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There is a scene in Zoe Heller’s novel The Believers that perfectly sums up a social attitude towards sex, pleasure and the different ways they are assumed to matter to men and women.

Rosa, a young woman in search of religious meaning, has returned to New York after years spent living as a socialist in Cuba. After having dinner with an old acquaintance, they return to his apartment, where he pours them some wine and puts some romantic music on.

Rosa’s sexual intentions in the moment have less to do with pursuing pleasure and more to do with challenging some preconceived ideas about herself, and she worries that her date will try to engage her in slow, tender lovemaking. So it comes as a surprise (and a relief) when the act turns out to be so different from its precursor. Her date ‘fucks her like a dog’, quickly and furiously. When it’s over, he tells her it was amazing and asks, ‘Did you come?’

As a reader, I laughed because the idea was so comical. While I’m sure there are some women (and men) for whom three minutes of vigorous thrusting would be enough, they must be few and far between. The idea that anyone could reach adulthood and still imagine that orgasms emerged out of nowhere in response to the presence of a penis is ludicrous.

Rosa answers, “No,” for she is honest to a fault. But to spare the feelings of a man she doesn’t really care about and considers relatively boring, she quickly adds, “But that’s okay. You know, I don’t always have to…” Her date nods his head knowingly and replies, “Yeah. It’s like that for a lot of women.”

The scene is deftly handled; an arch, satirical look at the disconnect between stereotypical sexuality and its reality. I immediately thought of all the other women whose forays into The Great Lover’s bed had ended in apologetic assurances that it was them and not he who experienced sexual dysfunction. Meanwhile, he continues unchallenged in his belief that the female orgasm is an elusive thing, something that we enjoy rarely as a bonus on top of the main act, and certainly can’t pin down when casual sex is on the cards.

It’s this so-called elusiveness that consumes much of the ‘debate’ about female sexuality and pleasure. Are women having enough orgasms? Are they having them at all, and if so, are they the ‘right’ kind of orgasms?

The New York Times recently reported on a study undertaken by the Kinsey Institute to determine the frequency with which women orgasm and in what kinds of situations. It found that women are almost twice as likely to enjoy orgasms with a sexual partner when they were in a long term relationship as opposed to a one night stand or casual arrangement. Further, that at a strike rate of 80 percent, men were twice as likely to orgasm than women in the latter situation, who were only hitting the jackpot 40 percent of the time.

Leaving aside for a moment the notorious unreliability of studies, particularly those conducted with limited conditions such as a diminished age group (the Kinsey Institute interviewed 600 college students, many of whom might only be new to experiencing sexuality with another person), the impact of geography and culture (for example, to what degree American culture frowns on women participating in and pursuing casual sex) and the scope of sexual preferences canvassed (the report appears to look only at heterosexual relationships), these kinds of ‘findings’ really only exist to service pre-existing ideas that continue unchallenged and unchecked.

To wit: that the female body and its genitalia is more complicated than that of a man’s, and that as a result it has happily resigned itself to having more subdued needs.

But sexual pleasure does not end with an orgasm; it’s precisely that kind of thinking that leads to the assumption all sex should be penetrative, and ends as soon as a man ejaculates. It’s heteronormative thinking, ignoring the myriad ways queer people negotiate the exchange of pleasure when traditional dichotomies of gender are removed from the equation. And above all, it’s sex negative crap that does nothing to further our understanding of our own bodies or the things we desire to do and feel with them.

In reality, it’s the lack of adequate sex education delivered in a culture of slut shaming that poses the greatest threat to women’s sexual enjoyment (if indeed they ARE in pursuit of an orgasm, which they may not be - intimacy is complex, and our reasons - both women and men - for seeking it out may, as in Rosa’s case, have nothing to do with physical release). Our society is still too wrapped up in the idea that pleasure is given by someone else rather than controlled by ourselves.

And unfortunately for women, long cast as both the performers of male fantasy and ingenues in our own, it is still all too often assumed that we are little more than empty vessels waiting to be awoken by someone else.