The fantasy of a sexual revolution already fought and won is undone by pretty much any available statistic on straight women’s experiences of sex. There are the heart-rending numbers revealing the prevalence of faked orgasms and the yawning orgasm gap between men and women. That is to say nothing of women’s all-too-common reports of sexual problems including pain, fear, guilt, shame, and diminished arousal. Even more fundamental than the many issues that arise for women during sex is the desire, or lack thereof, to have it in the first place.
In fact, the modern medical phenomenon of women with low desire emerged in the midst of the sexual revolution. Forty years ago, “Inhibited Sexual Desire” first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), psychiatry’s bible, and quickly became the chief sexual complaint among women. The timing might seem ironic, unless you consider that the sexual revolution introduced new freedoms, as well as pressures and expectations, in the midst of woefully incomplete political change.
The great sexual ironies and hypocrisies of our half-changed world are a key theme of journalist Katherine Rowland’s new book, The Pleasure Gap: American Women & The Unfinished Sexual Revolution. The deeply-researched book is based off interviews with roughly 120 women about their sexual dissatisfaction, as well as a wide variety of experts, including sex researchers, who put that pervasive displeasure in theoretical contexts ranging from the cultural to the evolutionary. Rowland chose to focus her inquiry on straight women, she says, because that’s where she found “the locus of sexual distress, the target market for solutions, and the largest appetite for sexual recovery.” Rowland adds, “Compared to straight women, queer women report having fewer sexual problems and more frequent orgasms, as well as being more easily aroused and more sexually assertive.”
As Rowland charts the problem for heterosexual women, it becomes clear that the “pleasure gap” does not simply refer to sexual disparities between genders, but also “the separations that so often exist within ourselves: between mind and body, or behavior and emotion, or between our external actions and our internal feelings.”
At its most engaging points, Rowland dabbles in guinea pig journalism as she sets out to explore “the overgrowth of the solutions market” in the realm of women’s sexuality, which she calls “an uncharted terrain of promise.” This brings her to an orgasmic meditation coaching workshop, a training session for sex therapists, and the office of “tall, blue eyed, handsome, muscular” sex coach. Of the final, she writes, “He climbed on top of me, and for the next half-hour or so proceeded to praise me, whisper in my ears, pull my hair, flip me around, spank my behind, and smell my armpits.”
These fascinating interludes—I squealed out loud at the sex coach bit—should not be mistaken as the literary equivalent of Netflix’s The Goop Lab, with its giddy, consumerist, anti-science ethos. Rowland, former publisher and executive director of Guernica, casts an appropriately critical eye on the sale of sexual empowerment. She writes of commercial messaging urging women to “discover, renew, and optimize” their sexuality and analyzes it within the context of a broader neoliberal emphasis on personal solutions over systemic change.
“Instead of challenging the external structures that limit sexual autonomy and self-determined pleasure (as well as social inequalities more broadly), this breed of self-improvement encourages women to transform their sexuality and thereby improve their well-being,” she writes. Rowland attends a weekend-long workshop thrown by Regena Thomashauer, a self-proclaimed “pussy whisperer” with Tony Robbins-esque pageantry, who claims to help a woman “connect with her desires.” Rowland concludes, “this is what happens when we cede our private lives to the market, when we don’t have quality sex education, when we shame our bodies, and when we teach women to stay small.”
Of course, this is also what happens when an unfinished revolution is cast as fought and won. I spoke with Rowland by phone about “pink Viagra,” full-touch bodyworkers, and the perils of long-term monogamy for women’s sexuality.
JEZEBEL: Let’s start by talking about the problems identified in your book—not just low desire, but the absence of pleasure, the presence of shame. How would you characterize the current state of things when it comes to straight women and sex?
