Beyond the pink pill
Recognize this sex organ? Probably not – and that's the problem. Today's pioneers of female desire say the solution for women seeking satisfaction isn't the elusive 'pink Viagra,' but more knowledge about themselves
Carla is eating a doughnut, sitting on a cheery yellow couch with a piano behind her. She's talking about the importance of "consistency." It's her orgasm pet peeve: As she's about to climax, her male partner will abruptly switch up his technique to impress her – and send her orgasm scurrying away.
"It's kind of like a football game," Carla, a brash twentysomething, observes about men in the "end zone" during sex. "They start getting too excited and they're like, 'Ya, I know! Let me do this now!' And it's like, 'No, don't do that! I didn't say switch it.' "
Carla is one of thousands of brave women – from divorced moms in finance to molecular biologists to jazz musicians – who are willingly discussing their sexual preferences on-camera for a Berkeley, Calif.-based website called OMGYes.
They describe how they climax, using methods such as "hinting," "edging" and "orbiting" – a handful of them also demonstrating nude, on video. The website also features touchscreen tutorials, where viewers can learn and be told (gently) if they're doing it wrong. For $39, some 110,000 curious souls have bought the first season of instructional videos.
In an era when mainstream pornography doesn't really bother with authentic female pleasure and North American social mores often leave health-care workers and sex educators too spooked to talk about it, the website is one initiative enriching our understanding of women's sexuality, which remains stubbornly scant.
It's now undeniable that the sexual revolution of the 1960s was incomplete: With its push for contraception and sexual liberation in the face of monogamy, the revolution didn't actually do that much for women's pleasure. Today, researchers, authors, feminists and app designers are hoping to right that wrong. They've turned their attention to the unfinished business of female desire, orgasm and pleasure, conveying their insights back to women.
Great advances are being made in the science of female sexuality, including brain neurochemistry, clitoral anatomy and the particularities of women's desire. Female-directed porn is proliferating, with narratives that aren't rote or entirely focused on male ejaculation. Technology is enhancing female pleasure, from sex toys to apps that illustrate the many ways to get off.
Central to this modern sexuality is self-knowledge – the idea that women should learn, almost as a course of study, what they like and then demand it from their partners. The better women understand their own likes and dislikes, the better their odds of having satisfying sex lives. It's an exciting and a daunting ask, one that arrives at a crucial juncture for women who are now hypersexualized, even as their pleasure remains largely overlooked.
Thanks to the endless availability of porn, we now have more explicit imagery to fill our mental Rolodexes than ever before. Some of those images are unsettling, especially when you consider the viewer: The jury's still out on how hundreds of hours clocked watching violently coercive porn imprints on young men who are years away from their first actual sexual relationships with women. Although most feminists don't bash porn any more, they are pushing for more inventive visuals that show what female pleasure actually looks like.
Women are also seeking more creative ways to rev up fading desire, beyond the pills, gels and sprays that pharmaceutical companies have been hawking. In April, 2016, Addyi, a medication marketed to boost low desire in women, was submitted to Health Canada for review; a decision is still pending.
In the United States, Addyi has seen slow sales since being approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015. The drug is costly, comes with side effects and requires doctors and pharmacists dispensing it to undergo special training. All that, and trial subjects reported less than one extra "sexually satisfying event" per month on average.
Even proponents of Addyi have argued that while the drug could be one more tool in the toolbox, pharmaceutical remedies are no replacement for finding out what actually turns you on – and letting your partner in on it. Some scholars believe the push to replace this complex knowledge with a "pink Viagra" pathologizes a normal spectrum of libido in women.
To get beyond the pink pill, The Globe interviewed some of the most pioneering thinkers in the burgeoning study of female desire.
Sarah Barmak, author
In her slim but pivotal 2016 book Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality, Toronto-based author Sarah Barmak starts by expertly charting scientific research and how women's desire has been treated throughout history. Then she dives into the weird stuff, such as orgasmic meditation, mindfulness sessions for those with low libido, as well as something called "yoni massage." All of it, Barmak argues, is a slick extension of the sexual subcultures of the 1960s and '70s: Think of it as "slow sex" for people who are also into organic food, holistic medicine and expensive yoga gear.
The author believes the sexual revolution put greater pressure on women to be sexy and orgasmic without much discussion of pleasure. Fast forward to the age of online porn: Barmak wonders about the impact of copiously available, hard-core porn on young women and their experiences.
"If people aren't given any other examples, they might think this is what sex basically involves: not much foreplay, intense penetration in the first five minutes and then tons of penetration in every possible orifice – rough sex," she said. "If we think that is basic sex then we're giving young women a handicap."
