Authors of Our Bodies Ourselves
Women Who Love Sexby Gina Ogden, Denise Silvestro (Editor)
This book is thought-provoking and fills some interesting gaps in the literature. It expands the discourse on sex beyond physical "function" and "dysfunction" and Viagra jokes. It expands the discourse on relationship beyond Mars-Venus stereotypes. It expands the discourse on feminism to include the deeply regenerative power of pleasure. It expands the mind-body discourse to include the connections between sex and spirit.
Authors of Our Bodies Ourselves
- Atria Books
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Excerpt from Chapter 1
PORTRAIT OF A FEMINIST SEX RESEARCHER
Reports of the women in the research study, together with the variety of other women who love sex, have thrown into question some popular notions of sexual normality. These women may not represent all women the world over, but they do represent themselves, and show that there are healthy women whose positive sexual experiences do not fit the norms commonly assigned to sex. And although fifty, or even several hundred and fifty, is a relatively small number, it has been sufficient to change my thinking permanently.
I have been moved to ask just what it means when a behavior is called "sexual" for women. Does sexual mean genital? Coital? Physical? Orgasmic? In reporting overwhelmingly positive responses to extragenital stimulation, the women who love sex have led me to understand that the conventional view of sexuality is severely and needlessly limited. They have suggested that we can broaden our view of what is sexual to include a variety of stimulations that evoke responses of satisfaction, whether or not the stimulations center on the vulva, or lead to coitus or orgasm.
These reports have moved me to ask just what is meant for women by the terms sexual desire and satisfaction. What is meant by sexual function and dysfunction? Further, how-and by whom-are these defined and measured? In reporting a continuum of pleasure, orgasm, and ecstasy, the women have pointed out that physiological orgasm is too narrow a concept to hold as the criterion, or even the major criterion, of women's function and satisfaction. The women who love sex have suggested that we can broaden our definitions to include emotional and spiritual dimensions of the personality. They suggest that we can include the mind. Their words bespeak the power of self-evaluation and self-definition rather than evaluation and definition by others-partners, doctors, or researchers. They suggest that we take some of the findings of sexual science with a massive grain of salt, and that we discount the moralizing, nay-saying, maneuvering, and mixed messages imbedded in the culture.
Finally, and of prime importance, the responses voiced by these women who love sex have potential value for other women-as information, as role-modeling, as power, as hope. Until there can be open dialogue across the genders, it is necessary to honor women's need to gather positive context from other women in the time-honored way-word of mouth. Perhaps when enough stories are told from enough points of view, critical mass will be reached. Women who love sex will become a norm.
These are extraordinary stories of ordinary women who are seeking new ways to look at sexual relationships, enjoy them more, and incorporate them into their everyday lives.
Let's listen as the women speak for themselves. Excerpt from Chapter 2 ALICE-LUST AND CONNECTEDNESS
Alice is one of the clients who makes being a therapist both an honor and a delight. She walked into my office one day looking for help and by the time she walked out for the final time months later she had ended up teaching me as much as I had taught her. Maybe more. She appeared just as I had completed the extraordinary interviews with the original fifty women who love sex. She was a research librarian searching for information about herself, and working with her helped me begin to channel the floods of interview information into an orderly flow of ideas. Alice's story is here because it exemplifies so clearly the distinctions between the disconnections that accompany low sexual desire and the feelings of connectedness that are crucial to developing ease with one's sexuality.
Her opening words to me are the cry of a woman trying to save her marriage: "I've already been to sex therapy and it didn't work. I don't want to lose my husband just because it's no fun, you know, going to bed with him. We've been married nine years and I love him. We like living together. He's my security. He's my safety. And he's the father of my children."
Taking her at her word that this is a relationship worth fighting for, I ask what is it about the sex, and the former sex therapy, that hasn't worked?
