Listen to “132: The Pleasure Gap – Katherine Rowland” on Spreaker.
The Pleasure Gap
Katherine explains her initial interest in sexual pleasure gaps began with her journalistic coverage of the search for a female version of Viagra. She describes being intrigued by the prevalence of the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with women’s level of sexual desire.
She argues that feminine sexual desire is an ephemeral state that stems from myriad sources and appears as a final state that is or isn’t reached. She says it’s not a single trait that can be manipulated directly. Upon seeing this attempt to manipulate female sexual desire, Katherine began to interview women about their own sexual desires and what brings them sexual satisfaction.
Men and Woman Experience Sex Differently
In broad strokes, Katherine explains the Pleasure Gap is a measure of social inequality. She explains three intersecting ideas, the first being the differences men and women give in the accounts of sexual experiences. She says men report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than women, they achieve orgasm more readily, and are happier with their sex lives overall. She also informs us that men feel less stress, pain, and anxiety related to sex.
By contrast, she tells us women commonly report low desire, absent pleasure, muted or unfulfilling orgasms, sexual aversion and disinterest. She points out that women beat themselves up for feeling that way about sex. Katherine reiterates that these are common female experiences of sex, but woman are prone to blaming themselves for their problems.
She suggests that even women who report some satisfaction during sex may not be experiencing the event completely. Katherine mentions one study in which 50% of female participants reported having an orgasm when the scientific monitors for orgasms indicated no orgasm had occurred. She says this suggests that women’s education about their bodies and their possibilities is distressingly subpar.
Female Sexual Dysfunction
Curious about this disparity in human feeling, Katherine shares that many women express sexual dysfunction, asserting that their genitals feel numb or dead, all while lab tests report ordinary, healthy function of those organs. In other words, she noticed that women were responding physically to sex without any pleasure or intimacy being experienced in their brains. She suggests that because the mental and emotional aspects of sex are so important to women’s pleasure, that medications that aim to help women enjoy sex by affecting their genital performance miss the mark.
Sex in Media vs. Sex in Life
The third gap Katherine mentions is the gap between the sex we’re sold in the media and the sex we actually want and find fulfilling in life. She suggests that our modern notions of a liberated identity suggest that women should want and exude sex constantly, but real women often experience the opposite reality. She suspects that the problem is rooted in the lack of education women receive about sex and pleasure.
Ms Rowland also cites the stereotypes that men, the socially dominant sex, are supposed to desire lots of sex, while women are limited to being a gatekeeper restricting sexual access. Katherine believes that women need to be taught that pleasure is worthwhile and healthy so that they can feel comfortable exploring what gives them pleasure and allows them to enjoy sex.
What genuinely leads to satisfying good sex is intimacy, freedom of expression, creativity, safety, and being empowered to explore what genuinely turns you on.
The Effects of Sexual Trauma
Sexual trauma and abuse can also hinder women’s experience of their bodies according to research. She explains that women with this history may feel numb and distance themselves from the experience of sex or be hyperactive and hypervigilant during sexual encounters, leading to them feeling too stressed to enjoy sex. Women Katherine talked to also noted that women are inevitably objectified in pornography, which can lead to women objectifying themselves, instead of seeing sex as an avenue to express their own desire.
What Woman Want
She tells us that the scant research available on what makes good sex suggests that sexual satisfaction has nothing to do with the physical aspect of genitals coming together.
Feeling fully present in the moment—often achieved through mindfulness and the like—and feeling overwhelmed and encompassed by their experience to the extent of forgetting about daily obligations are markers Katherine found in women’s reports about good sex.
Katherine also found women asserting a need for safety, and the need to feel confident exposing the full extent of their sexuality with their partner. She mentions that many women who discuss transcendent sex often describe it in spiritual terms – as if sex is a way to break into people’s spiritual interiors as a homecoming in the other person.
What Women Can Do to Improve Their Sex Lives
Katherine asserts that her book is not proscriptive, though she does provide resources for self-inquiry and erotic amplification. Katherine does suggest that women can try to shut off the external noise distracting them from sex as much as possible to increase sexual immersion. She also suggests that they can explore their bodies and fantasies to enhance their knowledge of their bodies and their sexual experiences.
Katherine Rowland holds a masters in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University. At the same university, she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research fellow in medical anthropology. In the past, she published and served as the executive director of Guernica. She’s contributed to Nature, the Financial Times, Green Futures, the Guardian, the Independent, Aeon, Psychology Today, and more. She is the author of the Pleasure Gap.
