Science of Sex: The Women of Sexology

December 30th, 2017

Welcome to the tenth installment in a feature on Of Sex and Love: Science of Sex. In this monthly segment, I discuss the science of sexuality in an easy-to-digest format that’s accessible to the casual reader. I will also follow up with some extended reading material for people who want to know more about the subject of each post.

I try to update Science of Sex every second Saturday of the month, so check back soon.  This month’s incredibly late Science of Sex post is a departure from previous posts, but it’s one that I hope you will enjoy.

Science of Sex Women of Sexolofy

While the last few months I’ve posted about what is happening in the science of sex, I decided to depart just a bit this month and discuss the who of science and sex. Specifically, I’d like to focus on the women who researched and studied, taught, and fought for our sexuality. I do this not to minimize what efforts of men but to maximize the efforts of women who were all too often overlooked — and sometimes still are. We’ve all heard of Kinsey and Grafenberg and Bancroft and Janssen. Now, I’d like to introduce you to some lesser-known names!

Marie Bonaparte

You’ll more often hear Bonaparte listed as a French princess, which she was, but she was also a psychoanalyst and friend of Freud. After growing tired of her inability to orgasm, Bonaparte took matters into her own hands. It’s to her credit that we have the rule of thumb (albeit, this was unknown to me until earlier this year, so women’s voices still need to be promoted!). After consulting with hundreds of women, Marie suggested that the reason that so many women were anorgasmic wasn’t because of what was in their heads: it was because of what was between their legs.

The rule of thumb states that if the distance between a woman’s clitoris and vaginal opening is more than the length from the tip of thumb to the first knuckle (around 2.5cm), a woman is unlikely to achieve orgasm through intercourse because the clit won’t be stimulated.

Virginia Johnson

You’ve likely heard of Virginia Johnson’s work if you’re interested in sex research, but her name always followers her partner and husband, William Masters. Together, the pair discovered different stages of arousal, that women could achieve multiple orgasms and that flexibility of a vagina when it comes to penetration. Johnson contributed to something great, but it wasn’t perfect. Early research with Masters encouraged conversion of gays, which Johnson didn’t approve.

Johnson seems a complicated woman, and neither her professional and personal relationship with Masters is no less complex. But who knows what we would know without her?

Lisa Diamond

Lisa Diamond examined the fluidity of woman’s sexuality, which she published under the name Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. Diamond’s research supports the idea that many women experience a sexual fluidity that may not be properly addressed by existing labels. Lisa Diamond also suggest that a woman’s sexuality has more variables, including menstruation, than a man’s.

April Burns

April Burns surveyed girls and young women to discover their attitudes and behavior toward sex. The result is sometimes frustrating and disappointing (a comparison between oral sex and performing a chore or taking a test was common) but always enlightening (oral sex is one way in which these girls felt empowered in their sexual encounters — perhaps the only way). Burns has also examined the relationship that young women of color have with sex.

Debby Herbenick

It wasn’t until I read Girls and Sex that I realized how many women defined good sex as sex that was simply without pain. I guess I had been fortunate.  This knowledge comes from the results of several studies that Debby Herbernick has contributed to. Of particular note is the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, the most extensive sexual survey of recent years, Herbernick and her team at Indiana University released results in 2009 and 2012 that offered a look into modern bedrooms, just like Kinsey or Johnson had done decades prior.

Katherine Bement Davis

Davis was the superintendent of a woman’s prison and used her network to survey women about topics such as sexual orientation and desire. Although she isn’t often credited for her work and it took the world a while to accept the results, Davis was a proponent of both the idea that homosexuality in women wasn’t pathological and that women had sexual desires much the same as men.

Evelyn Hooker

Evelyn Hooker worked with the gay community to perform psychological evaluations in an attempt to remove the stigma of homosexuality as a mental illness or insanity. In the end, she surveyed two groups of people, one gay and one straight, and produced results that were virtually indistinguishable from one another.

Celia Mosher

Mosher was studying sex well before Kinsey, and it even earned her the moniker of the “sex scholar.” Mosher was responsible for a Victorian sex survey, the earliest of its type. Unfortunately, the results of the survey weren’t published until after her death. The results showed that women were not ready to admit that their sexual desires were nonexistent or abnormal.

Lori Brotto

More recently, Lori Brotto has studied the disconnect that women often experience between mental and physical arousal. Brotto’s research suggests that the way that women multitask and tend to be detached from their bodies contributes to this. Brotto suggests mindfulness as one possible solution. However, Brotto’s research also indicates that in the sexual moment, men and women experience fewer differences in desire than most people believe. Another myth Brotto is helping to dispel is how much testosterone affects a woman’s desire.