I think we’re living in this really odd moment wherein we see female desire and pleasure to an unprecedented degree. Never before has female sexuality been so visible and so celebrated, yet when you look behind that external presentation and you ask women, “How do you actually feel about this?” or when you look at the related research, what comes across is a very different picture. It’s not one of libidinous enjoyment, it’s one of persistent dissatisfaction, elusive or “meh” orgasms, a feeling like pleasure is either muted or absent entirely, and persistent feelings of a lack of entitlement.
For all of the public display of empowered, almost raunchy female sexuality, you hear time and again that women are compressed and constrained in their actual experience within their own bodies.
Why is it that we’re having this conversation of women’s low desire in a time when the culture increasingly sexualizes women, casting them as “hypersexualized creatures of desire,” as you put it in the book?
As sex has become so visibly on display, it’s changed the terms of the intimacy that we expect for ourselves, our relationships, and our partners. So I think that women are subject to really undue levels of pressures in terms of what they believe their sexuality should look and sound and feel like. Often times those pressures are really out of sync with what they actually desire.
At the same time, so many women have not had the opportunity to query what their desires are in the first place, to really deeply examine what it is that they want and to be in situations where they feel like they have the ability, the safety and the respect to express and compassionately explore those terms.
We’re seeing, particularly among younger women, this shift to a new form of feminism that expects women to be healthy and empowered and sexually appetitive and liberated. That’s really wonderful and positive in many respects, but that is happening at a time when we still have this absence of very fundamental education around basic anatomy and social education around how people need to interact with one another on an intimate basis.
Where and how did this begin, this issue of low desire in women? It wasn’t always this way.
That was one of the real hooks for me in getting interested in this subject. The way that medicine and science and popular culture has theorized desire has shifted so wildly just over the course of the 20th century. I am by no means suggesting that the 1950s is a healthy, normative point of comparison, but just for the sake of illustration: in the 1950s, women’s desires were thought to be safely contained within the bounds of domesticity. They weren’t really supposed to crave sex but to accommodate appetites of their husbands and not really expect much beyond that. But starting in the 1980s—and you need to look at that as a time when women were really entering the workforce in stronger numbers, were just on the other side of the sexual revolution, and the women’s movement, and Stonewall—women started to come forward to their partners and to their medical practitioners expressing that they felt their libido to be dwindling.
You can’t underestimate the extent to which that shook up professionals at the time who were still accustomed to thinking about male desire as starting to tank, especially in the context of a monogamous—monogamous expectant, I should say—relationship. It was seen as this great social reversal. It was sort of like, “What, women have desires?” “Women are withdrawing in distaste from the monogamous bonds that are expected of them?” That got a number of practitioners at the time adopt this new construct. That did wonders in terms of normalizing women’s sexual appetites and in terms of normalizing female sexuality as a component of overall health. But at the same time it created a sexual infrastructure for thinking that desire could be classified as high or low, or normal or aberrant. That has locked research and society at large into a reductive discourse that we haven’t been able to escape for the last forty years.
Low desire disorder, or hypoactive desire disorder, arrived in the DSM in 1980 and quickly became women’s most common sexual complaint. We’ve clung to this diagnosis, or variations, ever since but with no agreement as to not even what healthy desire is, but what desire is at all.
You’ve spent a fair amount of time covering the quest for a so-called “pink Viagra.” What has that revealed to you—about the problem of low desire, or about how we think of women’s sexuality?
I think that female Viagra is such a fascinating lens into larger expectations for female sexuality. There are a number of interventions that can help women reclaim, explore, or bolster their sexuality, and a quick pill fix is not among them. The interest in female Viagra is really a road explicitly from the phenomenal and completely unprecedented success of plain old Viagra for the men’s market. Shortly after releasing Viagra for the men’s market, Pfizer began running clinical trials on women.
