Okay, I admit it, I pretty much unleashed on Jocelyn Wentland about her article, Noisy Sex May Mean She’s Not Enjoying Herself, which appeared as a guest-post on Dr. Trina Read’s blog. I wouldn’t quite say that I lost my shit, but close, because her piece, and line of reasoning, is such a spot-on example of the incessant need that people have to pathologize women’s sexual function. Well, sexuality in general, for that matter.
I am sure she’s lovely, well-intentioned, smart and all that. But she’s missing the point. She even tweeted me “it’s not my research, don’t shoot the messenger folks.” My problem wasn’t with the research, it was with her presentation of it, and the way in which she judges how other people not only have sex, but express themselves during sex.
So, without rehashing the whole thing (which you can and should read first-hand) let me tell you why it bothers me.
To do so, we have to go back a year or so, to the first focus group that was conducted for Not So Secret. We were trying to figure out how women talk about their sexuality, how they want to be talked to about it, who they turn to and, just as importantly who they don’t turn to and why. At the time I assumed that I was going to have to amass the participation of the best experts on female sexuality that I could find.
Boy, was I wrong. I was told, on no uncertain terms, “NO EXPERTS!” One after another, every woman in the focus group told us they did not want to hear from experts, ever. And their reason was all the same. Paraphrasing every woman in the room, “they make me feel like I’m doing it wrong.” There were a lot of tears about this.
Indeed, the very nature of academic research and the “helping” professions is that they need there to be a problem. And they need us to be, or at least have, that problem.
How are we supposed to feel good within an industry that needs to start with us being, or feeling, bad?
The need to pathologize everything about our sexuality is hurting women. We don’t want to hear it any more. We’ve spent years being told that we’re too fat, too old, too crabby, too stressed-out, too scatter-brained, too emotional, too vulnerable, too….. And now, on top of it all, you want to tell us that we don’t fuck right? (Indeed, we’ve been told that forever too. We’re too frigid, too wanton, too uptight, too slutty.) AND NOW YOU WANT TO TELL US WE DON’T COME RIGHT?
The problem with the pathologizing of sex is that it must assume there is a right way to have and experience sex.
So, if a woman doesn’t orgasm easily, it’s a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than simply being one of many ways that people experience sex. For all you know, she experiences other things differently also, and is sent over the moon by a swift spanking, and doesn’t really care that she doesn’t orgasm. Indeed, if a woman is good at math and bad at foreign languages, we don’t set about trying to solve her problem of poor foreign language comprehension, we celebrate her math skills.
When a woman doesn’t want to have sex as often as her partner, we look for medical discoveries to increase her “low sex drive.” Maybe she doesn’t have a low sex drive, she just has HER sex drive, and it’s fine. She feels bad about it because we told her to. It’s more than a little likely that what we need to do is focus not on her sex drive as flawed, but teach people to focus on compatibility more than some single idealized standard.
In the course of this focus group, every woman cried at some point. Every woman laughed at some point. And the other thing that they all said they wanted was permission to just be who they are. To explore the things they wanted to explore, do the things they wanted to do.
Yes, I have a huge issue with people who focus on orgasm as the end-all, be-all of sexual expression. It is the only thing I can think of that we do with our bodies in which “achievement” is judged by only one standard. Think about sports, for instance. We call a woman a great athlete whether she is a gymnast, a tennis player, a distance swimmer or a skier. Each of them does something that the other can’t necessarily do, but we celebrate them all. Indeed, their muscles, nerves, metabolism all work very differently from each other. As a result, their bodies react and respond differently. But we embrace them all.
Sexually? Nope. Either you orgasm easily and often, or you have a sexual dysfunction.
Isn’t it at least vaguely possible that not only do our orgasms exist on a continuum, but that our feelings about them do as well? Isn’t it at least vaguely possible that we all want something different out of our sexual relationships with ourselves and others?
Sexuality experts who “help” others by helping them to achieve an externalized ideal are not helping anything except the industry that needs us to be broken. You cannot simultaneously say “you need to find your personal bliss,” and then throw in “as long as you do it my way.”
That is why the women in our focus groups have said, time and time again, “NO EXPERTS.” You make us feel broken and bad. You are yet another set of voices telling us that we are supposed to be something other than what we are.
Now, there is such thing as good experts. My beloved partners, Dr. Gloria Brame (with whom I am starting a radio show in March) and Lanae St. John (with whom I am building Not So Secret) are both experts in human sexuality. But they do it right. The start with the basic understanding that we are all so different that it would be impossible to tell you the “right” way to do something. Rather, they do what I do, which is give you the “permission” to explore who you are, without judgement, and figure out how YOU function sexually.
I can’t tell you, and neither can they, if you “SHOULD” be having orgasms every day, every month, with one partner or three partners, tied up, blindfolded, with a dildo or from your ass. What we can all tell you is that any or all of that is possible. As is none of that. As are countless other things. If you are happy, then it is fine. And no one – not an “expert” or a doctor or a magic pill – can tell that you are wrong.
Sexuality is different for every single one of us. Being told we aren’t doing it right because we aren’t having an orgasm (or are) is no different from being told we aren’t doing it right because we’re doing it with people of the same-sex, or both sexes, or just ourselves.
I am not saying that there aren’t countless men and women who are unhappy with their sex-lives and rightly seek guidance to figure them out. What I am saying is that the reasons and the solutions are as widely varied as the people themselves. That the only standard of care should be that it starts with the understanding that there is not one single “goal.” And until we stop judging women’s sexuality by the frequency, quality and ease of her orgasms, we’re not only not going to achieve the goal of sexual satisfaction, we are going to continue to shroud that goal in fear and shame.
Ms. Wentland was upset with me, presumably because she thought I was judging the research. I wasn’t. Research is nothing but data until someone interprets it and uses it to make a point. My problem was not with the data, it was with her message. Her message was the same tired thing we hear all the time: “Women don’t have enough orgasms, it’s a big problem, and it’s everyone’s fault, but don’t worry, we’ll save you.”
Which brings me to something else that I hear all the time from women. Paraphrasing, “my sex life got so much better when I stopped worrying about orgasms.” Yup. Mine too. Ms. Wentland made a “sad face” in her piece when discussing that women would sometimes make loud noises to encourage their partners to orgasm, thus ending the fucking. You know when else women make loud noises? When they are faking orgasm. Wanna know why they fake orgasm? Because they feel like failures when they don’t have orgasm, and everyone wants them to have them, and they can’t always have them, so they fake them in order to get everyone to shut the fuck up and stop focusing on their orgasm.
I can’t speak for all Sexperts out there, nor can I really call myself one – though I have more experience here than your average PhD candidate – but I can speak for Gloria, Lanae and I when I say that we will not ever tell you how you should have sex. We will give you permission to have sex your way, and will “simply” help you figure out what that is, and how to do it in a manner that is safe and fulfilling for as long as you live.