Naomi Wolf: Liberate female sexuality research
Engaging with new data is part of feminism's tradition of empowering women's well-being and autonomy.
12:13PM EDT October 26. 2012 - The conventional wisdom is that we are living in a free-for-all, anything-goes, truly sexually liberated society. There is -- seemingly -- every kind of information about sex in virtually every magazine on newsstands and, of course, one can dial up porn at the click of a modem, 24/7. But is this brave new world really that liberating -- for women?
The new data show -- not so much. When Shere Hite brought out her famous (and, at the time, notorious) report on female sexuality in 1973, about one-third of women self-reported that they did not have orgasms when they wished to during sex. This finding preceded Hite's important -- for the time -- assertion that penetration was not all there was in terms of female sexual response, and a wave of information about female sexuality followed.
But our conventional wisdom about what female arousal and desire are was frozen in the mid-1970s. Masters and Johnson's (for the time) avant-garde research established that female sexual response was pretty much the same as male sexual response, unfolding in a parallel cycle of arousal, plateau, climax and resolution.
Well, 40 years on, the data on female sexual satisfaction have not budged upward since Hite's day. In some ways, they show erosion in pleasure and even a striking decline in many women's fundamental interest in sex.
Indeed, for all the tremendous media interest in male sexual dysfunction -- and the millions invested in pharmaceutical treatments for it -- a remarkably unheralded epidemic is actually almost not discussed at all outside of a few doctors' offices and private spaces: One-third of women (some data show up to 43%) report "hypoactive sexual desire" -- they self-report little interest in sex and little desire for it, and define that as a problem for them. An additional 30% -- some the same women, some different women -- about the same as in Hite's day, self-report that they do not regularly reach orgasm when they wish to do so, and also self-report that that is a problem as they define it.
Should this matter?
Something striking about a major cultural change -- I would say, a major step backward in our fight for women's freedom and well-being -- is that when Hite launched her discussion, while it was greeted with great controversy, finally society agreed that women's pleasure and sexual well-being mattered and deserved respectful inquiry. From Ms. Magazine to The Dinner Party, it was a given, ultimately, that female sexual pleasure was an important value for feminists to champion.
In contrast, discourse about the value of women's sexuality and their erotic well-being has been so marginalized over the past few decades that in today's climate, new findings on female arousal and satisfaction are not being reported in mainstream media. When one brings them into public debate, as I have recently, I find that one must make the case from the start that these numbers -- and female sexual satisfaction -- matter at all.
But matter they do
One obvious insight is suggested by remarkable new findings in fields of neuroscience: In the past generation, scientists at the forefront of research on women and desire are making transformational new discoveries about female anatomy, arousal and the role of orgasm. The new data that scientists are revealing about women and desire often include a brain-vagina connection. These discoveries should change how we see the pattern of female sexual response, and they go a long way to explaining why, for so many women, pleasure under the conventional wisdom is so elusive.
For example, though Masters and Johnson believed that men's and women's responses are the same, new data show key gender differences in response patterns. The role of the autonomic nervous system is much more important for women's arousal than we have understood. This means that relaxation, being free from "bad stress," is essential to women's bodies' abilities to become sexually excited. It turns out that sharing housework, or doing whatever is necessary to de-stress a female partner, really is foreplay for women, in a way that is unique to them. These findings can benefit women of all sexualities, and whether they are in relationships or on their own.
Other fascinating differences are being mapped in labs: Barry Komisaruk of Rutgers University has identified a new sexual center in women -- at the mouth of the cervix; Janniko Georgiadis and his team found that a part of the brain involved with self-regulation and self-awareness goes quiet for women in orgasm; Komisaruk and Beverly Whipple found that stimulating different parts of the genitals (clitoris, labia, vaginal walls, etc.) corresponded to activation in different parts of the female brain associated with different brain functions, and that women self-report different emotions based on different areas touched.
James Pfaus' landmark study of female rats at Concordia University has established that these lower mammals remember negative (pleasureless) sexual experiences and make decisions for the future (decisions involving the prefrontal cortext) to avoid potential mates associated with bad sex. He also found that the dopamine system means that female sexual pleasure is self-reinforcing: rewarding sex leads to more active search for rewarding sex, and disappointing sex leads, after only a few negative experiences, among female lower mammals, to withdrawal.
Women respond differently than men do to something as fundamental as being stroked. A final relatively new finding is that women are extremely variable and individual to the level of the neural wiring in their pelvises, meaning that every woman must be "learned" anew.
If we put these new findings into practice, we can see that our culture's "sexual script" may well change, to make female arousal patterns and the female mind-body connection more central.
Other findings should make us take rape and sexual abuse far more seriously: A now vast body of data, such as a study by Cindy Meston and Alessandra Rellini, shows that the after effects of rape or sexual abuse stay in the female brain and body years after a "non-violent" attack, changing physical functions as basic as the body's response to exercise and to erotic videos. This data should lay to rest that there is any such thing as a "non-violent" rape, and it opens new vistas for more effective support for victims of rape and sex crime.
These new data are often eye-opening, and some of them might make us grapple with our conventional wisdom. But should we be alarmed by them? I think not. There is nothing unfeminist about finding out more about female anatomy and sexual response. Indeed, it is a fundamentally empowering project. And there is nothing trivial about female pleasure and women's wish for more of it.
Given that women throughout the world are targeted for their sexuality -- from female genital mutilation, to child marriage, to the use of rape as a weapon of war, to some countries in which simple gestures of female desire such as kissing or texting a potential partner are sometimes punished with stoning or burning -- the more we insist on understanding and respecting female sexual well-being, the safer and healthier all of us can be.
I believe that engaging with these remarkable new findings is part of feminism's long and laudable tradition of seeing empowerment in supporting women's sexual self-knowledge and autonomy. It is odd to me that one would have to make a case for that -- in 2012 -- but as we should see by now, the next sexual revolution is long overdue.
Naomi Wolf is the author of the new book Vagina: A New Biography.
In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, inc