Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body - Sara Pascoe (2016)
You Have Genitals!
We already know about the meeting and greeting of sperm and egg that makes a person. We’ve followed the pairing of chromosomes, the floaty swim ending with uterine embedding. We’ve thought about the six-week-old embryo, developing limbs, the beginnings of brain and lungs and the first heartbeats. We’re paddling past that now to week eight, a mere two months old in human time but already past your first birthday in dog years.* Until now you’d enjoyed a warm, watery genderless existence. If there were a soiree for embryos all body shapes would be identical and all foetuses united in their similarities until the clock struck eight weeks, when those with XY chromosomes would glide off home before their penises appeared and embarrassed them in front of everyone.
Our chromosomes hold the instructions for our body’s gendered development. XX = a female body and XY = a male body.† During this ‘gonadal phase’, male-bodied foetuses are flooded with testosterone. This alters their genital development: their clitoris swells into a phallus, their ovaries descend to become testicles and their labial folds converge into a smooth crest between penis and anus. This unfurling development is pretty magical. There are websites with photographs of male and female foetuses day by day, so you could watch how we mirror and differ while you’re at work tomorrow and see if that’s enough to get you fired.
During the Middle Ages, when anything that happened inside a living body remained mysterious, they believed it was the other way around, that males were the prototype, the basic format for human, and that females were males who hadn’t received enough warmth in the womb. That we were failed males. There was a common misunderstanding back then that if a woman got too excited and ‘overheated’ in adulthood she would spontaneously ‘put forth’ her penis – which, while factually inaccurate, would be a brilliant way to end an argument. We now know that a female body is the basic frame for all human beings and while it’s tempting to spend a day shouting at boys, ‘You’re actually women that testosterone came along and mucked up!’ we shouldn’t place too much importance on this. Nature isn’t making a powerful feminist point in our wombs, it’s just growing cells in the most efficient way. One sex was always going to be the building block for the other, so let us accept our fundamental category with the composed grace of the vastly superior.‡
Now, let’s stop concerning ourselves with the other and concentrate on us. Here is a labelled diagram of the female genitals. Feel free to trace a copy for your wall. I have based this on pictures and photographs in books, this is NOT a self-portrait and if you tell anyone it is I will TRACK YOU DOWN and ask you to stop.
1: The vulva. Sometimes people use ‘vagina’ to describe the whole shebang, but ‘vulva’ is the truthful name of our external genitalia and it is such a beautiful word, isn’t it? Maybe I’ve been looking at pictures of genitals too much recently, but I love the plush and velvety sounds of ‘vulva’. ‘It’s really quite a pretty name for a girl,’ I told John as we travelled home last night and he looked out of the train window and didn’t speak for twenty-five minutes. Reading between the lines, I’ve a feeling he didn’t agree, with an added sense of ‘please don’t use words like that on public transport’.
2: This bit is the actual vagina. It is the interior passage, leading towards the cervix at the neck of the womb. The word originates in Latin and could be translated as ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. Somewhere to put your sword then. The vagina is an adapting, responsive organ. It lengthens during sexual arousal and widens in preparation for childbirth, and shrinks into a closed resting state in between. It is not a hole. Women do not walk around with an empty space inside them (unless they’ve been shot by a cannon ball in the film Death Becomes Her. If you haven’t seen it, track it down online and watch immediately in order to get my dated nineties references).
When girls are born they have a small slip of skin partway inside the vagina called a hymen (3). There are usually some remnants of this skin inside the vagina years after it is broken.
The exterior of the vulva features the urethra – this little hole here (4). That’s where urine from the bladder leaves the body, in case you haven’t noticed.
Then we have the labia minora (5) and labia majora (6). They sound like constellations, stop looking upwards – these galaxies are in your underpants. ‘Labia’ means ‘lips’ in Lat-in, and ‘minora’ and ‘majora’ mean ‘small’ and ‘large’, so there’s some factually accurate naming right there. There is a very wide range of appearances in these genital lips, just like with facial lips. The minora are sometimes packed inside the majora, while other women have minora that extrude. The labia majora swell up with blood during sexual arousal and are often unsymmetrical, with one being slightly lower than the other. I have tried to draw a vulva here that is less neat than the ones you might have seen in pornography. Pleased don’t be offended if you have neat symmetrical genitals, you’re normal too.
7: Here is the clitoris. There is a hood of skin that protects the organ a little bit in day-to-day non-sexual mode, but when aroused the hood retracts and the clitoris swells with blood and increases in size. For some women there is only a slight hardening, for others a more noticeable size shift. The word ‘clitoris’ is Latin although originating in Greek and it could mean ‘to shut’, or ‘key’, or ‘little hill’. The etymologists don’t really know for sure, so nor do we. To me it sounds godlike: ‘Oh no, you have angered Clitoris, here she comes flying on her angry sheep to take revenge.’
8: This is your bum hole. Some people consider this a sexual organ and have great fun with it. Not me, I’m afraid, I probably won’t mention it again, unless bum hole whitening comes up later. Who knows?
Around here (9) is where pubic hair grows from puberty onwards. And also here (10). And here (11). And sometimes the odd one halfway down your thigh that looks like he has had an argument with all the others and is making a break for freedom.
Before I had any pubic hair, I had read about it, probably in that Have You Started Yet? book. And it made sense of a picture Aunty Juliet had in her flat. It was a really big painting that a friend of hers had done. The lady in the painting had no clothes on and the lady was my aunty Juliet. And when I went upstairs to the toilet, I would often peek in to look at the naked painting, because she had something all over her botty. It was black and I wondered why she hadn’t washed it off but was just sitting there. I asked my aunty Mickey once why Aunty Jools had a dirty botty but she just laughed and told everyone. But after I read the book I understood, I was mature and informed and a grown-up now. ‘Don’t worry,’ I told Mickey next time I saw her, ‘I know Juliet has got public hair.’ Mickey laughed again and corrected me. ‘Nope, I’m pretty sure it’s public hair,’ I assured her. It made sense to me; this hair provided protection from the gaze of the public when you were naked on a painting.
Nowadays the public gaze is very rarely interrupted by pubic hair because hardly anyone has got any. In pornography if you want to see a woman with pubes you have to search for a specialist category like ‘unshaven’ – the norm has become extraordinary. Before I start ranting on about this, let’s consider the evolutionary theories of why these little tufts of genital hair exist in the first place. Two million years ago our ancient ancestors would have been hairy all over like other apes. Hair is an animal’s way of regulating body temperature and is an absolute necessity when living outdoors without clothes or sleeping bags. And then, over thousands of years, our variety of sapiens became a lot less hairy. Persuasive theories argue that we needed to thermo-regulate in a different way, that we were overheating from all our running about and lost our hair in order to sweat more effectively. Others argue that we sexually selected less hairy partners as a sign of youth. Some say we lost hair in order to rid ourselves of the ticks and lice that would have lived in our fur, while the aquatic ape theory pops up again to insist that we evolved out of full body hair to be more streamlined when we lived in the water.
Whatever your favourite explanation, the result is that you are not as hairy as other mammals, though we still grow loads of hair on our heads (to protect us from the sun) and during puberty lush tough hair sprouts around our genitals. In sex education at school I was told that pubes had a hygienic role, keeping unhelpful particles away from sensitive areas, similar to how lashes function around the eye. Another theory is that the hairs trap odours and promote pheromones, adding to sexual attractiveness and aiding partner selection. Then there is the even simpler explanation that the arrival of pubic hair announces adulthood and is a clear visual signal that a female has reached an age where she could bear children.
