(Please note: as this blog is concerned with biological qualities of genitalia mostly known as “female,” I will be using the basic binary categories of “male/female” with regard to sex – not gender – and terms “woman/man” in the average cisgendered manner, when it seems simpler to do so. Even so, the gender neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir” are incorporated into this article as well. I realize too little is known about the sexual responses of people with a wider variety of sex characteristics, which – for all we know – could possibly include variations in the muscle responses currently assigned to male and female categories, below. We need more research!)
Many (if not most) people with female genitals have known the disheartening frustration of being with a lover who somehow falls out of sync close to the moments of orgasm. The lover may change hir stroke, pressure, rhythm, or in some cases may even remove the intimate touch that is working so well, thinking that the inevitable is about to happen – and surely will happen – needing no more help from hir. And of course what happens when the touch changes is usually nothing. The approach to orgasm is typically interrupted for the person with biological female genitals and ze then drops back into what Masters and Johnson first dubbed the “plateau stage” of the sexual response cycle. The considerate lover or the proactive female hirself must then take matters in hand and begin to build excitement all over again – or else ze suffers various forms of resentment, resignation, or simple erotic frustration.
“Women take a long time to cum.” It’s a concept deeply embedded in our Western notions of sexuality. But why is it that “look, Ma, no hands!” works for those with a biological penis at the “point of no return” but not for those possessing a gloriously complex clitoral structure? Is it really something about Mary?
Well, yes, actually. And yes, something else too… But before we get into that, let’s turn our gaze to one of the most brilliant and least regarded sex research pioneers of the last century, Mary Jane Sherfey (1918-1983). Sherfey died just as American women finally blasted into outer space, but what I really deplore is that she missed the age of blogging. If there’s any sexologist’s ghost that I’d be willing to channel on a dark and stormy night, it would be Sherfey. Of course I’m not alone in my admiration. Sherfey has influenced early pioneers of the feminist women’s health movement, such as Suzann Gage and the other women who co-authored A New View of a Woman’s Body (1991, Federation of Feminist Women’s Health Centers). Authors such as Rebecca Chalker, of The Clitoral Truth, are solid Sherfey fans. Others may give Sherfey a nod (and a wink?) but seldom address her depth. The authors of Sex at Dawn cite her, but inadequately, considering that Sex at Dawn is exactly what Sherfey was getting at! As for me, I first learned of Sherfey from Ed Brecher’s book, The Sex Researchers, as she was lumped into one little chapter with the rest of the women (I hate it when they do that…). Even based on Brecher’s brief account, I could not rest until I tracked down her work: The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality. The rest, as we say, is mystery…
Fast forward to the present, where we inhabit a swirling internet world of “sexperts,” sexologists, sex therapists, romance advice divas, blissful tantrikas, and snarky bloggers – all jockeying for position like diphallic terata in a too small pair of shorts. And yet the reams of advice written to the luckless female who didn’t quite cum, and to those who profess to love her (hir), must by now wrap around the earth three times or stretch to the moon and back. “Give plenty of clitoral stimulation”, “don’t miss the g-spot,” and when all else fails (or before it does), just make your vibrator your own best friend. These are all good things to consider and do, but does anyone ever ask “why?”
You know what? Sexologists forgot there was a “why.” And so we forgot to tell people about it. And probably the reason we forgot about it is that Sherfey was one of the very few who scooped up an important fact and put it into context and so most of us never even knew it to begin with.
I felt compelled to research this question: what do people believe about the female bodied orgasm? It’s been an interesting inquiry. My recent, brief survey has yielded some fascinating results. I’ve finished data collection and begun to look at results. Even now the data appear to support my initial suspicion about a pervasive belief: namely, that many people believe that women have an orgasmic “point of no return” – as male bodies do – even if stimulation stops or changes, at least some of the time.
But according to Mary Jane Sherfey (The Nature & Evolution of Female Sexuality, pg. 108), this is physiologically impossible: “It must be recalled that all women must be stimulated continuously, especially during the plateau and orgasmic phases, or the level of sexual tension will drop almost instantaneously. It must be recalled that contrary to the male’s, the female’s muscles of orgasmic response will not continue to contract involuntarily; hence an orgasm may be interrupted at any point.”
In a side note at the bottom of the page, Sherfey also says: “The difference has not been explained. It would be interesting to determine if the same difference exists in animals, and if there is an actual difference in the neural end organs of the muscles or in the muscle fibers themselves.”
I attempted to find out more about these muscle fibers, but I suspect it will take an exhaustive search to uncover actual research, if any does exist. Meanwhile, we’ve got an interesting situation. Most of the people (n=164) who took my survey were highly educated and a great many of them have had formal training in human sexuality and are even practitioners in the field. Even so, an astounding 64% answered “sometimes true” to a question which read: “females have a “point of no return” when an orgasm is inevitable, even if stimulation stops.” (I will provide more results in a follow up blog.)
What in the world is going on? Here we’ve got reams of sex advice on the one hand, and our own lived experiences on the other, and yet somehow we believe that a person with female genitals – and the muscle responses to match – is capable – at least sometimes – of completing orgasmic response without continued stimulation. Could it be that we are still so heavily influenced by the male concept of hands-free, “it’s a cummin’ and thar ain’t nuthin I kin do about it!”, orgasmic response that we continue to apply those expectations to bodies which do not have pelvic muscles which work in that manner?
I do want to say that I am not male bashing here – I think it makes perfect sense to figure that if your body has muscles that work a certain way, that other people, even those with different genitalia, probably function similarly. After all, we’ve all been hearing for years that “female sexuality” is “just as good as” or “just as powerful as” “male sexuality” and that the complex structure of the clitoris was extensive and gosh darn it, worthy of as much respect and regard as a penis.
So – to restate my point – I think it’s reasonable that biological males, whose muscles contract involuntarily as orgasm appears inevitable, may feel – due to their familiarity with their own physical responses – that female bodies naturally do the same thing, somehow, somewhere, in the mysterious depths of impending orgasm. And because the average biological male in good sexual health usually finds that he can play around with changing sensations at the brink of orgasm – or even stop – he may also tend to switch gears, or back off slightly, or change something when he perceives that a biological female is about to tip over into orgasm. And then, whattaya know, all of a sudden it’s back to square two, if not one.
My survey results confirm the existence of this belief in the hands-off, female “point of no return” among cisgendered males and females. That women believe this is very interesting. There may have been one or two accomplished Tantrikas and sexual Taoists in my sample – women who cultivate interesting practices – but I haven’t teased them out of the data yet. I do know that we can do all kinds of wonderful things with our orgasmic potential – full body orgasms, multiple orgasms, creating a secret square inch of skin with incredible sensitivity, cumming by just thinking about it, using hypnotic suggestions for pleasure, even engaging in subtle body sex. I know it’s not all biology and body parts.
However, I think Mary Jane Sherfey’s research, and the results of my survey show us an important piece of neglected sex education – one that could help a lot of lovers, average people who might like to know just a little bit more about how to please themselves and others.