Updating the Model of Female Sexuality
Despite Masters and Johnson’s groundbreaking research revealing that orgasm in both sexes is triggered by the same mechanism, the perception of women’s sexuality as less powerful, less compelling, and less profound than that of men is still almost universal. Since the time of ancient Greece, the male genitals and male sexual response have been idealized, while those of women have been viewed as their less-perfect counterparts. Today, we live, love, and have sexual relationships under what is essentially a male model of human sexuality. Men’s sexual anatomy is still thought of as far more extensive and active than women’s. Ejaculation and the single, explosive orgasm continue to be seen as emblematic of men’s superior sexual prowess. Penis-in-vagina intercourse is still considered the nec plus ultra of sexual activity, while other methods of achieving sexual pleasure and orgasm are considered second-rate or viewed as not entirely “real” forms of sexual activity.
Women today have more freedom than ever before to explore their sexuality, but under the prevailing model, they lack the information to do so effectively. In a 1993 Village Voice cover story, Sarah, a savvy young college graduate, articulates the problems that many women encounter in comprehending their sexuality. Feminism, says Sarah, has “made women feel like they should be able to enjoy themselves, to express themselves, but sometimes they don’t know how… There’s a sense that you should go out there and ask for what you want, [and] a lot of women go YES!—but what do I want?… We have freedom, but we end up feeling bad because we don’t know what to do with [it]“ (emphasis added). Sarah speaks for many women who, in spite of more “permission” than ever before to explore and celebrate their sexuality, are inexplicably bewildered by its complexities and have no realistic concept of what their sexual potential is or how to reach it.
The modern women’s movement, which has made substantial progress on many fronts, has thus far failed to make much headway in the sexual arena. Helping women achieve sexual equality requires an updated model of human sexuality that encompasses women’s needs, abilities, problems, and preferences. Such a model should strive to achieve the following:
- provide women with complete and accurate information about their sexual anatomy, physiology, and psychology;
- empower women to explore new avenues of sexual self-expression, pleasure, and sensuality;
- help women understand how to have sexual relationships in ways that allow them to discover and reach their sexual potential (which may vary from woman to woman);
- help women understand how to have safer sex that is exciting and fulfilling; and
- provide women with insights and strategies for confronting the social contexts in which sexual behavior takes place.
The Antique Male Model
In Making Sex: Sex and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Thomas Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, maintains that social conceptions of sexuality are rooted not in biology—the body—but in how we view the body. He identifies two versions of the male model and documents how women’s sexuality has been downplayed and dismissed through the ages, and how, ultimately, it was nearly obliterated by Freud. The Greeks believed that the similarities between male and female sexual anatomy were far more important than the differences. Laqueur characterizes this as the “one-sex” model of human sexuality. In terms of sexual anatomy, for example, Galen, a second-century Greek physician, noted that “you could not find a single male part left over that had not simply changed its position [in women].” But in the classical view, the male body was the quintessence of perfection, and the female body was a weaker reflection. Laqueur observes that this deep-seated belief in the inferior status of women’s sexuality has endured virtually unchanged for two reasons: First, because “it was illustrative rather than determinant, [it] could therefore register and absorb any number of shifts in the axes and valuations of difference.” Second, “in a public world that was overwhelmingly male, the one-sex model displayed what was already massively evident in culture more generally: man is the measure of all things, and woman does not exist as an ontologically distinct category.”
Laqueur traces the genesis of the “two-sex” model to the social and political ferment that led up to the French Revolution—ironically, a time when women and their advocates began demanding social and political equality. This was the historical point at which pregnancy and menstruation were first defined as pathologies and were seized upon as the rationales for far-reaching social and sexual restrictions on women. “…those who opposed increased civil and private power for women—the vast majority of articulate men—generated evidence for women’s physical and mental unsuitability for such advances; their bodies unfit them for the chimerical spaces that the revolution had inadvertently opened.”
