I posted Part I last week of this speech, but since I wrote it thinking it'd be the foundation of a section on female sexuality in my new book, I've been revising like crazy. My speech notes, though voluminous, were NOT organized to read well on paper. So I've added a bunch of new things, fleshing it from the original speech notes, incorporating bits of research, etc.
Below is the revised Part I which I'm now calling the first half of this section because of all the changes. If it still reads a bit bumpy, it's cuz this is still in draft, and likely several revisions away from final form. Yeah. I'm sharing the rough, first-draft manuscript of my new book with you. (OOOOOOOO. So...edgy!... for a middle-aged woman with a poodle glued to her ass.) Anyway, I'm hoping to get the second half done by the end of the week. That's a hope, not a promise. :)
The following is adapted from a speech to the Atlanta regional branch of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee by Dr. Gloria G. Brame on September 8, 2006. All rights reserved. No republication in any form permitted without prior written approval from firstname.lastname@example.org. (If you aren't clear on fair use laws governing excerpts, contact me.)
Did you ever wonder why all the sex manuals and sex tips in the world still haven't added up to real solutions to basic questions about how women can achieve a satisfying sex life? A million popular magazines may breathlessly advise on how to rekindle the romance in a stale relationship, or how to have the biggest, loudest "O" of their lives, yet their hundreds of millions readers never successfully implement the advice - and not from lack of trying. Women still grapple with seemingly simple issues like how to get aroused, how to overcome inhibitions, how to have orgasms, what kinds of sexual fantasies, desires, and responses are normal for women, and more.
I think it's because the single biggest obstacle to a satisfying sex life for women is not what's going on in the female genitalia but what's happening in the female brain.
One of my all-time favorite sex seminars was presented by The Endocrine Society, featuring the work of three endocrinologists (Basson, Braunstein, Miller: 2005) who specialize in androgen research. The doctors wanted to better understand the physical process of arousal in women so they could contribute data towards discovering new treatment options. In one study, a group of female volunteers were rigged with one of the more obscure of sexological devices known: a vaginal photoplesthymograph. The kissing cousin of the plain old penile plesthymograph (which measures the size of an erection), the vaginal version measures blood flow into the female genitals or "genital congestion," as the endocrinologists like to call it. This is part of the physiological process of female arousal and what makes a woman's external organs become engorged when she's turned on.
Thus indelicately wired up, the volunteers were shown a variety of erotic materials and asked to rate what they were looking at by how aroused the materials made them. The results showed that most of the women who participated had no idea when they were turned on. They often indicated they weren't turned on when the vaginal photoplesthymograph told a very different story.
This caused the endocrinologists no little surprise. Who knew that "not tonight, dear, I'm not in the mood" was secret code for "not tonight, dear, my mind doesn't believe that my vagina is interested." It also compelled them to propose a new model of female sexuality. If the problem was that women didn't know how they feel sexually - instead of the old assumptions we've made that women are somehow less sexual than men - the new model must include psychological and emotional factors as key ingredients of female arousal. Women are simply more likely to respond in positive, sexually responsive ways to erotic imagery that showed something romantic than to sex-for-sex's-sake imagery.
Similarly, it correlates to something else we've known for a long time: women tend not to be as turned on as men by porn. We generally attribute it to women either not being as sexual as men or not as visually oriented as men. But perhaps it's more than that: perhaps it's that porn does not arouse their emotions, and therefore doesn't convince them they are aroused. Whereas romance and tenderness creates the all-vital connection between their genitals and their brains.
This has been borne out by other research. An Australian psychologist's study (Sheen: 2006) asked 120 women to respond to a range of erotic stimuli. They consistently reported being more turned on by romantic situations than sexual acts. Sheen concluded from this that "women are more aroused by romance and foreplay than sex itself." But what if the women who were aroused by the romantic imagery could then have sex with the partner of their choice? Would their sex - and their orgasm - be more intensely pleasurable after the romantic build-up?
We don't have answers to these questions yet. And, while I don't believe anyone can extrapolate universal rules from their individual experience, my own sexual responses are in line with the studies referenced above. Simply put: if it isn't going on in my mind, it won't happen in my body. Romantic love makes me sexually voracious and highly orgasmic. Purely physical acts are never as exciting and not always orgasmic either. If I'm not keenly interested in or otherwise emotionally moved by a man, I have no interest in sleeping with him. If, on the other hand, there is a romantic spark or a sense of rapport, if he can make me laugh or make me think, if there is something about him I can connect with emotionally, not only am I open to having sex with him, but I feel confident the sex we will have will be at least satisfying and possibly truly ecstatic. That's because I know that even if I don't climax with him, it will still be hot, erotic and fun if our emotional connection is powerful enough. I can always climax later, using some toy or technique that's guaranteed to give me an orgasm.
The new model of female sexuality finally acknowledges that the problem is not that women don't get turned on, but that visceral factors must be in place for women to feel convinced they are turned on enough to enjoy sex. The endocrinologists concluded that, among other things, women need to feel they can trust their partner in order to relax enough to be receptive to sex. In fact, receptivity - or willingness - is another key factor in the new model for women. And while receptivity is hardly a new concept to biologists who routinely observe this female willingness as necessary for successful copulation in other species, we're still working on the concept in human sexuality.
