Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Are Women Sexually Liberated, Or Just Confused?

(This is just something interesting I came across, especially for my female readers. Please leave some comments, thoughts, & opinions.)

We live in a highly sexualised society, one that has handed women the ostensible right to be as free, as wild and as pleasured as they wish. From the cultural looks of things, you’d think women were having sex round the clock. Agent Provocateur is a brand like no other. Soon it will add furniture and bed linen to its sales of erotic books, £175 handcuffs and the sort of sellout frillies seen on your favourite female fashion icons.

In China, vibrator manufacturers are one of the few industries weathering a global recession. Rampant Rabbit enthusiasts rave about the latest model, the bumper stickers on their cars proclaiming, “My other ride is a rabbit”. Sex toys are chic lifestyle accessories. Recently, a PR punting JimmyJane’s Little Something line of precious-metal vibrators closed her pitch with “Kate Moss bought the gold one”.

Older women are characterised as foxes or, the more predatory American term, cougars. Just work at it and you fortysomething pluses can retain a plumptious, fecund look well into middle age. If you don’t find that older-lady-loving junior down the pub, meet him online at the unequivocally named Toyboywarehouse.com.

We appear to be living in a golden age of female sexual awareness and fulfilment, doing anything and everything on top of what our sexually naive mothers and grandmothers apparently did out of duty or for a washing machine. Our favourite lady authors have written In Bed With, a collection of erotic stories that its editors, Kathy Lette and Imogen Edwards-Jones, call “female masturbatory material”. Nike sells sport to women with the promise that it will improve their sex lives. Even our favourite blusher, by Nars, is called Orgasm.

Performance anxiety

Yet, in among the glossy portrayal of our intimate moments, the truth about our sex lives is notoriously difficult to track — not least because people lie in surveys that are already suspect in their mission. What is clear is that women find the cultural environment a gigantic cause for performance anxiety. It wasn’t hard to find someone who had actually experienced the following scenario, outlined to me by Brett Kahr of the Society of Couple Psychoanalytic Psychotherapists: couple in bed, wife “down there” performing an “oral sex act”, husband neatly propped up on the White Company best, answering e-mails on his BlackBerry. And this very obvious example of the modern world entering the bedroom is only the proverbial tip. The window of Agent Provocateur is not the window into the sexual soul of British women, more’s the pity. Kahr’s study of 14,000 British people found that 21% of us have no sex at all, ? ?32% have it once a month and 44% once a month to once a week. According to these figures, women are having less of everything than men, except celibacy. And while the April cover of Cosmo screams, “Your orgasm! The secret to super satisfaction every time”, a Stanford University study found women in sexual liaisons orgasm only 80% as often as men, when, in theory, they could easily beat men hands down, as it were. Finally, in totally unscientific cyber-noseyiness, I posted something on Facebook asking women if they were “getting enough”. Most answered, “no”, citing the obvious, such as tiredness, stress, kids and lack of time and/or men.

Selling sex

Fifty years ago, in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir described womanhood as a socially constructed activity; today, after several waves of feminism, and a recognised right to contraception, sexual pleasure and all that, we still find our sexuality defined by pop music, glossy magazines, advertising and pornography. Dr Petra Boynton, a sex psychologist, sees the very commercialisation that makes us seem so free as the reason we’re not satisfied. “The scented candles, the lingerie, the stuff — it doesn’t explain how anything works, it just presents a dream,” she says. “Sex has become mandatory, competitive and commercialised. Vested commercial interests suggest it could be great, if only you had their product.”

Are the women walking down the street proudly swinging their pink-and-black AP bags empowered, sexually charged and free, or are they just... shopping — our sexual empowerment often seems all about the bucks and not the actual bang. Joe Corre, the owner of Agent Provocateur, sees the brand as empowering — and on a fundamental level, who isn’t going to give three cheers for nice knickers? “Our ideal is to create a sense of sex and power, of celebrating femininity,” he says. But the pressure can be crushing. “Two years ago, on my birthday, I spent a lot of money in Agent Provocateur,” says a thirtysomething on her second marriage, including “handcuffs, stockings and several sets of lingerie. It was memorable for all the hope I pinned on it. My husband and I stayed in a hotel and I remember a great sense of disappointment that the sex wasn’t perfect”.

The idealised body

At Beautcamp Pilates, a chain of exercise studios that serves the very women who like to swing by AP to see what’s new in, there are whispers about women having the odd orgasm during class. Its workout machines, called reformers, involve taking a very coital position, legs spread wide in the air, in something like gynae stirrups. The owner, Dominique Day, is circumspect, however. “A few yummy mummies have admitted they come here as a replacement for sex,” he says, “because they are not getting any from their stressed husbands.” Meanwhile, Rowan Pelling, the sex commentator and writer, says the reason women aren’t getting enough is that they’re “too busy going to the gym when they should burn off those calories in bed”. The attempt to hone an idealised sexy body is certainly part of the passion-killing zeitgeist. Boynton says the commercialisation of sex as status symbol “sets up the idea that sex only happens in really pricey knickers. It excludes women. It’s an elitist model from which women without money or a certain body shape are excluded”.