What is important to remember is that Viagra for the men’s market has nothing to do with treating desire. Desire for men is consistently presumed to be present, it’s this idea that for men the mind is always willing but the flesh is weak, whereas for women that problem has been theorized as residing inside. Study upon study has shown that even when women come forward with statements like, “My genitals feel dead” or “I’ve lost my desire” or “I feel numb around my mid-section,” lab investigations will show that there is absolutely nothing wrong with their arousal, they are still capable of genital swelling, there aren’t blood flow issues. Physiologically nothing seems to be the problem and yet subjectively, in terms of self report of how they experience sexual interest, they report feeling complete disinterest and being unmoved by sexual stimuli.
The pharmaceutical industry has tried to wade into this apparent discrepancy in terms of what’s taking place in the mind and what’s taking place in the body, but because medicine tends to be pegged to a biologic process and there is no established linkage between desire in any aspect of human biology, they continually come up short.
You just hit on what I find to be one of the most persistently fascinating areas of research around women’s sexuality which is the mind-body split, most dramatic in the case of straight women, where a woman’s genitals respond to stimuli while she reports no subjective experience of arousal. There are many interesting theories of explanation—which do you find most compelling?
That’s such a fascinating area of inquiry. The research findings there have been misrepresented in the media in the past. When a lot of these ideas trafficked a couple years ago, the overwhelming reaction was that this data signified that women were this underestimated, appetitive, libidinous, sexually rapacious force and that it’s just culture that has tried to smother them. The evidence for that was the genital response, and having spoken to researchers and asked them, “How do you feel about your data being interpreted thusly?” the answer I heard was that that was an incorrect interpretation because it is privileging women’s genital responses above their subjective responses. Especially in this day and age where we’re wading through this overdue reckoning of this crisis of coercion in this country, we can’t not take women’s subjective experiences into account.
The research here is really tricky because it consistently shows that even for women who have no reported issues with sexual function, their levels of sexual concordance, that is, the degree to which genitals and mind are in sync when responding to sexual stimuli, their concordance tends to be lower than men’s more generally. It’s anyone’s guess as to why that is. It’s been theorized on evolutionary levels, that in ancestral environments women had to be biologically primed for frequent sexual activity. But that leads to some rather squeamish conclusions just around women’s physiology being evolutionarily adapted to rape, which is a dreadful conclusion.
Other explanations that make a lot more sense revolve around social expectations for women being constantly present and surveying on a micro level everything that is taking place in their environments because they’re responsible for their own safety, for the safety of their kin and kindred, and does that mean that they have a more limited ability to completely immerse themselves in a particular situation because of a constant demand for watchfulness?
There are two other theories that I found to be rather compelling. This comes from the work of Meredith Chivers who is at Queen’s University in Ontario. I should back up and say, you see really striking differences when you look at straight women’s responses and lesbian women’s responses. Lesbian women tend to have a reaction that seems much closer to what men, gay or straight, expressed in these research studies in that their genital response and subjective response tend to match up around what they find arousing. Whereas for straight women they are genitally aroused by scenes of women, scenes of men, scenes of men and women together—research has shown that they are even aroused before scenes of copulating bonobo apes, and scenes of trauma and transgression. But when you ask them what do you enjoy, they are sort of unmoved across the board. One theory is that women are rearticulating their own objectification, which can’t be proven or disproven, but it’s conceptually interesting.
A more likely theory is that because sex has been so consistently unrewarding for so many straight women, they’re not responding positively to anything because there is no psychological reinforcement of this equal pleasure.
While we’re on the topic of sex research, what did you find in terms of research on desire differentials between men and women? Clearly, it is difficult to disentangle biological reality from cultural influence. How did you navigate that quagmire?
I tried to navigate it by less looking at the distinctions between men and women than as it being a problem with false ideas around normative desire, perpetuated by media and medicine, that land on men and women alike. A lot of the issues I touch upon also apply to men who get equally short shrift in terms of how we conceive of sexuality. Just as we tend to overly complicate female sexuality and drive, we tend to radically underestimate and oversimplify male sexuality. We articulate certain quote-unquote truths about male sexuality that are grounded in nothing. They are true only by virtue of repetition and that is that male desire is stronger, more spontaneous, more robust, emotionally unfettered, and I think that simply isn’t the case.
