Pleasure for people with vulvas is often misrepresented in the mainstream, leading us to internalise a lot of unhelpful lessons about our bodies. Most of us have to spend time unlearning those lessons, much to the detriment of our collective feminine pleasure. The specific lessons I refer to are in the context of cishet relations, despite people of all genders and orientations having vulvas.
What is a vulva, you ask? What a great place to start — with unlearning the most literal lesson we receive: school biology.
Penis and VULVA, not penis and vagina (SAY IT WITH ME: VULVA, VULVA, VULVA!)
“How is it possible that we landed on the moon and walked around 29 years before we discovered the anatomy of the clitoris?,” asks artist Sophia Wallace in her 2015 Ted Talk, Cliteracy, a term she coined for literacy of the clitoris. Through its formal exclusion from media and even sex education, the clitoris is forever forgotten.
The subjugation of this female sex organ is sustained through incorrect language use, with Wallace citing “vagina” as the “single most misused word in the English language”. Vagina is a Latin word meaning “sword holder” (ew) and only refers to the opening itself. The use of “vagina” as a blanket term for female genitalia (in doctors’ offices, in parliament, by feminist advocates, by partners discussing their intimate needs, by sex ed teachers, and by the world at large) erases the clitoris from our sexual understandings, burying a whole array of erotic options for half of the population. The extent of this subjugation is staggering.
“The clitoris is long and extends deep under the skin, so when pleasure is evoked by something entering the vagina, it is because the internal clitoris is being stimulated.”
The correct word for the sex organ, biologically speaking, is ‘vulva,’ incorporating the clit, vagina and labia. On the other hand, pleasure should be discussed primarily in terms of the clitoris itself. The vagina is short on nerves in order to facilitate childbirth. The clitoris is long and extends deep under the skin, so when pleasure is evoked by something entering the vagina, it is because the internal clitoris is being stimulated. Are you feeling lied to yet? Let’s continue.
Pleasure is not the only thing that suffers from our societal lack of cliteracy. Understanding one’s body is crucial to giving one’s consent. What’s more, this is a health concern. The clitoris is severely underrepresented in scientific journals and research. This lack of representation means it receives insubstantial medical care and there is a greater chance of clitoral surgeries and medical procedures being butchered.
So, it turns out that what we learn about our bodies in school is completely inadequate. 140,000,000 people worldwide have had their external clitorises removed. The rest of us, Wallace believes, have undergone a “psychological clitoridectomy” in not knowing they exist, in not learning about female pleasure, eroticism and fantasies — the secrets of our clitorises, our beautiful, beautiful clitorises, are lost to us.
And that’s not just a gosh darn shame; that’s oppression in all its glory.
Your. Pleasure. Is. Not. A. Bonus.
Do you remember hearing you had to eat pineapple to make your lady bits taste good before a guy went down on you? Or that guys wouldn’t like how you looked after they came? Do you recall the sex-ed talk when all the guys were like, “ewwww”, at the pictures of actual vulvas? Of course, these same guys were supposed to be sex-crazed maniacs (another myth), but it seemed that this was contingent on particularly palatable presentations of femininity.
Being a teenage girl is an onslaught of falsities about you and your partners’ bodies. I genuinely thought vulvas were repulsive, and getting anyone to go down on you was a favour because it was unpleasant for them (you can imagine my surprise when I learned that actually… it was not.)
“Studies have also found women and girls are more likely to report their sexual satisfaction as dependent on their partners’ levels of enjoyment rather than their own, an obvious tragedy for vulvakind.”
As such, these myths were functioning effectively — to shame me and alienate me from my pleasure. They made me feel my satisfaction was a bonus, not a given, and hindered my ability to speak up and ask for what I wanted. On a large scale, this silence and misinformation surrounding female pleasure has devastating consequences. These myths (combined with a lack of cliteracy!) contribute to an orgasm gap that, in 2020, made men 30% more likely to finish than women during straight sex. Studies have also found women and girls are more likely to report their sexual satisfaction as dependent on their partners’ levels of enjoyment rather than their own, an obvious tragedy for vulvakind.
As well as this, most mainstream depictions of sex focus on vaginal sex, while only 35% of women report being able to finish from vaginal sex alone. Extensive foreplay, oral sex and external clitoral stimulation are almost totally absent from movie scene sex, sending the message that female pleasure is like breakfast in bed: you can ask for it on special occasions, but it’s extraneous to everyday scripts (we’re not talking to you, Bridgerton. Thank you for your service).
“… you are entitled to pleasure with as much passion and frequency as your partner, no matter how much longer it takes, whether you’ve shaved or not, and even whether you smell like a tropical yellow fruit.”
No one – overtly or by neglect – should ever make you feel like your pleasure is a burden. In truth, you are entitled to pleasure with as much passion and frequency as your partner, no matter how much longer it takes, whether you’ve shaved or not, and even whether you smell like a tropical yellow fruit.
Sex without orgasm is sex, and foreplay is sex… everything is sex, okay?!
These lessons, even more so than the first two, are based on the same idea — that straight male sexual narratives impose on the female experience. We have already seen that the orgasm gap means vulva owners typically climax less than those with penises during sex, and a study by Durex found that 20% of women (versus 2% of men) have never orgasmed at all. Given that, doesn’t the fact that we take climax to be the measure of ‘good’ sex feel a bit… dare I say, sexist?
Similarly, many people with vulvas have said foreplay is as important to them (if not more important) than “actual” (p in v) sex. Most report that they are much more likely to finish after extensive foreplay. However, society is slow to call anything other than p in v (or at the very least penetrative) sex “sex”, to the extent that foreplay is seen as an aside to sex, not as sex-in-itself. In the words of Chandler Bing, kissing is to sex as a stand-up comedian is to a Pink Floyd concert.
“So, the emphasis on finishing, which is sometimes out of reach for vulva owners, invalidates much of the sex that we have and enjoy.”
In both cases, we project a straight male narrative onto our sex lives. While some men also struggle to climax, typically, sex finishes (for both parties – think about that) when the man does, so it’s a safe bet to say that orgasm is central to his narrative. But release can come in all sorts of forms – from kissing, fingering or less. So, the emphasis on finishing, which is sometimes out of reach for vulva owners, invalidates much of the sex that we have and enjoy.
In the same way, while most people with penises also enjoy foreplay, it is not typically thought of as crucial to their sexual arc and, thus, is often overshadowed when p’s and v’s come together. We need to stop thinking of foreplay as before sex and realise it can constitute sex-in-of-itself. Penetrative sex as the required main event is tied to patriarchal notions of virginity, and we know what a can of misogynistic, heteronormative worms those are.
Don’t get me wrong: orgasms are great, and we should be pushing to close the orgasm gap. That’s part of the point of this article. The belief that sex is not good unless you orgasm, though, can place unfounded pressure thereon, and rob people of otherwise wonderful experiences, people with vulvas being (as usual) disproportionately affected. We need to gauge enjoyment of sex in just that – how much we enjoy it – and not quantifiable male markers of orgasm and penetration.