In describing society’s changing notions about female orgasm, Laqueur notes that in the seventeenth century, orgasm was recommended as an aid to conception, physical pleasure, and good marital relations. But by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was widely believed that orgasm was unnecessary and unseemly, perhaps even unnatural for women. As if to underscore this point, anatomical illustrations changed over time, becoming less explicit and detailed, to reflect the diminished concept of women’s sexuality. Laqueur notes that anatomical illustrations of today are cartoonlike, whereas those of the early eighteenth century were exquisitely precise and revealing. Freud declared normal female sexuality an aberration and brought the two-sex model to its phallocentric apogee. The clitoris became “like pine shavings…to set a log of harder wood on fire.” June M. Reinisch and Carolyn S. Kaufman have observed that Freud’s “theory positing the existence of a ‘mature’ vaginal orgasm versus an ‘immature’ clitoral orgasm is a misconception from which, it has been argued, many 20th century women and men are still recovering.”
Reconstructing the Model
In the last half of the twentieth century, sex researchers have discovered (or, in most cases, rediscovered) significant information about sexual anatomy, physiology, and psychology that reveals a far different picture of female sexuality than the antique male model outlined above. Researchers now commonly recognize the following basic points about women’s sexuality:
- Women’s sexual anatomy is as extensive as that of men. The “clitoris” is not just the glans, but a complex organ system that includes bodies of erectile tissue, glands, nerves, blood vessels, and muscles—just as the penis does.
- Some women experience a squirt or gush of fluid just prior to orgasm that comes from up to thirty tiny glands embedded in the tissue surrounding the urethra, which is similar in chemical content to male prostatic fluid. This phenomenon directly corresponds to male ejaculation.
- Women should be able to achieve as many orgasms as they want to—from a few to several dozen or more—in a single sexual session, limited only by their individual goals, available time, partner cooperation, and physical endurance.
- Intercourse is not the optimal way for many women to achieve orgasm. Because male orgasm is generally a “one time” event, if sexual activity is organized solely around intercourse, it often inhibits a woman’s ability to explore her capacity for sexual response.
- Women’s sexual fantasies can be as vivid, active, and assertive as those of men.
- The skin on every part of a woman’s body is far more sensitive than a man’s, perhaps explaining why, generally speaking, women find cuddling both more essential and more satisfying than do men. This information may also help explain why many women tend to prefer, or actually need, longer and more varied sexual sessions, which may or may not end in orgasm, and why many men are usually content when sex is primarily focused on orgasm.
- Women tend to have different goals and expectations of sexuality than men. Many women place more emphasis on nonorgasmic and emotional aspects, while many men tend to place primary emphasis on the immediate, physical aspects of the sexual experience.
This information is known to sexologists, and with the notable exception of female ejaculation, most of it is not controversial. While individual therapists may make use of much of this information in treating patients, there has been no perceptible urgency to evaluate what this information suggests to women about their sexual nature and potential. Nor has there been any concerted effort to integrate this information into an overall vision of women’s sexuality. A notable exception is Naomi McCormick’s forthcoming Sexual Salvation: Affirming Women’s Sexual Rights and Pleasures.
The Secret Clitoris
The Freudian view of female sexuality remained effectively unchallenged until the publication of Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response in 1966. This work revealed what the Greeks and succeeding Western societies knew all along—that sexual response for women and men is effected by identical mechanisms. At the time, this “rediscovery” seemed revolutionary, and struck a powerful blow at Freudian orthodoxy. But it remained to the late psychoanalyst Mary Jane Sherfey to reconstitute our knowledge of women’s sexual anatomy, and to provide the first building blocks for a new model of women’s sexuality.
In the 1960s, Sherfey became concerned about how her male colleagues viewed women’s sexuality, and embarked on an independent and wide-ranging study of female sexuality in which she documented, point by point, the direct correspondences between male and female sexual anatomy, showing that both possess large bodies of erectile tissue, glands, nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. Sherfey argued that the clitoris is no more “just” its glans than the penis is “just” its glans, that the clitoris and the penis are both extensive organ systems with numerous associated parts.
In 1977, staff members of the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers, a California-based association of women’s clinics, intended to include a chapter on sexuality in A New View of a Woman’s Body, an illustrated book on women’s reproductive health and sexuality. But when they began reading the popular and medical literature on sexuality, little of what they found seemed to correspond to or to illuminate their personal sexual experiences. They had run head-on into the male model. Using Sherfey’s analysis and a variety of historical and modern anatomy texts, the group developed its own “redefinition” of the clitoris, including all of the structures—except the uterus (because of its central role in reproduction)—that undergo dynamic changes during orgasm, or contribute to it in a significant way.
