By: Dr. Uchenna Ossai
Growing up, I loooved the movie, When Harry Met Sally. That diner scene was priceless to me. Witty. Outrageous. Fascinating. That was my first education about the female orgasm. *Spoiler Alert* Here Sally was, trying to explain to Harry that most women faked “from time to time.” Why? To appease their sexual partner(s), of course. Harry scoffs. She then proceeds to give the fake orgasm performance of a lifetime. Harry nodded his head with no real discussion. Then it was over. (Awkward...)
There I was, 12 years old, and I understood. It was acceptable for women to fake their orgasms because female sexual pleasure was a bonus prize in the act of sex. No eroticism. Minimal communication. It also perpetuates the false narrative that a women’s orgasm is the responsibility of her partner; and she must fake it in order to preserve her partner’s feelings or as a way to end the sexual encounter.
The truth is that if women (and society, for that matter) are taught and given the space to value their own sexual pleasure as much as they value their partner’s, the experience of sex will be elevated and centered on pleasure; negating the need to “fake it." On the other side of the coin, pleasure is a frequent flyer for men, if not an expected outcome from sexual play. No eroticism. Minimal communication. Starting to see a pattern here?? Society has falsely imprinted in all of us, from a heteronormative perspective by the way, that it is the man’s right to fully enjoy and chase sex, and women are the sheer beneficiaries.
I’m never without awe of the power of shame. It is almost perfect in its ability to influence every aspect of our humanness; our decision-making, self-esteem, and especially our sexuality. For women, sexual shame is a cultural phenomenon. It’s about as natural to the American sociocultural landscape as apple pie.
Sexual shame has an intimate, long-standing, and committed relationship with gender and societal norms, which are deeply embedded into the explicit and implicit messaging surrounding women and sex. This shame is a key influencer on how women express and carry themselves throughout their lives. For example, women are often told to “keep your legs closed”, “girls who give it away aren’t taken seriously”, or “good girls cover up”.
These double standards are accompanied by behaviors that discourage women from exploring and understanding their sexuality, deprives women from examples of healthy sexual behaviors, and supports the culture of sexual shame and female disempowerment. Though we have seen small progress in reversing the negativity between women and sex in print and social media, film, and television (Insecure, Grace and Frankie, O.School, etc.), the norm is still centered around shame. This cultural programming gives the clear message that female sexuality should be neither be seen nor heard—unless beckoned (marriage, making babies, you know the drill).
A woman actively pursuing sexual pleasure is a radical act in today’s society. Even as adolescents, when boys masturbate, it’s either not discussed or it’s given parameters such as “do it as much as you want, just behind closed doors”. Whereas if a girl spent 5 minutes 1 to 3 times a day masturbating, she would be viewed as a “loose girl” or “slut in the making." The shaming starts early. Those subtle social cues speak volumes when it comes to sexual audacity and navigation of women during all stages of life. How dare women assume sexual pleasure be mutual?
Research proves time and time again that sexual shame is significantly intensified when you add in factors like sexual orientation, gender identity, race/ethnicity, physical and cognitive disability, and age. Minority women must constantly manage multiple layers of discrimination that are very poorly understood. Their experience and unique needs are practically invisible to society (as well as among non-minority women).
Take aging women, for instance: research has shown that sexual desire and interest persisted in 71% of women over the age of 80. Hmmhmmm. Older women are often dismissed and overlooked when it comes to sex and sexuality, which can have a profoundly negative impact on their overall sexual image and health. One television show, Grace and Frankie, beautifully addresses this issue head on by showing women dealing with the challenges of aging while exploring their sexuality.
Just imagine the task of developing and exploring your sexuality while also having to navigate the stress of racism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, etc.? A recent study by Dr. Jioni Lewis and colleagues found that, “Black women often experience invisibility in the form of being silenced and marginalized on the basis of gendered racial stereotypes; this informs both societal and individual perception of Black female sexuality." Welp, there you have it.
Sexual shame keeps women silent about their own bodies (pelvic health, sexual dysfunction, the list goes on.), experiences, needs, and as well as their wants. It takes control out of our hands and shifts it to society to make decisions for us. Shames prevents women from owning their sexuality. When you're making decisions with an air of shame, there is no joy, there is no pleasure, there is no safety, or boldness to educate and set boundaries for both our physical and emotional safety.
In order to shed sexual shame, we must first acknowledge that female sexual shame actually exists and understand its profound impact on how we function as a society. We need to figure out where our sexual beliefs come from before we can effectively “rage against the machine”...so to speak. We have to actively pursue an understanding that each of us have our own sexual footprint that is informed by our biology, culture, economics, our upbringing, religion, and so on. By giving sexual shame a name, we can finally pull it down from its status as a cultural phenomenon, and establish a new narrative that is centered on sexual empowerment.
~*Have you ever been shamed? How did you dismantle toxic attitudes about female pleasure?~*
Dr. Uchenna Ossai is a sex-positive pelvic health physical therapist, sex educator and counselor. Her sexual philosophy centers on pleasure and audacity while acknowledging the role that gender, race/ethnicity, and biology have on sexual development and expression. She spends her days treating people with both sexual and pelvic floor dysfunction, and her evenings educating the masses everything that has to do with “sexytime.” She embraces being unapologetically real, happily crunk, and deliciously kind. Find her work at www.youseelogic.com and follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.