How many men haven’t figured out how to orgasm because they don’t know where their penis is? How many want to masturbate but honestly don’t know how? How many abstain from sex, convinced that their genitals are grossly deformed, abnormal, or smell really bad? How many fake orgasms?
It seems ridiculous to ask these questions about men. But if we ask them about women, they become less farfetched: Many women do not fully understand their anatomy and sexuality. Unlike men, women can’t see themselves easily when we go to the bathroom, can’t subtly compare our vulvas in the changing room, and don’t learn to get pleasure on our terms from movies and porn.
Talk of understanding female sexuality conjures images of liberated women sitting in circles, scrutinizing their vulvas with hand mirrors. But to our post-“Sex and the City” culture, the need for such scrutiny is passé. Rather, women are assumed to be knowledgeable and confident about our sexualities and bodies. Women today are equal to men. We seek sex. We know what we want!
But have we really achieved such equality? Although movies, porn, music, fashion, and glossy magazines fixate on the sexualized woman, giving advice on how to be more attractive, how to give great blow jobs, and how to be good in bed, sexuality and sexual pleasure are still defined on male terms: Sex is over when the man ejaculates; blow jobs are less gross than “carpet munching;” and sexually experienced men are virile, whereas experienced women are sluts. Under such slanted expectations and double standards, women are seen not as autonomous sexual actors but as passive sexual objects.
By objectifying women and defining them by their chosen sexual activity, pop culture conflates sexual acts with the entirety of sexuality. But female sexuality is about more than just sex: It includes understanding our anatomy, building confidence in our bodies, deciding to whom we’re attracted, and knowing what we find pleasurable. It’s not just about how many sexual partners we’ve had or how aggressively we seek sex.
Our culture’s fixation on sex, not sexuality, leaves many women with intimate questions that go unanswered. We’ve talked to women who wonder: How does the clitoris work? Is it normal not to orgasm during intercourse? Where is my cervix? Women need and deserve public, accessible, and accurate sexual education: public, to counter widespread objectification; accessible, so that women with broad ranges of experience and questions can find it; and accurate, because, hey, lies are no good.
Some people, especially in the pro-abstinence movement, allege that sexual education promotes promiscuity and threatens notions of female “purity.” But gaining awareness doesn’t necessarily mean jumping into bed. It does mean being informed, knowing what we want and when we want it. When women educate themselves, we challenge the sexualized and objectified image of women that popular culture promotes. A woman who understands her body and desires knows what gives her pleasure and can base her decisions on what she wants, not what society wants from her. When a woman can say “I want to have sex” not because her partner wants it but because she does, she is no longer a sexual object. And when a woman can say, “I’m not ready to have sex yet” despite social pressures to do so, she is also taking charge of her sexuality.
Social pressure and taboos apply to men as well, making it difficult for them to learn about sexuality—both their own and their partners’. Open access to sexual education can help overcome these taboos and help men learn how to give pleasure to their female partners (not to mention support to the other women in their lives). For both committed couples and casual hook-ups, it’s challenging to have satisfying sexual relations if one partner feels her needs aren’t being met.
The emergence of campus groups like Femsex and True Love Revolution indicates that students with disparate and seemingly incompatible political and personal convictions are concerned about sexual awareness and empowerment. The Female Orgasm Seminar shares this concern and strives to add another inclusive, public, accessible, and accurate voice to campus dialogue.
But this dialogue is only the beginning: A complete discussion of female sexuality and anatomy would include people who identify as women and have a penis, or identify as men and have a clitoris. As we begin to break the taboo on discourse about female sexuality, we should turn to topics like transgender sexuality, love, sexuality and religion, male sexuality, commitment, alternatives to monogamy, and marriage.
After all, knowing more about sex and sexuality can only help you decide what’s right for you, and women making decisions that don’t originate in social pressure helps to challenge and break down female objectification. How do we get to this point? Salt-N-Pepa had it right:
Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things And the bad things that may be.
Lea H. Broh ’08 is a Latin American studies concentrator and Jenna M. Mellor ’08 is a social studies concentrator; both live in the Dudley Co-op. They are two of the founders and organizers of the Female Orgasm Seminar. Mellor is also a co-chair of the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS).