Has there really been a sexual revolution? One of the themes I explore in my new book, Vagina: A New Biography, is that the West’s supposedly sexually liberated societies, in which sexual images and content are available everywhere, haven’t really been all that liberating for women. Many of the reactions to my book tend to confirm that belief.
Many responses were positive. But the tone of some of the criticism – from “mystic woo-woo about the froo froo” to “bad news for everybody who has one” – suggests that even a culture in which millions of women are devouring a novel about sadomasochism (Fifty Shades of Grey) still has problems discussing women’s sexuality in a positive, empowering way.
We need to have that conversation. Around the world, many women are targeted because of their sexuality: They’re genitally mutilated, married off as children, raped with impunity, stoned for “fornication” and told that their desire makes them sinful and worthy of abuse. Natasha Walter, who works with refugee women in London, reports that most of the persecution they’re fleeing is sexual – and that the law doesn’t validate the grounds for their asylum applications. Our societies don’t take seriously women’s sexual integrity or crimes against it.
The modern history of female sexuality has been plagued with misinformation, embarrassment and sexual frustration. When Shere Hite published The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality in 1976, about a third of the U.S. women surveyed said they didn’t have orgasms during sex when they wished to. Ms. Hite’s assertion that there’s more to female sexual response than penetration triggered a wave of information about female sexuality. In the end, it was broadly accepted that women’s pleasure and sexual well-being mattered and deserved respectful inquiry.
But, in the past four decades, we’ve veered from informed discussion about women and their bodies into a raunchy culture of celebrity sex videos and zipless hookups in which women’s desire, arousal and satisfaction – let alone their (or men’s) emotional needs – rarely play a part. Even in this “enlightened” age, many find it difficult to acknowledge new scientific data showing that female sexuality doesn’t diminish or weaken women but strengthens them in some ways – whoever they are, of whatever age or sexual orientation, whether alone or in relationships.
Some critics have been upset by my argument that the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is related to motivation, focus and reward, is part of what can make sexual pleasure empowering for women. This argument is based on the latest science about dopamine’s role in arousal (as James Pfaus and his team at Concordia University have documented), as well as on well-established summaries of the literature (such as David Linden’s The Compass of Pleasure).
This research indicates that positively experienced mind states are boosted when women are supported by the society in which they live. (They’re inhibited, of course, when they fear being stoned, shamed, raped or brutalized in response to their desire.)
Similarly, a rich body of data, including studies by Alessandra Rellini and Cindy Meston, now links women’s arousal to their autonomic nervous systems. These and other studies link female arousal to women’s freedom from “bad stress” and support in relaxation – and in their having some sense of control over events affecting them. In other words, if you want a woman to enthusiastically wish to sleep with you for the rest of her life, you must act as a teammate on the issues that affect her stress levels. That’s nothing if not a “feminist” validation of many women’s intuitive experiences.
In fact, female and male sexual response differs in important ways: the length of response cycles, the role of “bad stress,” and the complexity of pelvic neural wiring (which in men is fairly standard, but in women is highly variegated and individualized). This finding should help women be less judgmental about the nature of their sexual responses.
Here’s one statistic that says it all: The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says 30 per cent of women don’t reach orgasm regularly when they wish to, a proportion that hasn’t budged since The Hite Report. Moreover, some estimates put the prevalence rate of “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” – a loss of libido – at about a third of American women.
The fact that science is finding connections between women’s sexual experience and their emotions and perception shouldn’t be cause for mockery, but for curiosity and respectful investigation of the facts. There are plenty of data on male sexuality and the male brain, and sound new science on the mind-body connection is transforming medical practice, from cardiology’s use of meditation to the use of talk therapies in treating breast cancer. If we respect both female sexuality and the female mind, surely we shouldn’t fear discussing the connections between the two that research is uncovering.
It seems odd to me that one would have to make a case for this in 2012. But, as we should know by now, the next sexual revolution – the one that actually values women as leaders, intellectuals and sexual beings – is long overdue.
Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic.