Orgasm Equality for All: Feministing Reads Becoming Cliterate

The world is full of bad sex.

Specifically, the world is full of bad sex between women and men. Drunk hookups where you can’t figure out, for years afterward, whether you consented or not. Sex where an air of violence hangs about your memory of the encounter but you can’t quite figure out why. Plain old boring, selfish sex where he comes and leaves you hanging.

We’ve been saying it again and again: While feminists have ensured that we live in a much more sexually-liberated society than our grandparents did, shit is still patriarchal. It’s patriarchal in a deep-down, fundamental way, from sexual violence to the more mundane, daily violence of orgasm inequality

Enter Laurie Mintz, whose forthcoming book, Becoming Cliterate, reminds us, once again, that boring, dehumanizing sex is not the inevitable condition of humanity. The book is a general guide to understanding genital anatomy, and a practical guide to feelin’ yourself and each other through chapters on masturbation and on re-thinking conventional heterosexual scripts (you make out, he penetrates you, he has an orgasm, he sleeps). Becoming Cliterate also gets at the fundamental work of taking apart our idea of what sex is (a cis-dude race to the finish) and putting it together in a much more egalitarian, pro-woman way.

Becoming Cliterate is a fun and empowering reminder that sexual dissatisfaction is not inevitable, and a great gift for the cis dudes in your life. But its tendency to equate having a vulva with being a woman is a major failing, and reminds us of the need for our search for orgasm equality to be trans-inclusive by challenging the entire logic that having certain genitals means being a certain gender. 

So let’s start, as Mintz does, with the basic question: Is straight sex unsatisfying for women, and if so, why

While it’s a mistake to equate sexual pleasure with orgasm—some of us can’t or don’t want to come, and that’s a-okay—we can use the orgasm gap as a proxy for how much value we’re putting on men’s versus women’s sexual pleasure. And according to Mintz’s survey data (admittedly of a very limited slice of life — Florida college students, but okay, we’ll take it), 64% of women had an orgasm in their last sexual encounter, while 91% of men did. In another highly unrepresentative (but Jesus does it ring true) survey, Mintz reports that 55% of men versus 4% of women reported reaching orgasm during first-time hookup sex.

Holy shit.

And it’s not like women can’t have orgasms—we have them when we’re masturbating; we have them when we’re having sex with other women; we have them when you’re wondering why we’re taking so long in the bathroom. So why aren’t we having them with men? Mintz’s title could probably clue you in to her argument: We suffer from a woeful dearth of clitoral action.

Okay, so this is something feminists have been saying since the second wave (check it out), and it remains both valuable and sadly underutilized. Our culture prioritizes cis, hetero sex in which penis-in-vagina is the main deal. And, as Mintz says against and again, penis-in-vagina sex doesn’t tend to stimulate the clitoris—which is, for most women, the hot spot of sexual pleasure and orgasm.

This isn’t an accident. It’s a result of patriarchy, the grand ol’ society-wide arrangement that benefits dudes. It’s a result of the notion that the most important kind of sex is one which can lead to reproduction (even when we’re not actually trying to have babies), and which equates cis dude penetration, pleasure, and ejaculation with successful sex.  While lots of ladies love this (I’m not averse myself), Mintz argues that this isn’t actually the way most people with vaginas and vulvas experience orgasm.

This problem of defining sex affects a whole lot more than whether or not we orgasm

For example: While most people think that a penis penetrating a vagina constitutes sex, Mintz cites a survey in which 68% of women think being eaten out is sex, while only 33% of men think eating someone out counts as sex (presumably because the penis was not involved).

This lack of agreement on what sex is doesn’t only prevent us from having orgasms. If we don’t agree on what sex is, how can we agree on a mutual language of consent? How can we understand sexual violence? If we don’t think that oral sex is sex, then how can we come to a common understanding that oral (and other kinds of non-penetrative) sex without consent is rape (which it is)?

Becoming Cliterate does a good job questioning these basic assumptions, re-orienting us to another vision of what sex can be, and giving practical advice on how to be a boss bitch during sex (ask your partner to touch you the way you touch yourself when/if you masturbate—brilliant and weirdly under-utilized advice).

But the book itself falls into the very trap we need to avoid. While celebrating the vulva is a super important way to promote pleasure and change our cis-dude-centric idea of sex, there are problems with equating the vulva with women’s sexual pleasure generally. Namely: we have to challenge the idea that all men have penises and all women have vaginas.

Confession: I always feel uneasy when writing these ills-of-contemporary-sexuality posts. Because so much of it ends up being about men and having sex with them. I’m queer; I have sex with men and women. And while every other day there’s a think piece about The Big New Problem With Hetero Intercourse, we as queer women just don’t get the attention and discussion and funding and thinkpieces that heterosexuals do. Lesbian sexuality has a different set of problems than straight sexuality, yet it’s not some pure ideal of sexual equality. But even I as a queer person tend to marginalize these experiences when writing about The Problem of Contemporary Intercourse. We’ve got to figure out how to write about what’s ailing heterosexual intercourse without ignoring or idealizing lesbian sex.

This problem haunts Becoming Cliterate. Women who have sex with women are included in the anecdotes, and the suggested sexual scripts and communications skills are pretty inclusive. But women who have sex with women enjoy a kind of awkward position in both the book and our larger conversation about sexual equality—included, but given a lot less attention than heterosex.

Secondly, these conversations often falsely equate having a vulva and vagina with having a female gender identity, which is messed up. It’s vital to talk about how the marginalization of the vulva leads to the marginalization of women and of women’s sexual pleasure. But of course, not all women have vulvas and not all people with vulvas are women. Transwomen are women who deserve sexual pleasure, equality, liberation, and respect—and our conversation needs to consider this fundamentally, not as an asterisk or add-on.

All of this is vital to creating a truly feminist sexual politics (and duh, practice). Because sexist sex—sex that centers men with penises—operates under a violent set of assumptions. That women are vessels, containers of male pleasure, candy bars in wrappers, jam jars from which men will extract orgasms and spread ‘em on their toast. And if women are just objects from which men take pleasure, they’re also disposable. Like taking a candy bar from a wrapper—afterward, you’ll throw the wrapper out.

Sexual equality is thus one important aspect of comprehensive gender equality. Because while sexist sex isn’t always or even usually rape, it follows the logic of rape: The idea that sex is something we take from women, rather than do with them.

It’s not all fun and orgasms (though, yeah, it’s a lot of fun and orgasms). Sexual justice is hard. It requires work. It requires a lot of unlearning. It requires ripping up our notions of gender, the body, pleasure, equality, and love by the roots and untangling old ideas we would be a lot more comfortable not having to untangle. Sex is a fraught, scary thing. It’s a land of past trauma, current trauma; a land where all the weight of gender, race, sexuality, class, social position conspires to crush our bodies like we’re wearing lead coats.

But it’s exciting, isn’t it? The possibility that we could rewrite the scripts that our bodies have learned, that we could undo the stories of dominance and violence which form our bodies and our lives. That there is, beyond all our cynicism, the possibility of pleasure—revolutionary pleasure, radical pleasure, the orgasmic possibility of creating a just world.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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