Sexual Revolution? For Whom?

As a couple therapist, I hear heterosexual women describe one-sided sexual contact with men all the time. By one-sided, I mean the focus is on male pleasure and the woman’s pleasure is either not attended to by the man or, sadly, is seen by both as a time-consuming effort that’s not worth the trouble.

I find this to be the case in one-off sexual encounters in hook-up culture, in casual pairings, as well as in more committed relationships.

In our sex-saturated Western culture, I find it fascinating and infuriating that, most of the time, I hear about lack-lustre sex – sex that is not pleasurable for the woman involved. I call it sex not worth having, for the woman, at least.

Can we begin with consent?

In this era of supposed sexual liberation, I hear so many instances where consent was often not negotiated, or where the woman’s reservations were ignored altogether. I hear many women tell me they don’t feel they can voice doubt, change their mind, or outright refuse to engage in sex.

Afterwards, women tell me they don’t want to be ‘that woman’ who makes false rape allegations. After all, they tell me, they didn’t say NO clearly enough, or early enough. I’m struck by how little weight they place on the in-the-moment pressure they experience from men’s persistence, the power differential of greater strength and gender power, as well as the power of millennia of women’s conditioning to hear men’s wishes and comply or acquiesce to them.

In addition, I am increasingly concerned by how frequently I hear about activities men expect women to participate in and women’s compliance. Commonly, these are activities that women:

  • only participate in because they think, and have learned, that they are what men expect and want
  • don’t feel able to refuse or negotiate for fear of losing the relationship
  • do not experience as pleasurable for them
  • find physically painful for them, such as anal sex, being hit/slapped/punched/insulted during sex, pinching, hair pulling, forceful face-fucking, physical restraint and choking
  • fear that voicing their objection to the activities, or changing their mind about participating in them, may lead to violence on the part of the male. If this is the case, many women tell me that past experience has taught them it’s easier to submit as a survival strategy

‘But they ask for it’

I hear and read accounts of men telling me that women ‘ask them’ to be choked, slapped, have their hair pulled, be called whores and sluts while engaging in sex.

I see this as evidence of how pervasively porn, and its handmaidens, women’s magazines and the film and fashion industry, have infiltrated women’s conditioning about what sex is, who owns their bodies, what is desirable, what place their pleasure has in any sexual contact with men. Women learn to perform sex and sexy with men as their principal currency of worth. These acts, from what women tell me, are far from what the women themselves find pleasurable, but they have learned to perform them as part of their efforts to appeal to their partners.

Over time, I observe that these acts frequently have a damaging cumulative impact on the women involved, on their self-esteem, confidence, and their relationship to their own body and sex.

Who carries the contraceptive burden?

When it comes to contraception and STI protection, again, I mostly hear it’s women who shoulder the weight of responsibility for this and who carry the consequences of failure. If they’re able to do so, many women are opting for the convenience of a 3-monthly injection which lowers some of the concerns about pregnancy.

When it comes to condoms in sex, the story becomes much more fraught, and inequalities between men and women are showcased.

For those women who choose to use condoms – either they reject hormonal contraceptives for any reason, and, of course, all those who desire to practise safe sex – most stories I hear are of men who expect to engage in penetrative sex but do not bring protection, and manoeuvre to not have to use them. If asked to wear a condom, many women report that men are mostly reluctant to use them, outright refusing, guilt-tripping or pressuring them to have sex without, citing that the condom is a barrier to their experience of pleasure. Women are often reluctant to push the issue, fearing damaging their standing in the man’s eyes. So, they gamble on STIs and risk pregnancy if they use no other contraceptive method.

When there’s an unplanned pregnancy or pregnancy risk, the stories I hear are of the woman, once again, taking action and bearing both the cost and the physical brunt of medical interventions to get rid of the unwanted pregnancy. Again, the inequality in sharing responsibility and impact are starkly showcased.

All this doesn’t add up to sexual liberation. It sounds more like sexual servitude. As a woman in my 60s who witnessed the so-called sexual revolution, this makes me incandescent with rage. What the hell happened to the ‘liberation’ part of that so-called revolution for women? It seemed to end with the liberation of the tyranny of unwanted pregnancy, once we got access to reliable contraception.

How did we get here?

While I recognise that women can contribute from the start to the one-sidedness of the deal in their encounters and relationships, it doesn’t stop there. It didn’t start there. The legal system, social norms going back thousands of years, and especially porn have all contributed.

Failures of the law

Under the law, until very recently,  consent has been deemed irrelevant. In rape or even potential murder cases, I read accounts of judges for whom consent by a woman can be deduced by her underwear, by the fact that she drank alcohol, that she was out at night and unaccompanied (by a male), that she flirted with or chatted to a man, that she accompanied a man in a cab, that she kissed a man, that she initially consented to some kind of erotic touching or some kind of sexual act. It seems that, anywhere along this spectrum, once a judge assumes consent, no woman is safe.

In effect, rapists and men who find negotiating consent onerous and a buzz-kill imposition on their fun are given a clear message by the legal system — you can act with impunity. Do whatever you want. The message from the legal system to rapists is: ‘we’re on your side and you’ll be fine’. The statistics on the outcome of rape trials that do get to court (being a minority of sexual assaults) attest to this.

It stems from the ages-long background of women as men’s goods and chattel, and men retaining all sexual privilege over women’s bodies. This leads to the framing that women have no right to state their boundaries and have them respected. And that by voicing her objection, she’s vindictive. It goes without saying in this frame that men need to be protected from such vindictiveness. Hey, presto! In an Orwellian tour-de-force, perpetrators are rebranded as victims.

Women turning on each other

I also read accounts of women accusing other women who speak out about non-consensual sexual experiences as being vindictive or trying to restore their self-image as good women by misrepresenting their own willing participation and harming innocent men in the process. ‘Regret isn’t rape’, they admonish. For these female rape apologists, defenders of the faith, consent is irrelevant. Their arguments usually sound very much like those of the judges. Again, perpetrators are turned into victims, and the issue of consent is drowned out under the diatribes about the need to protect innocent men from bad women.

The rest of the porn industry

We know that kids today get their ideas about sex and their first exposure to sexual images from porn. And it is at around 10 years of age.

I speak as a woman who has witnessed the change from porn being something that some boys and men accessed in a limited way, to its current proliferation. Today’s porn is a far cry from the centrefold in men’s magazines of the 1960s or 1970s. Porn changed from photos of models in risqué poses, first in swimsuits, then nude, then to increasingly sexually explicit positions. Porn then became part of the film industry in its own right — low budget films of the 1960s depicting sex scenes of various kinds, gradually morphed into larger budget films. 

The focus of porn moved from sex acts targeting a male gaze to incorporate different genres of porn, catering to an ever-expanding range of so-called ‘interests’. These included more and more violent images and acts, overwhelmingly carried out by men towards and against women they have sex with.

Today’s porn frames its offerings as sex as a game, what wild sex is, what wild women want, sexual violence as merely ‘rough play’ and, through it all, women being whatever men want.

Porn used to have to be sourced physically and often clandestinely, which restricted its circulation. Today, porn comes directly to one’s computer, making its reach far greater — a moment of curiosity is easily satisfied with a click of the mouse. We can buy subscriptions for a regular supply, and much porn is now free, making it even more accessible. Some of it comes to us without us needing to seek it out.

Unfortunately, as our lives are increasingly lived on screen, blurring the lines between reality and the imaginary, it becomes harder for people to critically appraise what they are dealing with. The representation on screen is easily presented as ‘real’ and these messages become embedded in our psyche as normative—the new normal.

Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose—this new normal, the core message, is basically the reinforcement of centuries of male sexual privilege and entitlement around access, pleasure and responsibility.

Magazines for women and teens, and the media, reinforce the core messages in porn with their incessant focus on women looking and acting sexy (for a male audience), and normalising ideas that women’s primary focus in sex is to maximise the man’s pleasure. While women’s magazines concentrate on communication and relationships, a core message to women is that attending to men’s sexual privilege is central to their role in the relationship. From looking sexy to servicing men through sex as performance is the take-home message.

If we accept the fact that men and women learn about sex from porn these days, we need to examine what it is that’s being taught. Unlike our computers today, our brains do not have virus or spam filters, so we need to consciously consider and critically appraise what we are consuming. Otherwise, to stay with an IT metaphor, garbage in, garbage out. Without critical reflection, we can forget that what happens on screen is not necessarily what happens, or even what we want to happen, in real life and lived relationships.

From there, that privilege leads to sexual pleasure inequality, to blindness and insensitivity on the part of men towards women’s needs, if not outright indifference and callousness (depending on the porn). It’s all a short step to cruelty and exploitation.