Resources for Katherine Rowland:
Talking to Kids about Sex
Amy noticed that even she was having trouble talking to her own child about sex, and she imagined it would be even more difficult for people without her work background. She discusses the difficulty of discerning the right amount of information to share with kids, especially with the poor cultural examples in the US but reiterates that it’s crucial for parents to push through their discomfort.
Amy advises us to look at our own lives, our own sexual decisions and early relationships, and our current relationships to get a good idea of what can happen without quality education about sexuality and relationships. She emphasizes that sex and relationships constitute a lifelong social-psychological health issue and that parents can’t rely on schools to teach these things to their kids.
Listen to “127: Talking to Kids About Sex – Amy Lang” on Spreaker.
Sexual Health Requires Healthy Relationships
A lot of sexual health is about relationships, Amy asserts. She explains that many things can go wrong in relationships that will negatively affect the lives and health of people if they don’t know enough about what healthy relationships look like and what isn’t okay. Amy suggests that parents should want their children to grow up with a lot of information so that they can feel good about their decision-making skills and so that they can build safe, healthy relationships and quickly, correctly notice when relationships become unhealthy.
What Kids are Learning Now
Amy points out that most people are only getting educated about sex in the 5th and 9th grades, and neither of those sessions is comprehensive in any way. She explains that most young people learn the most about sex through pornography, sexualized entertainment media, and their friends. She points out that this gives kids a lot of very adult information about sexuality without providing them any context for that information.
Amy advises that parents contextualize pornography for children. She believes it’s important for kids to know that the models are acting, and they aren’t having real, normal sex.
The Limits of Sex Ed in Schools
Ms. Lang supports kids getting sex ed, even abstinence-only sex ed because that gives parents an opening to discuss the fact that abstinence-only education doesn’t work. She adds that it even lets parents talk about waiting to have sex until they’re prepared and able to make a mature decision with their partner. But she explains that schools can’t provide a values-based sexual education that aligns with the values of all their students’ families, schools can’t provide enough details about sex, and schools really can’t talk about how sex is pleasurable and not just about making babies.
How to Answer Questions
Amy tells us that a lot of questions kids ask can be answered simply and directly, but sometimes they’ll ask questions that are more sensitive. In those cases, she suggests admitting to your child that you’re not sure how to answer, and you need time to think about what to say. She explains that hot topics and questions about your own history can be dicey; she advises parents not to air their traumas to their children because she believes it’s important to talk about sex in a way that encourages them to have consensual, safe sex in a safe place.
Talking About Rape
She says that it’s easier to answer questions about difficult issues like rape and abortion if you already have created an early, strong base with your child about the fact that sex is healthy and fun when it’s consensual. When you have that background and talk about rape with your child, you can emphasize that sex is usually a happy thing adults do, but that sometimes people are bad and force others to have sex. She demonstrates that you can reassure children by saying that even though it’s a sad and scary part of life, it’s something they need to know about, and you’re glad they asked you.
Age Appropriate Conversations
She says that sex talk starts from birth in the form of discussing anatomy and sex differences directly and with correct terminology. Amy believes children should know how babies are made, how consent works, how families are structured, and what safe touch is by kindergarten, because when they’re that small, they are very curious and absorb the information naturally, and they haven’t yet learned enough of the negative aspects of sex to darken or pervert the facts of life. She highlights that early education about sex does a lot to protect kids from sexual abuse, which should motivate most parents to discuss the topic with their kids.
She mentions using the opportunities available to talk about sex in everyday life, from family members becoming pregnant or being gay to people displaying the signs of puberty. Amy discusses that it’s important to address puberty before they’ve completed the process, with 8 and 9 being her specific age suggestion. Parents can look for breast buds in girls to spot puberty, and she says in boys, parents with notice them becoming stinky.
By middle school, she believes kids should know the basics of everything about sex, the good and the bad. She suggests teaching them about oral and anal sex, about birth control, STIs, slang, and all about consent and healthy relationships. At this age, she explains that you want your child to be the smartest kid on the school bus so that they don’t internalize false information from their peers.
How to Start Sex Talks
Amy advises parents to talk about sex on car rides, where the kids can’t run away, but she also says that telling your kids you need to talk with them about a sex thing, and asking them if they want to do it now or later is a good tactic to ensure you have the conversation. She says that it’s often easy to observe the mood of adolescents to see when they’re most receptive and chatty, and those times are good opportunities to talk about sex. As eye contact is concerned, she admits that kids often don’t like it (especially boys), and it’s usually better to discuss sex with kids when you’re side to side. She tells us talking about song lyrics or news items with your kids can create good segues into sex conversations. However you do it, she reinforces the idea that you want them to be well-educated before their peers start talking to them about sex, love, and relationships.