A lovely-looking make-up artist in her mid-thirties agrees: “It’s all so competitive. Women are made to feel they have to look the part for ever, you can’t just let it go. My partner left me eight months after I had a baby, saying he ‘couldn’t feel a thing’. Deserted, I felt fat, saggy and unattractive. I find everyone, from Madonna to Kerry Katona, totally depressing, with their sparkly looks put down to ‘lots of fruit and veg’, when we all know it’s personal trainers, Botox and retouching.”

She goes on: “We’ve primped and preened so much that our bodies haven’t a whiff of a pheromone about them.” Charlotte Roche explores this in Wetlands, a novel about sex, shame and the mucky functions of her body. “My liberal feminist mother still didn’t teach me about masturbation or menstruation,” she says. “Even in front of my husband, I felt embarrassed about my body, I learnt from society that so many things about it are bad. A lot of men don’t think women have body hair, believing a shaved woman is normal. Porn women are shaved so you can see more. It is their work. But why do we have to copy porn? Ads and porn are nothing to do with real life, real-life sex is hairy and messy.”

Interestingly, in a recent Cosmopolitan survey, given the sentence “An unforgettable lover must?” to complete, 57% of respondents chose “love all my body”. Least popular was “have a big penis” — 5%. There is always that reassuring truism that, actually, men don’t care about cellulite and bikini lines. But interviewing on the streets of Brighton, Anna Richardson, the Channel 4 Sex Education show presenter, was appalled by the results. “We discovered teens are waxing all their pubes because they feel it’s what they should do and what boys want — guys are going on about it to them.” She goes on to describe boys’ reactions to hardcore porn and to images of normal female bodies. Take a guess which bodies they found shocking. “They can’t discern between porn fantasy and reality,” she says.

Adults, and female ones at that, are responsible. Boynton was invited to go on GMTV recently. “They wanted to do something about empowering women [sexually]. I said: ‘Let’s talk about the clitoris.’” They didn’t like that, “but they were having a pole-dancer on”. No wonder we’re paranoid. You can’t bang on about female self-esteem being the root of all sexual happiness, if everything in culture takes a big pop at it. Even apparently tough females are not immune. Take the rather terrifying duo of Lette and Edwards-Jones, the editors of the book In Bed With. Edward-Jones sees porn everywhere. “Pop videos are soft porn, really, which is intimidating if you aren’t 22 and can’t lick your own nipples. If you are constantly being told you are hairy and overweight in a sex-fetishised culture, it doesn’t make you feel very sexy.” Lette adds: “When I was researching How to Kill Your Husband, I learnt that women in this sexually liberated millennium are having less sex than our more repressed sisters from the straight-laced 1950s. Today, the pressure to stay young and nubile is soul-destroying. And, really, is there anything more ridiculous than a middle-aged woman waxing off her pubic hair to look prepubescent?”

What happened to love?

A divorcĂ© describes his first forays into the 21st-century dating scene: “She wanted to shag like a porn star: longer, harder, bigger, better,” he says. “She used her Rabbit [vibrator] so much, orgasms were reserved for that efficient machine, then, when we were in bed, she was all, ‘Harder, harder’.” His female counterpart, a woman in her fabled “cougar” years, says she went on a fellatio course because “I was terrified I wouldn’t be good enough”. You’d think — hope — someone older wouldn’t be so insecure, right? Wrong. In fact, the cougar is a lesser-spotted urban myth, says Boynton. “A lot of them are buying into getting their act together, but haven’t thought ‘What turns me on?’ Many women want to learn deep-throat techniques, and I have to ask them, ‘Why? Why do you want to learn to relax your throat muscles?’”

Whatever happened to, ahem, making love? Richardson says: “Love has become a dirty word. We’re afraid to admit we want romance.”

“I used to f*** like a bunny, and was proud of it,” says a female hotelier, who describes a late-twenties transformation after she took a course with a Harley Street sex psychotherapist on how to get the best out of sex. “[After the course] I became more quality-controlled. And my partner was annoyed, because suddenly I didn’t see the point in giving it the whole showy thing.”

Paula Hall, a sexual psychotherapist and spokeswoman for Relate, says: “The sexualisation of the high street and media has left a lot of people with a lot more anxiety, a feeling of, ‘Oh God, there’s so much I don’t know.’ We’re selling just one model of female sex, which is raunchy, commanding, glossy and expensive. This thing of there being only one way of being — in your face, aggressive and masculine. People assume if they don’t fit the stereotype, then they don’t have it all. People need permission to be themselves again.”

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