A lot of this research comes from evolutionary psychology which has really, among certain practitioners, bent backwards to prove that there are these universal differences between men and women, because men have been evolutionarily primed to spread their seed far and wide, whereas women are adapted to nurture and nest. Even in the face of decades of new evidence that has really done a lot to challenge that and correct that narrative, that narrative remains something that has been embraced by school textbooks, the media—how many times do you come across aside sentences in otherwise fact-checked and reported pieces that just say things like, “Well, male desire is stronger”?
So, where is that coming from? Part of it is that we have this really lopsided angle of inquiry into human sexuality, period. I keep thinking about this very informative book written by Cindy Meston and David Buss from the University of Texas titled, Why Do Women Have Sex?. It’s a really provocative title but no comparable title exists for men. It’s worth pausing over the fact that we dont even seek to question men’s sexual motivations, whereas we’re always approaching female sexuality from this place of doubt and suspicion and fascination. The headlines aren’t blaring with, “The Mystery of Male Ejaculate Solved At Last” or “The Enduring Enigma of Male Desire.”
I would put forth that, rather than peer into stated differences between men and women, we need to look more closely at our unblinking acceptance of the narratives that are out there and look at the real poverty of data that we have actually examining male and female desire on a factual and unbiased basis.
As you point out in the book, counter to popular wisdom of women as the ultimate romantics, there is evidence to suggest that monogamy actually works against women’s desire, even more so than men’s.
That’s become an almost fashionable position of late. The journalist Daniel Bergner introduced a lot of evidence in support of that in his book, What Do Women Want. Wednesday Martin has made a career of that propositon. Despite the insistence that what women from girlhood onward hanker for is partnered bliss, what you find is that looking at rates of who initiates divorce, who is cheating, and whose desire is plummeting, it really seems there is something about long-term monogamy that might be particularly detrimental to women. One study found that for each month of partnership, women’s desire took a perceptible dip whereas men’s desire for that particular partner remained constant. Those findings, even though you can’t say they are generalizable, gave insight into this issue. In my discussions with women, what I heard come out time and again was this open secret that for women marital sex is second rate. Just, women most commonly describing sex in terms of boredom, over-familiarity, obligation, and duty. It became another chore. That’s not to say that when women got on the boat and started paddling that they didn’t enjoy themselves, but getting there was a real uphill battle.
You embarked on a number of experiments in the process of writing this book, from mindfulness meditation to orgasmic meditation to sex coaches. What did you find from these wide-ranging experiences?
I will underscore that I don’t in the book try to offer a roadmap to sexual recovery, it was more that I wanted to landscape this really crowded terrain of the solutions market that has become more and more populous and clamorous in recent years. It’s become more clamorous as our sense of sexual woe and misery has increased, and also as the state of science and education continues to decrease in quality. I found that in terms of positive outcomes for certain women, mindfulness therapy really appeared to pay off, but it’s really the opposite of a “pink Viagra” in that it requires a deep time commitment and willingness to engage thoughtfully and meaningfully with the larger circumstances of intimacy. Mindfulness in general provides women with tools for looking at the larger circumstances of their sensual lives and trying to understand what it is that really turns them on, what really makes them feel good.
One of the more powerful areas of inquiry that showed up in the course of my research were around women experimenting with consensual non-monogamy. We know that a huge percentage of women have engaged in non-consensual non-monogamy and have certainly shared stories with me of feeling really electrified in the context of their—I hate to use the word “affairs”—outside relationships. For those women, particularly older women who were able to negotiate with their partners about opening up their relationship, they really described that as life-changing.
