Why Is It So Difficult to Talk About Female Sexual Pleasure?

The author of "Vagina: A New Biography" analyzes some responses to her new controversial book

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Olivier Culmann / Tendance Floue

Has there really been a sexual revolution? One of the themes I explore in my new book, Vagina: A New Biography, is that the supposedly sexually liberated society we now live in, in which sexual images and content are available everywhere, hasn’t really been that liberating for women. While many responses to my book were positive, the tone of some of the critiques — from “mystic woo-woo about the froo froo” to “bad news for everybody who has one” — suggests to me that our culture, even one in which Fifty Shades of Grey is being devoured by millions of women, still has problems discussing women’s sexuality in a positive, empowering way. And we — perhaps women especially — need to be able to have that conversation.

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The modern history of female sexuality has been plagued with misinformation, embarrassment and sexual frustration. When Shere Hite published her famous (and at the time notorious) The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality in 1976, about a third of women reported that they did not have orgasms during sex when they wished to. This finding preceded Hite’s important — for the time — assertion that penetration was not all there was in terms of female sexual response, and a wave of information about female sexuality followed. Although The Hite Report was initially greeted with great controversy, in the end society agreed that women’s pleasure and sexual well-being mattered and deserved respectful inquiry.

But in the past decade, instead of informed and respectful discussion about women and their bodies, we have veered into a raunch culture in which celebrities boost their popularity by releasing porn videos, rock star John Mayer casually says he sees hundreds of vaginas before breakfast, and critically acclaimed new TV shows feature young women recounting horrible hookups with ever escalating porn-based expectations. Women’s desire, arousal and satisfaction, let alone their (or men’s) emotional needs, are very rarely part of this picture.

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Indeed, serious or even remotely respectful discourse about women’s erotic well-being has been so marginalized that in today’s climate, when one brings new findings on female arousal and satisfaction into public debate, as I am doing with my book, I find that one must make the case from the start that these numbers — and female sexual satisfaction — matter at all.

Here’s one stat that says it all: 12% to 43% of women in the U.S. self-report “hypoactive sexual desire disorder” — a loss of libido, a decline of desire. Other estimates put the prevalence rate at about one-third of American women. The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals claims that 30% of women do not reach orgasm regularly when they wish to, a percentage that has not budged since Hite’s report.

With pleasure so elusive and mockery of the very discussion so normative — even in serious venues such as the New York Times and the Washington Monthly — it seems clear that women have a long way to go before we are living in a society respectful of our bodies, our minds and the connections between the two. We deserve a climate in which women’s sexual self-knowledge is valued and in which new information is welcomed into mainstream discussion and discussed as if we are grownups rather giggling third-graders or hysterical chaperones at a 1950s prom.

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It is odd to me that one would have to make a case for this in 2012, but as we should see by now, the next sexual revolution — the one that actually values women — is long overdue.