It’s difficult for me to accept that puberty = adulthood, because I was such a child when it happened to me. I have to remember that my city-bound, modern upbringing allowed and expected this childhood of mine. Had I grown up in a nomadic tribe on an island in the Pacific I might have felt more mature at twelve. I certainly would be more familiar with adult bodies if I had lived in a non-clothed culture. Apart from that painting, I hadn’t seen any pubic hair before I grew it, my family kept the bathroom door closed. Indeed I was in a locked toilet when I first noticed the arrival of my ‘publics’. They were blonde and soft and I stroked them proudly. Over several months they became dark, coarse and wiry and I wasted many bottles of conditioner trying to tame the tangle. I felt disgusting and horrific. Desmond Morris wrote that women dislike pubic hair because it reminds them of spiders. Or that they dislike spiders because they fear the sexuality which pubic hair signals. Either way this is a terrific bit of nonsense, although I like the idea that my screaming at a spider is because I’d thought a clump of pubes were making their way across the living room. Sadly in the modern world both spiders and pubic hair commonly end their lives down the plughole.
If some women/most women/western women/you [delete as appropriate] feel that pubic hair is unattractive, is that a natural aversion, a psychological rejection of adulthood, or is it because we’ve been subtly and explicitly advised that femininity = body baldness? Virtually all the women I know shave some part of their body. The unimaginative mockery of feminists refers to unshorn armpits and legs as often as smouldering bras,§ and when I make the decision to go unshaved for a bit, it feels brave and political rather than lazy and unworthy of comment. So monstrous is female body hair that adverts for razors depict women running blades down pre-epilated legs. To show a woman’s leg with hair, even if that hair was in the process of being removed, would be to signal that it’s okay, natural, not a big deal, and that would subtly undermine the sale of such razor blades.
A couple of years ago, while promoting a show, I did a Q & A for a men’s magazine. They said they were contacting ‘real’ women (lad mag speak for ‘small-breasted’) to be interviewed for a feature about how ‘real’ women (not those synthetic robot women usually featured in the media) felt about sex. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said, ‘we won’t need a picture for the interview.’ I was stupidly keen to do it – this type of
misogynist drivel magazine is read by young men with unformed minds; I would be able to educate them, contradict the porn they consume and help them learn about female pleasure. I spent hours answering the stupid questions about penis size and how long he should last and then arrived at question 7: ‘How can a guy politely ask his girlfriend to get a Brazilian wax?’ Like it’s the politeness that is the issue in that scenario. ‘Oh, everyone else who’s asked before has been so rude, I doappreciate your civility – yes. Yes I will have hair ripped from my genitals.’
Brazilian waxes became de rigueur as I was making my way into my twenties and remained popular, more than popular, expected until relatively recently. I always felt I had to warn people before I went to bed with them, ‘Just so you know, I have pubic hair – stop screaming, I promise it’s not spiders.’ Also why are they called Brazilians? I know it’s probably where the style originated or something but wasn’t it insensitive to name a near-total wax after a country suffering from widespread deforestation? SAVE THE RAINFOREST! Leave the Amazon alone.
I obsess about pubic hair because attitudes to it are typical of the pressure on us not to be like us. Something happened about a year ago, I was at the gym near my house. (You mustn’t imagine a horrible place full of vain people looking in the mirror; this is a council-run gym so most people are there for free because the NHS thinks they’re dying. We have a real carnival atmosphere. No one wears gym stuff, you can go in whatever you’re wearing that day, high heels, sombrero – nobody cares.) For financial reasons we only have one working hairdryer in the ladies’ changing room, and what I saw, just over a year ago, was an older lady using that hairdryer to dry her pubic hair. And she was taking her time over it, she was combing, doing a thorough job, and there was no embarrassment; if you looked over at her, she looked straight back at you. BUT because she was using the only working appliance, a queue had formed of other women waiting to use it, and one of them, she’s had enough, she decides she’s going to use the hand dryer, which is at waist height, to dry her head hair.
So older lady number two is now crouched down, drying her hair as best she can – and there is no problem with this whatsoever, it’s an ingenious solution, except that because she’s got no clothes on she is splayed to the room. Everybody else is okay about this, carrying on with their business in the changing room, and I am frozen to the spot. I am not prepared for such confidence, I am from a shy family. I wondered if perhaps I should go over and say something, in case she didn’t realise she was so exposed? But then I reminded myself, ‘No, this is just nudity, we are animals, bodies are just bodies, it’s only civilisation that makes you think there’s something wrong.’
And yet I did feel something was wrong, not physically, she was exactly as I depicted earlier, but you can’t, can you? You can’t go over to a stranger and say ‘Sorry, excuse me, I can see in your womb’ – but luckily the gym has a tannoy.
Since then, I think about those two women often. After I’d gone home I kept pondering what my problem was, why I’d felt so concerned with their behaviour, and I realised it was because they were accepting of themselves and relaxed with their bodies in a way that I am not. I don’t even get undressed in the changing room because I’m so anxious about being judged. I wouldn’t have a Brazilian wax and then wander around confidently because I would worry other women would look at me and think I was a bad feminist. That I had succumbed to social pressures; that I wasn’t resisting as I should. But I also wouldn’t go into the open showers with all of my pubic hair because I worry everyone will
think it’s spiders assume I haven’t got a boyfriend. And it’s frustrating because when you think about it, women’s genitals are like men’s faces. They grow hair because they’re ADULT and they should only be fully shaved if you’ve got a court appearance or job interview.
Those naked ladies are my heroes. They prance around my memory, inappropriately using drying appliances and reminding me that it is always society that’s wrong, never our bodies. I have a number of friends¶ who have no pubic hair. I must stress that these are adult friends. They’ve chosen to have laser hair removal, which is permanent, and to hear them speak, it’s like they have corrected something that was wrong with them. Erasing an unsightly blemish. And I hate it and they are bored of my lectures, but I feel like they are denying something animal about themselves, maybe even encouraging the fetishisation of the pre-pubescent, and – AND I think they are going to confuse future generations. When they’re in their seventies and drying off after a swim some kid’s gonna turn to their parent and ask, ‘Mummy, why is that baby so old?’
I am BORED of being told pubic hair is unsightly. There is an advert on TV at the moment, not right at this moment, I am giving you my full attention, it’s an advert that has been on for a few months and it’s for a razor blade aimed at women. Pink, of course (the women and the razor), and the woman in the ad, she is talking to the camera, all relaxed and sharing her story of when she was at a BBQ and having a great time when everyone decided to jump into the swimming pool. And the lovely razor lady, she was worried, she points down her groin, reliving her pitiable plight, and asks, ‘Am I beach ready?’ Then she smiles to reassure us and we know it’s going to be okay as she announces, ‘Of course I was beach ready!’ It was a happy ending and we were silly to doubt her and the moral of the story is, if you’ve got pubic hair, please don’t come to parties. Just stay at home, there’s food here, it wouldn’t be hygienic. Also, when did we start using that stupid phrase ‘beach ready’? Beaches are inanimate meetings of land and sea, why are we trying to impress them?
I should tell you now that I spoke to my aunty Juliet, yes, the one from the painting, about this the other day, moaning about all my friends being pubeless, and she said, ‘Maybe they’re all having fun – experimenting, having a sexy time?’ and she’s right and I shouldn’t be preaching to people. I am not telling you that you’re not allowed to shear off as many pubes as you like, I just want to strongly assert that you should never feel like you have to.
Enough with physical appearance, let’s move on to genital aroma. ‘Is that the name of your celebrity fragrance, Sara?’ You wish. I’ll never release a perfume because I am pretty sure they’re all tested on animals by bastards.
The female genital system, interior and exterior, is a self-cleansing organ. It has a delicate and specific pH level which alters incrementally throughout the menstrual cycle. This affects how the organ smells. Some women find that they smell more pungent or earthy at times, just before their period, for instance, or mid-cycle during ovulation. Recent sex can change the smell a bit, use of condoms or lube or vibrators, anything that introduces new bacteria; menstrual blood can have a tangy smell – but all this included, healthy vulvas smell like vulvas. And that smell only reaches as far as the people with their head in your crotch. In fact the guy who put forward the theory of sperm competition, Robin Baker, claims in his book Sperm Wars that oral sex may have evolved as a way of checking genital health pre-intercourse; that the instinct for a full face-to-genital meeting may have prevented mating with diseased, infected or weakened partners. I have no idea if that is true or how you could even prove it, but what I am certain of is the taboo/disgust/fear of smelly fannies.
At school it was a semi-common insult, the kind of thing boys shouted to embarrass you and girls bitchily commented on behind your back. With boys the theme was usually fish-related, whereas with girls it was either that they could smell when you were on your period or that your sexual promiscuity had to led to some kind of rotting or decay of the groinal area. Yes, you’re right, I did go to a horrible school full of awful people but I’m free now, FREE. If you’re still at school you too will be free one day, I promise. They’re not allowed to keep you there.
Years after I’d finished school, a man approached me in a bar. He gave me a meaningful look and dribble-spoke into my ear: ‘I could smell your cunt from over there’ – he gestured to the far side of the room. What would have been a nasty playground taunt, his sleazy tone and demeanour meant me to receive as a compliment: the first line of an invitation for an evening of what would’ve certainly been the most inept love-making of all time. A few years later, on my first panel show,|| one of the rounds was ‘Worst Ever Chat-up Lines’ and I tried to make this guy in the bar into a funny story. As soon as I said it I really wished I hadn’t. It was too gross and personal, I should’ve said it happened to a friend, not to me. The other comics made a few jokes and I sat there brave and blushing and it felt like school again. No one meant to be mean to me, it was a topic I had introduced and they were just, you know, riffing on it. Wondering how far away my genitals could be smelled ha ha ha ha, maybe he was doing me a favour, sending me to the toilets with a wet wipe ha ha ha. Even in the complete jest and hyperbole of it I felt diminished and so, so ashamed of myself. To be reminded that one is the owner of female genitals is weird. It makes me feel vulnerable and repulsive. And belittled. Less respectable.
Despite all this, I am not paranoid about my genital smell. There I go, bragging again. And while I understand, you know, washing every day, changing underwear, a quick flannel wipe if you’re about to have sex with someone you want to impress, I don’t get the whole Femfresh thing. I name them although I know there is a whole load of speciality vulva cleaning products available; I’m guessing that Femfresh are the market leader. And I name them because their adverts made me want to – not hurt anyone, I don’t condone violence – but their adverts made me want to shut down the whole department of advertising execs who created the campaigns and find them new and fulfilling jobs where they could put their understanding of female insecurity to good use. Counselling maybe? Writing self-esteem quizzes? Moulding the public persona of a boy band? Something they could be proud of when people asked at dinner parties.
I must have known that Femfresh existed as a concept – that there was a range of products (wash, wipes and deodorant) created specifically to prey on women’s and girls’ fears. There is no male equivalent of Femfresh; there is no market for specialised penis wash because it is an idiotic and unnecessary idea and no one would buy it. People only fall for that kind of rubbish when they’ve been brainwashed (and wiped and deodorised) into believing there could be perilous consequences otherwise. So – I was vaguely aware of Femfresh, though I had never bought any or spotted it in a friend’s bathroom, and then in London near my house there was suddenly a huge poster: an ecstatic and beautiful woman frozen in celebration as a mega-font yelled across her body: ‘WOOHOO for my FROOFROO’. Her happiness, according to the poster, was due to the effects of Femfresh. The subtextual message was that when your genitals were properly cleansed, you too could be happy and beautiful. The explicit message was that this grown woman called her vulva a ‘froofroo’. Baby talk and flippancy and an assault on our natural odours all wrapped up in one billboard by the station.
I spent all day arguing with the poster in my head. I hated the infantilisation of the language, sure, but I hated the separation of genitals and body even more. The compartmentalisation of who we are and this extra (gross and idiotic) appendage. ‘Whatever you call it make sure you love it’ was the tagline. What is this IT? I wondered all day, some add-on? A parasite or mollusc that wasn’t truly me but hung around in my underpants and needed caretaking? The billboard was not alone, it had siblings that used alternative words: ‘mini’, ‘twinkle’, ‘hoo haa’, ‘fancy’, ‘lady garden’, ‘kitty’, ‘va jay jay’, ‘nooni’, ‘la la’, ‘privates’ and ‘down there’. And I know the advert was supposed to be a bit of fun, that all those silly slang terms were supposed to make us smile. Lots of people have childish names for their genitals and if this advert had been for something like, I don’t know, a cancer charity I would’ve been less angry, just thought it sad and pathetic. Actually there is a poster campaign at the moment raising money/awareness of cervical cancer. There are little posters all up the escalator on the underground and they show different kinds of pink shoes on a staircase and I tut at it daily because how could anyone who cares about women think we can be symbolised by, be reduced to, pink footwear? But their heart is in the right place (if not their advertising account) and I don’t go on about it. But Femfresh can go f**k themselves,** they were double-damning us. ‘You’re not clean enough,’ they targeted us from the streets, ‘and and you don’t own your body.’
Around the same time, maybe a couple of months later, Gwyneth Paltrow advocated a ‘vaginal steam’ on her website Goop.com. Before we go any further let me say that I respect and admire any woman who pursues health and happiness. I love Gwyneth and her incredible work as an actor and I am not criticising her personally. However, she does occasionally channel some BS. ‘It is an energetic release – not just a steam douche,’ she reassures us. She claims it ‘balances female hormone levels’, which it definitely doesn’t, that is not how hormones work. Remember the interplay of oestrogen and progesterone communicating via your blood during your menstrual cycle? Imagine if their behaviour was altered every time you sat on something warm. Your ‘female hormones’ would be ‘balanced’ every time you had a bath or leaned on a radiator. ‘If you’re in LA, you have to do it,’ says Gwyneth. Well we aren’t, and we don’t. This treatment (which involves sitting above some herb-flavoured steam with no knickers on) may be very relaxing, and being less stressed is certainly very good for your health (as proved by a little old evidence-validated practice called science). But the websites for V-steams claim to ‘energise the uterus’, which is meaningless nonsense, and to ‘detoxify your vagina’, which, by the way, isn’t toxic. Any time you see the word ‘detox’ someone is trying to sell you absolute waste-of-time crap. Your liver detoxifies you, with help from your kidneys, lungs and skin. Face cream doesn’t detoxify you, nor do fad diets, or tablets or expensive spa treatments. Vaginal steam is just Femfresh for people with money, it’s the same forces at work. Presumably even movie stars were sometimes called ‘fishy flaps’ at school.