She looks up briefly as she describes the Friday night coupling in bed that Frank requires. The set of her jaw and the darkness behind her pupils speak eloquently of her rage and humiliation. In a reedy, little girl's voice she complains of her lack of power to change the situation.
There is no detail of this coupling that Frank does not control (and in the next session he proudly corroborates her). "He likes the lights turned low, we have low lights. He likes me to wear black lace, I wear black lace. He likes consistency, we go at it every Friday night at 11."
These obligatory interactions always begin with Frank fumbling to unhook the "Friday night bra" that contain Alice's breasts. Dependable as the pony express, neither rain, sleet, nor gloom of night can stay him from his appointed rounds. Frank sets the rules, and sex for Alice means only one thing: intercourse, or "The Big I" as they have nicknamed it because it is difficult for either of them to say any explicitly sexual word without making a joke out of it
In one of our early sessions Alice states, "All of my life men have been saying: `This is the right way. Hurry up. You're on the wrong track.' And I've just this minute understood that that was because they operate like trains, going forward and back on a set track, and I've been trying to please them by staying on this single track even when it doesn't make any sense to me. I'm not like that. I think I'm more like a helicopter, which can go forward and back and sideways and up and down. My vision operates through 360 degrees. I want more than he does. I want more than The Big I. I want mobility and fun. I want a relationship in bed. I want to have The Big R." Excerpt from Chapter 3 MAYA-PLEASURE, ORGASM AND ECSTASY
I met Maya at a workshop in the Berkshires in December 1978 on the night of a full and frosty moon. She was, and now in her seventy-fifth year still is, one of the most sex-loving women I know. Sex-loving in the sense of welcoming joy in all her senses. On a scarf around her waist that night she sported a brass pendant that spelled in cut-out letters: TO HELL WITH HAPPINESS I WANT ECSTASY.
It was the kind of workshop where the procedure was to stand up and announce your sexual orientation (this was still the 70s; nowadays in groups people announce their addictions). We did the rounds of the room: "I'm heterosexual through and through." "I'm a full-blooded lesbian." "I'm bisexual-a three on the Kinsey Scale."1 When Maya stood to be counted, to the delight of all she called out loud and proud: "I'm trisexual-I'll try anything."
As part of my research, I resolve to ask her to help me make sense of some ideas precipitated by talking with Alice and other women who love sex. Were these ideas outlandish? Or were they eminently sensible, even groundbreaking? Who knew? There has been so little research focusing on how women perceive pleasurable sexual feelings that the ideas still felt slippery. I was unsure of how to assess them. What I did know is that when women described their peak sexual experiences, the language they used was quite unlike the language in the sexuality literature. The words may not have been so dramatically different, but the emphasis, the images they evoked, invited an entirely new look at the concept of sexual satisfaction. "Sexual ecstasy is about knowing," says Maya. "It's knowing that you're one with the sun and ocean and every blade of grass and pine needle. It's relaxing all over. It's joining the pulse of the universe. It's the feeling of being breathed. It's joy. It's letting go. That sphincter hold you have on life lets loose for a moment." Excerpt from Chapter 4 IRIS AND COMPANY-ADVENTURES BEYOND THE JADE GATE
In my interviews of easily orgasmic women, I asked each one a basic question about her sexual response-a basic question, but one virtually never explored in research: "Are you able to come to orgasm on extragenital stimulation only, without touching any part of your vulva?"
An astounding fifty-two percent of the women said "Yes."
Iris was one of these women. "I don't know where on my body I'm not orgasmic," she told me. "I think I need to be mapped."
Of all of the women who have talked with me about loving sex, Iris is among the most dedicated. Her sexuality, like Maya's, is a part of her spiritual growth, intricately woven together, like the threads of the many-colored poncho she wears. She is a sculptor, a family therapist, a mother of two adolescent boys, and an active member of the local school committee. She has been solidly married for sixteen years and knows how to make that kind of relationship work.
