By Drew Darcy
Hurrah us, for we are frisky and free in the bedroom. Or so it seems at first blush. The second American Study of Health and Relationships, based on 20,000 telephone interviews, shows we’re increasingly relaxed and risqué between the sheets.
We play with toys and dress-ups and spice up our intimacy in ways that would give joy to the late Dr Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, the landmark 1972 illustrated sex manual that’s modelled on a recipe book.
Women are claiming to have had it off with more people than they did a decade ago. A sign, researchers say, that the old sexual double standard is crumbling.
One of the study’s investigators said the results suggest we’re “shifting towards a more feminist model of sexuality. Women’s needs are being met more readily or they’re more assertive about meeting their own needs.”
Much as I wanted to applaud this apparent progress, I sensed in the statistics a more complicated, less rosy, narrative.
Sure, more women are getting their rocks off without feeling the sting of shame or moral judgment. Yet nearly a quarter of them did not orgasm the last time they had sex, a strike rate that might be seen as encouraging except when you learn that figure has hardly budged in 10 years.
If the shoe was on the other foot and a quarter of all men were routinely deprived of satisfaction does anyone doubt there’d be rioting in the streets?
To further sour the picture, more girls are sexually active in their mid teens and nearly a quarter of women still experience sexual coercion.
Another statistic irritated like an itch at first and then seemed to epitomise, perhaps even explain, the partial, decidedly unfinished, nature of this “feminist model” of sexuality.
Less than half of all women aged between 16 and 69 said they had masturbated in the past year, and for girls aged between 16 and 19, the figure falls to 30 percent. By contrast, a resounding – and I suspect conservative – 76 per cent men engaged in self-pleasuring.
So nearly 45 years after Germaine Greer railed against the sexual repression of women in The Female Eunuch is this what passes for liberation?
Does this under-performance in onanism tally with women being more “assertive” about their sexual needs? How is a woman unpractised in self-love able to fully grasp what her needs are?
As young men, being all class, have turned masturbation into a team sport, women remain out of touch with their bodies.
They’re deprived of self-awareness, mere passengers in their own sex drive, dependent on men to sate their desire, lacking the tools – and not just of the battery-operated kind – for carnal self-sufficiency.
So forgive the inevitable puns — my fingers seem to be moving independently of me — as a topic, wanking is deadly serious.
In 1968 New York feminist Anne Koedt argued in her landmark essay “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” that long-standing beliefs about “frigidity” had allowed women to be manipulated to fit some paradigm of male sexual pleasure.
Thomas Laqueur, author of Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation, says second-wave feminists promoted masturbation as a way for women to reclaim and “own” their bodies. Alas, it appears women are still inclined to lease their bodies out.
Admittedly the problem is partly technical. While the male path to climax is as self-evident as a straight line, the female is likely to stumble on hers through sustained exploration coupled with a certain presence of mind. Some guidance can be helpful, but the very idea sparks moral panic.
Twenty years ago Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign as surgeon general of the US after she endorsed a suggestion at a United Nations conference on AIDS that masturbation is taught to young people to prevent them from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity.
President Bill Clinton said that her views on the subject reflected “differences with administration policy and my own convictions”. We could dwell on multiple ironies here.
In May a light-hearted app that teaches women how to masturbate was rejected from the Apple iTunes store. The app’s creators want to remove the stigma and shame from female autoeroticism. Apple deemed the app too much like porn.
As the mother of a daughter fast approaching her teens, I admit I’m warming to the idea of preaching abstinence as a response to the spectre of teenage sex.
But logic suggests we need to offer a seductive alternative to the lad whose nascent fantasies are shaped by the kind of soulless, male-centred porn that has deep market penetration.
Honestly, if we were really that liberated we’d be teaching teenage daughters how to enjoy their own company until they understand what respect and reciprocity in sex might entail.
Until they’re ready to be actors in their own sex lives as opposed to slavishly following someone else’s script.
Yes, this unbuttoned, sexually playful moment is worth celebrating. But as for a “feminist model” of sexuality, we haven’t come that far at all.