The topic of female sexuality is so diverse and complex that a single page of information could never do it justice. It is, however, extremely important for men and women to have access to truthful and honest information about female sexuality and to create the opportunity for open and healthy conversations on the topic. Female sexuality has been minimized, misunderstood, and mislabeled for far too long and my wish is that women everywhere will grow up feeling happy about their sexuality, proud in their bodies, and celebrating their capacity for pleasure and life.
First, let me say that female sexuality is deeper and more complex than male sexuality – sorry guys but it’s true. As recounted by Hesiod in Greek mythology, the prophet Tiresias had the opportunity to live both as a man and also seven years as a woman. During a dispute between Zeus and his wife Hera, he was asked who enjoyed sex more men or women? His answer was "Of ten parts a man enjoys one only.", implying that women had much greater pleasure from sex than men.
We know that women proceed through sexual arousal, plateau, and orgasm slightly differently than men. Because women’s brains are much more attentive to details, women are more easily distracted from arousal prior to and during sex itself. On average, it takes women four times as long to reach orgasm than men and it usually requires some type of clitoral stimulation. The amazing thing for women is that they do not have a refractory period as men do. They can continue in a high state of arousal after their first orgasm and continue on to have two or more orgasms anytime. For some people, this can be anxiety provoking because it seems as though women’s sexuality is insatiable. In reality, a woman can feel very satisfied – sometimes even without reaching orgasm – just from the pleasure of sexual contact. Of course, she will decide when she is satisfied!
Another interesting fact about women’s sexuality is that sexual desire does not always come before actual sexual arousal. This means that many women will actually not experience a strong desire to have sex unless they are experiencing some level of pleasurable physical stimulation – kissing, stroking, holding, etc. Many women feel that there must be something wrong with them because of an expectation that they would have or be aware of sexual desire, just like men. The truth is they are perfectly normal. This does suggest, however, that instead of approaching sex with their partner negatively, they might have more satisfaction if they are willing to be open to possibility of sex after having some kissing and caressing. Obviously, it is always helpful if their partner is aware of this fact too.
Female sexuality is affected by many different things and changes over time with life experiences and with hormone changes. When a girl is an adolescent, she may feel excitement and tingling when she has her menstrual period because the tissues are engorged with blood and very responsive. Other girls, however, may not have such awareness of their inner sensations. The way that a woman experiences sex as a young adult may actually grow more intense as she gets older and has more awareness of her body and her body’s responses in sex. Masturbation, which is a natural phenomenon for both men and women at every age, is often very helpful for a woman to discover what brings her pleasure. If she is able to give herself pleasure through masturbation, she has a better chance of teaching her future partner what gives her pleasure and increase the chance of reaching orgasm with her partner.
One very important thing for women everywhere to know is that sex never has to hurt – not even the first time! Too many times I have seen women who approach their first experience with so much anxiety that their bodies cannot fully relax into sexual arousal and lubrication simply because their expectations about their first time are so negative. Factors that work towards having a good first sexual experience are having plenty of foreplay ahead of time, being with someone that you trust and feel relaxed with, not being rushed, not doing it just because you think you need to get it over with, and feeling very happy and excited to be doing it. If you don’t have those factors in place, it could take away from the experience and make it more difficult to get fully aroused and into the moment.
Hormones also can affect a woman’s sexuality considerably. Hormonal changes after pregnancy, for example, are quite abrupt and noticeable and can interfere with both desire and physical sensation until the hormones balance out again. Similarly, hormonal changes in menopause can be quite significant for many women and some find that it interferes with their pleasure and ability to enjoy sex. There are options for most women to have either local hormonal replacement (just in the vagina) or systemic hormone replacement (the entire body – like a patch or gel).
A note of caution to women on hormonal birth control or thinking about starting hormonal birth control. Since hormonal birth control introduces synthetic hormones that are meant to suppress ovulation, this can result in the lowering of free testosterone enough to interfere with their libido or even result in painful sex. Not every woman responds to hormonal birth control the same way and there are significant long-term side effects to consider. For many, hormonal birth control gives them a sense of freedom to relax and focus just on their partner. It is important that each woman understand the risks to her, the benefits to her, and make an educated decision for herself.
Lastly, I want to briefly mention pornography. Porn is not inherently bad, but is often used in an unbalanced way. Many people are turning to porn as an indication of what sex should be like. I want to stress the point that porn presents an unrealistic view of what sex is like, what natural bodies are like, and what sexual behavior is like. It is created for dramatic affect and presents sex without its complexities or subtleties. It can be very arousing, shocking, or enticing, but it doesn’t present the whole picture. Instead, I encourage you to have healthy conversations regarding female sexuality with your mothers, your daughters, your spouses, your doctors, your sisters, and your friends. I believe that if we continue to have the conversations, the attitudes towards female sexuality will continue to blossom and improve, resulting in more fulfilling sex lives for women (and men) everywhere.