Assumptions and behaviours taught by porn

Please, or lack of

  1. Men’s right to sex is and should be both participants’ priority. Men are taught to expect to get sexually pleasured as their right. This teaches men and women alike to ‘make sure he orgasms every time’. Women are told we have to ‘please our man’ from childhood. That training, reinforced by porn, fixates on doing whatever it takes (read, whatever he wants) to achieve the goal: his orgasm
  2. Whatever the man wants is what ‘should’ be satisfaying for the woman. When he’s done, she should be satisfied with that and not want or expect anything for her own pleasure
  3. Men don’t have to think about what pleasures their female partner. The fact they own a penis is all they need to think about. In much porn, the woman is represented as grateful for his using his penis with her. Just having penetration is shown as being fulfiling for her, against ALL research to the contrary for most women in real life
  4. Pain for women is normal in sex. It’s normal for women to cry in sex

Consent, or lack thereof

  1. In porn, sex is a commodity and consent is irrelevant. There’s no asking and no negotiation. Men have the right to ‘have’ sex — when they want, how they want, with whom they want,.And using whatever means (including lying, entrapment and violence) to ‘get’ it
  2. Rape is rebranded as part of so-called wild or rough sex. A woman’s non-consent may be represented as a tease, or her way of really egging him on to demonstrate his masculinity. In this context, this frame presents a narrative where the woman cannot, and will not, withdraw consent because consent is both irrelevant and assumed by virtue of her being female
  3. Refusing to take no for an answer is part of the chase, of the man’s seduction/conquest of the woman, and a necessary part of the ‘game’. It might also be used in the narrative as a waystation to the woman realising that she was wrong, prudish or inexperienced in refusing, and then being ‘grateful’ to have experienced rape. In porn, a woman always wants sex—lots of sex with lots of men
  4. The rougher the sex, the more a man proves his masculinity. Male violence towards a woman involving restraint, choking, hitting, degradation, spitting, hair pulling are all rebranded and glamourised as non-vanilla, more ‘risqué’ sex — what real, masculine men and what liberated, wild women ‘really want’. These acts to hurt another, degrade them, and control them, including, sometimes, even the woman’s death, have lasting negative impacts but are rebranded as exciting, not violent and a normal part of heterosexual sex

Consequences and responsibility, or lack thereof

  1. Sex in porn is free of responsibility. And free of consequences. There’s no duty of care. Just as with the absence of consent, there is never any need to discuss contraception or safe sex
  2. Women do not have body autonomy or the right to set boundaries, or have them respected. There are no issues of enduring vulnerability or trauma trigger risk factors. There are no after-the-fact consequences to any sexual activity such as a partner being left traumatised, physically injured, or with unplanned pregnancy or STIs
  3. Whatever happens in sex is fun and has no damaging consequences. Even in snuff films, the focus is on the man’s pleasure and his titillation from absolute control. The woman’s death is incidental to the main act
  4. Fantasies can and should be acted out
  5. When porn is focused on underage targets, what is child sexual abuse becomes rebranded as ‘sex with teens’ (obscuring the fact they are still minors) and is seen as good, satisfying, and something the underage targets want too
  6. Sex is completely abstracted from relationship. In mere moments, strangers are shown as wildly engaged in various sex acts including, increasingly, violence towards the woman

So porn is telling us …

Key frames about sex in porn that are ‘givens’ include the following:

  1. Great sex is, or should be without boundaries — ‘anything goes’ In porn, a boundary is only there to be crossed. The corollary is that anyone who wants boundaries in sex is a prude, not fun, controlling, and needs educating
  2. Sex is a game, sex is inconsequential and divorced from responsibility. Sex is a chase, a conquest, an adventure
  3. Sex that is ‘wild’, ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ is particularly sought after and glamourised
  4. Conventional sex, ‘vanilla’ sex, is boring. Anything involving a relationship, time, consent, mutuality, and boundaries is not worth having
  5. Sex should be fast — do it, move on. Slow sex is boring, a chore, an unwanted effort

These core lessons from porn infiltrate our collective psyche and gradually become internalised by more and more people as normative. Any hope of change depends on our consciously examining these core teachings and how they shape sexual relations between men and women, and how men and women regard women’s bodies.  The hope of a real sexual revolution depends on it.

Things we need to understand

Consent and pleasure first and foremost

It is important to acknowledge that some women choose to explore various kinds of restraint and control in their sexual contact. This is often found in the realm of what is loosely termed the kink and BDSM communities. I notice the care members of these communities take to negotiate the terms of their sexual engagement. Consent is central to their sexual practice. So is pleasure.

In these communities, negotiation about consent is central to all parties’ pleasure and safety. The risks, emotional and physical, are recognised. This community recognises that power, pleasure and safety around boundaries need to be negotiated constantly, with a view to all proceedings ceasing at a moment’s notice if either party withdraws consent. Unlike the judges I cited earlier, this community recognises that consent is a dynamic, changing, fluid agreement and grounded in respectful relationship.