I Asked Jeeves to see if he knew how much money is spent on genital cosmetics each year, but he kept sending me to pages with stats on regular cosmetics and finally to a website that sold little boys’ foreskins, so I have stopped looking now. Let’s just say that some money is spent by some women each year on just the most unbelievable, surreally weird stuff. I already knew about anus whitening creams, I’m not Amish – I’d learned about such potions from an article I read about Simon Cowell. But I was very surprised when (because of all the stuff I’ve been searching for lately) the sidebar on my homepage started offering me labia paints. YES, pastes for women to apply to their genitalia because they are – well, I guess they are not pink enough. Following the rabbit down the hole to its vendor I was invited to purchase labia lightening creams if my crotch was too dark, and tightening gels if my vagina was too wide. All the language seemed to be describing a scary walk home rather than human genitalia. If I was a women’s magazine I would describe a ‘growing trend’ and a ‘worrying increase’ in women wanting to use such products on themselves, but more interesting, I think, is the why? Cos people take pictures of their vulvas more now so vanity is rising? Because of porn? Maybe women are more familiar with other women’s vulvas and are thus more critical of their own? Do their partners demand prettier labia like men in the seventies expected their dinner on the table when they got home from work?
Let’s just remember that cosmetics of all varieties – whether for your face or your fanny – are never providing a service you need. They are always, in their advertising and in their very existence, telling you that something is wrong with you. The entire ‘beauty industry’ is the financial exploitation of people’s inbuilt, animal insecurity. Wanting to be attractive is not new, it’s just that the fashions change. The Victorians had bustles and corsets, we have boob jobs and lighten our bald pudenda. We’re all mad, but it’s been this way for ages.
Not all of this genital embellishment remains superficial. Some women go to extreme lengths and have surgery. The operations have names like ‘labiaplasty’ or ‘vaginoplasty’ and involve cutting and reshaping the external genitals (for instance making the labia minora even minora-er) or cutting and stitching the vagina itself to make it feel smaller and tighter. I’m not going to sit on the fence with this one (impossible after this kind of op). I am sure a small percentage of the women undergoing such surgery do have medical conditions that need correcting. Perhaps their labia minora are so long they trail behind them and act as a parachute, slowing them down when they’re running for the bus? Maybe their vagina is so wide their lungs and gall bladder fell out at Zumba? I’ll stop being silly for a second – of course there will be women with injuries caused by difficult births. But having such an operation for aesthetic reasons is ridiculous. ‘Designer vaginas’, the women’s magazines call it; their letters pages feature women who want to have a smoother contour in their gym gear, to look like the women in pornography or to be a ‘virgin’ again. We discuss female genital mutilation (FGM) as something that occurs in African nations or other faraway countries with exotic and unknowable cultures but all women are subject to the same pressures to be attractive, to be sexual in the right way. ‘Designer vagina’ is upbeat and rhymey but it’s still a form of physical mutilation.
I would say that the stigma of having a loose vagina is worse than smell. It was another angle for the boys at school to terrify me. (Where the hell did they learn this? From their dads? Do they teach boys sexual bullying – is that where they went when we were learning about periods?) The idea of being baggy or having a massive fanny was an easy insult in the nineties, and is something I still hear male friends say occasionally about women they have slept with or wouldn’t want to. And of course it’s denigrating because tight vaginas = youth and sexual inexperience, and not tight enough = the opposite. This idealised, vice-like grip of the vagina is for the penetrating male’s pleasure and reassurance. Olden-day sex guide the Kama Sutra (look out for it on a friend’s parent’s bedside table some time) is matter-of-fact about males and females having a variety of genital sizes. It suggests that it is sensible to match up with someone who is a similar size to you; women range through deer, mare and elephant and would well suit men with small, medium and large penises accordingly. This information is given without judgement or scorn, it’s a genetic reality that our bodies are built differently. Sexual experience is not implied.
Despite what we start off with, our bodies are affected by childbirth. The sexual openness in our culture has allowed pop stars to talk about elective C-sections to protect their sex life, and male comedians (not all of course, but a few) to do funny routines about the state of their wife’s genitals after giving birth. The oldest joke, recently recycled by Robbie Williams, is that watching your partner give birth is like ‘watching your favourite pub burn down’. Implicit in this quip and others like it, is that the vagina exists for
men to have a beer in male penetration. That it is his place, and it is he who is suffering from its transformation. OH LOOK!
ROBBIE WILLIAMS walks in and tells me to chill out in a Northern accent.
Don’t take it so seriously, don’t analyse it, it’s a gag to make you laugh!
I’m not laughing, jokes like that make me paranoid.
You’ve not even had a baby—
But the implicit ownership—
I never heard of that kind of ship.
ROBBIE turns to imaginary laughing crowd and winks and waves.
Our vaginas are ours. Not our partners’.
Yes, you’re the brewery, you own the pub—
We are the brewery and the patron and the landlord and you, you are just someone who walks past the pub and are lucky that you’re even allowed on the same street actually, you aren’t even a shareholder, you don’t own even one share, you—
I’m leaving. It was just a joke.
Okay. It was nice to meet you! I’d like to write a sitcom for you one day I think you’re very— He’s gone.
Rich people sometimes have cosmetic procedures at the same time they’re in hospital having their baby. Liposuction to reduce their weight, a boob job while they’re swollen and people won’t notice and maybe a vaginoplasty while their genitals are being stitched anyway. If a woman who’s literally just given birth feels compelled to rapidly return to her pre-pregnancy state that’s because she believes that appearing fertile and sexually available is her cultural duty. Of course such women are a minority, but they are symbolic. They are the women who have bowed furthest to the pressures of their culture. Similarly, some women who have been infibulated as young girls (infibulation is a form of FGM where the labia majora are cut and stitched so that scar tissue forms and the vagina is virtually sealed), some of them ask to have their labia resewn again after giving birth. When I read about this I was so baffled. The vagina would be resealed, scar tissue would form, and before she could have sex her husband would have to break through that skin again, maybe even with a knife, causing much pain and discomfort – and it was the women asking for this and women sewing them up. This wasn’t explicit patriarchy, it wasn’t male demands. It was something the women assumed (rightly or wrongly) was attractive. It denied their own sexual pleasure, their experience of sex, in order to reclaim virginity, or rather to imitate it.
But why would sexual inexperience be attractive in a conscious mammal?
a) You can teach them how you like it.
b) You can tell them you’re the best and they won’t know otherwise.
c) Paternity certainty.
That’s right, we’ve evolved to value virginity (well, straight men have) because it is the only way of being definitely sure that your partner isn’t already pregnant by somebody else. Dominating a young, virginal partner would have been an evolutionary tactic for males to avoid bringing up children they weren’t related to. Women can be pretty certain they’re related to their babies so we haven’t evolved to fetishise youth and sexual innocence in our partners. Instead we carry the burden of our experience, and if we can trick our way into appearing younger, we will often do so.
I could quote that Madonna song, but I’ve decided instead to tell you about when I was in either Scunthorpe, Blackpool or Hartlepool (I can’t remember which because I am so jet-lagged from all my great travelling). Waiting for my gig to start, I was wandering along the seafront towards a huge black building, and as I got nearer the sign clarified that it was ‘Fallen Angels’. For some reason I assumed it was a bakery and sped up, only to arrive a minute later and be disappointed by the truth: it was a strip club. Fallen Angels made sense for a cake vendor because the suggestion is all like, ‘Who can resist our delicious cakes; even though you’re a good girl on a diet you’ll still want one.’ And I guess there’s sort of the same thing going on with the strip-club brand. ‘Fallen’ offers ‘flirty, dirty, up-for-anything birds’ while ‘Angels’ reassures patrons, ‘These birds are clean and shiny new, don’t worry, you won’t catch anything.’ They are wholesome women who have very recently decided to filth up for your pleasure. Sexual inexperience = good; sexually available = good, and so illustrated is the restrictive sliver of women at their sexiest: virginal but willing. Look like a porn star but have cellophane-wrapped, unused genitals. The hymen: nature’s cellophane.††
Many women in the world are still expected to be virgins when they marry, usually because they or their family have strict religious beliefs. An intact maidenhead is often necessary for securing a dowry or bride price. In very extreme examples it can affect a woman’s role in a restrictive society, for instance there are countries where women have to undergo ‘virginity inspections’: Egypt forced them on female protesters in 2013 and Indonesian students are given them yearly in order to remain in education. Up until 1979 a woman entering Britain for marriage purposes could be subjected to one, which is like, WHAT???? In lovely presentday Britain we have a wide range of cultures and subcultures ranging from the sexually relaxed to the very exacting. For some British women shame, dishonour or punishment remain the price for engaging in pre-marital sex, consenting or otherwise. This prevents me from making a generalised statement about how we aren’t virginity-obsessed any more and us ladies can go out and get some whenever we want – that’s not true for all of us. It’s better for me to say that we are emerging together gradually from a history that was unbelievably controlling of women, but we are gaining our liberty at different speeds.