Like so many other women who love sex, Iris defies the textbooks. In this instance, the books she is defying are the ones that offer up the Homing Site theory of orgasm, the same theory that served to keep Alice and Frank locked for many years in a sexual stalemate. This is the notion that to excite a women to climax, a partner must zero in on clitoris, vagina, and G-Spot and never stray more than three or four inches from home base.
The extragenital routes to orgasm stray well beyond conventional paths. But if they are roads less traveled by, they are also powerful routes to pleasure and ecstasy, the whole whirling continuum of satisfaction described by Maya on her mountaintop overlooking the Pacific.
In searching for a way to encourage women to talk further about the taboo topic of sexual stimulation beyond the vulva, it occurred to me to form a discussion group of women who love sex. I ask Iris if she is willing to meet with several other women to talk about extragenital response. Rita, Rachael, Mary-Jo, Faith, and Tony are among those who had asserted that they could find sexual satisfaction on extragenital stimulation, and all are ready to tell their stories. Excerpt from Chapter 5 DR. SUZANNE- THINKING OFF AND OTHER THOUGHTS ON SEXUAL IMAGINATION
Orgasm without touch. Women who love sex say it's a possibility. Whether it is a solo treat or experienced in the presence of a partner, they say it feels like a gift from the Good Witch of the North, a magnificent event like being blown out of Kansas and into the Land of Oz. The clinical label is spontaneous orgasm, but Dr. Suzanne Adesta, a woman who particularly loves this aspect of sex, has offered up a more graphic name. "Doing it without hands?" she says. "I do it all the time. I call it thinking off."
Important as women's ability for orgasm without touch might be as a technique for safe sex, I could see that the implications went far beyond avoidance of physical diseases. To take seriously the fact that women can generate sexual satisfaction just by thinking about it challenges the myth-still amazingly current on the cusp of the twenty-first century-that a woman needs a man to give her orgasms or else she turns into a cranky, unfulfilled shrew. It challenges the most sacred tenet of sex research: the notion that sexual pleasure is centered in the genitals and depends on physical stimulation. It also challenges the norms of "politically correct" feminism, with its focus on the violent and destructive aspects of sex and its virtual denial of positive possibilities. If women are able to experience this degree of delight through playing with their own imaginations, it gives them the choice to experience sex without being victims of an invasive partner.
Searching the literature, I had found the references on spontaneous orgasm to be almost negligible. For instance, the Kinsey interviews reported that only two percent of their sample of women experienced orgasm on "fantasy alone." Hite found less than one percent. Masters and Johnson reported that not a single one of their research subjects was able to experience fantasy-stimulated orgasm in the laboratory.4 Yet of my original sample of women who love sex, a whopping sixty-four percent had said "Yes" in answer to the question: "Have you ever come to orgasm without any kind of touch?" In the years before and after I interviewed this research sample, other women stepped forth to offer a wide variety of anecdotal information.
Clearly, there was an irreconcilable discrepancy between the literature and the reports of these women who love sex. What could we do to explore it? How could we validate the stories of the women? A colleague turned to me and said: "I'll bet we can quantify your research in the lab."
"Why not?" I replied. Numbers talk. And in this instance, I felt computer-recorded data could help doubters believe that women really can do what they say they can do. My colleague had already devised much of the methodology we would need for laboratory research, as well as a terrifying array of equipment, such as blood pressure cuff, heart monitor and pupillometer which would deliver information from women's bodies to the computers All we had to do now was find the women. Excerpt from Chapter 6 MOLLY-SEXUAL NURTURING: THE DANCE OF GIVE AND TAKE
Molly introduced herself to me as a woman who especially loves the nurturing aspects of sexual relationship-cuddling and holding, closeness and concern, eye contact, whispered jokes, patting, plumping of pillows, indulging a partner's steaming appetites. A wide and comfortable being with a habit of running her hand through her flaming red hair, she exudes vitality from the vibrant colors she wears to the earthiness of her laugh. "I love to cook, I love to eat, I love to make love." she announced. "I love to be warm and make other people feel warm. I think I must have been a wood-burning stove in a former life."
