution to the problem can be divided up into two parts. One consists of short-term solutions, or things women can do on an individual level to avoid and treat female sexual dysfunction. The other consists of solutions that would take place on a societal level and would be much more long-term, because they would take longer to put into action due to the needed shift of societal attitudes. Individual women can take various steps to avoid or cope with their sexual dysfunction. However, all of these steps may require a woman to venture outside of her encultured comfort zone. It may be difficult, but it is certainly not impossible.

Sexual Exploration

Various studies have shown that if a woman takes the opportunity to explore herself sexually, she can become less restrained during sex and/or become more comfortable with her partner. By “exploring herself sexually,” I am referring to exploration of the female sexual organs through anatomical drawings, observing her own genitalia, and masturbation. This is a common treatment for women with sexual dysfunctions caused by social attitudes or psychological problems.16 Exploring her sexuality in this manner allows a woman to become better acquainted with her body without branching out to other sex partners. Even if she were to take this second option, it is best for a woman to know her body thoroughly to fully enjoy sex. If she is not in a long-term relationship or married, she could seek out more sexual partners in a healthy manner, allowing herself to become more comfortable with her own body. There are studies that show that women with multiple sex partners—including those with six or more partners—reported having a higher sexual satisfaction and generally being more familiar with themselves sexually than those with one or few partners.17 However if this is the route we choose, we must seek out understanding and caring partners so that we continue to respect our own bodies. If we, as individual women, were to take more time to explore our own bodies and/or become well rounded sexually, this may help aid our sexual dysfunction problems.

Increased Communication

One of the most effective ways for an individual woman to treat her own sexual dysfunction is to communicate it to her partner and/or, if needed, a medical professional. When a woman lies to her partner about orgasming to spare the partner’s feelings or to avoid awkward conversation, she begins a cycle of misunderstanding between partners that makes it significantly more difficult to treat her sexual dysfunction. When a woman does not orgasm during sex, but tells her partner otherwise, the partner assumes the techniques used during that particular session were successful, and will continue to repeat these techniques to please the woman (see Figure 2). If these techniques never worked to begin with then the partner’s efforts would only amount to disappointment, but if the partner is made aware of the dysfunction, then efforts towards achieving orgasm can be changed accordingly. The woman can then decide whether it is necessary to seek the help of a professional, whether from a gynecologist and/or a psychotherapist.18

Society’s Resurrection of Venus

So we have established that the key to solving female sexual dysfunction on a personal level is becoming more familiar with our own bodies, acknowledging the existence of the problem, and communicating it to a sex partner and/or professional. Sounds simple right? Wrong. As shown above, we hide our dysfunction as a practice of enculturation. Our psychological aversion to the discussion has been created by negative societal attitudes towards female sexuality. Societal attitudes need to shift so that we may begin to feel comfortable exploring our own bodies, talking about sexual issues, and overall growing into our own sexuality.**

Changing Gender Constructs 

As stated earlier, we are continuously pressured to fit into the binary of society’s sexual view of women: the virgin or the whore, the Mary or the Magdalene. If society were to eliminate the prevalence of this idea, we may feel more comfortable exploring our sexuality in a healthy way. Negative constructs of female sexuality have a heavy impact on us, particularly when we are young. Even if alternative, positive role models of female sexuality are available, we often do not feel that we “have access to these constructions of female sexuality”.19 Because of this, society needs to start altering the mainstream view of female sexuality and abandoning the Victorian ideals that are still held today.

Changing Sex Education 

The key to changing society’s view of female sexuality is by changing sex education. The way society as a whole views sex will then follow these newly taught attitudes in time. Abstinence-only sex education in public schools needs to be eliminated or at least altered in a way that no longer uses fear mongering as a means of teaching women about our bodies. A young woman should not be misled to think that sex is something painful or something that undermines her value as a human being. This societal form of acceptance would allow us easily accept ourselves and view the representation of female sexuality in the media with a grain of salt. Public sex education also needs to be more in-depth when it comes to the functions and full anatomy of female genitalia, something often pushed under the rug in contemporary sex education programs.††

The only way sex education can begin to change is through the intervention of parents. Reform in this area would depend almost entirely on parents becoming more comfortable with discussing sexual issues with their kids. Parents who encourage their daughters to challenge the traditional views of female sexuality have been shown to give women positive views of themselves and their sexual experiences.20 All of these social changes are reliant on one another and all of them can only happen slowly.

Closing Comments

This is not a problem that affects a minority of women. Whether the internalization of societal sexual ideals result in difficulty orgasming or not, female sexual dysfunction and the social ideas that fuel it affect the lives and psyches of all women. They warp our body images, they keep us from fully exploring sexual pleasure without guilt, and they can ultimately ruin our relationships with others. To combat this, we must step outside of societal norms and explore themselves, communicate with our partners, and seek the help of professionals. On a social level, society must begin a slow crawl towards making female sexuality as acceptable as male sexuality, and be honest with kids about the nature of sexuality when they begin to hit puberty. If all of these solutions were applied, there would be significantly less women suffering from sexual dysfunction.