Overall, however, at the risk of sounding like a conservative old woman, I bear witness to the damage that normalising so-called rough sex is doing to women outside of the kink community. Removed from active normative practices of respect and safety, communication, negotiated consent, boundaries, and the pursuit of pleasure equality for all, such practices are nothing short of abusive, exploitative and damaging.

Sexual pleasure equality – true sexual revolution

Porn frames (real) sex between men and women as sexual penetration of some kind by a penis — vaginal, oral, anal. This kind of activity is the only focus of porn between men and women. Everything else – if it happens at all – is ‘foreplay’. Touching, stroking, talking, kissing is secondary to the main action of penetration sex.

Similarly, in our own everyday conversations about sex, when we refer to ‘foreplay’ in this way, we buy into this terribly limited view sex. When we don’t challenge this framing, we reinforce it.

It’s no longer enough for us to dismiss men’s continued refusal to attend to the sexual pleasure of their partners as ignorance.

It’s time for men to challenge other men in their pleasure privilege and the inequality it perpetuates. Time for men (as well as women) to challenge men on this privileged position that conveniently ignores the woman partner’s desires. Time for men to call out the male sexually entitled position for what it is. And work with women to change that norm. If we’re after sexual pleasure, and we want true equality in this arena too, then both parties need to talk about how to achieve that.

How do we do that?

If real sexual pleasure for all parties is what we’re after when we talk about a sexual revolution, then EVERYTHING we do, in and out of bed, is sex. Let’s stop referring to ‘foreplay’ — it’s not ‘fore’ anything. It’s sex. Let’s take the pursuit of consensual pleasure equality seriously. 

Let’s also consider consent, boundaries and body autonomy, shared responsibility for contraception and health/safe sex, as foundational aspects of a true sexual revolution. Such a frame insists that there cannot be pleasure without responsibility. Such a frame necessarily involves a mindset that holds in mind each person’s needs, vulnerabilities, preferences and boundaries, and embraces the need to work out negotiated consent over time.

We are, after all, in the 21st century.

So, ask yourself, in your own sexual relationships, some questions.

On consent

  1. Do you think about consent? Do you openly discuss what each of you wants in any one sexual encounter? Do you openly say what your boundaries are?
  2. If you do negotiate consent consciously, do you monitor whether it has changed over the course of a sexual encounter or do you tend to assume it’s a given if you both said yes to sex initially?
  3. If you don’t negotiate sexual consent consciously, how do you decide that it’s okay to proceed sexually? How do you decide about your own ‘fitness to proceed’? How do you decide if the other is ‘fit to proceed’?
  4. Have you ever felt some doubt about either your or the other person’s fitness to proceed with sex? What did you do? Did you go ahead with sex? If you did, did it occur to you to stop? If not, what stopped you?
  5. How confident are you that you pick up on your partner’s cues that they are reluctant to proceed with a sexual activity? Do you pause and check out what’s going on for them if/when you do? If not, what’s in the way of doing so for you?
  6. How confident are you about changing your mind and saying you withdraw consent, or wish to modify it? What’s in the way of doing so for you, if anything?
  7. How is it for you if the other withdraws consent, or asks to modify it? How do you deal with it if/ when it happens?

On shared assumptions

  1. Do you know and share the assumptions you have about men/women and sex? About what you assume is normative? Do you ask partners about their assumptions around sex and what’s normative in their mind?
  2. If you find differences arise in what you each consider normative, how do you deal with this? Do you ignore it, raise it, investigate implications for safe consensual sex?
  3. Have you participated in anything sexually that you now regret? What do you wish you could have done differently? Do you think you would act differently now?

On responsibility and pleasure equality

  1. Do you raise issues of contraception, STI risk, and safe sex practices? If no, why not? What gets in the way? If you do, how do you negotiate responsibility around these issues? How good and consistent are you at raising these issues and negotiating them in a sexual encounter or relationship?
  2. How open are you about asking for what gives you pleasure sexually? Does anything get in the way of your being open?
  3. How do you find out what gives your partner pleasure sexually? If they seem hesitant about answering, do you demonstrate to them that you really want to know? How?
  4. How confident are you about saying no to another person’s request for sexual activity? Does anything get in the way of standing by your own boundaries?
  5. Is there anything you currently still do in sexual encounters that you now realise is either not good for them, or is not good for you? What would you need to start doing, or stop doing, in order for that to change? What risk (for you) would that require you to take?
  6. If you started to address sexual pleasure inequality in your life, what steps would you start to take in order to move your sexual encounters in that direction?

If this piece speaks to your experience and speaks to what you think you’d like to change in your life or your relationship, and you think you would benefit from my assistance in addressing these issues and bringing about the change you want, call me.