Stigma, shame, menopause, fertility fears… welcome to sex from a woman’s perspective
Helen Birch talks to the Irish Times about the orgasm gap. The original article was written by GERALDINE WALSH and can be found here .
“Women get worse sex” is the title of a new paper published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science (2022). Psychologists Terri Conley and Verena Klein of the University of Michigan sought to understand the variations between the sexual experiences of men and women. Their findings consistently contend that the physical experience of male and female sexual intercourse and desire differs, with the authors arguing that “the sex that women get is not just different, but of lesser quality.”
Aside from the inherent physical differences in sexual experience, stigma and negative associations with sex are some of the additional reasons why there continues to be a gender gap in sexual desire and experience.
Helen Birch, sex therapist and hypnotherapist, suggests that one of the reasons men and women experience sex differently is due to cultural influences, which has very little to do with biological makeup.
“Many women, regardless of their background, have some form of shame and fear attached to sex and sexual pleasure,” she says. “Men don’t have the same level of shame, fear, and guilt attached to sex.
“Society tells men and women how they should behave when it comes to desire. Women are still taught that their sexuality is bad and that feeling or being sexual is something to be ashamed of.
“Any sex education at school was around contraception, periods, and STIs. It was also male orientated, focusing on penetration, putting condoms on etc. There is no discussion of pleasure and enjoyment. By focusing sex solely on reproduction rather than pleasure, shame has become internalised and reinforced generation after generation.”
Changing the definition of sex to increase libido and enjoyment can alter society’s narrow view surrounding the sexual experiences of both men and women. Birch suggests challenging what great sex is.
“It’s intimacy, sensuality, touching, and kissing,” she says. “Extending your definition of sex opens more opportunities for sexual experiences. A person might not be in the mood for intercourse but may be open to other things.”
“It also places pleasure as the priority,” she says.
“Sexual pleasure is a mix of desire, arousal, and sensuality. It can also be physical and psychological, shared with another or by ourselves. Being aroused is also a gradual process that can begin a long time before any sexual activity happens. Throw out the old, outdated ideas of sex that we have inherited and create new expectations of pleasure and enjoyment for all.”
Reducing the gender gap in sexual desire requires breaking the shame cycle and realising that sexual pleasure is inherently a human instinct. The sexual double standards women experience are not as readily implied for a man, with women potentially enjoying an experience less simply due to the stigma attached to it. Added to that is the understanding that sex is inherently less enjoyable for women than men because of the orgasm gap.
“There is a huge gap between genders, particularly regarding orgasms,” says Birch referring to the orgasm gap in heterosexual relationships.
“This is because cultural norms place a man’s orgasm above a woman’s desire.”
Foreplay is essential to igniting sexual desire, says Birch, who encourages everyone to listen and act on the sexual impulses of their body during intimacy as this “is essential for a healthy body and mind and regulates the body’s natural chemicals.”
Birch advises that changing the way sex education is delivered and having age-appropriate conversations can provide people with a better and more realistic perspective on sex.
“Sex education needs to move beyond one or two lessons and instead become an ongoing conversation that evolves and changes depending on maturity,” she says. “We should also encourage anatomically correct terms for the genitals and body parts. This removes the stigma and shame.”
While the experiences of men and women can never be explicitly comparable, the varying differences in how sexual relationships are experienced can depend on our gender but are susceptible to change. Countering the stigma, increasing sex positivity, and challenging the definition can reduce the gender gap in sexual desire. Birch suggests foreplay, equality in the orgasm gap, communication, and reconnection as ways to counter the imbalance.
When it comes to foreplay, she recommends turning the brain on. “To improve quality and satisfaction, arousal needs to move beyond the genitals,” she says. “Getting the brain on board primes the body for sexual pleasure and gets the blood moving around the body to the parts responsible for pleasure, such as the pelvic floor.
“Foreplay puts pleasure as the focus rather than orgasms or penetration. Taking your time, igniting all the nerve endings in the body allows the mind and body to connect and awakens the brain to the idea of sex.”
Communication in all relationships is key, considering nothing will improve if we don’t talk to each other. “We can’t read our partner’s mind. Talk about what works and does not work, and work together instead of blaming the other. It’s not selfish to want pleasure. It’s fair. Communication is especially important to narrow the orgasm gap.”
Birch also advises that stress, anxiety, and depression can be key factors that can reduce sex drive. “Manage these feelings through meditation, mindfulness or exercise,” she says. “Exercise helps hormone balance and improves self-esteem and body confidence, making us more comfortable with our bodies.”
A high or low libido can depend on many things, but as hormones play a key factor, a woman’s sex drive can fluctuate more readily as hormones change during peri to post-menopause. Birch suggests reconnecting with your body and not just sexually. “Your sensual self involves moving your body, giving and receiving touch, dancing, or any other form of self-care which brings you pleasure,” she says. “Find something to bring you confidence and happiness.”
For many trans women, they have had to hide who they are for a long part of their lives, says Birch, and this affects their experiences of sexual pleasure. Having anxiety, shame and guilt about who they really are makes up a big part of this, she says.
“They have to spend a large part of their lives trapped in the wrong body, rejecting and denying who they really are or feel. Many trans women report that to further deny who they were, they adopted very stereotypical male behaviours. This includes the male expectation and behaviours around sex and sexual pleasure.”
Once trans women have transitioned, Birch says, they have to re-learn how they feel and behave sexually. This is made even more difficult as many trans women feel they have to prove they are a woman, something which cis women don’t have to do.
“They may feel that in order to pass as a woman they need to dress and act in a typically female way. As a result, a trans woman has all the same cultural expectations and references enforced upon her that a cis woman has. They are essentially told to behave a certain way, in order to be a woman.”
This reinforces what sexual pleasure for females should be, says Birch.
“It can lead trans women to question how their body should respond and result in them questioning if their new body is working properly or womanly enough. They also have to learn how the female body responds, as it requires a greater mind and body connection, intimacy and mindfulness than the male body required to achieve sexual pleasure.”