from Womankind (1972) How one woman's lesbian consciousness slowly evolved. by Cathy (1972)
(Editor's Note: In a February 1972 issue of Womankind, Cathy wrote about the contradictory feelings that many women have toward sex.)
One or the realities illuminated by the Women’s Liberation Movement has been the appalling lack of knowledge we as women have about our own bodies and how uncomfortable we often feel with them and in them. This is bound to have an effect on our having good sexual and sensual relationships. Heterosexual relationships provide a special problem because we are learning that relationships between the sexes have historically been unequal, more often than not oppressive to women, and clearly favoring men’s sexuality and well being.
Ironically, the female body, while a source of real and fantasy pleasure to men, is often itself left frustrated, unpleased, cold. Accepting the fact that heterosexual relationships will probably not change significantly for large numbers of women until the social and economic relationships between the sexes have been radically changed, perhaps it would be useful to consider a few of the things that block our having pleasurable relationships with men now.
Today, in accord with the sexual revolution, it is more socially acceptable for women to enjoy sex. Some magazines encourage this notion to the point of assuming women should always love sex and have multiple orgasms every time. This idea has created some problems because though we are all in favor of women enjoying sex, it will take more than cheering articles in Cosmopolitan to make this possible.
In the first place this new attitude can become a new means of oppressing women. We all recognize that part in ourselves that lives up to what is expected of us — it is a common psychological attitude of any group of people who is oppressed. So now instead of being the good wife and mother (post—war through early 60’s expectation), we have to be the sexually alive and enjoying it woman (later 60’s, 7O’s expectation.) The catch is that we weren’t consulted as to our desires in either case. Particularly in the counter culture and youth movements, there has developed a new image of women which tends to look down on women who aren’t eager to go to bed with every man who approaches them and don’t enjoy sex a lot. How can we enjoy our own body just like that overnight? It isn’t as though we are all potentially sexually eager and are just waiting for the social word to start enjoying ourselves. Centuries of definition hove kept us from experiencing (or admitting feeling guilty about being a poor wife and mother), we now feel guilty about not enjoying sex. We must learn about what is pleasurable to us at our own speed, with our own rhythms, in our own terms.
There are many reasons that we can’t change overnight with regard to sexual pleasure, and these reasons are neither mystifying or complex, they are just ignored, not dealt with. They also tend to be historical and social rather than immediate and personal.
1. Until recently social mores trained men to enjoy sex and women to endure it. There is still a lot of this Puritan feeling around. Recently there has been a new slant which might be characterized as “men are trained to enjoy sex and women are trained to enjoy men enjoying sex.” Check out any best selling sex manual and see if the attitude isn’t something like: “Women have as much right to sexual pleasure as do men. However, many women admit that even though they do not often reach orgasm, they take great pleasure in seeing their lover reach climax and are emotionally content with his pleasure.” Says who! To fully appreciate this absurdity, reword it with the man being emotionally content, though not reaching orgasm.
2. What pleases men does not please women. Traditional heterosexual activity has centered around the male orgasm and how to achieve it. It was just assumed that a woman would be pleased by the same activity. Thanks to Masters and Johnson, what many women have long known has been given legitimacy; a woman’s sexual pleasure centers around her clitoris and not her vagina. Even this does not give us smooth sailing, however. Many men are loath to admit that the basic traditional sex act (penis in the vagina) does not directly give pleasure to women.
3. Women get pregnant; men do not. It seems too simple to be worth mentioning but the heterosexual relationship involves for the woman the risk of getting pregnant. If that doesn’t cut down on the pleasure threshold of women, it’s hard to imagine what will. A word should be said here for the attitude that all real women want to be pregnant and have children so this risk shouldn’t deter pleasure. Not only is this not true, but even if it were, it should not be hard to see the difference between a woman wanting X number of children in X number of years and in certain circumstances and a woman’s risking a conception every time she has intercourse.
I think this is a valid point even with the pill because the number of women on the pill is large but the number not on it is larger (not even considering whether for reasons of health any of us should be on it) and the same women for whom the pill is often inaccessible are those for whom pregnancy is often socially unwelcome (underage women, unmarried women, poor women). The other birth control devices combine a high failure rate with often unaesthetic preparations to further detract from woman’s potential pleasure.
4. Areas of sexual pleasure are defined. That is, in concentrating on the genital area as the legitimate source of pleasure, the body as a total sensual being is ignored. Expressions of affection, often very pleasurable and necessary for women, are considered valid only if they lead to specific genital sexual activity. We might add that men suffer from this ignoring of the affective element too, but because women are socialized to be more affective and emotional than men, they suffer doubly. Men are trained to think of affection for affection’s sake as unnecessary if not downright suspicious.
5. There is a whole range of experience related to women’s sexuality which is not even a potential source of pleasure, but always at the least frightening and at the worst, fatal. I refer of course to assault — from mental assault ( the uninvited whistle or catcall), which few women escape, to real assault - rape, and often murder, which not only happens directly to hideously large numbers of women, but is never very far from the consciousness of the rest of us. This fact cannot help but give us incredibly ambivalent feelings vis a vis our bodies and sexuality, whether they are a source of pleasure or pain for us.
6. Finally, I wonder how many of us realize that our position as a sexual object gives us a certain amount of power. A perverse power, granted, and no substitute for real control of our lives, but power just the same. It represents our bargaining power with men. Since there is no weapon to take its place, sex must be kept in its place. We cannot make use of our own sexuality for purposes of pleasure while it remains the most effective weapon in our arsenal for survival.
Are there any answers? We can band together on the job, unite to confront the welfare bureaucrats, join forces to boycott sexist companies, but we can hardly get together to challenge the men we are involved with individually. This is an area which challenges the whole male power structure. Each of us has to judge how far we can go in demanding that men pay attention to our sexual needs as we do to theirs, that men give up their ideas of women’s place and needs and substitute these misconceptions with the truth. Together, we cam learn with each other about our bodies, about how social indoctrination has led us to consider our needs unimportant, and in many cases, to dislike ourselves. We can talk with each other and learn that it’s not just “my problem”, but is universal. Each new thing we learn and each good feeling we have about ourselves makes us less oppressible. It's not a solution, but at least a start.