Sari van Anders

Van Anders has also looked into the role of testosterone and arousal, finding only an indirect link. She has researched responsive desire in women and the interplay between thoughts and desire. The van Anders lab frequently tackles topics about sex, women, feminism, gender, and diversity, going so far as to research how to perform feminist research.

Marie Stopes

Stopes not only penned the first sex manual in England, but she also opened the country’s first reproductive health clinic in 1921, she used it to gather data about contraception. Her clinic inspired others and eventually led to the Family Planning Association.  The Marie Stopes Foundation still promotes access to contraception around the world and continues research into abortion.

 

Emily Nagoski

Emily Nagoski has done a ton to educate the world about sexual desire, especially as experienced by women, as well as risk and sexual behavior. Hers is the book that introduced me (and many others!) to the dual-control model of sexual desire and is also responsible for me finally coming to understand my body’s stress response cycle. I’ve referenced it countless times since reading it.

Do yourself a favor, boys and girls, and read Come As You Are. Nagoski’s blog, The Dirty Normal, contains helpful entries and comics to further illustrate these concepts.

Beverly Whipple

Finally, we have a name with which many of you may already be familiar. Whipple has orchestrated over 170 studies into sexuality, the best known of which may be on the G-spot. A paper she helped write on the topic in 1981 was the first publication to use the G-spot, which she named in honor of Dr. Gränfenberg, who had earlier studied it. Her studies have also found how food affects the G-spot, “diets heavy in spicy chilies may block the naturally occurring analgesic affect of the G-spot, therefore causing childbirth to be more painful,” women who can think themselves to orgasm and those suffering from persistent genital arousal disorder.

Whipple has received many well-deserved awards and commendations for her work, which covers myriad angles of sexual response.

One of the things that I love about nearly all these women was their attention on women’s sexuality. When men wouldn’t take it seriously, women took up arms to shed light on the subject.

This list is by no means comprehensive. There are those whose work has been overlooked, is still in the process, or are simply unknown to me. I relish the thought of learning about more women researching the field of sexuality, so please leave comments with anyone who should be added to this list!

Further Reading

Several books I’ve read provided me with information for this post, and I’d like to recommend them in addition to the usual articles and studies that I post. They include Bonk by Mary Roach, Girls and Sex. I’d also recommend checking out Masters of Sex; although, I haven’t had a chance to read it.

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“Help! I Can’t Orgasm”

July 7th, 2009

I remember a time when I was a girl talking to a boy and I thrived on our sexually charged interactions but, when the time for us to actually have sex loomed on the horizon, I felt as though I needed to clear the air between us. I felt like a liar even though I’d never explicitly said it, I’d given him the impression that I was capable of orgasm and, because I was incapable of having an orgasm, I felt like a failure. It was almost traumatic, telling that boy my deep, dark secret and, even though that boy now teases me as the girl who used to think she would never orgasm, those same fears of failure, disappointment and even the guilt over lying are commonplace among women who are not able to achieve orgasm (yet).

You’re Not Alone

It’s frustrating to feel that way, certainly, but it’s not uncommon. The women who are in that situation vary. One common denominator is that these women often feel their age has something to do with it. Forums and chatrooms and inboxes and talk radio are full of “I’m X years old and I’ve never had an orgasm!” with X ranging from 18 – 80. There’s a certain sense of living life unfulfilled, especially the older they are. The younger women often seem to feel that, because they are apart of a generation which considers sex a given and information is so freely available via the internet, that they must be broken if they have not been able to orgasm.

Either way, women of all ages (and elasticities and locations and sexual orientations, so on and so forth) are no stranger to lack of orgasm. It’s neither a young woman’s problem or an old woman’s problem or a white woman’s problem or a straight woman’s problem. It’s not even a problem that affects only those who do not masturbate or only those who are lacking proper sex education or only those who have selfish partners.

And advice which assumes any of those things tends to come off as too general to be helpful. They tell you “practice makes perfect” so get to masturbating and, that’s true, unless you’re practicing incorrectly. They tell you communication is key and that’s also true, unless you don’t know what to communicate or your partner doesn’t care. They tell you it’s easier with a caring partner but that doesn’t make it easy. They tell you to be comfortable with your own skin but they don’t tell you how. I think you get the picture.

You’re Not a Freak

What they don’t often tell you is that it’s okay not to orgasm. The fact is, that some women and, yes, even some men cannot and will not no matter how much time they spend at it. Of course, it’s hard to believe that when everywhere we turn, we’re told that the goal (maybe even the point of sexuality) is orgasm. That’s what movies tell us when beautiful stars erotically explode – and simultaneously, no less! – on screen. It’s even reflected when sex ends as our male partners orgasm. If their end-game is orgasm, shouldn’t ours be? It’s a belief deeply steeped in tradition.

