A Kolkata-based 31- year-old marketing professional confesses that she no longer enjoys sex. Part of the reason is that things are monotonous with her husband, whose libido is more than her own; it even gets annoying for her, she says, adding that there is a sameness to the routine that makes it hard to look forward to.
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Her dilemma might echo with a lot of us, especially women. Body dysmorphia often comes in the way of intimacy and pleasure. And this is only one of the hurdles women face when it comes to intercourse. There are also societal and familial norms that influence women’s enjoyment of sex. “There are norms on how women, in general, are supposed to behave in terms of sex and pleasure and that in itself can lead to an inherent sense of shame associated with sex,” says Divisha Singh, a Delhi-based psychotherapist and sex therapist.
The year, the theme of World Sexual Health Month, observed every September, is ‘Let’s Talk Pleasure’,” and the focus is on what couples can do to help women enjoy sexual intercourse and intimacy.
Most men orgasm during penetrative sex while less than 50% of women do so, leading to the outdated myth that women aren’t hard-wired to seek sex as a pleasurable experience in itself. This can unfortunately end up limiting the female sexual experience. From a scientific perspective, women are more than capable of enjoying sex – the tip of the clitoris has more than 8,000 nerve endings, double that of the head of the penis.
“Science has proven that women can experience multiple orgasms during intercourse. Hence, nature hasn’t discriminated at all,” says Dr Rajan Bhonsle, a Mumbai-based consultant in sexual medicine. Part of the problem, he points out, is, not surprisingly, the patriarchal foundation of most societies.
Sachee Malhotra, the founder of the intimate wellness brand That Sassy Thing, agrees with Bhonsle. Women have, over the years, been deprived of spaces, resources and conversations around what pleasure may truly mean for them. “This may include being shamed for dressing a certain way, bullied for engaging in relationships with the ‘opposite gender’, forced into arranged marriages and only having sex for procreation,” she says.
Throw in the fact that women are often conditioned to believe that sex is just a way to satisfy their intimate partner’s needs, and you have a very unilateral perception of sex, she adds. “When you don’t have a roadmap to what sex might mean for you, how do you navigate pleasure, fun or enjoyment during sex?” she says.
Singh points out that the orgasm gap is particularly pronounced in cultures where virginity is tied to purity and where people believe that a woman’s dignity lies between her legs. When the prevailing narrative around female sexuality is that of a shy, fragile creature blushing and running away at the mention of sex, you perpetuate the myth that pleasure is the prerogative of the man. She adds that when sex is seen as something that men are supposed to initiate with women passively participating, a stereotype reinforced through myth and pop culture, the right to make a choice and ask for what you want is often taken away for women.
“The dos and don’ts are defined in a way that you’re either a slut or a prude,” says Malhotra. “All this and more affects the psyche of women from a rather young age as internalized shame sets in and you end up judging yourself more,” she says.
Clearly, sex needs to be seen as a mutually pleasurable act between two enthusiastic, consenting partners. Dr Bhonsle agrees that both partners need to put in equal effort to understand each others’ sexual needs and desires. “If the man’s attitude is, ‘I reached my climax and now I don’t care about what happens to you,’ then the woman won’t be able to sustain her interest for too long,” he says, pointing out that the male partner needs to put in extra effort to ensure that the woman orgasms too.
What also needs to change is the way we consume information about sex. Mainstream pornography, for instance, is highly problematic as it is made for men and by men with a complete focus on male pleasure. While admittedly, there are people being more mindful of female pleasure and creating ethical, feminist porn, the reality is that it is still relatively niche. Unfortunately, the reality is that many people continue to rely on mainstream porn to educate themselves about sex, points out Malhotra. “Porn determines what’s right or wrong, there’s no reliability, and often harmful misinformation can be truly detrimental to our understanding of pleasure and intimacy,” he says.
And yes, sex education will go a long way towards helping partners understand how sex can be pleasurable and how many problems can be solved by communication. “It can help them explore and understand their and the partner’s body better and how they can make the process enjoyable for both,” says Singh, adding that it can also bring forth concerns that may not have been addressed earlier, such as sex-related shame.
“It can also teach women how important it is to know and explore their bodies and how an open and honest conversation about what they like (and dislike) and how they like with their partners can help them enjoy the process better together,” she adds.
Some handy tips for couples to ensure equal pleasure during sexual intercourse
Courtesy Dr Bhonsle
Consult a specialist and read books or literature before marriage and educate yourself about equity in sexual relationships.
Explore each other’s bodies
Couples need to understand and appreciate each other during sex, making space and time to explore each others’ bodies without any shame.
Talk about your needs and desires, spend quality time with each other. Men should acknowledge the lack of conversations around female pleasure and create a safe space for their partners to explore and express their needs, fantasies, desires, and preferences.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist