SEXUAL liberation. You wouldn't think it was possible to get any more free and easy than we are in Britain in 1998. We have reliable contraception to free us from the fear of pregnancy, more information, courtesy of magazines and books, on our bodies and their sexual response than we know what to do with, and, in theory at any rate, a new generation of men who care about and take pride in our pleasure. Yet for an astonishing 58 per cent of women, an orgasm with a male partner is about as likely as a Saudi Arabian hat trick against Brazil. Pfizer, the company which produced the anti-impotence pill Viagra, have already spotted the gaping hole in the market and started to test the drug on women. The company says it is too early to say whether they will be able to develop an "orgasm pill" for the fairer sex, but reports are already emerging that women are trying the pill unprompted.
So why, after 30 years of sexual revolution and enough books and articles on the G-spot, the big O and hot-spot techniques to paper the planet, is the female orgasm as elusive as ever? Sheer Hite, the author of the definitive Seventies sex survey The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, admits that the sexual revolution has passed a large proportion of the female population by. The research from The Hite Report On The Family, published in 1994, revealed that only 42 per cent of women reach orgasm with a male partner. In a survey undertaken by the University of Chicago, 5000 couples aged 18-59 were asked about their sex lives. More than half of the women questioned said they often faked an orgasm to massage their partner's ego, or simply to go to sleep. Only 41 per cent of these women said they ever discussed their sex life with their partners or told them what turned them on.
One reason why liberation hasn't been quite a sexy as might have been expected is that the research conducted by Hite, Kinsey in the Forties and Fifties, and Masters & Johnson in the Sixties relied on self-selecting volunteers who were quite happy to brag about their sex lives for questionnaires. More recent research has tapped a well of sexual dissatisfaction among ordinary women which reveals that, for most of us, lovemaking rarely reaches the heights promised by our extraordinarily sexualised culture. It can be quite a relief to realise that you're not the only one having problems: "More women are able to acknowledge the fact that they can't have orgasms," says Judy Cunnington, Director of Operations at London Marriage Guidance. "They were too embarrassed in the past to talk about it. Then you were resigned that lack of orgasm was your lot. Now we all read about it in magazines. You can't not know about it."
"We see many thousands of women who don't achieve orgasm with their partner," says Julia Cole, psychosexual therapist at Relate. "The most common sexual problem is general lack of interest or loss of interest, which affects about 40 per cent of women, and it's a figure that has increased." Cunnington agrees. "The biggest particular sexual problem is actual loss of desire. Some of it is just due to the pressure that people live under. Good sex is about letting go, which is difficult if you feel you have to be in control all the time." Add to this the temporal discrepancies - on average it takes a man 10 minutes to reach orgasm during sex, while it takes a woman 20 minutes - and the figures begin to make sense.
Although there are physical reasons why women can't achieve orgasm - for example, women with diabetes have problems and post-menopausal woman often lose clitoral sensitivity - more often the reasons are psychological. Anorgasma, the inability to have an orgasm, is most likely to occur early on in a woman's sexual history. "The main sufferers are younger women in their twenties who haven't masturbated before they start having sex," explains Doctor Alan Riley, a consultant in sexual medicine. "The female orgasm is a learnt phenomenon and masturbation is a training process. It's about learning how to be sexual yourself."
The fact that, for many men, penetration is the be-all and end-all of carnal knowledge doesn't help. Men who think that the best way to give their partner pleasure is long-lasting penetrative sex may not realise that some women achieve orgasm much more easily by manual or oral stimulation. "In terms of sexual tendencies," explains sexual and relationship therapist Susan Pacey, "men tend to stay penis-focused. And because of their own need to be perceived as good lovers, they often get upset that their partner isn't able to orgasm."
To further complicate matters, it seems that women genuinely care less than men about reaching a climax. In the 1994 survey Sexual Behaviour in Britain, 37.4 per cent of men, compared with 28.6 per cent of women, agreed that sex without orgasm cannot be really satisfying for women. "It's here we have to ask the question `Whose orgasm is it anyway?'" says Dr Riley. "A lot of men put pressure on their women to be orgasmic." He admits that solutions to sexual satisfaction are difficult. "Firstly, there is a lack of communication and women don't teach their partner what to do. Secondly, a lot of women inhibit their own orgasms. They think about the previously failed occasion which then prohibits their arousal. They are too hard on themselves." One woman remembers a five-year relationship which went disastrously wrong. "When I first started having sex with my partner, it wasn't that great," she recalls, "but I thought it would get better. I didn't say anything to him, because I didn't really know what I wanted. I know I should have really told him there was a problem, to give him a chance to try something new. But once I'd left it too long there was nothing I could do. He would have been just too mortified to know that for those years he'd never got it right."
The Male in the Head, a study undertaken at South Bank University London by Janet Holland, revealed that, incredibly, girls still view sex as a matter primarily of male pleasure. "Young women have this voice in their heads. It tells her that man is the sexual actor, she is acted upon. It's always a male voice - sex starts with him and ends with him." According to Holland, putting on a condom for instance, means "a limitation of male sexual pleasure in situations in which male satisfaction defines the event." With attitudes like these the rule rather than exception, no wonder we are still so bad at making our needs known in bed.
The pressure to reach carnal bliss on cue has joined the other self-imposed stresses of modern life. "One of the most difficult things is that both men and women sense a pressure to perform and that creates anxiety," explains Pacey. "Anxiety has a very complicated relationship with sexual response. The problem with the vast amount of information about sex available now is that people feel if they don't experience these things they are missing out. The pressure to experience orgasm and perform has actually had a negative effect on sexual response and the ability to relax." Dr Riley believes that people have an unreal expectation of what they can get out of sex. "If you set your sights too high you won't achieve them," he expounds. "If you don't achieve them you don't feel satisfied. If you are not satisfied in the sexual act, the natural progression is to lose desire, which then inhibits arousal."
It seems the orgasm is just another commodity we should add to the list, somewhere between the Georgio Armani linen suit and the dishwasher. "There is too much pressure on people to have orgasms, but you don't have to," says Pacey reassuringly. "It's not necessary, physically or emotionally. A lot of women find intercourse pleasurable without orgasm - it depends on the individual's drives and needs."
So, until there's an "orgasm pill" for women, what should couples do? "They should concentrate on relaxation and pleasuring exercises rather than getting sexually excited quickly," counsels Pacey. "I ask them not to have intercourse for a while and just focus on caressing each other all over. After this, people have different perspectives on their own and their partner's bodies. Then they gradually work up to intercourse and orgasm." It seems that sexual liberation, like Britain's famous Swinging Sixties, is read about by the many, but enjoyed by the very few.Reuse content