The over-riding notion has always been men enjoy sex, while women endure it. A comprehensive analysis of 33 studies over an 80 year period has shown that only 25% of women consistently orgasm during vaginal intercourse. Around half of women sometimes orgasm; 20% seldom do; and 5% of participants never orgasm.
Put another way, the next time you have lunch with three of your (straight) friends, only one of you will be satisfying other appetites.
Movements like #metoo and #timesup have seen women raising their voices. In the wake of being assured its ok to say no, a wave of TV programmes and adverts is now normalising us saying yes, yes, YES!
But, like the archetypal “good girl” in every film aimed at me as a teen, these things don’t move fast. Soon after starting high school in 1991 I told my mum that homework was wank. My older brother gave me a clue I might have messed up when he fell on the floor gasping with laughter, but such was the shame around masturbation that it was a couple more years before I fully understood what I’d said.
Still then it felt like masturbation was for boys alone – even the insult “wanker” seems to only ever be thrown at men.
Three decades later we can watch the character Beck (from Netflix series You) masturbate in full view of the street outside and it seems fair to assume that the acceptability of women wanking has come a long way since my verbal fumble in 1991.
Joining Beck in a crop of happy-to-get-their-own-rocks-off-sexually-liberated-female-characters is ditzy teen Aimee Gibbs from Netflix series Sex Education. Students at shiny fictional high school Moordale, Otis and Maeve, have set up a sex clinic to give teenagers advice about their sex lives. It’s to them that Aimee turns when her new boyfriend asks her what she wants. I’m two decades past the hormonal tornado of teen lust but Aimee’s confusion suggests that male pleasure remains a priority amongst Generation Z. It therefore feels like liberation when Aimee peppily responds to Otis’s advice with, “so you’re prescribing a wank?”
Even better than her comfort with the word though, is the version of wanking that comes next.
Google “female masturbation” (please don’t btw, I took that bullet already) and you’ll find a series of identikit white women lying on their backs, leg spread, labias pointing directly at the camera lens. Some appear to be cuddling lamppost-proportioned dildos. The images seem to have very little to do with female pleasure, and a lot to do with the male gaze. In the face of this portrayal of masturbation, Aimee’s wanking is gloriously disruptive – and accurate.
It starts with the cliched drift of Aimee’s fingertips tracing a line down her body. Seemingly unsure of what to do she echoes the filmic tropes of gently edging beneath her “Monday” underwear before she hesitates and stops. Not to be defeated, she tries again, retreats once more, but on the third occasion she hits the spot. A cushion-humping, pillow-biting, furniture-grinding, grunting and groaning frenzy follows and it appears to last all night. The next morning she greets Otis with a slack-jawed smile and tells him, “I’ve been wanking all night… I think my clit might drop off. But I know exactly what I want.”
It becomes even clearer that a movement has momentum when brands jump aboard. Sneaking in under the duvet following Gilette’s suggestion that men could be better, Durex have now released an ad suggesting when it comes to sex, women can have better. For the first time (!) one of their campaigns focuses on female pleasure, featuring a montage of women challenging archaic attitudes towards their bodies, life choices and equal rights. This all comes screeching to a stop however when a woman asks, Why do we put up with uncomfortable sex?
It’s a good question – why do we?
In the 1800s women who expressed a sexual appetite were often diagnosed with a medical condition known as Hysteria which saw many women imprisoned and forcibly sterilised. More recently women and girls only have to appear to be sexual to be subjected to slurs designed to shame and control us.
It’s no great leap to conclude that women put up with bad sex because we’ve been told we shouldn’t enjoy it anyway.
Durex claim that their ad – dubious tagline, Ladies, let’s lube – has been developed to give women “the inspiration, knowledge, tools and product to enjoy sex without compromise”. Perhaps they are simply cashing in with no real commitment to the cause, but there is another part of me that welcomes any opportunity to have this conversation.
It’s debatable how far the fight for gender-equality has come – the answer usually depends on who you ask – but it’s safe to say that heterosexual sex is still hopelessly one-sided. Men expect to climax during vaginal intercourse, most women don’t; “pump and dump” sex, devoid of nuance and intimacy, dominates easily-accessible online porn; sex has always been about male gratification.
To suggest that Aimee, her sensitive boyfriend Steve, and the Durex ad can succeed where 50 years of feminism has failed would be an extreme case of premature celebration, but in a month that has seen us discover even more about the secretive power men have imposed on women’s bodies, it feels good to be taking back control.