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Rhythm Trader, 2001 by Graham Dean

Hot & Bothered: The orgasm gap


I had my first orgasm at age 15 on the carpeted floor of my then-boyfriend's living room.

It took me a moment to process what had happened, the way my body had shuddered, grown hot, and broke suddenly into a burst of warm butterflies, like a smile. I had heard of the mysterious female orgasm but had given it little thought. I vaguely believed it was some kind of umbrella term used for when a woman was enjoying sex. I had no idea it was a specific moment, let alone one that could take place without a penis inside me. I walked home with a curious sense of shame and delight.  

The next day at school, I was desperate to share my newfound knowledge, I carried it like a secret. I felt like in the space of a night I had unlocked some secret feminine power within myself that had been hidden away. I felt I had grown up multiple years in the space of one night. I felt like, after 15 childish years, I was finally a woman.   
Speaking to my best friends later that day I was shocked to find that what I thought was a secret was in fact for some, something mundane. Turns out some of them had discovered this furtive power themselves, months, if not years before. I didn’t know how to feel. In fact, for some of them making themselves come was as routine as bathing or braiding their hair. One friend was elated, possessed by the overwhelming relief that she could finally talk about something that had been a source of shame and guilt for years.  
However, my childish curiosity soon turned to anger. I felt as though I had been left out on a secret, kept in the dark about the limits of the very thing I should have complete ownership over. My body. Mostly though, I felt let down by a system that had required the intervention of a man to teach me what my body could do.  
Even now as I write I am conscious of my propensity to innuendo: my hesitation to type the word masturbation onto the digital page. Even seven years later it feels crass, somewhat shameful to discuss female masturbation frankly, using concrete articulable words. I thought long and hard about writing this article, debating whether it was too risqué, or borderline embarrassing. But why on earth would it? We all do it. And yes, I guess I do feel a little uncomfortable writing this. That’s why it’s so important that I do.  
The double standard in how we perceive male and female masturbation is absolute.

From the famous scene in American Pie to popular playground myths like “wanking makes you blind”, male masturbation is firmly on the national agenda. It is the butt of a million jokes, vaguely disgusting, but somehow important. It is a quintessential aspect of being male. In short, male masturbation is a rite of passage, a national obsession, it is ‘just what boys do’. If you’re not doing it by your early teens, you are a late developer or asexual. You only have to consider the extensive lexicon dedicated to describing it - wanking, jerking off, fapping, beating the meat, etc. to realise this truth. Female masturbation, on the other hand, is linguistically illusive and I am hard pressed to think of any euphemistic language that has entered the mainstream in the same way. Naming something gives it power, it makes it real. Without words to describe it, how can we talk about it at all? 

My Sex Education at school was disappointingly sparse. Like many of us I remember the slightly humiliating struggle of putting a condom on a banana, watching a tampon slowly unfurl in a glass of tepid water. The obligatory chat about crabs, AIDS, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and other elaborately named STI’S. I left these sessions full of statistics, vaguely overwhelmed by the seemingly endless ways that sex could be scary. Never once in all my years at school did the concept of female pleasure ever enter the discussion.  
Aware of this great injustice, I took it upon myself to share my newfound knowledge with anyone that would listen. And it turns out like me most of the girls I spoke to had no idea that an orgasm was something they could reach without the help of a sexual partner. The amount of conversations I have had with girls as old as 18 or 19 who had never even conceived of experimenting with their own bodies was mind boggling. And many of these girls, believe it or not, were having sex. Bad, unfulfilling sex presumably, but sex nonetheless. And to be honest, who can blame their boyfriends and partners for not satisfying their sexual needs when they hadn't even learnt to satisfy their own. I was beginning to see we were in the midst of an epidemic. A whole generation of women who had been failed by a society that denied the very existence of their sexual pleasure. I was left wondering why as a collective we were so hopelessly alienated from our bodies.  
After being single for the first time in five years, the chasm of inequality between male and female pleasure has become disappointingly obvious once again. Hookup culture is rarely focused on female pleasure. Where receiving head as a man is seen as standard foreplay, female head is intimate, reserved for relationships or nail varnish wearing ‘pick me’ boys. The majority of men I have slept with have never gone down on me. And the vast majority of times I don’t ask because there is nothing less sexy than having to beg for attention. And maybe this reflects badly on me. Maybe I should be educating men on how to form courteous, reciprocal sexual relations. Honestly though, that sounds like a boring and incredibly exhausting task. Frankly, I refuse to believe it should be my responsibility to fix a man in the space of one night. Usually instead I will roll my eyes and leave feeling vaguely disappointed but not altogether surprised. One of my single biggest takeaways from being single is that most men are just not very interested in making girls come.  
Popular culture constructs the female anatomy as a source of mystery and confusion, a mystical labyrinth only comprehensible to the most competent of sexual explorers.

