This week, sex therapist Dr. Laura Berman offered sage advice on Oprah. The woman in question had been faking orgasms for 24 years with her husband. Dr. Berman's advice to her and to women across America? Start telling the truth!
As appalling as this sounds to all the coquettes out there, apparently, women are not as happy in the sack as they should be. This is not news to many, but it's the first time I have heard it spoken this clearly and directly on national television.
Dr. Berman deserves kudos for it.
The good doctor did three extraordinary things with this show. First, she normalized the "eh-ness" of many women's sex lives. The Oprah site claims that over 70% of women have faked an orgasm at least once, if not multiple times. Clearly, many women are not having a great time in bed, and are so eager to get it over with they fake it to be "finished already."
This is not terribly surprising considering the high standards we have set for women's sexuality. We are supposed to look like porn stars, have sex like one of the guys, and enjoy it like nymphomaniacs. The images we have of sex in the media are a case in point. Dr. Berman rightly argues that sex scenes in movies and on television are unrealistic.
"[During] every orgasm, you're not going to hear 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' and it's not going to be this huge, earth-shattering event." Think Samantha in the Sex and The City hanging off the chandeliers with her latest beau, or being laid against a fire-truck, and you get the point.
I teach a third year undergraduate Psychology of Women class and have heard these stories before. Again and again students come up to me after class to tell me about their 'sexual dysfunctions', which in fact, are not dysfunctions at all, but simply the norm. They think something is wrong with them for not wanting to have sex as often as their partners, or for failing to reach orgasm every time.
One of the things the students are most surprised to learn is that what is defined as sexual dysfunction by the medical establishment, can also be attributed to environmental factors. Women are overworked, stressed out, and doing double duty shifts at home and at work. Is it fair to label them with a "sexual arousal" disorder, or are they just exhausted and need their partners to do the dishes in order to feel romantic?
Indeed, environmental factors play a key role in women's sexual well-being. The second issue Dr. Berman talked about on the show was how women's sexual histories affect their sex lives as adults.
Childhood sexual abuse is a huge issue. How to define it is tricky, but research in has found that anywhere from 35 % to 75% of women have experienced some kind of sexual abuse in their lifetimes. Even if we took a conservative, mid-point estimate, it would mean that half of the female population has been sexually harassed or abused. That doesn't just go away because you grow up.
For example, a 2008 article in Psychology of Women Quarterly written by two psychologists, Lemieux and Byers, found that women who had been sexually abused as children were more likely to have casual, unprotected sex, or to abstain from sex all together. These women enjoyed sex less, and had lower "sexual self-esteems" than women who had not been abused.
Finally, Dr. Berman implored women to speak up and ask for what they want in bed. This is great. But it's also hard. My friends and I talk about this often. Being unable to ask for you want is not always about being unassertive or wimpy. Sometimes it's about the messages we got about sex when we were younger. Silence is a big one. I have been in more than one situation where I felt uncomfortable or harassed when being 'hit on' by a man. I was taught that sometimes the best thing to do is grin and bear it until you can get out of the situation.
The advice to stay silent speaks volumes about what this culture considers sexually appropriate for men and women. If we can't speak up in situations where we feel uncomfortable or bad, how are we supposed to speak up about what feels healthy and good?!
Dr. Berman doesn't have all the answers, but she certainly has the right questions. Better yet, she makes it possible for other women to tell the truth about their lives. Adrienne Rich said it best when she wrote, "when a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her." Hear hear!!
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