Sexual healing?

Penetration is not the be-all and end-all of sex, argues Jennifer Drew, so why does the medical establishment seek to pathologise women who just don't like it?

Jennifer Drew, 1 October 2007

Recently, The Guardian's G2 supplement carried an advice column headlined "sexual healing". A young woman had written in to say she was terrified of penetrative sex. Although she had sexual relations with a number of boys, her body still refused to accept a penis penetrating her body. "Whenever I have felt the tip of a penis pushing around in my area, it feels so unpleasurable that I can't imagine why anything further would feel good. It seems as if the longer I leave it, the more terrified I get," this young woman wrote.

In reply, psychotherapist and clinical psychologist Pamela Stephenson Connolly told this young woman to just give herself "time, continue to enjoy outercourse and don't allow yourself to be pressurised before you are ready". However, Stephenson Connolly went on to say that when this young woman has found "the right partner", one she could trust, then penis-in-vagina penetration would occur.

Stephenson Connolly also advised this young woman that if she finds "the right male partner" and still experiences terror, or a refusal to be penetrated, then she should seek psycho-therapeutic help. Stephenson Connolly not only pathologised this young woman because she did not want to be penetrated and ignored the young woman's feelings and right not to want to be penetrated, Connolly also reinforced entrenched male-defined belief that sexuality is not only a one-size fits all thing, but that penetration is always the culmination of 'sex'. This view totally ignores that this model does not suit all women's experiences of their sexuality and also ignores how cultural beliefs concerning female sexualities effect women's bodily and psychological experiences.

Despite excellent work and analysis conducted by feminist researchers specialising in human sexuality and also feminist psychotherapists, who consistently challenge this bio-medical perspective, women continue to be pathologised and defined as either suffering from a sexual dysfunction or a mythical medical condition - vaginismus.

Common sense tells that the only 'real sexual act' is one involving a penis which either penetrates the vagina and/or the anus

A woman suffering from vaginismus will find that her vagina refuses to passively accept the penis thrusting inside her body. Instead, her muscles tighten and it becomes very difficult for the male to complete insertion. Although her body resists, penetration can be successfully completed, but of course she will experience considerable pain.

In 2003, I wrote Disfunctional, moi?. In this feature, I focused on the increasing medicalisation of female sexuality and, sadly, not only has the medicalisation of women's diverse sexualities and experiences increased, but the myth of penetrative sex as being the only 'real sex' for both women and men continues to be promoted.

Of course the real problem is women are not trying hard enough! After all, common sense and culture tell us that the only 'real sexual act' is one involving a penis which either penetrates the vagina and/or the anus. Oh yes, anal sex is now de rigueur - forget about women not wanting to be anally penetrated, after all mainstream pornography promotes this as yet another 'natural aspect of female sexuality' so, of course, all women want and need to be anally penetrated by a penis, fist, finger(s) or other inanimate object.

We can ignore the fact only men have a prostrate gland situated in their anuses which gives them sexual pleasure, so in reality men should be the ones begging for anal penetration - but that does not happen. Why? Because penetration cannot be separated out from sexual politics.

Hence the widespread myth that any other sexual act other than a woman being penetrated is not 'real heterosexual sex', rather it is 'foreplay'. Even if a woman has an orgasm by other means, it does not count, because penetration has not occurred. I repeat once again the entrenched myth is that sexual activity consists of certain steps: the male initiates sexual contact, the female either responds or resists. The male persists, the female succumbs to male demands, a little 'foreplay' occurs before getting down to the main event. Namely insertion of penis into woman's vagina, a few thrusts of the penis and the male reaches orgasm and ejaculation. Shortly, or ideally simultaneously, the female also reaches orgasm, but alas no ejaculation occurs!

Penetration is not the Gold Standard of human sexuality

The only problem is this ideology is just that - an ideology not experienced by the majority of women.

Increasingly, I hear stories from women who say: "I do not want or enjoy to be penetrated, my sexual pleasure does not occur when a penis is penetrating me and the man is thrusting away madly. I must be dysfunctional or perhaps there is something wrong with my sexuality because after all so many women do climax from being penetrated."

