I see sex everywhere. It's used to sell perfume, to punctuate punchlines, to create fantasies and instruct me about the kind of woman I should aspire to be. According to the internet, most women are having mind-blowing, orgasmic sex and photogenic climaxes that don't make them look as though they've just come back from a two week holiday and found the milk they left out on the counter.
So I was shocked and saddened to hear of a new study that shows that a sizeable percentage of women experience significant pain and discomfort during sex. Nearly 7,000 sexually active women aged 16 to 74 were surveyed. The results were published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, concluding that dyspareunia – pain during or after intercourse – is common, and affects women of all ages. Dyspareunia can be caused by a range of physical and emotional factors, from anxiety to vaginal dryness. It's a treatable condition, but many of the women who were surveyed said they were too embarrassed to seek help, and would prefer to suffer in silence or avoid sex altogether.
I think that this sad state of affairs might begin with the way sex education is taught. When I first started to learn about sex, I heard of it as something “done to” women. It never crossed my mind that it could be pleasurable, fun, or, well, sexy. It sounded implausible, slightly frightening, and potentially painful.
I could think of all sorts of logistical issues, and my teachers were quick to tell me that getting the right body parts in sync was the least of it.
During sex education classes, there was a brief outline of how sperm worked, what a uterus did, and how a woman's body changed during pregnancy. Then there were detailed descriptions of the different diseases you could catch if you had sex. "If you don't wear a condom, there's a high risk of chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes, HIV and many more!" explained the teacher. Sex sounded dangerous - not thrillingly dangerous but "there's a good chance this will kill you" dangerous. Women's orgasms weren't mentioned. Masturbation didn't come up. We were told, fairly bluntly, that men had higher sex drives than women. Sex was sadly inevitable, it would get done to us, and it was, at best, something to put up with.
Apple Tree Yard has been heralded as being groundbreaking and taboo-busting by exploring the sexual fulfilment of a main character in her late forties. While this is undoubtedly a powerful, positive subject to explore, it is ultimately about a woman who has her erotic needs met
To be fair, I'm sure that my teachers had their own issues and fears – my official sex education took place at a time when the AIDS crisis was making the headlines daily. Teen pregnancy was at record high in the U.K.
I think the tone was well meant, and intended to keep us safe and stop us from doing anything we might regret. Still, the results of the study suggest that these negative sexual messages have done some serious damage. We can't get serious about our sex lives when we've been taught to be scared of sex. It's time to put female pleasure at the top of the agenda when we talk about sex. If you've never been told that sex can – and should – be satisfying and joyful, it's hard to speak out and ask for help when it doesn't feel good.
The study found that women in their late fifties and early sixties are most likely to be affected, and I think this reveals something about our ageist attitude to sex and bodies. As a society, we're obsessed with sexualising youth, and we've failed to create a space for older people to be open about their sexuality. I wonder whether this stems from sexist ideas about motherhood – we're so frightened of female sexuality that we can't discuss a woman's sexual agency when she's no longer “useful” as a producer of children.
New BBC drama Apple Tree Yard, based on Louise Doughty's book, has been heralded as being groundbreaking and taboo-busting by exploring the sexual fulfilment of a main character in her late forties. While this is undoubtedly a powerful, positive subject to explore, it is ultimately about a woman who has her erotic needs met. From SATC to Girls, we've seen that it's easy to talk about sex when it's wild or weird, and you're uninhibited enough to ask for what you want. It's much harder to initiate a conversation about disappointing sex, especially when you've experienced shame or anxiety about the subject in the past. As women, we're so used to having our deficiencies pointed out to us, and told that our bodies are at fault. How many of us internalise that message, thinking that if we're not comfortable during sex, it's because there's something wrong with us?
In order to solve the problem, we need to start making sure women come first, in every way. Right now, when women and girls all over the world experience sexual violence, body shaming, harassment and a wide array of confidence crushing issues, having a happy sex life seems like a privilege. But it's every woman's right.
It's possible to treat dyspareunia, but it's impossible to open up to your doctor about it when you've been made to feel that your wants and desires aren't significant. Being surrounded by pictures of perfect sex lives makes it hard to speak up when ours is disappointing. By telling women that it's not our fault if sex doesn't feel good, we can lessen the shame and stigma around the issue and find the confidence to speak out and ask for help to make it better.
When we have the sex we want, we get to choose how we inhabit our bodies, and how we present them to the world. We need to destroy the shame culture that surrounds our bodies and our sexuality, and that will only happen when the pursuit of female pleasure is considered a priority.