Whew. She's here. My baby. This post has been a labour of love and I'll explain why shortly, but out of my metaphorical vagina she has been birthed, and I invite you all to christen her with your time and attention (no baby headbands though - they give me the creeps).
Last week I shared a straightforward poll on my Instagram Stories, asking: “are you sexually satisfied? And are you happy with your sex life?”. Of the 6123 people that responded, 50% answered no. HALF of the respondents - 3060, to be exact - said that their sex life did not satisfy them. In 2019! HALF!
Being the Instagram Poll that it is, we can hardly chalk the results up as the peak of scientific data, but I do think it proffers a necessary question that I’ve been considering for some time now: why in this era of “post-liberation” - of women being encouraged to masturbate and learn their own pleasure; of women being able to sleep with who they want, when they want; of women not being dependent on a man for sexual pleasure and power - are so many of us sexually dissatisfied?
For clarity, I’m only really considering female sexuality here, and primarily heterosexual relationships, although a woman’s relationship with herself is intrinsic to the question. Before we dive in, it feels necessary but obvious to confess that I’m no expert; I’m as clueless as any other 25 year old who has read a few books and asked a few questions, so the purpose of this post isn’t to offer instruction or preach perfection. Rather it’s a space to share experiences, and look at some of disconnections I’ve realised are hindering my own sexual satisfaction, as well as the satisfaction of others. You may agree or disagree - that’s fine! - but as long as we’re having a conversation, then it’s a good start. I can only offer the experiences of myself and those who have chosen to share with me, so the sample pool, as it were is, distinctly limited. Again, what is included here is not intended to be representative of all women at all times. It’s also worth noting that my understanding of and thoughts surrounding sexuality develop with time, so in two weeks time, I’ll likely have a different viewpoint than that which I’ve expressed here. Sexuality isn’t a static thing, I’m learning.
Well, where do we start? Some might remember that the seed for this post began to bloom during the late summer of last year, when I picked up Naomi Wolf’s Vagina: A New Biography and, out of interest, published the same sexual satisfaction poll as above to my Instagram audience. Up until this point I had considered myself mostly happy with my sex life. In a previous relationship the intimacy had been lacking which contributed somewhat to our break-up, but in my current relationship, it was great. At the time I had a high libido (something I’m also learning is that libidos are not static - they flux with environment, hormones, emotions, relationships, illness etc. etc.) and would often feel disgruntled that my partner was not thinking about sex all the time as I was, but I recognised that this was partly rooted in a need for my self-esteem to be boosted by the idea that I was found attractive. Other than that, I often had orgasms (though I have never vaginally), the sex was varied and exciting, and I felt like we were a good match for each other.
Then the results of the poll came in as 53% unsatisifed, and I thought ‘surely not? Really?! That many?!’. Women shared their own personal experiences with me - intimate stories that I feel privileged to be admitted to - and I kept reading and researching, eager to understand what it was that was missing from so many of our sex lives.
The more I digested, the more I came to realise that I had only a surface perception of what my own sexuality was. I thought that having the freedom to make my own sexual choices and being confident in my sexuality meant that I was “liberated” and fulfilled, but it became clear that everything I thought I had sussed about sex was in fact either a lack of deeper understanding, or naive misinformation. It was really jarring and directly affected my sex life. I started to question all of the things I thought I enjoyed, because, actually, did I really enjoy them? Or did I enjoy the pleasure it delivered to my partner? I had grown up in a post-dependent culture which rejected the requirement of a man for sexual pleasure and freedom, and as a result, I actively pushed away the need for what might be seen as “feminine” - affection, tenderness, loving respect and a deeper connection - because I wanted to mirror the idea of dominant masculine sexuality. I wanted to be as good as, so soft touching and slower paces and intimacy gave way to roughness, speed, and whatever I felt was most weird or shocking. And I revelled in that shock factor because there was a power in people’s responses that made me feel “different to other girls”. 'She's done WHAT? Fuck, she knows what she wants.' In that tornado I thought I’d found sexual confidence and satisfaction, but I had in fact been burying my vulnerability and thus wrongly assuming that climaxing was enough.
Writing this post then felt like a gargantuan task. How could I possibly string out a few thousand words surrounding a subject that had just fallen away from my feet? It was like opening a yogurt top and finding an ocean beneath. There was SO MUCH, and it was all mostly new to me. So I postponed the writing and stopped reading the book, because all at once I was distrusting of myself and the reasons as to why I wanted to have sex so often. I felt I didn’t know myself in the way that I thought I had, and I wanted to take time to build up a sense of my sexual self again. It’s taken a few months and some strange conversations with myself, but here we are. I feel I have more respect for my heart and for my body, and I'm starting to recognise that which provides a more sustained feeling of fulfilment beyond the sex acts themselves. But before I talk about what I have and am learning, let's first look at some of the many reasons as to why women may be dissatisfied with their sex lives.
