Embracing Female Pleasure
I love talking about sex with my girlfriends. Describing the intimate, raw, and sometimes awkward moments of our experiences with sex strengthens our bonds as women and as human beings. We talk about the lead up, the foreplay, the one-night stands, the sex-on-Saturday arrangement, the positions. We giggle, console each other, or just marvel at the differences in our experiences.
My best friend, who is 19 like me, and many of my other friends have not had sex. Their experience is a completely normal one. According to Her Campus’s Ultimate College Girl Survey 2012, which surveyed over 2,500 college women across the country, 43 percent of girls were still virgins at the time that they responded to the survey. Twenty-two percent lost their virginities between the ages of 18 and 19 and 4.5 percent did between ages 21 and 23. This indicates that it's hardly uncommon for young women to remain virgins for at least part of their freshman years of college, if not longer.
While some of my friends who are virgins resign themselves to the fact that they just “can’t relate” to my sexual experiences, some of them also express anxiety and insecurity about their virginity. Some of them see sex as a milestone of adulthood and they are eager to “get it over with” particularly before they turn 20, even though I have told them that the physical act of sex will not necessarily change their outlook on life or their maturity.
But beyond shame or anxiety, the mechanics of sex itself are a mystery to many of my friends. One of my friends described her knowledge of sex using an analogy to math: “I understand basic algebra,” she said. ”But I don’t understand calculus.”
When I asked her what exactly she was confused about, she said she understood the basic act of heterosexual intercourse but didn’t understand the details — like how the act progressed and how it ended.
“Well, have you had an orgasm?” I asked her. She said she wasn’t really sure.
“Have you masturbated?” I asked.
I was sitting in my friend’s bedroom with two of my other friends when I asked these questions, which led to a new level of awkwardness among us. We are all 19, but I am the only one who is sexually active. One of my friends said that she masturbates, one said she had never masturbated, and one remained silent.
My friends are hardly the only women who seem inclined to avoid the topic of female masturbation: This taboo seems pervasive in all realms of society. Even though a 2010 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, showed that more than half of women ages 18 to 49 reported masturbating during the previous 90 days, I personally have never seen a reference to female masturbation in a movie or TV show except for Sex and the City. To be fair, I also had never talked about my masturbation habits with my friends before this conversation, even those who are sexually active — which seems particularly odd given the amount of graphic details we feel comfortable exchanging about sex we have with other people. But the more I talked to my friends about their anxieties about sex, the more preoccupied I become with the realization that the majority of these women had never explored their own sexuality through touching themselves.
Men don’t seem to have this problem. Male masturbation is much more normalized and frequently practiced than is female masturbation: Statistically speaking, only 7.9 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 29 masturbate two to three times a week whereas 23.4 percent of men do. It seems this gap is likely do to oppressive gender norms: While women are encouraged to seek pleasure through men instead of feeling empowered to create it themselves, it is as perfectly acceptable for men to seek pleasure through women (and often at their expense) as it is to explore themselves through masturbation.
It also seems that some of young women’s confusion about the female orgasm probably stems from the portrayals of heterosexuality to which they’re regularly exposed. When sex is portrayed in movies and TV shows, it is almost always in the form of a heterosexual pairing, with each partner reacting to how the other person is touching them. And that is essentially what sex is about: being touched by another person in a way that feels good. But how do you know what feels good to you if you have never felt what is an arguably important part of sex: an orgasm? How do you know that this is okay, that this is normal, if it’s completely absent from any and all media related to sex? And young women who don't identify as heterosexual are offered even fewer resources or forms of representation.
Although most young women likely agree that they have sex for reasons other than procreation or pleasing men, the idea, reality, and active pursuit of female sexual pleasure is still largely elusive. This is true in the context of relationships and, as I recently learned, is also something many young women have internalized about their relationships with themselves. The pleasure that comes from sex is a unique part of being a human being, regardless of gender, and women should be able to actively seek out pleasure in any way they can — just like men.
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