by Dr. Kristine Chadwick
In today’s interconnected world, it is more obvious than ever that our society can have a dramatic impact on our perceptions of pleasure and desire. And when combined with a lack of understanding of our biology, these internalized cultural messages can really throw a wrench into the works of how sex is “supposed” to happen.
Just about anyone who has grown up anywhere in the United States has almost certainly been exposed to sex-negative and pleasure-shaming messages. Stereotypes and expectations about how people should approach and express their sexuality affect us all. With limited comprehensive sex education, most of us have been left to our own devices (literally and figuratively) to learn about sexuality and the role we want sexual pleasure to play in our daily lives. Without accurate information about what is “normal,” folks may experience some insecurities and fears that their bodies don’t work correctly, or that their desires are dissimilar to what “most” people feel. Societal norms and expectations regarding sexual behavior and pleasure can be challenging for many of us to navigate and maintain a healthy sense of our sexual (or asexual) selves.
Today, let’s examine a few of those cultural messages and what they mean for people, especially those with vulvas.
The science of sexual pleasure for folks with vulvas has a depressingly short history—particularly when compared to sex research focusing on people who use their penis for pleasure. For example, did you know scientists are still in the process of learning about the clitoris? In fact, in 2022, new research conducted on actual humans (as opposed to the 1970s’ research on cows concluding the clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings) was published showing that a more precise measurement of the nerve endings on a human clitoris is closer to 10,281 nerve endings. Compare this to the 4,000 nerve endings on the much larger human penis, and one starts to understand how powerful the clitoris is.
Additionally, vulva owners often experience the sexual response cycle a tad differently from penis owners. This brings us to the concept of desire. The accepted sexual response cycle of excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution was developed by Masters and Johnson in 1966 . . . and this 4-step sequence hasn’t been updated much since. It was only very recently that scientists figured out the excitement phase is actually two phases: desire and arousal. And guess what? It turns out the bodies of people assigned female at birth (AFAB) often don’t respond the same way as do those of folks assigned male at birth (AMAB), nor is the sexual response cycle in AFAB people as linear as it usually is among the AMAB crowd.
So what are the differences?
More recent research has allowed us to learn much about how desire and arousal typically work in the bodies of people assigned female at birth (AFAB). Nearly everyone, regardless of their bodies or gender, gets the message from most media portrayals of sex that we should all be spontaneously turned on just by thinking about our partner(s), or about sex in general. This is desire—specifically, spontaneous desire. And it is great! You start to think about a partner’s smile, or that thing they did the other night, and then a little tingle starts in your body (which is the start of arousal). Then you get more excited, maybe take your partner’s hand and lead them to the bedroom, and have a great time getting more excited, orgasming (together, of course, because that’s what the media shows us is “ideal”), and then relax together afterwards.
But surprise! Sex for most people—and especially for cis-gendered women—doesn’t usually work that way. Did you know 85% of vulva owners who identify as women (cis women) rarely feel spontaneous sexual desire? Most people need at least a little warm up — flirty talk, a sensual massage, watching a romantic movie, reading some exciting erotica — before they start to feel the explicit desire for sex. On top of that, our setting needs to support a pleasurable romp in the hay, and what that setting looks like differs from person to person and from one moment to the next (Are the kids awake? Are the chores done? Have I had a bad day at work?). This type of desire—when one needs some pleasurable stuff to be happening in a conducive setting before actively wanting sex—is called responsive desire, and it is the way a majority of people get turned on. This is especially true for cis women and is common and normal.
Learning about one’s own body should, in theory, be something easy to have accomplished by adulthood. But our culture sends such heavily mixed messages that few people reach adulthood knowing much about their own pathways to pleasure. Most folks of any gender are raised to avoid masturbation or hide their masturbatory practice out of shame or embarrassment. Yet somehow, once we are in the “right” culturally sanctioned situations, we are told that we should easily enjoy sex!
But how are we supposed to know what feels good if we have barely explored our bodies on our own? How do we know what turns us on or, equally importantly, what does not? Well, May is Masturbation Month, after all, so first and foremost let’s raise a toast to the joys of solo sex! Grab a a fun toy, some high quality lube, play some sexy tunes (or whatever turns you on) and go on a pleasure hunt with your body.
But what about partnered sex? This brings us to yet another mixed message our culture sends to AFAB folks: the best (always hetero) sex happens when both vulva owner and penis owner orgasm together from penile-vaginal penetration. Second best is if the vulva owner has an orgasm or three during penile-vaginal penetration before the penis owner orgasms. The problem is that cis-female bodies seldom work that way; in fact, more than 80% of them in recent studies reported they rarely or never orgasm during intercourse. Finally, more than a century after Freud praised the “vaginal orgasm” as superior to the clitoral orgasm, research on AFAB people’s sexual response cycles is beginning to disrupt this harmful myth. We now know that an orgasm is a set of rhythmic contractions of the pelvic floor muscles, regardless of what kinds of stimulation brings us to it. Chances are high, though, that if you have a vulva, the orgasmic stimulation is going to include the clitoris either directly or indirectly. Thanks to its incredible density of nerve endings, the clitoris—the entire organ, not just the head (or glans)—is the pleasure center for most vulva owners.
It may come as no shock to discover that people’s sexual response cycles are usually not in sync in terms of timing. Cultural myths say that vulva and penis owners spend similar amounts of time at each stage of the sexual response cycle. Not true! While the clitoris is a super sensitive organ that creates all kinds of wonderful sensations for its owner, it often takes more time than the penis to become fully engorged (and yes, the clitoris is made of the same erectile tissue as the penis). Setting our standards for what is considered “normal” amounts of time spent in arousal or plateau phases based on AMAB bodies does a disservice to other bodies. Think of the clitoris like a large train engine: It’s often slow to get going but once up to speed, it can be nearly impossible to stop, and its owner may circle back through the plateau and climax phases multiple times. So AFAB bodies may need to take that extra time for flirting and foreplay. Play a sexy game, give each other erotic massages, stimulate each other’s erogenous zones, and give that clitoris time to fully engage and engorge!
Our nation’s Puritanical (and patriarchal) ancestors relegated AFAB sexual pleasure to the realm of witches and impurity. Luckily, we each have the power to change the story told about our own bodies—and everyone’s right to sexual wellness and pleasure! Slowly but surely, cultural norms are changing. The scientific fact of the matter is that people with a clitoris have an incredible capacity for sexual pleasure. It’s high time that AFAB folks are not only allowed that right, but encouraged by our culture to explore their full pleasure potential.