Let’s set the scene. From what I’ve read, what has been shared with me, and from my own experiences, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of possible reasons for sexual dissatisfaction:
- Frequency (or infrequency) of sex. Either in the sense that a woman feels guilty for not matching the higher libido and advances of her partner, or in that she feels ashamed and alienated for being the partner with the higher libido (men are most often portrayed as the “sexual aggressors” so we feel lacking in some sense when that isn’t reflected in our relationship. ‘Why doesn’t he want to have sex with me?’). For women with a higher libido, the sexual appetite as it were is also not satiated as the frequency of sex isn’t high enough.
- Insecurity and low self image. Many women reported insecurity and low self-image as a reason as to why they do not enjoy sex. They’re conscious of their body and how (unflattering) they think it looks, and so they aren’t able to enjoy sex or share their bodies comfortably (women wanting to keep their top/bra on or wanting to have the lights off during sex is a good example of this). This also leads to thoughts that their partner isn’t genuine in their attempts have sex with them, and are just doing so out of animal instinct or obligation.
- Shame. As much as some of us might feel we’ve been “liberated” from the Victorian ideas of shame surrounding female sexuality, many of us have either internalised this from our adolescence (slut-shaming such being called a ‘sket’/‘slag’ in school or beyond, for example) or still experience shame in the current day. Sexuality then is something to be moderated to the prescribed ‘acceptable’ form or hidden for fear of reproval. This could be the case for those from certain conservative, religious, cultural, or heteronormative backgrounds, or for those who are at odds with their sexual preferences/kinks and feel they must make aspects of themselves smaller to avoid peer judgement.
- Hesitancy to be honest about sexual preferences. For so many of us, our instinct is to offer/to accept that which is most pleasing to our partners. Think about how many conversations you’ve had with your female friends, within which you’ve confessed you don’t like a certain thing your partner does. You don’t share this information with them because you don’t want to hurt their feelings (especially in the case where they’re very eager to please but are ultimately misguided), and so you continue to allow the displeasurable acts to happen and this hinders your ability to truly relax and enjoy sex, even if you eventually reach orgasm. Some women also expressed certain kinks or desires which they believed their partner would not be receptive to, and so they suppressed these preferences for more ‘acceptable’ and ‘vanilla’ sex.
- Hormones and contraception. Of the many people I’ve met in my life who have taken hormonal contraception or have menstruated, I can’t think of a single one who hasn't expressed some change in their libido. Hormones can wreak havoc with your sexual appetite, and as such, your sexual satisfaction (most said that contraception either dramatically dampened or completely wiped out their libido, whilst others said their natural menstrual cycle caused them to be both wildly emotional and super turned on at the same time - something which was uncharacteristic and often unsettling).
- Pregnancy and having a baby. Following on from hormones, pregnancy and having a child can drastically affect a woman’s relationship not only with her own body, but with her partner or potential partners: there’s fatigue, sickness, fluxes in emotions, a decrease or increase in sexual appetite at various points during pregnancy, followed by even more fatigue and a complete shift in the dynamics of relationships. Many expressed time as a difficulty in the sense that it becomes extremely limited and you have to be more creative to continue intimacy, and others also noted that the changes in their body post-pregnancy led to a lower self-image. The idea of the body has changed from a potential base for sexual pleasure to a miraculous, functional form. Boobs become more than a tit-pic, as it were, and with the focus on raising the child/children, sexual satisfaction can fall on the back-burner.
- Illness. When someone is ill the focus is rightly on their wellbeing and regaining good health, but we often forget the domino effect illness can have on other areas of our lives. Sexual satisfaction and intimacy can be counted among these. The physical effects of illness - either of a woman herself or of her partner - can lead to fatigue, a lowered or non-existent libido, changes in the appearance and functionality of the body, pain, emotional trauma, stigma, fear - any number of things. Illness can separate us from the existing connections we had both with ourselves and with our partner(s), and this can lead to shame for wanting sex or shame for not providing it. Conditions such as Vaginismus and Interstitial Cystitis should be counted here too.