According to the Feminist Women’s Health Centers, the complete clitoris consists of many parts: the glans; the shaft; the hood and front commissure (equivalent to the foreskin on the penis); the inner lips (labia minora); the frenulum, where the inner lips meet; the hymen; the legs (crura, two elongated bodies of corpus spongiosum erectile tissue shaped like a wishbone); the bulbs (two large bodies of corpus cavernosum erectile tissue corresponding to the bulb of the penis); the urethral sponge (a body of corpus spongiosum surrounding the urethra); the paraurethral (Skene’s) glands, embedded near the urethral meatus inside of the urethral sponge; the perineal sponge (also called the perineal body); the vulvovaginal (Bartholin’s) glands; the fourchette, a V-shaped membrane at the bottom of the vaginal opening; and the pelvic floor muscles, nerves, and blood vessels, which have tiny valves that trap blood and cause erection. By this definition, all orgasms are “clitoral” regardless of the focus of stimulation.
Josephine Lowndes Sevely is another independent sexologist who has attempted to enlarge the understanding of female sexual anatomy. In Eve’s Secrets: A New Theory of Female Sexuality, Sevely sets the male model on its ear by characterizing the penis as “the male clitoris.” Embryologically, she may have a point, given that until the eighth week of gestation, the genital structures of the fetus are female. Sevely posits that the true homologs of the clitoral glans, shaft, and legs (crura) are the penile shaft and legs (crura), both composed of corpus spongiosum. The penile glans and coronal rim, the tip of the penile bulb, are composed of corpus cavernosum. If Sevely is correct, then anatomists should take note. More germane to the discussion here, however, is that Sevely found that the corresponding parts of corpus spongiosum in the male and female are, pound-for-pound of body weight, essentially equal. “A careful measure of the overall length shows five inches for the male and four inches for the female, making a 5:4 ratio. Since on the average men weigh approximately 160 pounds and women 128…the 5:4 ratio is exactly in line.”
As the first step in evolving a new model of women’s sexuality, it would seem essential that we have a standard definition of the clitoral system, just as we have for other intricate organ systems, like the heart and brain. We should no longer refer to the glans of the clitoris as the clitoris, but as the glans, a small but vital part of the clitoral system. Anatomical illustrations should include all parts of the clitoris, not just the few that are visible.
Being aware that their sexual anatomy has many parts, and knowing how these parts function to promote sexual pleasure and orgasm, can help women to better understand what does (and does not) happen during sexual response, and how and why orgasms do and do not occur. Being aware that their sexual anatomy is as extensive and active as men’s can also help women to feel more confident and powerful sexually.
The Ghost of the G Spot
The idea of a Grafenberg spot, or “G spot,” inside of the vagina is not anatomically correct, yet this notion lingers around bedrooms everywhere like the persistent phantoms of so many other sexual misconceptions.
The “G spot” is neither a “spot” nor an “area,” nor is it a magic button that effects orgasms, although it may help stimulate them. It is a distinct body of erectile tissue, corpus spongiosum, first identified as a part of the clitoris and named the urethral sponge by the Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers in 1981. The sponge may not be palpable however, until clitoral tissues are fully engorged, which takes up to twenty-five minutes in some women and never occurs in many others. When erect, this structure is readily identifiable and is highly sensitive to touch, pressure, or vibration.
As it is currently understood, orgasm is effected by nerve impulses generated by direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoral glans; these impulses are passed along the pudendal nerve and, if arousal is sufficient and stimulation continues, may result in the rhythmic myotonic contractions of orgasm. Alice K. Ladas and John D. Perry have proposed the “G spot” as a second focus of stimulation of a reflex pathway combining impulses along the pelvic nerve that may effect both female ejaculation and orgasm. The difficulty in proving this concept would seem to be in truly isolating stimulation of the urethral sponge from stimulation of the clitoral glans. Given their intimate relationship, especially when they are fully engorged, this may not be possible. It would certainly be useful, nonetheless, to know if direct stimulation of the urethral sponge connects to a second or secondary reflex pathway and can actually trigger orgasm, or if, instead, this stimulation is transferred to the glans, shaft, and legs, and then passed along to the pudendal nerve.
The concept of a G spot as it is currently articulated is confusing to women. By looking for an elusive, intravaginal “button” to push, some women may be deemphasizing stimulation of the clitoral glans, which is the most reliable trigger of female orgasm. Some may feel sexually inadequate if they can’t find a specific and exquisitely sensitive spot. If they do find it, they may be frustrated to discover that it doesn’t trigger ejaculation or orgasm. Under an updated model of human sexuality, the concept of a G spot would be replaced with clear and correct anatomical information that provides women with the means to better understand, explore, and enjoy their orgasms.
