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Sexually passive? Us? Comedian Sara Pascoe debunks five of the biggest myths about female sexuality

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Sarah Pascoe

Sexually passive? Us? Writer and comedian Sara Pascoe strips back the stereotypes to reveal the truth about female sexuality

A few years ago I had a one-night stand. Yes, sir, high fives all round, I’m very proud, thank you guys. I knew early on in the evening that I didn’t like him very much. He kept shouting on the phone and telling horrible stories about a university friend who was successful now but ‘didn’t deserve it’. But then – of course I’ll come back to yours, bitter little shouty man. In his bedroom we kissed and took our clothes off, and he asked if he could put on music. “It’s the most beautiful song,” he explained, “it means so much to me. Listen to the lyrics.” He walked back towards the bed, followed by the opening bars of the Cheers theme tune. Which is when I jumped up, got dressed and ran away, shaking my head and laughing. Except I didn’t. I stayed put for the most awkward sex, as a man sang that he was ‘always glad I came’ when I most definitely didn’t…

Afterwards I was annoyed that I hadn’t left. Why hadn’t I? Politeness? Embarrassment? I’ve got myself into so many sexual situations where I wasn’t happy, and remained miserably in beds I should have vacated. Such feebleness of intention is not apparent elsewhere in my life. I don’t stick at jobs I don’t enjoy, I won’t go to your birthday party if I don’t feel like it, (“I don’t care that it’s your birthday, Susie, The Walking Dead is on”). I would describe myself as a stubborn, strong-willed, entirely selfish woman – except when half-dressed with boys when I’m suddenly a flimsy adolescent. I wanted to change, I wanted to be one of those women who knows her own mind and routes to pleasure. Who rides men wearing sling-back heels and a sombrero – her, not them… or maybe both, I don’t know, but she does. She’s sure of herself; knowing what she’s into and what turns her on helps her to avoid what she doesn’t like, so she can escape the things and people that turn her off. So how, I wailed to myself, do I become sombrero lady?

The classic advice for a woman who wants to feel sexier or have more enjoyable sex is a version of ‘buy tiny underwear’ or ‘invest in battery operated wangs’. That’s surface dressing at best. At worst it’s sending us, vibrating, in the wrong direction. I wanted to explore the reasons for my low self-worth, why I always put my partner’s pleasure before my own, why I feel ashamed even admitting that I want to be more sexually satisfied. I needed to analyse the root messages, to go back in time, unravelling everything I had been told about sex, examining the subtext in cultural depictions and equipping myself with a healthier, greedier, more entitled sexual attitude.

Colin waited patiently for his ‘sexy’ PJs to work their magic

Colin waited patiently for his ‘sexy’ PJs to work their magic

So I began to research – spending the long train journeys travelling to gigs reading books by psychologists, feminists, historians and scientists. Avidly underlining, scribbling and calling friends to quote theories and opinions.

What I’ve discovered so far is that women’s bodies, instincts and sexual motivations have been misunderstood and misrepresented for a very long time. From the Victorians who discovered evolution and ignored female sexual choice as a species-shaping force, to the various religions that have suppressed and denied the existence of female lust. Or the cultural depictions of sexually active women as evil or mentally ill, typified by Jennifer Aniston’s nymphomaniac character in Horrible Bosses. At the other end of the spectrum we have the imposed value on female chasteness. Not to mention the long-standing association of sexual purity and goodness since biblical times. Even now (2016 if you’ve just arrived in a time machine) there is very little space within our culture for genuine exploration of our sexual feelings. Women are depicted as ‘sexual’ everywhere, but that sexiness is for others rather than as an expression of something originating within ourselves.

Perhaps you think this isn’t important? That sex is a hobby our species dabbles in occasionally and doesn’t merit this fuss and attention? But sex underlies everything, not just in a Freudian, subconscious way or in an ‘it’s how people are made’ way, but as a vital part of human happiness. Sex, and all types of touching, influences how attractive and cared about we feel; it stimulates the hormones and neurotransmitters that create joy, peace, relaxation, that fight cortisol and other symptoms of stress. Our sex life can determine how bonded we feel to a partner, how we sleep, how confident we feel. It’s worth fighting for.

So here are a few of the myths and false constructions around female sexuality that I’ve found it interesting to think about. Because making your way in the world today as a woman takes everything you’ve got…

Myth 1: the first time = a bad time

“Why are you talking about ‘doing it’ for the first time, Sara? We’ve ‘done it’ loads of times since then!” Of course you have – and congratulations – but consider this: right from the very beginning, young women are given an unfortunate piece of information that sets the agenda for the rest of our sexual lives. We’re told that the first time we have sex, it will hurt. We are told to expect pain. “Brace yourself sweetheart, this time’ll be terrible but it gets better I promise.” Yet painful intercourse is not a necessary sexual hurdle. It has nothing to do with breaking the hymen or inexperience, and everything to do with not being aroused enough. Plenty of foreplay, intense desire and relaxation can negate any first-time ouchy-ness. So why aren’t we telling girls to make sure they’re super-raging to go before the first time? Why isn’t the focus on female enjoyment and how our bodies signal receptiveness right from the very beginning? Boys wouldn’t be told to try and insert a flaccid penis because “that’s what first time sex is like”. To tell girls pain is normal is equally illogical. And the ramifications are huge. From the first stop on her sexual journey, a woman is convinced it’s completely acceptable if sex hurts her. That it’s fine if she doesn’t enjoy it but her partner does. I don’t think that is acceptable. Pain and physical resistance is a sign the body (mainly the vagina to be fair) is not quite ready, and that should mean waiting to be more aroused – whether that takes years or minutes, licking or masturbation, or kissing and talking. Women shouldn’t have to wait for some mid-30s sexual awakening, we should be insisting on pleasurable, mutual sex from the get-go. Imagine the years of rubbish sex that could be avoided if we did? Now stop imagining that and read the next bit…

Myth 2: women are sexually passive

The pervading stereotype when it comes to sex and the sexes is that men are testosterone-fuelled, slathering animals who think constantly about shagging and would lay everyone in the world if they were allowed, whereas women, well, we’re all prim and cardigan-y, pushing away roaming hands and saying, “Not tonight dear, I’ve got a headache”.

