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Real Orgasms And Transcendent Pleasure: How Women Are Reigniting Desire

Hanna Barczyk for NPR

How can more women allow themselves to experience sexual pleasure?

That's one of the central questions in The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution, a book published this month by public health researcher and journalist Katherine Rowland.

Rowland explores why American women aren't happy with their sex lives — and what they can do about it.A landmark study from 1999 found that over 40% of women surveyed experienced sexual dysfunction — the inability to feel satisfied by sex. A contributing factor, noted the researchers, was the lasting psychological effects of sexual trauma.

The Pleasure Gap highlights how desire and the mind are linked for women. "Pleasure is inextricable from our social status, compressed and constrained by financial factors, by safety factors, by objectification," she says. We need to remove these barriers, she says, to experience sex with the "full freedom, expression, range and truth that we're endowed with."

Rowland argues that it is possible for women to take charge and reignite their libidos. She talked to NPR about why fake orgasms are a cause for alarm, how much sex couples should have per week and "sexological bodywork."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You take issue with some of the research that tries to quantify sexual frequency and the idea that once a week may be the "optimal" amount. So how much sex should we be having?

Our national obsession with sexual frequency and the terrifying specter of dead bedrooms overrides the fundamental importance of sexual quality. There is no volume of sex that's more or less good.

For whatever reason, researchers have embraced this idea that we should be having sex once a week — that it's enough to sustain relationships and that it keeps depression, heart disease and obesity at bay.

But none of that research looks at how participants actually feel about that sex — other than feeling good that they can check the box for having done it.

You interviewed more than 120 women for this book. Many in heterosexual, long-term relationships told you that sex was an act of drudgery and that they often did whatever it took to get the job done. This felt sad to me.

I found myself feeling beaten down by the near ubiquity of stories of faking it in that context.

We tend to treat faking it as such a jokey matter. When the media reports on studies that try and capture the percentage of women who fake orgasm during sex, it tends to be from a male perspective saying "ouch" — focusing more on the bruising of men's feelings that occurs when women are lying to them as opposed to concerns surrounding the fact that women aren't feeling good.

That women are feigning their pleasure in order to hasten that experience along — I think we need to treat that with real alarm. We need to ask: What's going on in that women are engaging in spectacle as opposed to actually allowing themselves to feel sensation?

Your book explores how some women have a low desire for sex. How does this happen?

Among the women who I spoke to, the persistent low desire was heavily associated with the idea that sex should revolve around penetration as the main course, with maybe a polite prelude of a foreplay, rather than thinking about sex as a broader universe of intimacy.

It's the combination of a larger culture that privileges male sexuality over women's, a culture that doesn't teach women that pleasure belongs to them. A lack of anatomical self-knowledge. And feelings of sort of persistent danger and women being often censored and censured for expressing their desire.

You push back against the idea that the female orgasm is mysterious and elusive, which is how the media has sometimes described it. What would be a more accurate way to understand the female orgasm?

It's more like riding a bicycle. You learn how to do it. And what we see is that as women become more versed with what their body can do, orgasm becomes more readily achievable.

The female orgasm tends to get wrapped up in these fuzzy terms like "elusive" and "hazy" and "mysterious" because women aren't encouraged to explore what actually feels good. But if they were encouraged to self-pleasure and explore in real, sincere ways by themselves and with their partners, I think they would find that there is a world of pleasurable sensation available to them.

In your book, you say that the goal is for women to have a "profound sexual experience." What do you mean by that?

It can mean a number of things, and I don't think it necessarily has to be a sexual encounter in terms of our often narrow understanding of sex. The women who I spoke to describe it to me as feelings of transcendence, of approaching sex not just as a way for getting off or feeling good, but as a portal into a deeper state of self-knowledge.

They often use the word "spiritual" — the alignment of self, sensation and possibility. Pleasure so deep it felt like a homecoming, like they had been restored to themselves, to the depths of their potential.

How can women regain control over their sex lives?

The first thing to do would be to stop absorbing [unscientific] outside knowledge. There is such a rash of faulty information out there as a result of our lack of sound science and solid education. We've seen this proliferation of experts pandering to the lowest common denominator.

Online, you'll find doctors who promise that by injecting more blood into the vagina, it will give it a face-lift that will bolster orgasmic potential. Or self-proclaimed "sexperts" who put on female ejaculation retreats. Those kinds of offerings often exist side by side with credentialed and validated interventions.

The second thing is to get to know your body. I think the most powerful intervention that I documented in my book was the realm of sexological bodywork.

What is that?

It's a somatic approach to sexual healing that can — but does not necessarily — include genital touch. There's a profound opportunity there for ethical violations, especially because it's not a regulated practice. But for some of the women who I spoke to, they've said that this was the missing link in understanding their bodies.

Sexological bodywork practitioners facilitate your self-knowledge of your body, pleasure, comfort, boundaries, feelings of confidence and being able to articulate "no." For example, "No, I don't want you to touch me here" and "I don't want you to look at me here." This helps women ask why they feel this way — and get to a point where they can say "yes."

For women in a relationship with a man, how can male partners do more to help?

Men can — and should — play a central role in helping women fully engage with their desires and sensations.

They can do this by being compassionate and nonjudgmental listeners. By creating an erotic atmosphere in which men and women's needs command equal importance, and by encouraging interactions that depart from the wearied script of male arousal and release. Just as society tends to overly complicate female sexuality, we oversimplify men's, and they also benefit from shifting dynamics around.

Any ideas of how to do that?

I spoke with a number of couples, and one shared a story that made a deep impression.

They're both middle-aged and both are experiential sexuality educators, so in many respects they're versed in subjects like male privilege and the ways female satisfaction gets short shrift. But all the same, these issues were showing up in their intimate life.

At the woman's request, they decided to make sex just about her — so that it flowed from her interest and followed the course of her arousal. She told him, she didn't care how he took care of himself, but she didn't want to be a part of it.

They came to call these sessions "The Experiment." To their mutual surprise, it lasted for a whole year. As they recounted this experience, the woman thanked her partner for his generosity, and he immediately and firmly responded, "No, it was my pleasure." They both felt they had benefited from the woman's sexual growth and the shared opportunity to expand their erotic vocabulary.

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Malaka Gharib
Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.