The very oldest record of lawmaking, going back to 9000 BC, is indicative of the male fear of paternity uncertainty and aggressive attempts at ownership of women. It’s called the Code of Ur-Nammu and it states that a woman who cheats on her husband should be killed. Thanks a lot, Ur-Nammu, whatever you are. Records from all ancient societies seem to have had variants on this; Assyrian women were killed if they were seen talking to a man in private, Hebrew brides were stoned to death if discovered (or suspected of) not being virgins on their wedding night. Ancient Rome is interesting: records show that all women were officially and explicitly owned by father or husband – a woman who didn’t have either was given a guardian by the state. The only exception were the Vestal Virgins, who were owned by everyone – their magical virginity was believed to protect Rome and make sure they won all their wars and stuff. If things started going badly, if they lost a few battles or someone nice got struck by lightning, they would blame the virgins: ‘One of you must have done it with a guy,’ they would shout, and if it was proved, the lady would be buried alive in a hole. People believed in this. They kept the Vestal Virgin system going for five hundred years or so. The virgins’ only job was to keep the fire of Rome going and not have sex, and if they failed at either of those things, everyone would cry and line the streets as the girl was taken to her hole to suffocate. Even if she had been raped – didn’t matter, into the hole.
Whenever I find out about things like this I realise olden-day people were insane. Before there was science and evidence anyone could just say anything and use it as an excuse to kill someone. Even now when we have lots of medical knowledge available, myths endure and are detrimental. There’s this commonly accepted connection between hymens and virginity – an intact hymen can be expected as ‘proof’ that a woman has not had penetrative intercourse, while in fact hymens are very unreliable indicators of that kind of thing. At birth the thin sliver of skin seals the entrance of a girl’s vagina, and as she grows it splits. During puberty it becomes more elastic and remains in a crescent shape around the edge of the vagina But many things apart from sex can diminish a hymen further, such as tampons, exercise and masturbation; also some rare women are born without one. So any kind of hymen-based virginity test can only ever be a guess. Yet some women are choosing to undertake ‘hymenoplasty’,‡‡ an operation where the hymen is reinstated for the purpose of bleeding during sexual intercourse. The frequency of this operation is rising in the UK, although it is still very rare (less than a hundred a year). And while my aunty Juliet could pop up and say ‘Maybe people are just having a fun and sexy time?’ I don’t think the people choosing to do this are spicing up their sex lives, I think they’re fearful of the consequences of not seeming virginal enough for new husbands within prescriptive religions.
Why do we have hymens at all? It’s another lady mystery, although we are not the only animal with one; horses, elephants, manatees, whales and hyenas have them too. Good old Desmond ‘spider pubes’ Morris reckoned hymens were naturally selected so that first-time sex would be painful for girls and we wouldn’t be flippant about it and put out too easily. We would wait for a great guy who would stick around and help with the kids and thus ensure evolutionary success. Presumably our ancestors without hymens were a lot free and easier with their first shag and just died out from being such slags? Everyone’s favourite crazy conjecture, the aquatic ape theory, says that maybe we developed the hymen while we were in the water to stop sand and small shells from going up into our vaginas. Some scientists say that the hymen might be an important part of genital development while we are in the womb and that what remains during puberty is just a by-product of that phase, not worth thinking too much about. Try telling that to the guys over at ‘virginity hypothesis’, who reckon that hymens were sexually selected because our ancient male ancestors preferred sex with women who had hymens. I mean, come on – how did they check? At what point did they bring this up on dates? Did prehistoric women have labels stating ‘Do not consume if seal is broken’? Guys, seriously, so many of these ideas are ridiculous.
People generally accept that a woman’s first experience of sexual intercourse will be painful, which is perturbing. Speaking as a lay person with my own personal theories, most of the pain during losing of virginity (or any sex after that) comes from being tense or not aroused enough. Yet girls growing up are taught to expect this pain rather than being told to spend more time in foreplay to prevent it. Girls should be informed: ‘First-time sex can cause a bit of pain unless you wait until you’re so aroused that it doesn’t.’ I will tell them that, GET ME ALL THE GIRLS ON THE PHONE, I’VE GOT SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION. With first-time sex we expect men to enjoy themselves, but not women. It sets a terrible precedent, but is easily shifted if we can make an effort to teach young people more about a woman’s body and how to give and receive pleasure. When I say ‘we’ I mean society, not you and me with diagrams and pointy sticks in a blue tent outside the shopping centre.
For a long time, pleasure and sex were supposed to be unconnected. The Christian Church has spent two millennia bossing everyone about and telling us not to enjoy sex. The urges of our loins were the inherited punishment of Eve’s sin, and marriage was perceived as a sensible way to contain this disgusting behaviour. ‘Sex is for making babies, so you probably have to do it but you absolutely mustn’t like it,’ they told people. Pope Gregory the Great (his words not mine) claimed that marital intercourse was blameless only when there was no pleasure involved (blameless = you won’t go to hell for it). All this suppression of sexuality worked, you know, and the population of Europe declined between ad 500 and 1050 because there were so few days when a married couple were permitted to have sex – it was banned on Sundays. And Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, saints’ days, festivals, the whole of Lent and for ages around a woman’s menstruation. If you weren’t married you were permitted to have sex never. And of course the Church also banned homosexuality and masturbation and punished and terrified those who were caught or accused of doing either. Most modern branches of Christianity have become more tolerant and accepting but still have a focus on procreation when it comes to sex. Fundamentalist churches remain as dictatorial as anyone adhering to a two-thousand-year-old rule book tends to be. But whether we are religious or not, the ramifications emanate through our culture, and none of our lives are free from ancient attempts to quell and control sexuality.
Another form of sexuality control is genital cutting, which is thought to have originated in Africa over five thousand years ago. Certainly the ancient Egyptians practised it; there’s a rumour going round that Cleopatra herself was probably ‘circumcised’. Nearly a hundred million women in the world are currently living with some form of FGM, 137,000 of those in the UK. If you have never been sure what FGM is, there are three main types: 1) clitoridectomy, where the hood of the clitoris is removed; 2) excision, where the clitoris is completely removed, sometimes with the labia minora; 3) infibulation, I mentioned this earlier, which is when the clitoris and the labia are removed and the vulva is sutured together, leaving just a very small hole for urine and menstrual blood to escape.