In the olden days, people believed stupid things. People like Charles Darwin believed that male animals enjoyed copulation while female animals derived their pleasure from the pregnancy that resulted. They believed that seduction was a male role, that the female role was to resist or relent. It has taken evolutionary scientists and zoologists up until very recently to realise that females in every species are active in signalling sexual receptiveness, whether through pheromones, mating calls or the very provocative ‘lordosis’: the curved spine, proffered backside you may recognise from your cat or an undressed woman in any advert for anything. Studies have proven subtle but viable signs of female sexual intention; women have been proven to behave differently when they are ovulating – more likely to have a one-night stand, to wear revealing clothing, or to cheat on a partner.

Women do (usually) have less testosterone than men – as a result, we are less likely to want to have sex with a stranger or approach people in bars, but that doesn’t mean we never do it. And what we can do is flirt, groom, fancy, obsess, fantasise and crave. We get horny. We seduce and we initiate. A hunger to touch and be touched is the animal expression of an evolved trait. Our poor, non-sexy ancestors didn’t breed and thus their genes were lost. Female sexuality is not an accident or by-product. In fact, we all have it to thank for our existence.

Myth 3: not every woman can orgasm

Whenever there is a big sex study, one of the most attention-grabbing/woeful elements is always the stats on female orgasm. Most women don’t reliably orgasm from penetrative intercourse, over a third never do, and about 5% of women have never had an orgasm at all. There is a term for this final group; in her brilliant book Come As You Are, Emily Nagoski explains how they used to be referred to as ‘anorgasmic’ (people who can’t orgasm) but now sexologists call them ‘pre-orgasmic’ (people who haven’t orgasmed yet), which is much more positive. The female orgasm had a terrible PR team.

Because it is not as necessary to conception as male orgasm (although studies do show that the uterine contractions during orgasm could aid the movements of sperm towards ovum), it has been judged as everything from an accidental by-product by scientists to an irrelevant nuisance by lazy old-fashioned men. In the Sixties, a doctor called Alexander Lowen wrote defensively that he couldn’t work out when men were supposed to be stimulating their partner’s clitoris. Before penetration would be distracting, during would put him off his stroke and after would deny him the rest that was his reward. Yet the ‘penis inside a vagina’ method of intercourse is not going to be enough stimulation for the majority of women to climax – they will need additional stimulation in a variety of enjoyable forms. This is a fact, and it should be widely known. We shouldn’t be thrusting away hoping something will magically change. If you’re not climaxing, you need to change the kind of sex you’re having.

The other thing that’s important to be aware of is that sexual response works like an accelerator and a brake. This means that some things will turn you on (a certain aftershave, dirty talk) and others may turn you off (cold feet, the Cheers theme tune perhaps). Part of fulfilling our sexual potential is as much about limiting and avoiding the things that press your ‘brake’, as well as exploring what hits our accelerator. We all have very different sensitivities and proclivities. If you’ve been rarely orgasmic until now, you could have a wonderful journey discovering your sexy idiosyncrasies ahead. Brrrm Brrrm!

Katy was unsure what all this had to do with Animal Farm

Katy was unsure what all this had to do with Animal Farm

Myth 4: everyone is having mind-blowing sex apart from you

You can’t avoid them. From the articles advising you where to place pillows or drip candle wax to guarantee multiple orgasms or find a man who won’t stray, to the movies where people screw loudly and passionately in swimming pools, on messy desks or, for god’s sake, standing up. And then there’s pornography, with its constantly lubricated and yowling women, just so damn happy to choke on a phallus. Because sex is exciting to look at and entertaining (we can’t help it), it is widely depicted and revered. Yet because real life isn’t photogenic – because the angles that actually feel nice to have sex in do not look as sexy – what we see is not what we get. 

Maybe we’re harsh on our relationships sometimes, maybe we think there could be better sex out there? I certainly get frustrated sometimes that I don’t do it enough, that when I do it’s often sleepily and without bothering to completely remove my trousers. But while I don’t want to come across all mumsy now, the most important element of our sexual lives is not the positions or athleticism, but the relationships. With ourselves firstly; respecting our bodies, loving the things that make us feel good, enjoying the incredible sensations that our bodies allow us to feel. And when there is someone else there, whether they are new or old or strange or familiar, celebrating your love or lust or friendship in your caresses. And when none of those feelings are present, learning to leave. I’m saying that here because I still need to learn to take my own advice.

Myth 5: sex education is only for school children

Hands up: there are far more than five myths! Sexual behaviour is universal and everyday (if you’re lucky), yet it continues to be regularly misunderstood. Old wives’ tales stick in the collective consciousness and we continue to feel the effects of various religions’ suppression of sexuality and patriarchal attempts to control female fertility. We’ve got lots of work to do, but hopefully we can have a sensual, sexy, fun time doing it.


Animal: The Autobiography Of A Female Body by Sara Pascoe (£12.99, Faber & Faber) is out now. Sara Pascoe is on tour with Animal; 6 May-2 July 2016; sarapascoe.com

Photography: Dave Brown, Getty Images

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