One woman in particular, she was an older lawyer who described herself as very straight, pretty socially conservative—button up shirts, very prim and proper—she felt that for years she was frigid, and she used that word in describing herself. That was until, at the urging of a sex therapist that she and her husband were seeing, she started exploring what outside relationships could look like. In just a few years, she has just changed her entire life. It’s been not just a sexual rebirth but a complete rebirth of her entire identity. I almost detected this sense of mourning as she was describing more than a decade spent as an almost celibate individual because she was so convinced that her desire was fundamentally broken and that her libido was fully extinguished. It wasn’t that, it was that she needed to have sex that felt and looked different.
For her, it wasn’t about being able to run around and sleep with a bunch of people, it was about feeling like you had complete choice over your sexuality. More than anything, more than being able to walk out and cherry-pick which partner you want to bring home for the night, it’s that sense of feeling freedom to say “yes” or “no” that is so erotically charged. It’s almost life-giving in how huge it feels.
Another area was around women learning to say “no.” This theme came up in a lot of different forms of intervention, like women exploring BDSM and playing with submission but being able to, in an incredibly nuanced way, detail the terms of what they wanted their submission to look like. Or women reintroducing terms of consent into their long-term partnerships and asking their partners to explicitly ask their permission to engage in behaviors that had been assumed for sometimes decades. Or just learning to realize that the body is a network of electrified triggers that have been routinely violated to the point where you’re so on-guard all the time that you don’t even recognize that you’re being triggered. It’s tuning into that process and being able to say, “Don’t touch me,” and hearing that not as a negative boundary-setting exercise but a process of profound empowerment around listening to the actual needs and cries of one’s own body, moment by moment, and recognizing that it does change on a moment by moment basis.
The last thing I’ll mention is the realm of sexological bodywork or somatic sexual therapy, which really emerged as a powerful tool of self-inquiry and sexual healing. Sexological bodywork is essentially touch therapy that doesn’t hew to the customary donut approach that has defined so much of medicine and bodywork in general—and by donut, I mean we just leave out the middle of the body. Instead, it includes touch and full stimulation of the genitals. This is a tool it’s difficult to write and speak about because it’s not regulated, so there is this huge potential for major ethical violations to take place, but I will say that the practitioners that I spoke with who are operating in this realm were so morally grounded and devoted to healing. I was really moved by what I saw taking place there and by women’s accounts of working with practitioners and their feeling like this was discovering this secret key to unlock the mysteries of their persistent pain and suffering.
The subtitle of your book contains the phrase “the unfinished sexual revolution.” How does that revolution get finished—and, in the meantime, how do we think about women’s individual experiences of sex? Obviously, there are dangers in emphasizing personal solutions over systemic change, which you are careful to highlight. How do we balance these dual interests, especially at a time when the finished revolution seems…a long ways a way?
Yeah, I think that’s such a beautiful question. Part of the solution is that by engaging in the systemic change, we make the individual expression more possible. So much of what you see taking place in the solutions market today is so explicitly anti-feminist is that it says the point of intervention lies in you, you need to find a way to reckon with your personal history of trauma, and you need to find a way to correct your relationship and fight for your worth, whether that’s in the workplace or in the bedroom. That’s all well and good, but unless women are empowered to do that on a larger level, that’s going to be a failing course. We continually see that as our society continues to drift in a neo-liberal direction which privileges the individual above all else.
In terms of how we succeed on that revolutionary front, it’s a systemic overhaul. I really firmly believe that we need to be unrelenting in changing and challenging the extent to which women continue to feel socially unsafe. It needs to be front and center in policy and pedagogical agenda. I think we’ve completely normalized the idea that women can’t walk around at night, that if you do that’s foolish, that we should be totally comfortable with being unrelentingly exposed to gratuitous graphic violence and that if we find that offensive the problem lies with us as opposed to society. We need to throw our complete weight behind addressing this. Women’s lack of safety is undermining their ability to negotiate for what they deserve and it’s actually showing up in the bedroom in terms of not being able to enjoy what their bodies are endowed with.