News flash to all women, and men too. Penetration is not the Gold Standard (to use a much overused and overvalued phrase). It is not the sine qua of human sexuality, whether it is female sexuality, male sexuality or same-sex sexuality.

However, not only is penetration by a penis seen as the only 'real sexual act', but female sexuality continues to be medicalised. Vaginismus it is claimed by many within the medical profession and among many sexologists and sex therapists to be a medical condition, since a woman's muscles surrounding the vagina tighten and resist penetration by the penis. How dare a woman's body attempt to reject the thrusting penis! Women's bodies must not say no to the mighty phallus! Of course, the penis can, and often does, forcibly penetrate a woman's body, but women then experience considerable pain and discomfort. But, once again, the blame is on the woman's body and her feelings, she is not relaxed enough, she has not lubricated enough, she is rejecting her male partner sexually.

Female sexuality continues to be a highly charged political subject, which is still socially controlled and regulated by men for men. Of course, given the complexities of differing social rules for men and women, many women too 'police' other women's sexualities and desires. But the end result is the same - female sexuality is an add-on and predominantly for the purpose of providing sexual pleasure and gratification to men.

Heather Corinna, in her blog, writes: "Much of sexology, sexuality research, sex therapy and sex education has been strongly biased due to the fact that, despite addressing all genders, it has been dominated and formed by one: men."

What passes for female sexuality has been and continues to be defined from the male perspective. As everyone knows, penetration is not only one of the most pleasurable aspects for most males, but it is also primarily a reproductive function. In biological terms, penis being inserted into a vagina is for the purpose of reproduction.

No need to consider social constructions of female sexuality, or how women are taught from girlhood that female sexual expression is nasty and must only be responsive to men's initiation. Oh no, new drug cures will resolve all women's sexual problems

The pharmaceutical industry too colludes in the bio-medicalisation of both women's and men's sexualities, by claiming new drugs will restore women's lack of sexual desire and enable women to achieve orgasm via the 'mighty penis' thrusting into their vaginas.

Viagra claims to be the magic potion enabling so-called impotent men to have erections on demand. However, male sexuality is not just whether or not the penis acts or rather reacts on command. Oh no, it is more complex than that.

But here I will just focus on women's sexualities. Recently, yet another story was widely circulated within the media both in print and also via the internet. This story claimed a new patch containing that "magical hormone testosterone" which is supposedly responsible for all men's sex drives, will be available to women in order to boost their failing sex drives.

Testosterone is not a 'male' hormone, because both women and men have differing amounts of this hormone in their bodies. However, pharmaceutical companies claim that simply by using their drugs women will be able to achieve a much higher level of sexual satisfaction and sexual arousal.

No need to consider social constructions of female sexuality, or how women are taught from girlhood that female sexual expression is nasty and must only be responsive to men's initiation. Oh no, new drug cures will resolve all women's sexual problems. One interesting male commentator in responding to this story said that men are not the experts on what women want or desire sexually and the penis is not the magic orgasm stimulator. What an unusual and enlightened man!

The feminist website New view campaign has been in existence for some years and many of its female and male supporters are medical and clinical experts working in the field of human sexualities. This website was created in order to challenge the increasing medicalisation and pathology of women's diverse sexualities and desires.

Culture tells us a woman only becomes sexually active when she has been penetrated by a penis. Everything else is just petting, foreplay or, horrors, masturbation

So why is the 'commonsense view' that female sexuality must always culminate with penis thrusting into vagina still widely viewed as the only 'real sexual act'? There is a very long history concerning how we see women's sexuality, which is dominated by the male perspective.

