NEW YORK – Has there really been a sexual revolution? One of the themes that 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, have not really been all that liberating for women. Many of the reactions to my book tend to confirm that belief.
Many responses were positive: the book is Publishers Weekly’s top science book of the fall. 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 are genitally mutilated, married off as children, raped with impunity, stoned for “fornication” and other sexual offenses, 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 are fleeing is sexual – and that the law does not validate the grounds for their asylum applications. Our societies do not 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 one-third of the US women surveyed reported that they did not have orgasms during sex when they wished to. Hite’s important assertion that there is more to female sexual response than penetration triggered a wave of information about female sexuality. Although The Hite Report initially spurred great controversy, 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 have 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 does not 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 in Montreal 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 and allow themselves to think about and anticipate rewarding sexual experience. (They are inhibited, of course, when women fear being stoned, mocked, shamed, raped or brutalized in response to their desire).
Similarly, a rich body of data, including many important studies by Alessandra Rellini and Cindy Meston, now links women’s arousal to their autonomic nervous systems (Rellini and Meston have even found that rape can affect women’s baseline ANS years after the assault). 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 wish enthusiastically 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 is nothing if not a “feminist” validation of many women’s intuitive experiences and needs.
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 unique nature of their sexual responses.
Here is one statistic that says it all: The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals claims that 30% of women do not reach orgasm regularly when they wish to, a proportion that has not budged since The Hite Report. Moreover, while findings vary, some estimates put the prevalence rate of “hypoactive sexual desire disorder”– a loss of libido – at about one-third of American women.
The fact that science is finding connections between women’s sexual experience and their emotions and perception should not 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 should not fear discussing the connections between the two that scientific 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.