This kind of mythic association is damaging, providing a frankly misogynistic get out of jail free card to men who simply can't be bothered to try. This kind of rhetoric justifies laziness and affords men an excuse for acting selfishly in bed. Whilst it is true that many women struggle to reach climax, 15% of women have never had an orgasm, many others don’t struggle to come at all. Yet this pervasive mythologisation of female genitalia continues to put men off. How can sex ever be considered a level playing field when one team isn't even trying to score at all? 

Why, even in 2023, is there such a gulf between female and male sexual pleasure? American feminist theorist Catherine Mackinnon blames this inequality on men’s exposure to pornography, arguing that pornography debases female pleasure, degrading women to sexual objects, useful only in their ability to satiate male sexual appetites. She suggests that unless we eliminate pornography from the mainstream completely, heterosexual sex can never be equal or ethical. Certainly pornography is partly to blame, but I argue that it runs deeper than this. Mainstream media such as films and TV rarely put female pleasure at the forefront. Whilst female orgasm does often make it to the screen the vast majority of media portrayals present penetrative sex as the dominant if not only route to achieving female orgasm. According to research only 35% of heterosexual women usually orgasm during vaginal sex alone, compared to 80% of heterosexual women and 91% of lesbian women who say they almost always achieve orgasm through a combination of external stimulation, such as kissing and oral sex. Hollywood seems to shy away from the biological reality of female pleasure. Scenes depicting this kind of sexual activity are seen as scandalous, shocking and vaguely dirty. The sheer amount of media controversy that circulated Florence Pugh and Harry Styles cunnilingus scene in last years Don’t Worry Darling is testament to our morbid fascination but fundamental stigmatisation of authentic female pleasure.  
So much headway has been made since I was young; vibrators have lost their kinkiness, instead representing standard equipment for the modern 21st century woman, and female curated porn sites such as Bellesa focus specifically on creating pornography to satisfy the female gaze. But I am still skeptical. Because unfortunately I still find myself meeting women in their twenties who blush and avert their eyes when I bring up the conversation of masturbation or female arousal.  
So how do we redress this historical imbalance, undo the structures that have stopped curious hands from exploring beneath their pants?

How do we transcend our bodily estrangement and teach women to connect with their sexual selves? For me the answer is simple: female pleasure needs to enter the debate earlier. Sex education needs to teach boys and girls alike about the realities of female arousal. By giving it airtime female pleasure will lose its mythic, legendary status, making healthy reciprocal sex between young people a much more realistic possibility. Female arousal is not unladylike, it is not disgusting or shameful. Female pleasure is just well... normal.  

I wish I had discovered the secrets of my body without the help of a man. I wish I had been curious enough to even look at my vagina before somebody else did. If I hadn't been in a loving relationship, who knows how long it may have taken me to unlock the parts of my body that society had tried to hide from me. Learning the way your body looks, moves and feels should be a normal part of growing up. An independent task not just reserved for the intimate moments you share with somebody else. Until we begin to talk about the female orgasm it will continue to be women’s “dirty little secret”.

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