So What Happened to Becca?

We haven’t forgotten about our plighted college senior. Becca has again found herself in bed with the guy she has been dating from her Senior Seminar, now her steady boyfriend. They are enjoying one another’s bodies, but she finds herself unable to orgasm yet again. She has found it difficult to talk about her problem, not wanting him to think she does not enjoy their time together. He is a gentleman—always waiting for her to cum first—but she has routinely lied about her predicament. As he moves atop her, he looks into her eyes and asks the dreaded question.

“Did you cum?”

For a moment, she considers lying. But instead, these words emerge from her lips:

“Not yet.”

fig1Fig2

Bibliography

1 Walter R. Stokes, “Inadequacy of Female Orgasm as a Problem in Marriage Counseling,” The Journal of Sex Research 4.3 (1968): 226.

2 Deborah L. Tolman, Meg I. Striepe, and Tricia Harmon, “Gender Matters: Constructing a Model of Adolescent Sexual Health,” Journal of Sex Research 40.1 (2003): 6.

3 Stokes, “Inadequacy of Female Orgasm,” 226.

4 Stokes, “Inadequacy of Female Orgasm,” 226.

5 Josie Butcher, “ABC of Sexual Health: Female Sexual Problems 1: Loss of Desire—What about the Fun?,” British Medical Journal 318.7175 (1999): 42.

6 Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010), 102.

7 Valenti, Purity Myth, 102.

8 Tolman, Striepe, and Harmon, “Gender Matters,” 5.

9 Ibid, 5.

10 Stokes, “Inadequacy of Female Orgasm,” 228.

11 Ibid, 229.

12 Richard C. Robertiello, “The ‘Clitoral versus Vaginal Orgasm’ Controversy and Some of Its Ramifications,” Journal of Sex Research 6.4 (1970): 309.

13 Robertiello, 309.

14 Stokes, “Inadequacy of Female Orgasm,” 228.

15 LeMon Clark, “Is There a Difference Between a Clitoral and a Vaginal Orgasm?,” Journal of Sex Research 6.1 (1970): 27.

16 Josie Butcher, “ABC of Sexual Health: Female Problems II: Sexual Pain and Sexual Fears,” British Medical Journal 318 (1999): 112.

17 Kenneth J. Davidson Sr. and Carol A. Darling, “The Sexually Experienced Woman: Multiple Sex Partners and Sexual Satisfaction,” Journal of Sex research 24 (1988): 150.

18 Stokes, “Inadequacy of Female Orgasm,” 233.

19 Tolman, Striepe, and Harmon, “Gender Matters,” 6.

20 Tolman, Striepe, and Harmon, “Gender Matters,” 6.

Notes

* The medical aspect of this problem should be noted. Deeper medical or physical issues can sometimes cause inability to orgasm. Should these problems go untreated because of a woman’s hesitance to convey her inability to either a partner or medical professional, her condition could worsen.

† When I describe sexual morality as being “Victorian,” I mean that they reflect the strict code of sexual ethics that was held up by that society. This code reflected a over-simplified, dualistic view of femininity. In this view, a woman could either be a pure woman or a fallen one, a Mary or a Magdalene. These ideas imply that a woman who enjoys sex or is open about her sexuality is morally corrupt.

‡ When I refer to this problem as “self-perpetuating,” I am referring to the fact that a woman who is experiencing sexual dysfunction often becomes anxious about having sex, thus making it even more difficult for her to have enjoyable sex. This is not just the case with inability to regularly orgasm. Refer the vaginismus chart on page 111 of Josie Butcher’s “ABC of Sexual Health: Female Sexual Problems II: Sexual Pain and Sexual Fears” for an example of this self-perpetuation.

§ Robertiello and Stokes both point out that individual and couple’s therapy can be a good start to treating the problem. A couple may then be able to work on making the woman feel comfortable and assure that the partner does not take the inability to orgasm as a personal affront to his or her sexual prowess. However, one can never reach this point of understanding if the woman does not acknowledge and communicate the problem.

** I realize that waiting for societal attitudes to change require patience. However, part of that slow process of change includes the demand of said change, something that I am attempting to do with this essay.

†† Though there is growing interest in this area of study, the biological purpose and function of the female orgasm is in gross need of more research. Sexuality experts are still debating the existence of female ejaculation, whether there are differences between the vaginal orgasm versus the clitoral orgasm, etc. The better the academic world understands it, the more we will be able to teach young women about their own bodies. However, we should still be discussing these debates in classrooms to make young women aware and comfortable with discussing the female side of sexuality.

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