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.
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