Barmak sees hope on the horizon, often from surprising sources. She points to a number of apps that simulate female stimulation and spur women on to masturbate by "gamifying" the experience. One, from Denmark, is called La Petite Mort, and the other, Happy PlayTime encourages women to submit their masturbation habits to a global online survey. "There is more discussion of female pleasure in the cultural ether, more discussion of the clitoris. As people start saying these words out loud more often, it will sink in that female pleasure is its own separate thing with its own rules," Barmak said. "We're still just figuring out how women work."
Emily Witt, author
Emily Witt also mines modern sexual subcultures in her excellent and deadpan new book Future Sex: A New Kind of Free Love. The single author ventures through San Francisco to better understand what value there is in sex outside of relationships, especially for her as a woman. "My idea of 'free love' was actually pretty limited," Witt acknowledged. "I thought it meant sleeping with more people in my 20s."
Future Sex advocates for a new model of female sexuality, one that is "open, forgiving and unafraid." Witt says there are strong mental-health benefits for women to learn, name and ask for what they desire, instead of holding out hope that sex will be an "alchemical miracle," with little to no effort required.
"You can really study your body and it can surprise you all the time," Witt said. "It brings a sense of agency to sexual exploration. If you're not trying to be appealing to somebody but trying to figure out your own pleasure, it's an endeavour like travelling or getting good at a sport."
That said, Witt doesn't pretend to be a know-it-all. "I still don't understand my own body," she said. "You hear about G-spots and squirting and it's always explained as, 'If you press this button then this thing happens,' but it never really works out that way in practice."
Odile Fillod, researcher
One element of female sexual anatomy coming into clearer focus is the clitoris. A groundbreaking development came this past April, when Odile Fillod, a French researcher in biomedical science and gender studies, printed the world's first 3-D model of this little understood female sex organ. Shaped like a wishbone, the 10-centimetre, life-size model looks unlike any clitoris most people have ever seen.
Anatomical sketches and textbooks have long overlooked the clitoris's full structure, which includes not just the external hood and glans but a sizable network of bulbs and roots beneath the skin. "Infinitely less well documented than its masculine equivalent," Fillod writes in an article, this is the "full-size feminine sexual organ."
Fillod and other researchers argue that the clitoris, rich in erectile tissues, plays much the same role in sexual pleasure as the penis. Grasping its true shape, location and function "is essential to understanding how women's sexuality works … that it basically works like men's [sexuality]," Fillod said in an e-mail. She hopes biology and sex education teachers will download the open-source software to print her biodegradable polymer models and start teaching the correct female genital anatomy in schools.
Before Fillod and her 3-D printer came along, French gynecologists Pierre Foldès and Odile Buisson mapped out the entire “clitoral complex” sonographically in 3-D in 2009. As Barmak notes despondently in her book (where she describes the clitoris as an iceberg floating under the skin), that’s six full years after the full human genome was mapped out.
Jim Pfaus, psychology professor
Thankfully, sex researchers are also moving beyond the tired debate about whether clitoral or vaginal orgasms are somehow superior. In a compelling October, 2016, article illustrated with brain fMRI scans, anatomical cross-sections and 3-D reconstructions, Jim Pfaus, a professor at Concordia University, catalogued "the truly remarkable variety of orgasmic experiences" among women.
In it, he describes orgasms that shudder from the external part of the clitoris, as well as from its internal structure, which overlaps with the so-called "G-spot." Pfaus also documents the possible role of the cervix, which sits on a whole other nerve, as well as erogenous zones such as lips, nipples and earlobes.
He posits the idea of a "whole orgasm," which traverses these zones separately or all at once, and shape shifts over a lifespan. Women may do one thing in bed when they're 19 and another when they're 65 – and probably should. "The erotic body map a woman possesses is not etched in stone, but rather, is an ongoing process of experience, discovery and construction," Pfaus writes.
Like other researchers and educators, he stresses the paramount importance of women getting to know their own "sexual landscapes" and showing their partners how to navigate the terrain, instead of hoping they're telepathic and can figure it all out on their own. "This is about you knowing your body better so you have more regions to stimulate," Pfaus said, adding, "When do we train our women to go out there and get it?"
Rob Perkins, co-founder of OMGYes
After conducting video-chat interviews with women, staff at OMGYes partner up with researchers at Indiana University and the Kinsey Institute, who look into the prevalence of what these women have described as their game-changing pleasure experiences. While the website's first season of videos focused on the clitoris, the team is now turning its lens on internal stimulation and oral sex. Next up will be videos on male sexual pleasure, how sex changes after pregnancy, childbirth and menopause, as well as how relationship dynamics shape sex.
The research is funded by membership fees, plus an initial $4.6-million (U.S.) raised by angel investors who included gynecologists, authors and a pilot. The big, radical objective of OMGYes is to identify and then coin terminology for what feels good, so people don't have to stumble through it all on their own.
“We think in 50 years we’ll look back on the way we treat women’s pleasure the same way we look back at the 1950s and roll our eyes,” co-founder Rob Perkins said. “You don’t recognize your own era’s taboos until you look back on them.”