Well, the first type, clitoridectomy, sometimes referred to as sunna circumcision, is thought to be the female equivalent to male circumcision, with the hood of the clitoris acting like the foreskin of a penis. Trauma aside, if the operation is undertaken very carefully and without damaging the rest of the clitoris, it does not necessarily harm a woman’s ability to enjoy sex. The clitoral exposure may even enhance sexual sensation. With excision and infibulation, the intention and result is to reduce or destroy a woman’s pleasure. To cause pain, to diminish sex drive and to subjugate women. The cultures who practise these forms of FGM have many strong beliefs in support of these operations (don’t imagine white coats and anaesthesia, imagine women with razors or scissors while girls are held down by family members). Girls are told that the procedure will make them healthier, folklore tells them it will make them more fertile or prevent them having stillborn children. In societies where FGM is the custom, girls who don’t undergo it are considered ‘dirty’ and unmarriageable. Some cultures consider all uncircumcised women prostitutes. In such circumstances, despite the agony, the risk of infection and death, many girls would much rather face these operations than not. Their mothers, who have survived the practice themselves, often consider these mutilations to be a part of growing up as a woman. For millions of female children there is no choice; girls who refuse are forced. Families succumb to social pressures, just like all families everywhere. Generations are moulded, boys are taught to be aroused by compliance and distrustful of passion, women are taught that sex is for a husband’s gratification or to make children.
For huge swathes of the modern world, female sexual enjoyment is considered dangerous because if a woman likes sex, she might have it with people that she wants to, rather than being made to endure it by the person that owns her. The clitoris is feared as the headquarters of female pleasure, so let’s get to know it a little better.
Here is a diagram of the clitoris:
You can see the external nubbin (1) is connected to a much bigger internal organ (2) composed of connective tissue, erectile tissue and a dense network of nerves and sensory receptors. The position and size of the external part of the clitoris varies from woman to woman – all the books say ‘pea-sized’ but it is often much smaller. Or bigger. I read about a tribe where they call the women with large clitorises ‘chickpeas’ but when I tried searching for it online just now I only found delicious recipes.
If you have a clitoris, you are probably already aware of how sensitive it is. Despite its small size it is completely packed full of nerve endings and is by far the most responsive organ on your body. The dorsal nerve connects your clitoris to your spinal cord, meaning that for most women the clitoris is the centre of their sexual response, arousal, pleasure and orgasms. However, the way that women’s bodies are composed means that penetrative sexual intercourse is possible without the clitoris being stimulated at all – and this is confusing, it doesn’t seem to make sense. How can it be a sexual organ if, for women, sex seems possible without it? The clitoris has suffered a history of misunderstanding and mistreatment as a result.
Like I only recently realised how SEXUAL the witch hunts of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries were. The claims against women were often variants of: ‘She had sex with the devil,’ ‘She lets the devil do her,’ ‘The devil takes the form of an animal and shags her proper.’ After accusation (usually from another innocent woman being tortured) a ‘witch’ was stripped naked, her pubic hair shaved and her body examined for ‘marks of the devil’. As her relationship with Satan was presumed to be sexual, her genitals were closely scrutinised and often a little bump was found between the labia – ‘the witch’s teat’, they called it. One is described as ‘a preternaturall Excrescence of flesh between the pudendum and Anus much like to tetts & not usuall in women’. It was claimed that this bump was incredibly sensitive and sexy and that the devil could suckle from it and use it to manipulate the woman. During torture, they might prod and poke this blameless clitoris as the woman writhed and screamed in agony. When these poor women were taken to ‘trial’ (usually saying whatever they’d been told to in order to get the torture to stop) the men questioning them were obsessed with the size of Beelzebub’s penis, how hard it was, what it was made of, etc. This historical phase epitomises societal fear of a woman’s sexuality. Through prudish culture and religious puritanism, sex and bodies had become mysterious. Genitals that throughout our evolution had been functional and knowable were now alien, and this strangeness became dangerous. In the thousands of years when humans were post-animal yet pre-science, the bodies we should have taken for granted became unfamiliar to us. Women make children, and female desire is (in nature) a prerequisite to this, but the hundreds of years when sexuality was repressed by religion meant that we only half understood things. We knew that women had blissful potential in their loins, but Christianity taught that this was temptation. That it was ungodly. Women’s potential for pleasure became potential for evil instead. The male imagination transferred a subconscious fear of cuckoldry into symbolism, a large-phallused enemy of God who seduced anyone he wanted. And women’s bodies were punished to assuage his fear.
Ignorance about female sensuality has continued until the present day and still exists right now this second while you’re reading this book. We live in a world where penetration is considered as the main aspect of sex, the very definition of it, and because most women do not climax via this process, and men do, our entire gender is considered broken in some way. We are maladapted. We are taught that something is wrong with us if the conventional penis-inside-vagina sex does not get us going. The fact that this kind of sex makes babies is proof, PROOF, that it is the correct, best kind. The sort we’ve all evolved to want and enjoy for thousands of years. If the majority of modern women are not enjoying it as much as men, well, they must need therapy, say some psychologists. ‘Women get their enjoyment from the pregnancy that follows sex, not the act itself,’ the olden-day scientists used to say. ‘They need to work harder, try different positions, buy sexier underwear and take more toys into the bedroom,’ rant the women’s magazines.
If you can bear another of my younger self’s sexual tales: I went out with a guy called Dan in my second year of college. I had liked him for ages because he was a bit older and always had very smart clothes; his navy jumper and neat trousers stood out in the crowd of Kappa tracksuits in the canteen. Dan was the third person I’d ever slept with and it was – fine, it was fine. It wasn’t really fine, but it was fine, it was just very thrusty. I felt very thrusted upon. I kept thinking I would have to ask him to change what he was doing, to calm down a bit, but it was too embarrassing so I broke up with him instead. He didn’t care very much and we remained friends. At the pub months later, he was telling everyone at our table how great he was in bed. ‘Tell them, Sara,’ he insisted. ‘I’ve got a system,’ he was telling everyone, ‘I worked out how you can guarantee that a woman comes.’ Everyone was very intrigued, no one more than me who’d never managed to get anywhere close to orgasm in his vicinity. ‘I worked it out with my first girlfriend,’ he boasted calmly. ‘All you have to do is hit the cervix thirty-five to forty times with the tip of your knob and it starts to tremble and that’s an orgasm.’ So there you have it, a perfect example of how a little bit of information and a dose of ignorant presumption create a terrible sex partner.
In Dan’s defence, many anatomists and biologists have proposed equally baffling theories perfectly illustrating how the female orgasm is half known. We can be certain of some things, like the names of body parts and that it’s nice when it happens, but the mechanics don’t make any sense compared to the male framework – there must be a system to it, we just haven’t figured it out yet.
Sigmund Freud had a good go at ruining women’s sex lives for ever. He knew that some women could orgasm from penetrative sex while other women needed clitoral stimulation to climax (people told him everything) and he decided that the difference between these two types of women was psychological. The clitoral types were ‘immature’; they were stunted in a pre-adolescent ‘girl’ state and needed years of psychoanalysis to move through to a ‘mature’, appropriate state of womanhood when they’d be able to come via the poking of a penis. To clarify, Freud believed that there was a right and a wrong way for a woman to orgasm, and that the wrong way should not be encouraged. Women and girls should not masturbate, as that would increase their difficulty in reaching a vaginal orgasm. There was a brief Victorian trend of removing the clitorises of female children who masturbated. There are documented cases in the UK and the US, and Freud was very supportive of the practice and recommended it. It’s impossible to stress here how much the Victorians feared masturbation. They thought it ‘moral leprosy’, blamed it for epilepsy and insanity and ugly children and anything else you can think of. Consider the difficulty for our gender, who mostly require clitoral stimulation to enjoy sex, during a time where desiring such stimulation was considered indicative of nymphomania and perversion. At least one woman responded by having her clitoris moved. DON’T WORRY, I am obviously going to give you more information, that’s not the kind of fact you can drop, shrug and walk away …
Marie Bonaparte was one of Sigmund Freud’s patients. She was Napoleon’s great-grandniece and a brilliantly bright woman who enjoyed freedom in a restrictive society thanks to being very rich. Marie had clitoral orgasms, which she knew from therapy were ‘wrong’, and she became obsessed with ‘fixing’ herself. She had a theory that rather than being purely psychological, perhaps the position of a woman’s clitoris made a difference to whether she could orgasm from penetration. She conducted a study – YES, she measured the distance between the clitoris and the vagina (C–V) on around 240 women, asked them how they orgasmed and published the results under a male pseudonym. What she found out should be common knowledge, but it isn’t because everyone apart from you and me is an idiot.