- Emotional/sexual trauma. Sexual and emotional trauma lives within the very tissue of a woman. It can affect the physicality of her body in the subsequent inhibition of certain chemicals from the brain, in the knotting and tightening of vaginal muscles as a protection reflex, in the dysregulation of the Autonomic Nervous System which is responsible for controlling bodily functions outside of our conscious control. It can also lead to other seemingly unrelated chronic health problems which may affect a woman's ability to fully and deeply enjoy sex. Mentally, violence/trauma may lead to shame, guilt, difficulty trusting and general emotional despondency. The effects are varied and complex and impossible to reduce to a short paragraph, but the repercussions of emotional and/or sexual trauma have a long-lasting physical and emotional effect on a woman’s sexuality.
- Surface level interactions (lack of a deeper connection). This is when all of the building blocks are in place - we are attracted to our chosen partner, we feel aroused, we climax, we enjoy sex - but the feeling of something missing still prevails. In this sense we are performing the functions of sex and achieving the goal, but we are lacking deeper understandings and connections which satisfy us emotionally/spiritually/physically. This is sex as we've been told to perform it, without the more substantial, non-tangible after-effects which leave us feeling fulfilled, realised, and probably slightly annoying.
- Feeling rushed to orgasm or not orgasming at all. One of the most common responses I received was that women felt rushed to orgasm. This is something that has been, and often is true for myself too. If I don’t feel something bubbling within five minutes I start to worry that my partner is getting bored, which in turn inhibits my ability to enjoy sex fully. I might orgasm, but the orgasm isn’t a full-body, transcendental experience, because I’ve had to will myself to the end point and I’m consciously aware of the process. The orgasm then becomes an issue, with sex being premeditated by the pressure to climax and the fear of an awkward ensuing conversation when it doesn’t happen. Often women will then avoid the pursuit of orgasm completely, focusing instead on the pleasure of their partner instead of the fulfilment of their own sexuality.
- Unrealistic pornographic expectations (for both partners). For Millennials and Gen Xers, porn has played a huge part in how we perceive sex. Not only has it formed unrealistic expectations based on the appearances of a very narrow performer pool (tiny waist, big butt, big boobs, zero bodily hair, the “perfect” Labia minora and majora, the “perfect” nipples, a bleached butthole), it has also misinformed generations of now-adults on how sex should be performed. Intimacy gives way to a race to the “cum shot”, and rough penetration alone is posited as enough to achieve female orgasm. The porn is male-pleasure-centric, and neglects any intimate touch which doesn’t directly and quickly serve a purpose. Porn may also lead to desensitisation, both to what we see on screen (which is why many porn viewers end up searching for more extreme performances in order to achieve the same chemical response in the brain), and to each other (because we aren’t able to replicate the fantasy presented on screen and so become despondent with the reality of bodies/sex/intimacy which is not entirely self-serving). Porn may have skewed our perception of sex and thus inhibits our sexual satisfaction. Not only that, many of us know this, but still find pleasure in watching porn and so feel guilt and shame surrounding this.
- A lack of responsibility for our own sexuality and knowledge. Most of us neglect to take responsibility for our own sexuality, and so feel disappointed when our partners do not know or understand that which we ourselves do not know or understand. We expect them to deliver a boundless pleasure without giving instruction or guidance, or without attempting to discover what this instruction or guidance should be. We don’t understand our own sexuality or what we need to achieve satisfaction, and we don’t attempt to learn it either, which means we aren’t able to feel truly satisfied or fulfilled by our own sex lives.
Sexual satisfaction and fulfilment are vastly complex and varied, and trimming down the reasons listed above to small, palatable paragraphs inevitably means they are reductive in their understanding. As I mentioned before, this post isn’t to offer instruction or guidance on how to ‘fix’ the many possible reasons, but instead to start some kind of a conversation. From my own experiences, I found I wasn't pushing to form a deeper connection either with myself or with my partner. I loved having sex, but the motivations behind that were dishonest; I wanted to both bolster my own self-esteem and give off the impression that I didn't need to. I neglected the softness and delicacy of sex - the tender, non-sexual touches for the sake of closeness and atmosphere - and I willed myself to race to climax, which meant that whilst I was often having orgasms, they weren't necessarily deep or sensual. I was doing myself a disservice, and I had to refocus the lens of my sexuality in a more honest, respectful way.
Tackling the issue of our sexual dissatisfaction is not a simple fix. In fact it isn't a "fix" at all - it's a process - and one that is born out of an acceptance of years of social and cultural conditioning, as well as the breadth of sexual history that has come before us. For things such as illness, trauma or the time constraints of having a child, preaching the 'love-yourself-get-to-know-yourself' patter is impractical and unhelpful, and in researching the many planes of sexual dissatisfaction, it's plain to see that some issues need a more defined route to tackle. In a broader and more general sense, however, I'm learning the following.
