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Human female sexuality encompasses a broad range of behaviors and processes, including female sexual identity and sexual behavior, the physiological, psychological, social, cultural, political, and spiritual or religious aspects of sex. Various aspects and dimensions of female sexuality, as a part of human sexuality, have also been addressed by principles of ethics, morality, and theology. In almost any historical era and culture, the arts, including literary and visual arts, as well as popular culture, present a substantial portion of a given society's views on human sexuality, which also include implicitly or explicitly female sexuality.
In most societies and legal jurisdictions, there are legal bounds on what sexual behavior is permitted. Sexuality varies across the cultures and regions of the world, and has continually changed throughout history, and this applies equally to female sexuality. Aspects of female sexuality include issues pertaining to biological sex, body image, self-esteem, personality, sexual orientation, values and attitudes, gender roles, relationships, activity options, and communication.
Orgasm, or sexual climax, is the sudden discharge of accumulated sexual tension during the sexual response cycle, resulting in rhythmic muscular contractions in the pelvic region characterized by an intense sensation of pleasure. Women find it more difficult than men to experience orgasms due to the increased level and variety of stimulation needed to reach them. Additionally, some women may require more than one type of sexual stimulation in order to achieve orgasm.
Orgasm in women has typically been divided into two categories: clitoral and vaginal (or G-Spot) orgasms. Most women (70-80%) achieve orgasm only through direct clitoral stimulation, though indirect clitoral stimulation may also be sufficient. Clitoral orgasms are easier to achieve because the glans of the clitoris, or clitoris as a whole, has more than 8,000 sensory nerve endings, as much as or more than the human penis, as well as more than any other part of the human body. As the clitoris is homologous to the penis, it is the equivalent in its capacity to receive sexual stimulation.
Although vaginal orgasms are more difficult to achieve, the G-Spot may produce an orgasm if properly stimulated. The G-Spot's existence, and existence as a distinct structure, is still under dispute, as its location can vary from woman to woman and appears to be nonexistent in some women and it is hypothesized to be an extension of the clitoris.
Women are able to experience multiple orgasms. 'Multiple' means more than one orgasm, experienced one immediately after another, while 'sequential' means orgasms occur one after another but are separated by a few minutes. Even though multiple orgasms are very rarely experienced, they are not impossible. Author Mark Levinson considers them to be the ultimate climax women can achieve. Sometimes, female multiple orgasms are accompanied by female ejaculation.
Women are able to achieve multiple orgasms due to the fact that they do not require a refractory period like men do after the first orgasm. However, achieving multiple orgasms is not as easy as sometimes perceived, given that women generally reach orgasms with greater difficulty than men, and people have a variety of erogenous zones that can be stimulated.
During heterosexual intercourse, it is common that men stop the stimulation process in a woman (after experiencing orgasm themselves, and losing their erection), and this may be one of the reasons why many women do not actually achieve more than one orgasm. However, some women do not want to be pressured into another orgasm while others are eager for more, as the stimulation can be overwhelming or painful.
The biological function of a woman's orgasm is not completely understood, as some researchers suggest that it does not appear to serve an essential purpose to human survival. Dr Helen O'Connell said, "It boils down to rivalry between the sexes: the idea that one sex is sexual and the other reproductive. The truth is that both are sexual and both are reproductive." O'Connell used MRI technology to define the true size and shape of the clitoris, showing that it extends considerably inside the vagina. She describes typical textbook descriptions of the clitoris as lacking detail and including inaccuracies, saying that the work of Georg Ludwig Kobelt in the early 19th century provides a most comprehensive and accurate description of clitoral anatomy. O'Connell asserts that the bulbs appear to be part of the clitoris and that the distal urethra and vagina are intimately related structures, although they are not erectile in character, forming a tissue cluster with the clitoris. This cluster appears to be the locus of female sexual function and orgasm.
At the 2002 conference for Canadian Society of Women in Philosophy, Dr. Nancy Tuana asserted that the clitoris is unnecessary in reproduction and therefore it has been "historically ignored," mainly because of "a fear of pleasure. It is pleasure separated from reproduction. That's the fear". She reasoned that this fear is the cause of the ignorance that veils female sexuality. Other theories suggest that muscular contractions associated with orgasms pull sperm from the vagina to the cervix, where it is in a better position to reach the egg.
The female erogenous zones are areas with nerve endings that increase the sensitivity and their stimulation results in sexual response. The aim of exploring the female erogenous areas is to prepare the woman for sexual intercourse by increasing her level of arousal in order to enjoy the act and potentially reach an orgasm. The erogenous zones are different from woman to woman and it is also likely that the stimulation of the erogenous areas that some women find pleasant and exciting may be impossible to bear for others.