I’d like to challenge that belief. If you stare to fixedly on that goal, you’ll miss the other pleasures – both physical and emotional – sex has to offer. Does oral sex feel any less good if I don’t orgasm? No. Does orgasm necessarily make intercourse more worth the while? No. Does lack of orgasm detract from emotional intimacy? Again, no. I’d like to stress that sex can still be highly rewarding for all parties despite a lack of orgasm. In fact, many people consistently enjoy having sex without having orgasm, without even thinking that something is lacking from their sex lives.

Because it’s not.

Orgasm is bonus and even though I’ve had my fair share, it’s not something I rely on. Even if I feel frustration, and it’s certainly human, I’ve learned to let it go. Maybe next time, maybe not. Either way it’s okay. And it’s that letting go which is essential. More than one woman has been able to experience orgasm only after she stops trying for it. Orgasms have surprised the unexpecting during long and luxurious sexual sessions with no goal in sight just as they have come upon women who are doing no more than the laundry or reading a book. And a welcome surprise it is but it’s only the cherry on top of the sundae.

Not only is it normal to have difficult achieving orgasm or to not be able to but it’s okay if that doesn’t change. It’s okay if that’s not your goal. It’s okay if it is, too, but you shouldn’t spend so much time working toward it that sex actually becomes a negative, unpleasant experience. It’s okay to be however you are.

Experimentation is Key

Sometimes it’s the case that women who are struggling with orgasm have masturbated and just haven’t gotten much from it. They may not have experimented with different styles or focuses of masturbation, which I have touched on before. The same can be said for sex.

  • If you have previously focused on internal, vaginal stimulation, try clitoral stimulation or even stimulation of other areas of the body like the nipples.
  • If you’re focused on fingers or a penis, try a sex toy.
  • If you’re tried vibration to no luck, try stroking or tapping or twisting.
  • If you normally masturbate lying, try sitting, leaning, squatting, or on all fours.
  • If missionary sex is your repertoire, expand it to include doggie style, girl on top, spooning, or side by side sex.
  • If you only participate in PIV, try oral, manual stimulation, anal or a combination of several.
  • Try stimulating the back wall of the vagina, instead of the front, or the areas around the clitoris instead of the clitoris itself.

But don’t do anything if it’s uncomfortable, stressful or otherwise unpleasurable. Remember to enjoy yourself.

Check Your Head Space

Unfortunately, orgasm is that much more likely to happen if you do experiment so reluctance to engage on sexual activity is not very conducive to achieving your goal. If you have mental hang ups regarding your body, your relationship or your sexuality, you will need to work through them and some of them may even be bigger than you alone can handle.

I highly recommend talking to your partner about the feelings and thoughts you have; our partners can be our greatest resources (especially when it comes to feeling good about ourselves) when it comes to sexual frustration and often desire no more than to make us happy but don’t always know how. On the other hand, if you are unwilling or unable to talk with your partner (or they are), then your inability to orgasm could easily be linked to unhappiness stemming from your relationship. Especially for women, happiness inside the bedroom starts outside of it.

Sometimes simply discussion with family or friends can relieve what has plagued us for years. Connecting with others who share your concerns may be key to unlocking the issue and you may be able to find a support group either locally or online – like these on WebMD. Just browsing the internet or reading a magazine which is sex positive can help you realize that sexuality and exploration are both normal and healthy, and by association, so is exploration of those facets of your life.

Whatever your issue, a self help book, which enables you to delve deeper into the root of the problem instead of simply the symptom (inability to orgasm), may do the trick; they can be especially helpful with tips to help improve self image. However, sometimes problems are so large that we need to seek outside, professional help. Although taking that step can be frightening and finding a professional who is right for you can be frustrating in itself, and involve its own trial and error, it can open to doors to being a more fulfilling satisfaction in your sex life and other areas.

Of course, in today’s world where information is freely available online, many of these resources from books to support groups to professionals can be had from the comfort of ones own home (and without the apprehension one may feel at reaching out). You might try Googling “Sex Positive Professional in [Your Location]”, “sexuality support groups”, “improving self image” or “communication about sex with your partner” for starters. There are absolutely no limits to finding information just as there should be no limits when it comes to expressing your sexuality in a healthy and pleasurable manner, whether or not orgasm is included.

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The Ins and Outs of Female Masutrbation

June 9th, 2009

It’s been a while since my last article and I apologize. Inspiration is sometimes fleeting. Also, I admit it: I think the title is pretty clever.

In one of my previous articles, I touched on just how unknown female sexuality is to males and females alike. Female masturbation is a sometimes overlooked aspect of female sexuality and although I like to consider myself somewhat enlightened about sex, much of the world is is still in the dark about the subject.