We have to understand that our sexuality is far more complex than we’ve ever been taught or led to be believe. It is intrinsically intertwined with our environment, our brains, our bodies, and our history as women. Our modes of sexuality - the way we see and understand our own sexuality - have been shaped by years of theory and thought, practice and punishment. It has been affected by discrimination, “liberation”, porn and personal exploration. We cannot think of ourselves as single entities in complete control - we are influenced deeply by all that has come before us and all that surrounds us now. We may feel that we’re a million miles away from the Victorian shame ideals, but many of those damaging perceptions still exist insidiously within our culture now, and directly inform the male aggressor and female submissive stereotypes that sometimes hinder us from owning our own sexual selves.
We have to understand that the language we use and the language others use to talk about our vaginas - and as an extension, our sexuality - directly affects how safe we feel, how shameful we feel, and how loved we feel. It directly affects our ability to be fulfilled sexually. If violent language is used to describe your vagina - cunt, gash, clunge - we internalise this. Our brains remember and feed that back to our vaginas, which in turn, respond by not being as able to relax and enjoy sexual pleasure. It DOES matter, and the reason you feel that innate shiver every time you overhear a guy gloating about how hard he ‘fucked that cunt’, is because that dehumanisation and violence can physically manifest in your body, even inadvertently. Your vagina also remembers pain and trauma, and this can physically inhibit and affect your body’s ability to truly enjoy sexual pleasure moving forward. Your memories can physically manifest in your body. Your brain and vagina directly speak to and inform one another. These things ARE important.
For most heterosexual couples, the truth is that your husband, boyfriend or hook-up is probably wildly undereducated on not only the vagina, but the penis as well. We’re in a generation of men who have learned sex from porn - that which is so often distinctively unaffectionate, rushed, and even violent. The primary goal is ejaculation, and even when the female orgasm is prioritised (for example, when he goes down on you without expectation for reward), the goal is STILL to rush to orgasm. Sexual touching for the sake of sexual touching rarely happens, and so we feel rushed, reduced to a climax.
In addition to this, we also are hideously uneducated when it comes to our own vaginas. Could you label a diagram of your own vagina? Of the non-vaginal erogenous areas? Do you know the function of each part? How they relate? Their significance sexually? Are you neglecting certain areas and focusing both you and your partner’s attention on the clitoris and vagina (the opening) only? How far have you educated yourself on your own sexuality, and how far have you shared this information with your partners? Furthermore, we need to give credence to how hugely influential hormones and contraception can be on our bodies. We are so often blasé about how these things truly manifest physically and emotionally, but we have to live with these consequences day in, day out. We mustn't diminish or feel shame for that, and we must communicate how very real these things are to our partner(s).
Being sexually satisfied takes more than having sex often and switching it up in a variety of locations (as I previously believed). Sexual satisfaction comes from an incommunicable connection that takes time, patience, devotion and vulnerability to not only achieve, but maintain, and this connection is primarily with yourself, and becomes, as an extension, a connection with partners.
It’s more than having an orgasm each time you have sex. It’s acknowledging and respecting the multi-facets of female sexuality. It’s sexuality for the joy and depth of sexuality, as opposed to as a means to an end (i.e. fingering as a mode of transport to the climax). It’s obeying the sanctity of the in-between, and not trying to rush past the intimate window which establishes closeness, excitement, connection and understanding. How many of us have numerous orgasms and still aren’t sexually satisfied? It’s not necessarily about the end result. It’s about what comes before. It’s about pussy worship and understanding the divinity of the feminine, and the power of the palace. It’s not racing to the finish line and then grabbing a wet wipe from your make-up bag to mop up the cum from your back. That’s not to say sex can’t be quick and rough and fun and even aggressive - it can - but if this is all your pushing for and you’re not feeling satisfied, then you need to examine why.
Libido, satisfaction, pleasure, preference, knowledge, understanding: these things are all ever-evolving, and understanding your own sexuality is a progressive process. It’s not a game that can be completed or a task that can be ticked off a list. It’s a living mosaic of the past, present and future, a composite being that can bloom and wilt time and time again. We need to honour our own sexuality with the time, respect and love that it deserves, and then hopefully we can begin to lead more fulfilled and satisfied sexual lives.
P.S. Thank you to all of the wonderful women who shared their most intimate of stories with me. I’m immensely appreciate, and I feel very privileged to be invited into your personal lives.