If women know little else about modern sexuality research, they are likely to be aware of the four-phase human sexual response cycle described by Masters and Johnson. Most women are unaware that this widely known model of sexual response has been challenged and revised by other researchers.
Psychologist Leonore Tiefer’s critique of Masters and Johnson’s four-phase model reveals serious conceptual and methodological flaws in their research, and questions the value of their model as a diagnostic tool. Tiefer also rejects this model from a feminist perspective “because it neglects and suppresses women’s sexual priorities,” and asserts that because of basic gender differences, this model “favors men’s sexual interests over those of women.” Others have also sought to deconstruct the four-phase cycle. California-based sexologists William E. Hartman and Marilyn Fithian, who have monitored more than 20,000 orgasms, say that they have not observed the “plateau” phase. Helen Singer Kaplan sees only three stages as well, but argues that desire to have sex must precede excitement and orgasm. JoAnn Loulan, a therapist specializing in lesbian sexuality, sees a six-phase sexual response, encompassing willingness, desire, excitement, engorgement, orgasm, and pleasure. From a feminist perspective, this more inclusive model is appealing because it interjects the critical element of “consent” into sexual activity.
In developing a new model of human sexuality, attention should be paid to reconciling these more realistic paradigms. When sufficient research is done, it may turn out that several predominant patterns of sexual response exist alongside a range of variations.
Having a realistic understanding of sexual response can be liberating to women whose responses may vary from established models, and occasionally from their own history of sexual experience. Avoiding a single “set-in-stone” model also may help promote the idea that sexual response is not a goal (although women may have sexual goals), or a performance, or a script, but instead, a multivaried continuum. In view of the debate over consent that is raging on college campuses today, more enlightened paradigms of sexual response may be helpful in making young people aware that female sexual response does not necessarily begin with passive surrender to desire, but can be sparked by a conscious decision to act on desire.
Sherfey, who “rescued” women’s sexual anatomy, believed that women’s ability to have multiple orgasm set them apart from men, and that because of longer and stronger pelvic muscles and a superior pelvic blood supply (both of which are required by the demands of childbirth), women’s capacity for sexual response was indeed profound. Sherfey’s wide-ranging research convinced her that “the more orgasms a woman has, the stronger they become; the more orgasms she has, the more she can have.“ Sherfey, in fact, believed that because of women’s biological gifts, they were essentially “insatiable,” limited only by their perception of their sexual potential and physical endurance.
In the mid-1960s it was thought that the upper limit was about fifty consecutive orgasms. Today, higher limits have been suggested by Hartman and Fithian, whose champion research subject had 134 orgasms in one hour—after riding her bicycle several miles to the office. The keys, according to these researchers, are motivation, time, practice, and excellent physical condition. Although many women may not be interested in pursuing such orgasmic feats, for those wishing to enhance or expand their orgasmic horizons, it is useful to be aware of what the known upper range actually is. This research reveals how little we know about women’s orgasmic capacity or about the answer to Freud’s famous conundrum “What do women want?” Carol A. Darling, J. Kenneth Davidson, Sr., and Donna A. Jennings found that 27 percent of singly-orgasmic women wanted to experience multiple orgasms as a change in their sexual lives.
As with other areas of sexuality, there has been almost no research interest in multiple orgasm. Several popular sex advice books—most notably, Alan and Donna Brauer’s ESO (Extended Sexual Orgasm)—have focused on multiple orgasm, but a literature search by Darling, Davidson, and Jennings turned up “a single research report” on the subject during the 1980s. These authors defined multiple orgasm as “more than one” orgasm and consequently found that a relatively large proportion of women (43 percent) had experienced “more than one” orgasm regularly. Unfortunately, this tells us nothing about the normal range
for multiple orgasm, and the authors note that their study sample (805 heterosexual nurses) may not be representative of the general population. Nonetheless, this survey contains interesting information on techniques and behaviors women use to achieve “more than one” orgasm.