While some of us are avid connoisseurs have been masturbating for what seems like a lifetime, there are a few who aren’t even aware that, yes, females can masturbate. Some women stimulate themselves without even realize what they’re doing. It’s likely that some of those ladies are the ones who don’t know females can masturbate.

Heads up!

Females can masturbate. Without exploration, some women would never know about these powerful little buttons which can be so key so sexual pleasure. We can touch ourselves or use objects like vibrators or even pillows or teddy bears to make ourselves feel good. And you may have been doing it since you were just a little girl, developing you masturbatory style subconsciously. Many times, these styles focus on one external sweet spot, as opposed to internal stimulation: the clitoris.

Unfortunately, the clitoris isn’t really stimulated during sex, without making a point of it. Sex doesn’t simulate masturbation. Nor does masturbation tend to simulate sex (although some females focus on internal masturbation, the clitoris usually takes center stage). This leaves all parties involved confused as to just how get a woman off. The media portrays men as having not a clue and, in order to perform well, they need instructions like the secret book in American Pie. Unfortunately, it’s not just the men who don’t understand their partners; females have just as difficult time understanding their own bodies and the masturbation techniques which can work best for them.

The fact of it is, male masturbation is pretty obvious. It’s easy to simulate intercourse and it works. That’s not to say that it can’t be expanded upon but it doesn’t need to be and there’s a lot less grey area. Female masturbation, on the other hand, isn’t always so cut and dry. Mimicking intercourse doesn’t necessarily cut it for a lot of women, yet that is the accepted expectation. Although it seems like that are a lot more variations to female masturbation, it may take more work to uncover them than with male masturbation.

Female Masturbation
I wonder just what she’s doing?

The aforementioned teddy bears and pillows are high on the list of what a young girl may have used to masturbate. I preferred a blanket and never considered using my stuffed animals for such intimate matters but I was apart of the humping school of thought. Sometimes I gravitate back toward the ol’ blanket method, balled up between my legs, but these days I also find a lover’s thigh or even face make wonderful humping instruments as well – and away I grind – for humping involves a lot of hip.

Of course, like males, we also have built in masturbate toys: our hands. Using a palm for diffuse pressure or fingers to stroke, tap, pinch and rub provide various methods of stimulation. Another popular selling point of fingers any hands are that they’re super portable; if you dare it, you can masturbate just about anywhere.

Another group of female masturbators have come to love water play. Whether it’s the spray of a removable shower head or the flow of a tub faucet, women have been using water to creatively stimulate genitals for who-knows-how-long. And what better place to get dirty than when cleaning up privately, in the bathroom?

Another popular method of masturbation (which is not just limited to the vaginally-enabled like) is thigh and muscles squeezing. Although I could never get off from squeezing my thighs alone, I recall doing so whilst sitting in class, prompting arousal while no one else was none the wiser. Some believe that squeezing thighs muscles indirectly stimulates the clitoris but I personally felt arousal within – it was G-spot stimulation. This could be a result of squeezing PC muscles (subconsciously) along with thighs muscles.

I would not pretend that internal stimulation isn’t pleasurable for many women, because it is, and I know I wasn’t the only girl who experimented with a taper candle. Honestly, the jokes about bananas, cucumbers and hot dogs did have to start somewhere. They’re just a sampling of the objects girls have perverted into makeshift dildos and almost anything with a handle can work: brushes, lint rollers, ice cream scoops, razors and flashlights all serve nefarious purposes that some would never suspect. But while others were discovering which buttons to press vaginally, I soon found myself traveling a different road.

Let us not forget the ever popular vibrator. Internal, external, dual stimulators (and sometimes more) are staples in many a nightstand. While I would never presume to downplay the significance of these instruments, as many women who have been sexual frustrated have finally found release through mechanical friends, it is usually not the first step in our natural progression of masturbation. At least, I find myself using vibrators (and dildos) in ways that can be used similarly to how I masturbated without toys.

This article by no means covers every method of female masturbation. I knew of a women who would lean forward, one leg in front, while she ground her clit against her heel. Women have been enjoying the vibrations of household appliances (spin cycle, anyone?) for years. Many women are turned on and can achieve orgasm through the seam of their jeans rubbing against their vulva. And masturbation is not limited to genitals, alone. I would hazard a guess that nearly all body parts can be stimulated to produce orgasm.

Female masturbation is still a more taboo subject than its male counterpart which is unfortunate because even the tip of this iceberg is more vast than some male masturbation routines ever will be. I can personally attest to the merits of every method listed, even if I prefer some over the others and I invite all women to do so because masturbation is healthy.

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