Gender and Sexual Orientation Talks
Being careful with the language you use about LGBTQ+ issues is important to make certain your child feels welcomed no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity turns out to be. She recalls that with her own child, she and her husband always said things like, “when you have a girlfriend or boyfriend…” until the boy revealed his orientation and settled the matter. It’s important not to transmit prejudice for gay or trans people to your child, because doing so will make them feel alienated, and can even cause suicide attempts if they are LGBTQ+.
Young Girls Coming Out
In her professional life, Amy encounters a lot of stories about middle school-aged girls coming out as asexual or bisexual, and many parents ask her what that means. Amy suggests that it may be a result of our culture being more open. Sexual experimentation can be a normal, healthy developmental stage in kids that age, she explains, and some children will feel that doing those things makes them gay or bisexual, while others may be experimenting and exploring their sexuality. She suggests just waiting, always demonstrate your acceptance of whatever they may wind up being, and making sure your kid feels safe being themselves around you.
How Can Parents Learn to Support Their Kids?
Amy refers to her first book, Birds and Bees and Your Kids was written to help parents figure out their values surrounding sex and gender identity and how they want to talk about the issues. She also has a Solution Center on her website that provides lots of resources. It’s important to think about and prepare your responses in advance, she suggests, to communicate your values more clearly and concisely. She also says that the more parents practice by talking about sex with their kids, the easier it will become.
Amy Lang, MA has been a sexual health educator for more than 20 years. With a master’s degree in Adult Education and years of experience as a sexual educator, Amy decided to combine those two fields to help herself and other parents have those conversations.
As the host of Just Say This Amy helps parents learn to talk to their children about sex and values. She also authored two books to help parents and their kids navigate romantic and sexual relationships titled Birds + Bees + YOUR Kids – A Guide to Sharing Your Beliefs About Sexuality, Love, Relationships and Dating Smarts: What Every Teen Needs to Date, Relate or Wait. Amy lives with her husband and teenage son in Seattle, WA, and can be found online at BirdsAndBeesAndKids.com
Resources for Amy Lang:
Guide To Wicked Sex
Jessica Drake is an adult film performer, writer, and director. She’s also a sexual health advocate and sex educator. Her onscreen work earned her numerous awards, including three AVN Best Actress Awards. Jessica is a graduate of San Francisco Sex Information (SFSI) and a member of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). To encourage sexual health and wellness, Ms. Drake conceived and produced the award-winning “Guide to Wicked Sex” videos exploring and demonstrating different aspects of human sexuality with knowledge, experience, and good humor. Her advocacy for improved sexual education, broader awareness of sexual health, and her positive portrayal of the adult industry has led to multiple international speaking engagements and being featured in Cosmopolitan, The Daily Beast, CNBC, Playboy, Forbes, the Huffington Post, and more. She is a powerful advocate for sexual health and sexual education, improving the wellbeing and lives of her audiences.
Creating Relationship Satisfaction
Dr. Sara Nasserzadeh is a global thought leader in psychosexual therapy, couple counseling, and social psychology. A former member of the International Federation of Journalists, Dr. Sara combined her journalism experience with her expertise in sexuality and relationships, to host a program called Whispers for the BBC World Service. The show received the BBC’s Innovation of the Year Award in 2007 and continues to gather Farsi-speaking viewers around the world. In 2007, she earned the World Association for Sexual Health runner-up award for Excellence and Innovation for her human development work. Harper’s Bazaar named her as one of the Best Love Doctors, and DatingAdvice.com named her one of the 10 Best Sex and Dating Experts in 2015.
Jeff Abraham is a man dedicated to doing the right thing. After winning a court case against Hyundai who asked him to actively discriminate against female and African American candidates in 1999, he moved to Promescent as CEO, a company founded by his late friend, Dr. Ronald Gilbert. Jeff has continued his legacy by fulfilling his companies dreams in his honor. In addition to this Jeff has spent the last decade advocating sexual health and wellness by educating the public on the importance of intimacy and how to resolve common sexual dysfunctions.
My guest Susan Bratton has been called a ‘trusted hot sex advisor for millions’. She is a sex technique publisher, a celebrated speaker, educator, CEO and Co-Founder of Personal Life Media, and the list goes on and on about her qualifications and amazing qualities.
In this episode, in particular, she shares her experience with sexual vitality and the summit she is spearheading in September (September 23-29, 2019). Within this talk, she also shares some insights into intimacy issues and basic remedies for those disconnects between couples of all dynamics.
Really useful, informative stuff. And I’d recommend that you check out the many resources that Susan has put out there!