Wood-burning stove does not seem far fetched, for Molly has a remarkable capacity to radiate both warmth and light. I met her at a conference in Minneapolis where we were both presenters on a panel, and when she first walked into the room I noticed that people turned their faces toward her, gravitated to her. When she listened, she listened from her heart; when she looked at me she seemed to touch the core. As I got to know her better I realized that putting out energy for other people actually seems to renew her own. Her ability to refuel herself is a crucial one to her as mother of two teenagers and director of a women's center.
Molly's message on the panel was about women taking care of themselves-a down-to-earth message and at the same time expansive and empowering. I was in the process of reassessing the interviews of easily orgasmic women, and since so many had said that nurturing was an essential ingredient of their peak sexual experiences, Molly seemed like an ideal person to consult. We met for dinner that evening to discuss some ideas about what sexual nurturing is and what it means to women.
"I think it means knowing how to get under someone else's skin while still staying zipped inside your own," she tells me when we settle in to talk. "I see sexual nurturing as a dance between two people. A complex, weaving dance of give and take."
She underscores that it begins with a solid, connected, empathic sense of self. "Otherwise," she says, "you end up feeling like a concubine with bound feet-and then you can't dance at all!" Molly flexes her red high-top sneakers as if in sisterhood with generations of hobbled Chinese wives. "The art of nurturing in bed means you have to honor your own needs as solidly as your partner's."
Excerpt from Chapter 7 ROSA-SLOUCHING TOWARD INTIMACY
Some women embrace intimacy, others lurch unsteadily toward it. Still others slouch toward it unwillingly, as the "rough beast" of Yeats's poem about revolution and chaos slouches to Bethlehem.1 But however chaotic the road to sexual intimacy may be, most women travel it at some time in their lives, for they crave understanding, closeness, and commitment with their partners. They crave tenderness and meaning, a sense of deep, ongoing spiritual connection. According to many of the women who love sex, these are essential ingredients of the passion that is such a necessary part of sexual ecstasy.
Of her own journey to intimacy, Rosa admits: "I had to drag myself into it kicking and screaming." This is the first time I have had an opportunity to talk with Rosa alone, but I feel I already know her even though I am not yet familiar with the details of her story. Friends have told me about her struggles over the years, as a woman, as an artist, and have related how inspired they have felt by her transformation. I have been privileged to witness her spirit through her paintings-voluptuous, shimmering canvases of animals inhabiting an Eden of giant leaves. At her latest show I sometimes felt as if I were in the presence of Kirlian photographs that record electrical energy, the auras of living beings. At the restaurant where we meet, Rosa stands in the doorway with a halo of sunlight around her, ethereal, reaching out her hand, about to speak.
She wasn't always the shining soul she appears to be now. "I used to spend half my life in bed with lovers and the other half agonizing about what on earth I was doing there," she confides over a cup of tea. "I did it for the attention and the of course the orgasms, but by the time I got up the next morning the good feelings were always gone. Evaporated. I usually felt about as empty as this teacup." She drains her mug and holds it upside down to illustrate. Despite these words, the serene woman who sits across from me now seems to be in full ownership of all facets of herself. I guess that her journey to this degree of peacefulness has been complex and that her perspective will be very different from Alice's, Molly's, and the others'. A story about the search for sexual self-filled with different colors, and with valuable information for women who love sex.
What People are Saying About This
Author of Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom
Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York at Plattsburg, and author of Sexual Salvation.
Author of The Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasure.
Author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional and True Love Waits.
President of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality
Author of The Erotic Silence of the American Wife and Marriage Shock.
Co-author of "the Kinsey Reports" Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female
Co-author of Women's Growth in Connection.
Author of Women, Sex, and Addiction.
Founding Director of the Bowling Green State University Women's Center
President of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and co-author of The G Spot
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