Receptivity should not be confused with passivity. The unreceptive female is, in all species, a formidable opponent. Further, in humans, female receptivity is all about being turned on, not just acquiescing. Sure, there are many women who can have sex whenever a partner requests it. But one wonders how many of them are enjoying it.
The endocrinologists' research dovetail perfectly with theories I've developed working with women who complain of inorgasmia, lack of desire, and other function issues. In my clinical experience, without female desire or at least a positive interest, sex will either not occur or will not be satisfying for the woman when it does. The reasons why a woman may not feel receptive to sex are complex. Because a woman's mind plays so significant a role in her sexual function, a myriad problems may intervene that dampen or block or even - in cases of extreme trauma - eliminate the connection between her body and her mind.
Which brings me to another study that has given me much food for thought over the years, though for different reasons. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1999, this authoritative study surveyed 3000 American adults. Among its many interesting data was the striking result that 40% of women were dysfunctional.
The first thing that bothered me about these data was simply that if 40% of any group does not conform to the standard of normalcy, it's time to wonder if the standard of normalcy itself should be changed. Most traditional studies of female dysfunction have assumed that vaginal intercourse is the act that all normal men and women prefer.
But if 60% of people preferred ice tea and 40% preferred ice coffee, would this mean the coffee drinkers are beverage-dysfunctional? Or tea-dysfunctional? Maybe they're not dysfunctional at all? Maybe they're just coffee drinkers. Hm.
As I see it, the 40% of women who were reported sexually dysfunctional in this study may well have been intercourse-dysfunctional (they didn't want it or couldn't enjoy it)- but that does not necessarily mean they were sexually dysfunctional. To get a full picture of a person's sexuality, you cannot look at her (or his) appetite for just one sexual behavior. Sexuality occurs in a much richer context. At the very least, a researcher must know, for example, if other sex acts turn the woman on or whether she can have orgasms from masturbation. If the answer to those questions is "yes" then in my opinion, you are not dysfunctional. You're just not as turned on by intercourse as doctors believe you should be.
The desire for intercourse in women is a delicate matter. As already stated, women need to feel emotionally safe and receptive to enjoy sex. What if some of that 40% actually did love intercourse - but just not with their partner? Being married to someone who does not turn you on can make anyone sexually dysfunctional.
The above could explain why sex manuals have not been able to solve many typical female sex problems. They tell you how to do things technically but they don't help you to feel more emotionally connected to the things you do. They suggest you try this position or that one for better penetration or add this or that lubricant. They don't advise you to throw out your old expectations that you and your partner will and should and must (to be normal) find intercourse to be the most important sex act in your bedroom. They don't give you the hardest homework of all: the challenge of figuring out what works for you personally.
I talk to women all the time who haven't taken the first crucial step in improving their sexual performance. That step, plainly put, is knowing how to give yourself an orgasm. Or, as a very sweet and very Catholic client of mine likes to refer to it whenever I ask her if she's gathered up the nerve yet to open the box containing the vibrator I'd urged her buy: knowing how to "do the M thing." Masturbation is how we learn what feels good sexually. For most people, it's a natural impulse that comes in in childhood or puberty. I believe its biological function is to help us learn what turns us on and to prepare us for orgasmic sex as adults so that we will want to have sex and therefore improve our chances for reproducing.
A few years ago, I was working with a 50-something woman who was very unhappy with her sex life. She'd been married literally since girlhood to a man who had never satisfied her in bed. For himself, he was very demanding, expected frequent contact and made sure he climaxed. But he'd never once made her climax. She was deeply hurt by what she viewed as his cold, indifferent sexual attitude. She felt unloved and unappreciated. Sex was all about him. Making love with him only reminded her that she was missing out on something other women got from their men. She didn't want to sleep with him anymore. After over 30 years, she was at her wits end and thinking of leaving the marriage.
In the course of taking her sexual history, I asked her what age she had started masturbating. Ttere was a long pause. Then she blurted out that she had never in her life masturbated. She was raised in a different time; women didn't do that. The thought of it made her queasy. Touching all those icky bits..ugh. This was particularly interesting to me since she was a Registered Nurse, someone who was in the business of working with sick bodies and their sometimes ghastly messes, significantly more unpleasant things than the vulva's soft folds. To me, it suggests that sexual inhibitions, like sexual diversity, go deeper than consciousness. She could patiently wipe people's bottoms, shave their genitals, and catheterize them - but touching herself for pleasure had been strictly off limits her entire life.
So it wasn't just that she didn't have orgasms with her husband. She'd never had an orgasm in her life. She'd been waiting all those years for her husband to figure out what would work. And perhaps he was a cold and selfish guy (other circumstances in their relationship indicated that he was). Still, in his defense, and really the defense of all men whose women have expected them to hold the magic key to their sexual pleasure, here's the reality: if you don't know how to give yourself an orgasm don't expect anyone else to know how to do it either.
Copyright 2006 Dr. Gloria G. Brame,. All rights reserved. No republication in any form permitted without prior written approval from email@example.com. (If you aren't clear on fair use laws governing excerpts, contact me.)
Stay tuned. The next half goes into detail about sexual dyfunctions and the physiological and psychological issues that cause them.