Marie B. found out that if a woman’s C–V distance was 1 cm or less, then she could have these vaginal orgasms. If the C–V was between 1 and 2.5 cm then the woman was on the cusp; she might sometimes be able to reach orgasm this way but it was unreliable. And if a woman’s C–V§§ was over 2.5 cm then she would always need extra clitoral stimulation, penetration would never be enough. Maybe it is not in our minds but in our measurements? Over fifty per cent of women are unlikely to experience orgasm without some excellent clitoral work. Including Marie: her C–V was 3 cm, so she decided to have an operation to move her clitoris closer to the entrance of her vagina. It didn’t work, she still couldn’t orgasm from penetration (I’m amazed she could walk afterwards, let alone screw), so she had another operation that moved her clitoris back again. That’s how powerful the hetero-penetro norm was, Marie Bonaparte decided her body was wrong rather than the type of sex she was having. Just like modern women who have their labia trimmed and vaginas tightened, blaming their bodies when it is the cultural ideals that are wrong.
Orgasms are difficult to describe. In fiction they are depicted as explosive and satiating; in movies/porn women make gasping, animal sounds as they convulse and writhe about. There is a broad definition of orgasm being a ‘climax of sexual feelings’ or ‘release of tension’. More scientifically it is a series of muscle contractions or spasms which induces a pleasurable feeling. Even more scientifically, stimulation of erogenous zones (usually including genitalia) activates the pudendal and vagus nerves, which send pleasure signals to the brain. More and more of the woman’s brain becomes activated, including the amygdala, ventral tegmental area, cerebellum and pituitary gland. Blood floods to the genitals and engorges the clitoris and labia. Heavy breathing oxygenates the blood and thus the brain. As orgasm nears, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex appears to shut down – this part of the brain controls behaviour, civilises us. This shutdown results in a loss of inhibitions and a visceral, animal response to sensations for a number of seconds until climax ensues. Vaginal and cervical muscles contract and release. Then the hypothalamus sends out oxytocin, which promotes loving feelings and relaxation. If I worked on a sex line this is the kind of shit I would be saying to guys who called: ‘Ooooh, my amygdala is so activated right now, uh yeah, I can feel my cervix contracting … Hello? Where’s he gone?’
You will no doubt be familiar with the idea that men get sleepy post-orgasm whereas women don’t. It’s a bit of a cliché that men roll over afterwards while women want to cuddle. There is a theory that this reaction evolved so that men wouldn’t stop women leaving after sex, they’d be all curled up in dreamy land, leaving our lady free to pursue her next sex partner and benefit from some excellent sperm selection. Scientific tests have proved that men and women do have different patterns of sexual response. Masters and Johnson (sexologists working in the 1960s and 70s) created a model which outlines the four stages of sexual response in humans: excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution. The difference between the genders is that women may be re-excited after orgasm rather than quickly returning to a pre-excitement state like men do. This seems to support theories that a woman could go off and enjoy more sex partners after exhausting one guy – go sister! Literally, go, he’s snoring and won’t notice. Studies have also discovered that women always make more noise during sex than men – that our gender is more vocal. It has been argued that this could have been a way for our ancient female ancestor to allow future suitors to locate her while she was in the mating mood, all her gasps and grunts letting someone in a nearby tree know: ‘Hang on, mate, he’ll be asleep in a minute.’ This is just one theory, of course, and not a proven validated thing, but I most enjoy the explanations that keep female choice and action in mind when understanding our sexual responses. To contrast, another theory claims women make more noise during sex because it arouses their male partners. Studies prove that male orgasm is quicker when the female partner is vocal, but then that’s another circular argument – ‘it turns men on so women do it to turn men on’. And surely that could be flipped on its head? A circular argument driven by female activity: if sex noises are a signal of female arousal then men get turned on by it because aroused women are sexy. Perhaps I’m quibbling – anyone turned on by that?
Unfortunately for us, the female scope for pleasure and multiple orgasms has not resulted in widespread sexual satisfaction for women. And that is because our difference from men, our need for stimulation other than penetration, has been interpreted as dysfunction. Freud was not alone in considering orgasms achieved through penetrative sex as the only viable type. Many other doctors and therapists agreed. In the 1950s psychoanalysts Edmund Bergler and William Kroger stated that they believed between eighty and ninety per cent of women were abnormal in not being able to orgasm from sex, which has me LOL-ing out loud over here. The majority is the norm; that is the very definition. These men’s subjectivity is similar to that seen by the Victorian anthropologists. Their idea of ‘normal’ and ‘right’ and ‘female’ blinds them to the evidence in front of their eyes.
I’m also laughing at a doctor called Alexander Lowen. He was writing later, in the 1960s, when more was known and clitoral stimulation was becoming more accepted as a reasonable part of heterosexual foreplay and intercourse – but not for Lowen. He couldn’t imagine at what point during intercourse men were supposed to be doing this stimulating. It couldn’t be beforehand or the man would lose out on ‘intimacy’ and his erection would wilt. He couldn’t possibly rub a clitoris during sex or it would put the poor man off his ‘genital thrusts’ and deny him his pleasure. And he couldn’t be expected to do it afterwards as that would interrupt his relaxation time, which was his reward for exertion. This for me sums up perfectly the inequality in sexual approach – his pleasure, his exertion and his reward. If a woman didn’t come, well, that was her fault for being so fiddly. Two decades later and a Playgirl survey found that three in four women believed their male partner’s pleasure was more important than their own. So it’s not just men that have disregarded female satisfaction – we have too. And that means that no one has ever got round to understanding it properly. There is no agreement about vaginal and clitoral orgasms or whether they are the same thing, or blended orgasms, which are apparently a mix of both except some scientists say they don’t exist. Some women ejaculate when orgasming and no one is sure why or how and evolutionary theories of the female orgasm are a tangled mess.
Some claim that an orgasm is a vital part of pair bonding because it produces a large amount of oxytocin. It could’ve been naturally selected because, as we already know, bonded parents = better offspring survival rate. A further take on this is that it affected mate choice; women stuck with partners who could make them come. Others claim that the female orgasm promotes conception but there is a lot of disagreement about how. Perhaps the waves of the womb’s contraction help move sperm towards the Fallopian tubes? Maybe orgasm makes a woman more likely to lie flat and exhausted after sex and that helps her retain sperm? There does seem to be some evidence that if a woman orgasms within a few minutes of a man coming inside her, she retains more of the ejaculate. But all of these theories are undermined because female orgasm is not imperative for conception and doesn’t improve conception chances enough to be a genetically selected trait. A woman who has never had an orgasm could have the same number of children as a woman who has, which supports the arguments of those who believe that the female orgasm is an accident, a by-product. Not important. That it’s a mere consequence of the way our genitals develop in the womb, that the mechanisms that went into making men orgasm champions have been left as an awry afterthought in women. So we have this tricksy, unreliable machinery that we don’t need. ‘It has no relation to baby-making so no useful function,’ they say; ‘let’s just stop thinking about it and put it in a drawer with all the other bodily disjecta.’