Of course, penetration is not only about male sexuality. Sexual politics too play an important aspect. We also think that once male sexuality has been aroused, it is uncontrollable and 'naturally' goal-orientated, with penetration, orgasm and ejaculation the only real sexual acts. One of the dominant constructions of masculinities is the belief men have a higher sex drive than women and therefore need regular sexual release which can only be accomplished by penetrating a woman's body. Male (hetero)sexuality is also inter-connected with the belief sexually conquering and penetrating a woman enables them to prove to other men they are 'real men'. This feeds into the myth men are supposedly naturally dominant and women submissive. Hence the belief sexual intercourse is natural and if a man does not engage in this act he is not a 'real man'. Likewise, culture tells us a woman only becomes sexually active when she has been penetrated by a penis, irrespective of how she expresses her sexuality, whether it is by herself or with a partner, she is not really engaging in sex, it is just petting, foreplay or, horrors, masturbation!

Mainstreaming of pornography, too, plays a major part in constructing female sexualities from a male perspective. Not only does the porn industry lie about female sexuality, it also lies about male sexualities.

Take a look inside the covers of men's magazines such as Nuts, Zoo, FHM and Loaded. They all promote the same message, which is that women's sexuality is for the benefit of men. Women are simply sexualised commodities. Likewise, women's magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour and others all promote the same message. Women as a group are all supposedly in a constant state of sexual arousal, ready and willing to provide sexual servicing to any available man.

Self-help books champion a woman's right to decide for herself what she wants, but still exhort her to "try it once, just to please your partner"

All of this feeds into the social construction of what supposedly comprises female sexual functioning. In mainstream pornography, women are graphically portrayed as greedily accepting and being penetrated simultaneously by triple penises, which are inserted into their vaginas, anuses and of course not forgetting their mouths! Women, according to the pornography industry, are sexually insatiable and penetration is the ultimate sexual gratification for women: the more orifices filled, the better.

That's porn, but these attitudes also influence how the doctors treats women who have been raped or sexually assaulted by men. Women's experiences of male sexual violence and their after-effects are medicalised and pathologised by medical practitioners.

Couples who present themselves to sex therapists and other medical practitioners because the woman is unable to allow her male partner to penetrate her are told to desist from intercourse for a while. The woman meanwhile is instructed by these experts to use varying size dilators and insert these into their vagina in order to help them overcome their resistance to being penetrated by their male sexual partner. According to researchers, some women who have been raped do not want another penis penetrating their bodies, even one which belongs to a male partner, yet they are dismissed as pathological, since penetration continues to be promoted as the be-all and end-all of human sexuality.

One expert, Derek Jehu, developed a comprehensive programme for women who had been sexually abused as children. His belief was that women just needed to be re-programmed into accepting penetration as something natural and desirable to all women. Women's fear, distress and their body's rejection of a dilator was rejected as unrealistic and pathological, instead she simply needed to accept the "naturalness and fit of a penis in [a] vagina".

Women's right to define for themselves what they want or desire sexually was ignored, instead the emphasis was on making women receptive to male demands.

So-called self-help sex books promote the same message. Women must learn to accept and want penetration by a male because it is the only real sexual act. Such books champion a woman's right to decide for herself what she wants, but still exhort her to "try it once, just to please your partner". Despite claims of female sexual liberation, it is just a continuation of the same old, tired, phallocentric ideas.

So what can be done to challenge such narrow, heterosexist and phallocentric views, all of which are couched in terms of female sexual liberation and empowerment? We need to constantly challenge the stranglehold of heteronormativity which not only prescribes heterosexuality as the normal and best form of organising gender and sexuality, but also challenge the promotion of vaginal intercourse, especially in respect of claims that women are suffering from sexual dysfunctions or vaginismus when they don't want to do it.

Yes, some women do like and enjoy being penetrated by a man, but others do not. The problem is that they are then told they are not real women

We rarely hear or read about men who are comfortable with sexuality and intimacy which does not rely on the erect penis. Men who are not particularly interested in sex, women who are very interested in sex and actively purse casual sexual encounters, couples who choose to include vaginal penetration sparingly or not at all. These beliefs and practices all can and often do incur personal risk of censure and punishment for those women and men. But such representations of different ways of enacting gendered sexuality are rarely given positive media space. Instead we continue to read about heterosexuality and particularly female sexuality as one which must always accommodate the penis.