The Backlash against Orgasm
In response to what has been perceived as too much emphasis on sexual performance, something of a backlash has developed against orgasm among some feminists and feminist sex therapists. The most extreme example of this is the heading for the chapter on orgasm in Loulan’s Lesbian Sex: “The Tyranny of Orgasm.” Loulan articulates the idea that elevating orgasm as the ultimate goal of all sexual activity places an impossible burden on many women, and makes them feel inferior or undesirable if they can’t achieve the ideal. She observes that we treat sex like a commodity—something to be pursued and acquired—and argues that pleasure, rather than orgasm, should be the ultimate goal of sexual relations. I wholeheartedly agree. However, under the two-sex male model of human sexuality discussed earlier, women’s capacity for multiple orgasm has been downplayed and undervalued to the extent that the single orgasm has become our cultural norm.
Other feminist sex researchers have sought to shift the focus of sexual activity from orgasm toward a model that establishes a broad continuum of rewarding sexual experience. This shift should certainly be a cornerstone of a new model of female sexuality, but we must be careful not to fall into the two-sex model’s trap of thinking that orgasm is not, or ought not be, a significant part of women’s sexuality. There are few physical reasons, short of paraplegia, painful vulval conditions, or certain chronic illnesses, that prevent women from having one or more orgasms. The stumbling blocks are overwhelmingly partner-related, and include a profound mystification about how women’s bodies work sexually. Instead of downplaying orgasm further, we should be helping women understand how to have orgasms if they want them, and how to enhance their orgasmic capability if they wish to. As Sherfey points out, “That the female could have the same orgasmic anatomy (all of which is female to begin with) and not be expected to use it simply defies the very nature of the biological properties of evolutionary and morphogenetic processes.”
Rather than minimizing orgasm, perhaps a new model should confront the emphasis on penile-vaginal intercourse and seek to acquaint women and men with the variety of ways in which sexual pleasure can be achieved—including fantasies, thoughts, dreams, glances, kisses, touch, full body contact, masturbation, intercourse, outercourse, and more. This model should also describe sexual responses that range from a warm blissful feeling to single or multiple orgasms.
A New Vision of Women’s Sexuality
While relegating women to an inferior sexual status, male-dominated cultures from ancient Greece through the Renaissance at least recognized, and celebrated, the similarities between male and female sexuality. In the eighteenth century, the definition of female sexuality narrowed dramatically. What will the twenty-first century model be?
In her incisive critique of Masters and Johnson’s model, Tiefer warns against the reduction of sexual response to mere biology, and against the exclusion of the “social realities” of relationships and “women’s experiences of exploitation, harassment and abuse.” She then calls for “a model of human sexuality more psychologically-minded, individually variable, interpersonally oriented, and socioculturally sophisticated,” but stops short of suggesting a framework for such a model. I would suggest a model that is inclusive of both biological and psychosocial factors that would help to explain physiological sexual experience for both women and men, regardless of sexual orientation. Such a model would also illuminate the complex, contradictory, and often controversial contexts in which we experience sexuality. Given both the striking similarities and the differences between women and men, this could be neither a “one-sex” nor a “two-sex” model. Rather, it should be a bi-gender model that promotes sexual equality and at the same time acknowledges and celebrates the important differences that we are now just beginning to discover and understand.
The revised model of human sexuality should not be genitocentric, but should start from the premise that women and men have a right to complete and accurate information about how their bodies function sexually. Anatomical illustrations should be clear and complete, and the names of the clitoral and penile structures should be descriptive, rather than rendered in Latin or Greek. On a practical level, this revised model should help women see that sexuality can be as exciting and rewarding for them as it is for men. It should enable women to understand that sexuality is a vital and powerful part of who they are, and help them to feel comfortable with it, to celebrate and relish it.
This new model must also include research on and about women, with an emphasis on healthy sexuality rather on disease and dysfunction. (A recent article in Glamour magazine reveals that in 1993, the National Institutes of Health spent $1 million on male erectile dysfunction, but not a penny on a similar category for women, or any other sex research on women)
This new model should not be competitive with men and should not fault them for playing to their sexual strengths. Nor should it deride intercourse as a legitimate form of sexual expression. Instead, by providing information about women’s sexuality that has hitherto been, for the most part, ignored or considered inconsequential, it should help women to broaden their sexual agendas, play to their own sexual strengths, and take into account their unique needs and capabilities. This reconstructed model is not aimed at overcoming penis envy. It is, instead, an effort to help women achieve penis equity. Women clearly have it. We should help them claim it.