Published in the Fall 2004 issue • Body Politics
It ain’t so scary down there
You’ve seen the images more than once: the perfectly coiffed hair, the makeup artfully applied and unsmudged, the pink/black/red underwire bra (like anyone can actually sleep in one of those). Her head rolls around the pillow (the hair does not move), and hands clasp amid the carefully draped sheets. A fine layer of sweat (which looks like more artfully applied makeup) catches the glow of the fireplace/hundreds of candles, and the soundtrack is groaning and moaning. This goes on for several minutes and, with a final gasp (mutual, of course), the love scene is over.
Is this how it really is? This may seem dreamlike and wonderfully romantic, but sex rarely comes close to that in real life. For those of you who have had a sexual encounter of the novice kind (which for most of us means the first, second or third time), real life looks somewhat different. Arms and elbows get in the way, there may be more clothing than an underwire bra (or less!), and the moans and groans are usually muffled to prevent parents or siblings from hearing what’s going on. These early sexual encounters are as different from TV and movies as our bodies are from those on the cover of Vogue magazine.
Although women desire and enjoy sex as much as men do, many young women don’t have a pleasurable first time and are left thinking, “Is this all there is?” For some, the first sexual encounter is not of one’s own choosing and the young woman may be forced to participate. For others, there is pressure to be like everyone else, who seem to be doing it, even if they’re really not. If the desire to get it over with is very powerful, then the person does just that: she grits her teeth and gets it over with. It is probably the minority who wait for the right person at the right time in the right circumstances, and for whom the end result is enjoyable.
So why is sex often not enjoyable for young women? I believe there are multiple reasons. One is that most of the messages young people receive about sex are negative. Becoming sexually active is seen to be inherently dangerous, as it could result in pregnancy or disease. This is true. However, these negative messages raise an important question: if sex is so dangerous, how can it be something that is also seen to be a part of healthy adult life?
Another reason is that most young people do not hear from anyone (parents, teachers, sex educators) that sex with another caring human being is exciting, pleasurable, comforting and funny. As a society we use sex to sell cars, clothing and alcohol, but we are really bad at talking about it honestly and openly with young people.
Yet another reason is that as women, we do not know our own bodies very well. How many of you have taken a mirror and had a really good look “down there”? Even the words we use for that part of our anatomy are often incorrect. Most of you were probably taught by your parents that you have a vagina, and have used that term to describe your genitalia. But there are many different parts to the female anatomy and they all have their own names: clitoris, vulva, labia, vagina, introitus, and mons pubis.
The whole issue of naming is linked to the fact that the scientific world has neglected the female genitalia. It is only recently that we have become aware that the clitoris is much more than a small nubbin of sensitive tissue. That tissue extends from the clitoris in the front all the way to the entrance to the vagina (the introitus) in two large wings under the skin of the vulva. A researcher in British Columbia has started (yes, started!) to map out the nerve supply to the female pelvis and genitalia - this work has never been done.
Before you can expect someone else to know what feels good to you, you need to know for yourself. Self pleasuring (or masturbation) is a safe way for you to get to know your own body and what feels good. This may be enough for many of you, and you can use this to help you fall asleep at night, to comfort yourself when you feel stressed, or just because your own powerful body can do amazing things! It helps to be able to tell your partner what you like and to know the words so that you can communicate effectively.
In a perfect world, sex would be free from disease and negative consequences. We would have to make a conscious decision to have a baby, and every sexual encounter would make the earth move and leave us feeling good about ourselves and our place in that world. Reality is different, and for almost all of us, sex occurs with messed-up hair, no makeup and real sweat. Life is not TV or the movies or magazines. It is about communication, feelings and liking and knowing yourself. So get out that mirror and have a look at your body.