There is an interesting theory that our genitals had to adapt a lot during the millions of years when babies’ heads were getting larger and childbirth was getting more difficult and dangerous. It could be that to prevent a mother’s urethra tearing every time a baby was born, we gradually evolved to its current placement, slightly further away from our vaginal opening than it was for our prehistoric ancestors. This in turn edged the clitoris higher. Perhaps our ancient ancestors had much more pleasurable penetrative sex than we do? So we evolved to have orgasms as an enjoyable sex incentive, but now the system doesn’t work as well as it used to?
Whether that is true or not, my hypothesis (not scientist – amateur lady) is that the female orgasm does have a function, that it was sexually selected, but that scientists get confused in only considering completed orgasms as important. Orgasms are potential. Female arousal, the early stages of engorgement and lubrication have a sense of direction, of purpose, because the orgasm exists as an end point, whether it is reached or not. Anyone who has grown up with a female body will understand the urge to touch yourself, wanting more of the things that feel nice – our vulvas have a hunger. I believe that the unreliable nature of our orgasms was an evolutionary strength. Rather than being irrelevant, our ancestors who were sexually frustrated, who got close but not quite there – maybe they had more sex than the women who came easily? They might have demanded more sex from a regular partner, or they might have multi-partnered more and then had more genetically successful children via sperm selection? That would explain why women display such a wide range of orgasmic responses.
Women are not complicated, we’re just not the same as men and we’re not the same as each other. That’s why I can’t tell you what will sexually satisfy you, you’ll have to find out for yourself. What I CAN tell you, what I wish was common knowledge, is that we have a dual-response method of sexual arousal, what sexologists call ‘accelerator and brake’. So some things turn you on (accelerator) and other stimuli might make arousal impossible (brake). Understanding your body and its responses in this way will help you remove ‘brakes’ (bright lighting, living with parents, overly energetic thrusting) as much as exploring and exploiting your accelerators. There is a great example of this: after some MRI experiments, scientists found that women wearing socks orgasmed more easily than those who weren’t and they were like, ‘EVIDENCE, women find wearing socks super-sexy,’ but it was actually that the women with cold feet couldn’t get aroused. Cold feet are really distracting – or maybe you’re into that? We’re all different.
And we’re ACTIVE, that’s the main thing to remember. The impractical, almost impossible difficulty of pushing out a baby and keeping it alive has been combated by the development of two powerful forces in women: the potential for deep love and a filthy hot sexual instinct. If women were passive and unsexual, human beings wouldn’t be here any more – giving birth got too deadly and childrearing too costly, who would’ve bothered with it? Our gender’s around-the-clock, any-day-of-our-menstrual-cycle lust ensured that no matter how ill-adapted our species to every single type of terrain and weather, there were always humans on this planet. Probably there’s too many now, we’ve ruined the place because we’re too damn sexy. But we’re often treated as passive, expected to be compliant and available and that is wrong. My aunty Juliet corrected me once when I was a teenager; I was telling her about how one of my friends had fucked some guy and she was like, ‘No, she was fucked. Women can’t do the fucking.’ She wasn’t making a political point, she was correcting my grammar but I always believed she was wrong. At sixth form I remember someone telling me that all the difficulties between genders were based on this – men oppress because they are the penetrators and women succumb because they are penetrated – and I just don’t recognise that. We are not penetrated, we consume, we engulf, we devour. We do not permit, we DEMAND; we are not gatekeepers, we are diners, yes, diners eating penises with our ravenous sopping wet vaginas, I’ve gone too far.
At university I was lectured in a more sophisticated version of this theory, I was told that ‘all penetrative sex is rape’. I could see their point, and I had some very enjoyable debates ending in angry crying, but for me, my very definition of sex is a meeting of equals. When it is not that, it is something else. And that is something we have to think more about now. I have so far spoken as if all of the mating undertaken by our ancestors would have been consensual and that is not the case, it would be wrong to assume that our evolution has only been moulded by willing sex.
There is a really famous experiment where the psychologist Meredith Chivers measured men and women’s arousal when watching different sex videos: homosexual, straight and bonobo. The results showed that men were aroused by the videos you’d expect (gay porn if they were gay, straight porn if they were straight) but women were more surprising. They lubricated to all of the videos. Even the bonobos. This is confusing, right? If lubrication is a sign of being turned on then women get turned on by watching apes mating. When the women were asked, they might say that they were not aroused by any of the films, or maybe that they enjoyed the lesbian porn or the straight porn – but their vaginas suggested otherwise; they had responded to ALL. At first the media and social commentators were like, ‘Women’s bodies know what they like more than they do.’ People started saying it was only repression or civilised expectation that stopped women having sex with everyone all the time. People discussed the plasticity of female arousal, said it was proof that we could get turned on by anything. Perhaps this was our evolutionary strength? It enabled us to fancy whoever was around.
Then along came much more astute scientists and sexologists and they said that this lubrication, rather than being a lady-boner, was probably a protective measure. That women’s bodies respond to all kinds of sexual stimuli not always because they want to have sex, but because sex might ensue anyway. That lubrication is not an ‘I’m turned on’ signal so much as an ‘I don’t want to be damaged’ response. And we evolved it because we had to. Our bodies are clever enough to do what they can to protect us from sex that is not consensual, to stop us tearing or ripping as much as we might. This is an unconscious response, no more a sign of wanting sex than blinking or sweating, and it is the result of our gender’s exposure to forced intercourse.
Rape is part of women’s history and part of our present and it is the last section of this book. I want to say ‘I have tried to make it fun’ but that would be misleading. I’ve tried to make it bearable – readable, an exploration of ideas and grey areas. Stop dawdling, come on!
* Not all families celebrate the seven birthdays a year as specified by dog time.
† It is worth reminding ourselves here that some people are female or male but born into a differently gendered body. This is something we are learning more about as it becomes more commonly discussed in public. If I slip up in my sweeping descriptions of women, in my use of broad strokes, I apologise. I intend to always include anyone who identifies as a woman even if her body is different to the one I am describing. I also should mention that there are a variety of chromosomal disorders that affect sex development in the womb, e.g. females who have testosterone flooding at eight weeks’ gestation, males who do not receive in utero testosterone. It’s a fact that some women have penises and some men don’t. It’s a long washing line of bodies we’re all sitting on, our perceptions and experiences will all be disparate, and I am writing in such a subjective way that I’m sure I will occasionally appear ignorantly unaware and uncaring about many people.
‡ Joking, obvs.
§ HISTORICAL CORRECTION ALERT: there is no proof that any feminist ever burnt a bra. Protesters at the 1968 Miss America contest threw some underwear in a bin, but nothing was set fire to. It’s a powerful image that stuck in the public consciousness without ever happening.
|| If you are not familiar with the genre, a panel show is a long boring conversation between arrogant people edited down to look funny and interesting. I love doing them so much. I’m not being sarcastic, I love them.
** I have not disguised my swearing, I put two bum holes inside to make it worse.
†† This is a great advertising slogan if you are planning on selling some hymens. You can buy it off me for £65.
‡‡ Obviously I’m completely anti these kind of operations, but to the surgeons involved: remember I do have that advertising slogan if you fancy it? Only £65.
§§ I know you’re waiting for me to make a joke about sending out your C–V when you’re looking for work but I’m not going to – this orgasm stuff is vital information and you need to concentrate.