Women need to speak up in the bedroom – as well as in the boardroom

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to shine a light on our progress towards gender equality – we should focus on the importance of female pleasure as an integral part of this discussion

<p>I was far from alone in carrying what I described to my therapist as a ‘backpack’ of anxieties into every sexual encounter</p>

I was far from alone in carrying what I described to my therapist as a ‘backpack’ of anxieties into every sexual encounter

“I think I’m just… broken,” I said to my new sex therapist, Aleks, on our first Zoom therapy session. After more than seven years of not being able to orgasm during partnered sex I had, on the recommendation of a friend, decided to start sex therapy.

It was Christmas 2021 and while the endless slew of lockdowns had meant I wasn’t exactly having much sex (read: none), what I did have was a little more time on my hands to at least talk about it.

I didn’t know then that there was a medical term for what I was experiencing – “situational anorgasmia” – which is when you’re only able to have an orgasm in certain circumstances. For me, that meant alone. While I could orgasm without any issues solo, as soon as I was with someone else it became impossible.

I had long ago concluded that I simply wasn’t a sexual person. I was neither “good” at sex, nor did I particularly enjoy it. Sex, as far as I was concerned, was always for the other person’s pleasure and my role was to facilitate their orgasm.

I lost my virginity at 16, I explained to Aleks, not because I particularly wanted to have sex with that stranger at six in the morning, but because I had begun to feel woefully behind the rest of my friends, many of whom had started having sex as early as 13 years old. I was a late bloomer by the standards of my all-girls’ school. The sexual encounters which followed were awkward and underwhelming at best, non-consensual at worst.

And so I learned to have sex in a performative way, disconnecting from my body as a way of disconnecting from whatever pain or discomfort I’d often feel in the moment. I felt embarrassed by my perceived sexual inexperience, as though every time I got into bed with someone I was stepping into some lurid spotlight, there to be scrutinized, judged and ultimately derided for not being “good enough” at sex. It never occurred to me that the other person might be feeling an iota of anxiety about their sexual performance too, or that it was something I could ever give a voice to. I was there to perform.

As it transpired over the course of numerous therapy sessions, this sort of disembodied, disconnected approach to sex was in many ways rooted in my relationship to my body and specifically to a longstanding eating disorder I’d first developed in my early teens – I had been anorexic and bulimic from aged 13.

For years, I had waged a constant war against my body, resolute in my hatred for every inch of fat that lurked beneath the surface of my skin, which I saw as bearing testimony to some personal failure. I punished my body accordingly.

Sex as something I learned to endure rather than enjoy fitted perfectly with the narrative I had constructed around how I experienced my body – as a source of pain, rather than pleasure. I didn’t know how to communicate what I wanted because I didn’t really know what that was, and I never took the time to find out.

As it turned out, I was far from alone in carrying what I described to my therapist as a “backpack” of anxieties into every sexual encounter. The more I started to talk openly about sex therapy and what had prompted me to start it, the more people around me began in turn to open up to me about their sexual issues too. From anxieties around body image and performativity issues, to worries regarding apparent disparities between partners in terms of their respective sexual appetites, to pain experienced during sex, the range of concerns that friends and strangers alike apparently carried into the bedroom abounded.

Moreover, I was both surprised and somewhat depressed to learn that issues around orgasm affect an estimated 10-15 per cent of women, while roughly 43 per cent of women experience some type of sexual dysfunction. (It’s worth noting, however, that the research here is somewhat lacking and since the terminology and classification systems around sexual dysfunction in women are confusing and complicated, the process of clinical diagnosis is pretty difficult.)

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I quickly came to realize how commonplace a feeling of being “broken” sexually was, yet how paradoxically alone so many of us feel in it. The impact of spending months actively focusing on reconnecting with my body and picking apart the layers and layers of confusing lenses through which I had come to see and experience my body during intimacy ultimately extended far beyond my ability to orgasm during partnered sex – which eventually I was able to do.

I have since started a monthly event series called Sex Talks, which is focused on opening up more frank and honest conversations around sex and the female pleasure taboo – the sorts of conversations I wish I had been exposed to growing up.

At the very first event, Billie Quinlan, co-founder of the sexual wellness app Ferly, noted how core a component sexual wellness is to our overall health and well-being, and yet how frequently it is the side of ourselves we neglect. Part of the problem is that we reduce sex to a physical act, she explained, “rather than recognizing that our sexuality is a living, breathing part of who we are”.

Billie said: “By viewing sex as an ‘act’ we relegate it to something we may, during certain periods, determine we don’t have time for, or ‘can’t’ do because we don’t have a partner. We ignore the fact our sexuality is still there – it is present and needs fostering and cultivating.”

She concluded: “If you’re not nurturing your sexual self, it really does show up in your confidence, in your self-worth, and your self-efficacy.”

At the heart of the problem is sex education – or lack thereof. As for so many, my sex education was pitiful. It was reduced to two key messages: “Don’t get an STI.” And: “Don’t get pregnant.” There was never any mention of pleasure being a really core component of sex, so I never learned to expect or ask for it.

Moreover, the representation of sex I grew up seeing, on TV and in films, continually reinforced the primacy of male pleasure by focusing on male ejaculation as the primary goal of intimacy. There was scant suggestion that sex encompasses so much more than just a penis in a vagina. Given that just 18 per cent of women are able to orgasm from penetration alone, it’s hard not to see this as Hollywood’s great patriarchal stitch-up. Is it any wonder the orgasm gap (aka the disparity between how frequently men versus women orgasm) sits at 30 per cent in favor of men in heterosexual sex?

Female sexual pleasure isn’t more complicated, it’s just lesser talked about. And so, insofar as International Women’s Day is an opportunity to shine a light on the work that should be happening daily to speed up our progress towards gender equality, I’d like to suggest we focus on the importance of female pleasure as an integral part of this discussion.

As important as it is for women to be encouraged to lean in, to speak up and to demand more space in the public sphere, what I’ve come to realise is that the self-knowledge and self-confidence from which the ability to do this stems cannot be disconnected from how we are taught and encouraged to occupy the “private sphere”. We need women to feel as confident in speaking up for themselves in the bedroom as they do in the boardroom. The personal is always political.

This International Women’s Day, I’d like therefore to echo the words said to me by Coco de Mer’s CEO, Lucy Litwack, during a previous Sex Talks session: “Respect for female pleasure is respect for gender equality.” It’s time we did a little more to honour that.

Emma-Louise Boynton is the co-founder of Her Hustle Network and host of the podcast The Art Of Living Now

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