Sitting in elementary sex ed, I saw an image that would stay planted in my mind for years, inspiring endless curiosity and eventually leading to my sex writing career: a medical sketch of a man with an erection. When the teacher described erections as often pleasurable, I was stunned. I also wondered what wacky shift in my own body would bring similar pleasure. Something good must happen to females, right?
Finally, a woman appeared on the screen! Then... tampons. Maxi pads. Facts about the cramps, bleeding and bloating I would experience for one-quarter of my fertile life. It seemed unfair, and it was. Throughout the remainder of my sex education, female sexual pleasure was never explored -- a far too common scenario.
On my sexuality radio show and podcast, I often ask guests and listeners what they learned about sex early on. Most women tell me they either learned nothing or that sex is dirty, sinful and "slutty." One woman told me she stopped trying to orgasm because she'd tried and "failed." Lots of women don't, she said, so what's the big deal? We learn about sexual pleasure through experience, but typically not until we've learned myths that can hinder it.
Images of sex better suited to mainstream porn are splashed about the media, suggesting that we must look and act unrealistic ways to feel and appear sexy, while actual porn promotes unrealistic notions of sex commonly perceived as fact. While guys think with their penises, we're taught, many gals would rather fake an orgasm to get sex over with or cry "headache!" to bypass it. When we have sex, there's a significant chance we won't experience orgasm. That's what many headlines suggest, after all. So it must be true, right?
Many headlines and statistics cited throughout the media regarding female sexuality, I've learned, derive from myths or studies that are outdated, misinterpreted or blown way out of proportion. Here are just a few common examples.
MYTH: Orgasms elude most women.
The Big O could stand for omitted, as far as many women are concerned -- at least that's what many headlines suggest. A popular ABC report from September 2009 touting the header, "Sex Study Says Female Orgasm Eludes Majority of Women" explores data collected nearly a century ago -- one of the least empowering eras for women, when Sigmund Freud's beliefs, such as that women are "mutilated and must learn to accept their lack of a penis," were considered fact. Is it any wonder, then, that participants were struggling with sexual "frigidity" -- or the inability to orgasm?
The other study cited analyzed 100 females within the last 80 years, 11 of whom reported never having climaxed. Based on participants' commentary versus physiology, the study didn't account for the fact that women are significantly less likely to discuss or understand their sexuality than men. The article concluded that 11 percent (or 10 to 15 percent) of women never orgasm -- a statistic commonly used to convey low orgasm rates among women.
MYTH: Women peak sexually in their 30s.
This idea derives from one small study published in 1953 -- when making the perfect pot roast rather ranked high among female expectations. Researcher Alfred Kinsey determined that female participants in their 30s were more likely to orgasm than younger women. I don't know about you, but my 20s weren't exactly my most confident -- which seems to play a huge role in female sexual pleasure.
A recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed the sexual lives and beliefs regarding sex of over 600 women ages 40 to 65 for eight years, and found that women who have positive attitudes about sex are three times more likely to stay pleasurably sexually active during middle-age than other women -- regardless of physical factors linked with low libido, such as menopause.
MYTH: Women are less "visual" than men.
If men were "hardwired" to lust after lithe yet large-busted women, Barbie's physique would commonly occur, sans starvation diets and plastic surgery. Instead, men are taught and expected to look and lust over such imagery of which the media provides an endless overt supply.
While we gals may not find that same supply enticing (and may find it a turn off), we're no less visual than men. Recent research, including studies conducted by Meredith Chivers PhD, an associate professor at Queens University, show that women and men are equally physically aroused by visual stimuli, but women aren't as likely to recognize or discuss it.
A Difficult Science
Not only are studies on female sexuality limited and often misconstrued within the public, but it's incredibly difficult to accurately assess factors like arousal when doing so either requires volunteers (who likely already have positive sexual attitudes, or why would they volunteer?) or surveys, which require women to share openly what society suggests they stay silent or shameful about. As far as we've come in many ways regarding sexuality in our culture, we have such a long way to go.
Keeping it in Perspective
All studies on female sexuality, even those with limitations, are valuable. But in a world in which few people read beyond the headline, misleading titles and statistics can sway people's views unnecessarily and end up cited elsewhere -- and we all know how the game Telephone pans out.
As the study I mentioned early illustrates, our beliefs about sexuality play a major role in how healthy and happy our intimate lives -- arguably, our entire lives -- will be. I don't know about you, but I say we make the most of them. Read the articles, but don't let them feed or cultivate negative attitudes you hold about your body or sexuality. And if you have a question about information you've learned or long believed, ask it. Challenge it. Explore it. You may not end up making a career out of your curiosity, but I'm almost sure you'll gain your just rewards.