On Having the Courage to State Your Desires

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Channel 4 News recently ran a feature called “Swinging Sixties: Older People and Sex in the Internet Age”. Many of the individuals featured had experienced repressed marriages in the 1950s and 1960s and were now keen to enjoy more empowered and adventurous relationships second time around. Women revealed that it wasn’t until their later years that they had experienced orgasms. Solange, 79, shared: “I might have been in my 40s when I had an inkling of what it was. By my 60s I’d finally figured out what it was. And in my 70s, ‘Yes, that’s what it is!‘”

A studio discussion followed with a respected female journalist in her 70s, and a female former Chair of the Royal College of GPs. The journalist mocked these “intelligent women” for being “ignorant about their own bodies and their own feelings” suggesting that they “could have got a vibrator [and] experienced an orgasm every two seconds”. She seemed ignorant to just how excruciating, even the most empowered woman, finds the experience of asking to have their sexual needs met by a human (as opposed to a battery-powered lump of rubber).

Journalist and broadcaster Hephzibah Anderson captures this agony perfectly in her article for British Elle magazine “Sex: Where We’ve All Been Going Wrong”:

“What do you want?

Whispered in the dark, the words warm on your naked skin, it’s just the most intimate question you could be asked. It begs a response infinitely more revealing than breathless unzipping and unbuttoning, beckoning you to the place where your mind’s fantasies meet your body’s craving.

But how many of us can really answer?

The shocking truth lies not in what we’re likely to say, but what we won’t say. If we answer at all, most of us will conjure up something generic – titillating images collaged from the Agent Provocateur catalogue, sentences scissored from a how-to-talk-dirty primer. Whether or not it works for our partner, it’s likely to be less attuned to our own desires than the lunch order we placed at the deli counter earlier in the day. We have no problem saying what we want there, nor in our careers, our friendships, even our relationships. Until we slip between the sheets that is”

Hephzibah goes on to discuss the experience of her year-long self-imposed sex ban (chronicled in her book “Chastened: The Unexpected Story of My Year Without Sex”), following a heart-bruising break up.   Seeking intimacy and connection rather than a de-personalised exchange, Hephzibah discovered that slowing down and talking about sex, rather than doing it could be dizzying and electric. Stripped of the pressure to perform, sex reverted to an intensely personal and deeply vulnerable act.

Psychoanalyst Susie Orbach agrees: “I think we still don’t understand what sex is, what sex does, and what sex means. Girls are encouraged to see sexuality, instead of something inherent, as an accomplishment. It’s become a performance.”

Soliciting views from friends, Liz, in her 40s and newly divorced from the man she’d be with since university, shared the following:

This definitely resonated; in fact I’ve been going over a similar situation in my head with J this past week. The first couple of times with him, it was just a bit of fun, I went into it with zero expectations, didn’t really think about it too much. But the last time I saw him, he whispered in my ear “I want you to lose control” and I just thought – “lose control? How on earth does one do that?” I don’t think I’ve ever lost control in my entire life. I couldn’t get into it after that, I was feeling too self-conscious and totally embarrassed at my inability to lose control! Does he usually experience women losing control?! I’m 45 for God’s sake and I’ve never lost control in bed!!!

But it got me thinking – I’m too in my head and too concerned with making sure I’m measuring up and meeting his needs. It is about the performance – the antithesis of losing control. I can’t imagine asking for what I truly desire, what I want him to do to me. I don’t even think I have the vocabulary! And it feels….so needy…..

It’s the vulnerability and the personal we’ve become afraid of. As Hephzibah puts it in her article, a certain machismo as crept into female sexuality – that we should not know how to do something, that we might need to ask – we’ve become the man who refuses to ask for directions when lost. Superficially, we are a liberated generation. We get what we want, we know what we want and we have what we want. We’re in senior positions in the workplace. Being direct in asking for what we wanted got us here. It’s that old chestnut perfectionism again. Feeling vulnerable is an uncomfortable, and for some of us, wholly unknown state.

Nicole Daedone believes that the vast majority of women do not have satisfying sex lives. In her book “Slow Sex: The Art and Craft of The Female Orgasm” she describes the perfect looking life she had created for herself 20 years earlier. Graduating magna cum laude, she was a good girl, doing a masters in a field she loved, in a great relationship, yet she felt she was “withering on the vine”. A class in sexuality, attended as a “lark” to break the monotony of life turned out to be the answer:

Though I’d always been a sexual person I still considered my sexuality to be extracurricular. It was something I used for stress reduction, pleasure, escape, or at the best of times to feel close to someone. What I discovered in that class is that sexuality is not just a fringe activity, an exceptional fun hobby. Instead I saw it for it really is: a source of power, a well from which I could draw the energy I needed to discover who I was and how I wanted to live my life. To feel full and energised so I could live every moment of it to its absolute fullest potential. Sex turned out to be an entry point to the deep nourishing joy that every part of me was crying out for, as well as the fuel that would get me there.

Daedone went on to found OneTaste and the Slow Sex movement, a philosophy that challenges the notion that the female orgasm is about techniques learnt in manuals, or the result of following a recipe. Using what she calls, Orgasmic Meditation, or OM-ing, she advocates “slowing down, tuning in and experiencing a deeper spiritual and physical connection during sex”. Orgasmic Meditation, is not in itself sex, rather it is a meditative wellness practice involving 15 minutes of clitoral stroking, with no focus on orgasm or climax (which Daedone describes as only a part of orgasm anyway). It is in the application of the skills learnt during OM – feeling feelings, asking for what you want – to regular sex that Daedone’s describes as “revolutionary”. In fact, Daedone believes that orgasm is the “single most impactful power source we have, potent enough to bring about many kinds of change in our bodies, relationships and lives”.

In shifting the focus from thinking to feeling, from a goal orientation to an experience orientation, our experience of sex is turned on its head – from harder and faster to slower and more connected. Slow sex is an art, with just the same aspects that life includes – not just joy, success and perfection but also sadness, failure and inconsistency.   You could argue that slow sex is to conventional sex, as yoga is to conventional exercise like running or aerobics. An important part of yoga, is the breath and staying with the experience of the body, however uncomfortable, unpleasant or unexpected. There is no quantifiable goal to yoga, it’s about appreciating where you are in the moment. One day you might fall out of a pose that was simple the previous day. Every day provides an opportunity to appreciate who you are and what you are capable of. Anyone who’s practiced yoga will be familiar with the phrase “off the mat” – our experience on the mat translates into our life. The yogi who strives to get into postures will beat herself up in life when she doesn’t achieve the success she believes she should.

Like yoga, slow sex is about a way of being in the world. Whether you commit to a temporary sex-ban, Orgasmic Meditation, more talking or simply slowing things down a bit we owe it to ourselves and our fellow women to cast off the myth of perfect, aspirational, performance driven sex.   It’s just another stick to beat ourselves up with. Another way to give away our power.
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