Heather Corinna administers Scarleteen, a comprehensive sex education website. Here you can find an excellent article called What is feminist sex education?. Corinna writes that feminist sex education emphasises for all sexes and genders, autonomy, personal responsibility, full and active consent. Most importantly, it also recognises that women's sexual desires and sexuality are complete on their own, not an adjunct of male sexuality, male sexual partnership or marriage. It also acknowledges a wide diversity of sexual desire, experience and identity among women. It presents partnered sexual activity broadly and acknowledges the wide array of sexual activities which may be 'real' partnered sex, not just heterosexual intercourse. Female sexual anatomy is not limited to heterosexual intercourse or reproduction.

Of course, I recognise only too well the continued constraints, prohibitions and social control of women's sexualities. Experts such as Lynne Phillips, Janet Holland and Caroline Ramazanoglu have all written about how young women still experience pressure and coercion to make their sexual desires and needs fit the phallocentric imperative.

It is only by speaking out, challenging the medicalisation of female sexuality and the cultural belief that real sexual expression must always culminate in a woman's body being penetrated by a penis, will such entrenched and limited ideas of what supposedly passes for female sexual expression be changed. Speaking out about women's diverse sexualities and, yes, this includes heterosexual women too, will help women as a group to realise that far from being pathologised because they do not adhere to male-defined ideologies of what supposedly passes for female sexuality, they are in fact not frigid, cold, prudish, sexually dysfunctional or suffering from that 'catch-all myth' vaginismus.

Women are not one-size fits all. Rather they are diverse, with differing sexualities and desires. As Corinna writes, "feminist sex education supports the right of women to have complete sovereignty over their bodies at all times, recognises the strong and pervasive effect of cultural and gender roles on the individual and interpersonal sexuality. Operates under the given that members of any sex, gender, race, sexual orientation or class have an inalienable, inarguable right to the complete, inarguable ownership of their own individual bodies and desires, and that sexuality and sexual pleasure is a positive and valuable experience in its own right, not merely or only a side effect of reproduction, health biology or romance."

In other words, women who do not want, enjoy or desire penetration of their vaginas by a penis, object or fingers are not sexually dysfunctional, frigid or experiencing vaginismus. Women are not passive sexual commodities, but this is what culture consistently promotes by telling women they have now achieved sexual liberation and autonomy, but only as long as they continue to put men's sexual pleasure first, second and last.

There are many excellent books written by feminist women which challenge the dominant view of women's sexualities, and a good place to start is with reading Gina Ogden's book Women who love sex. Even the title is provocative. Alternatively, investigate Scarleteen. Corinna has over 10 years' experience as a sex education expert and she presents sexuality not as one wherein one partner is always dominant and the other submissive, but instead promotes the view human sexual expression is about egalitarian expression and respect for the other partner's bodily rights. This includes women's sexualities and no wonder Corinna is regarded as a 'dangerous radical'. After all women's sexualities are dangerous and must always be defined from the male perspective which simultaneously controls and constrains women, unlike men.

Given that female sexuality in particular is a highly charged political subject, I am not advocating all women should refrain from penetration, whether it is via a penis or an object. Rather I am promoting a more pluralistic approach to women's sexualities and expression. Yes, some women do like and enjoy being penetrated by a man, but others do not. The problem is such women are pathologised. They are not real women, they are frigid, sexually dysfunctional or supposedly suffering from vaginismus. I am advocating women's right of sexual autonomy and the right for all women to own their bodies and not have their diverse sexualities defined by and for men's pleasure. We must promote a more pluralistic and egalitarian view of both female and male sexualities. But how this can be promoted is the subject of yet another article!

About the author

Jennifer Drew

Jennifer Drew is a 'pesky radical' who strives never to be silenced or stereotyped. Having just completed a degree in women's studies, she is trying to find suitable employment which will use her knowledge and skills effectively. Whilst looking, she will continue being a 'pesky radical'

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