Detailed Khajuraho Sex Temple sandstone bas-relief of voluptuous woman having sex, accompanied by masturbating man and woman (Source: Anthony Maw)
In the current debate about sex in society three topics seems to dominate statements, headlines and write-ups: footy culture, sexual practices and consent. Each of them is both highly complex contentious in itself, and all of them are interrelated and linked to much larger issues, especially the aspects constituting our society and cultures. Within that sticky and messy complexity, individual opinions are the voices that shape debate and progression; I for example think that footy culture is just the tip of the hidden iceberg of general Australian male culture, and that the discussion of what is and what is not allowed in sex is still too much chained to some distant puritanical notions of sexual permissiveness.
Some of these voices are pretty repetitive and their utterance seems to do nothing but to cement the status quo. But there are some to some minds, like mine, that really not just add value to the debate but could lead to transformational changes in the way we relate to one another. One of them was raised yesterday by Adele Horin in her opinion piece for the Herald: that consent is only the first step. The second one is for those engaging in sex to make sure that ALL participating in it actually get pleasure out of their games. So, how about guys having to make sure that they don’t just have consent of the woman (women) they’re having sex with but also having to ensure that their sex partner(s) also get pleasure out of their experience? I think Horin puts forward some convincing arguments:
Sex, thugs and rotten role models: it’s not right if she’s not enjoying it
Sydney Morning Herald, 16. May 2009
Here’s a radical thought: sex should be mutually pleasurable. It’s hardly a utopian idea, surely. But in the recent debate about so-called group sex, the word “pleasure” has never been raised. We have heard the word “consent” many times, and even “willing participant”. But no one wants to explore the notion that the aim of sex is mutual pleasure and enjoyment. And that means women are having fun.
If the notion of mutual pleasure was uppermost in men’s minds, rather than simply consent, they might think twice before participating in gang bangs, or practices that clearly aren’t bringing a woman much enjoyment.
Let’s consider another radical thought. What would happen if the burden of proof in a rape trial were turned on its head.
Instead of a woman having to prove she did not consent to sex, a man had to convince the court he went into a sexual encounter with the aim of both parties having a satisfying sexual experience.
It’s a mischievous idea but let’s continue for a moment. Did he try to determine whether she liked sex in a toilet, or on the hard ground or while comatose with drink? Did he ask her whether she would enjoy having sex with the rest of his footy team? Did he show concern about pregnancy and disease?
It’s an idea put forward, half-seriously, by Professor Mary Koss, a US expert on date rape: What if a woman’s pleasure were the standard of consent? What if her orgasm, not just his, was a consideration.
This proposal, however appealing to some of us, is unlikely to become the new legal standard. If bad sex were a crime, half the male population would be locked up.
But if the aim of mutual sexual pleasure cannot be a legal standard, surely we can work towards making it a social norm. It’s time to give pleasure its due, in our school sex education programs and in public discussion, in homes and in cheap hotels, and in whatever exotic or sleazy locale sex takes place.
Though it seems inordinately difficult for some men to get to the first hurdle and understand the concept of consent, that should not deter us for having higher expectations of men: that pleasuring a woman should also be uppermost in their mind, not simply using her.
School education programs, where they exist, generally do a good job on biology, on contraception, on disease and on relationships, and even on understanding the importance of consent. Condoms are rolled over fake penises. A terror of AIDS and STDs is drilled into young minds. But when I once asked an educator whether sexual pleasure was discussed in class, especially girls’ pleasure, she looked aghast. It would be too controversial for Australia, though not, apparently for schools in Europe. But this is where a conversation about sexual pleasure has to start – in schools. Consent should not be the start and end point of a boy’s sex education. This approach is selling girls short.
A new generation of teenage girls appears all too willing to fellate boys at parties for little joy in return. They equate sexual prowess with boys’ pleasure, not their own. The sexually aggressive girls, who go after what they want, are still regarded as sluts, or “major” sluts as the Ascham school cyber bullies called them recently.
The lack of discussion about pleasure is also selling men short. Yes, when it comes to sex, men may be simpler creatures, easy to arouse, easy to climax and easily satisfied. It is questionable though whether men experience good sex in the circumstances depicted in the Four Corners program. We hear a lot about men playing hard, drinking hard, and bonding with their teammates through sharing the same woman. But we don’t hear from men whether the sex was enjoyable.
Research by the sociologist Eugene Kanin shows that what he terms “offensively sexually aggressive” men who used a range of unsavoury techniques to get women into bed are the least sexually satisfied group. Often part of a sporting or university campus crowd, these offensive sexual aggressors felt under peer pressure to get sex, and as a result never felt happy they got enough. Unfortunately, Kanin did not investigate the possibility that the men who were happier with their sex lives were actually getting better sex because their partners were eager, and had not been tricked, coerced, or used.
If women’s pleasure became the gold standard for men, it doesn’t mean sex will be limited to anodyne couplings, devoid of heft and grunt.
Good sex takes many forms. Some women like it with whips and chains, and a large cast. Switching the debate from consent to pleasure can open a world of exploration.
In the era of internet porn, however, it’s more important than ever to check that women are having a good time, not just grimly acquiescing.
Many men’s heads are filled with graphic pornographic images. Many women complain these days of being expected to act like a porn star, and especially to agree to anal sex – the porn queen’s staple – when they don’t like it.
The focus on consent has helped by infinitesimal degrees to change the boys’ rules by which sex is played. It’s not enough, clearly.
Let’s go further, lift the bar, and consider women’s pleasure as paramount, and then both men and women may experience the joy of sex instead of the shame and recrimination.