Representations of female sexuality date back to prehistoric times; there is clear evidence of the depiction of female fecundity in ancient Venus figurines. Fertility goddesses are common in many ancient cultures. In many cultures there are also gods of love, marriage, and sex. In the ancient civilizations of India, Japan, and China, the subject of female sexuality was expressed in several writings and commentaries. For example, much of the Kama Sutra, an ancient treatise on sex and sexuality, deals with female sexuality.
Historically, female sexuality has been seen in many male-dominated cultures as subordinate to male sexuality, and as something to be controlled by society through restrictions on female behavior. One may say that within these cultures the most popular conceptions of female sexuality are seen through the male gaze, without counter self-conceptions through the female gaze, or gazes not female nor male.
Traditional cultural practices such as enforced modesty and chastity have historically tended to place restrictions principally on women, without imposing similar restrictions on men. Some controversial traditional cultural practices such as female genital cutting have been described as attempts at nullifying women's sexuality altogether. Many females are deprived of the ability to achieve orgasm through the act of Female Genital Mutilation which is practiced in many countries around the world. Against their will, young girls around the world undergo mutilation at a young age-at the age of 5 or 6. It is a procedure that involves the cutting of the clitoris, most often without the use of pain killers. There are many health risks. These risks include: severe pain, urine retention, infection to many parts of the female reproductive system, difficulties with childbirth.
Other cultural practices such as honor killings threaten unsanctioned female sexual behavior with death, often at the hands of the woman's own relatives. This combines with a "blame the victim" attitude which punishes women who accuse men of raping them; even if the rape is proved, the woman will be punished for the "crime" of fornication, regardless of her unwillingness to "participate". Oftentimes, after the killing takes place, the family attempts to forget and no longer mention the family member they just killed. Some honor killings are made to appear as accidents so measuring them can be difficult.
In the modern age, psychologists and physiologists engaged in the task of exploring female sexuality. Sigmund Freud propounded the theory of two kinds of female orgasms, "the vaginal kind, and the clitoral orgasm." However, studies, such as those done by Masters and Johnson (1966) and Dr. Helen O'Connell (2005), reject this distinction.
Ernst Gräfenberg was famous for his studies of female genitalia and human female sexual physiology; he published, among other studies, the seminal The Role of Urethra in Female Orgasm (1950), which describes female ejaculation, as well as an erogenous zone where the urethra is closest to the vaginal wall. In 1981, sexologists John D. Perry and Beverly Whipple named that area the Gräfenberg Spot, or G-Spot, in his honor. While the medical community generally has not embraced the complete concept of the G-Spot, Dr. Sanger, Dr. Kinsey, and Drs. Masters and Johnson credit his extensive physiological work.
Some researchers challenge the notion that women only want sex for the physical closeness or cuddling, by identifying the characteristics of highly sexual women. These women characterized as "highly sexual" held more favorable attitudes toward casual sex, fantasized about sex often and enjoyed sex outside of a committed relationship. These findings support the view that the importance of sex or cuddling is not solely based on gender.
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The feminist movement, and the increasing social status of women in modern society, have led to women's sexuality being reassessed as a subject in its own right. During the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the sexual revolution, numerous feminist writers started to address the question of female sexuality from their own female perspective, rather than allowing female sexuality to be defined in terms of largely male studies. The first such popular non-fiction book was Nancy Friday's My Secret Garden. Other writers such as Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir and Camille Paglia were particularly influential in this, although their views were not universally or placidly accepted. Toward the end of the twentieth century the most significant European contributions to understanding female sexuality came from psychoanalytical French feminism, with the work of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.
Lesbianism and female bisexuality also emerged as topics that could be talked about in public. A short-lived movement towards political lesbianism within the feminist movement led to temporary schisms within the feminist movement between heterosexual and lesbian women, then rapidly floundered in the face of the acceptance that most women's sexuality was not defined by politics, but by their own sexual preferences. Most modern feminist movements now accept all forms of female sexuality as equally valid.
Feminist attitudes to female sexuality have taken a few different directions. In particular, matters such as the sex industry, sexual representation in the media, and issues regarding consent to sex under conditions of male dominance have been particular controversial among feminists. This debate has culminated in the late 1970s and the 1980s, in what came to be known as the Feminist Sex Wars, which pitted anti-pornography feminism against sex-positive feminism, and parts of the feminist movement were deeply divided by these debates.
Since the emergence of sexual independence, health officials have launched campaigns to bring awareness to the dangers of unprotected sexual intercourse. While the dangers of unprotected sex include unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (HIV/AIDS being the deadliest), the use of contraceptive devices, the most reliable being condoms, remain inconsistent. These campaigns place the greatest responsibility for safe sex on women and there are several social constructions and assumptions that are to be taken into account to understand the reasoning why.
The social constructions of masculinity and femininity play a lead role in understanding why it is women who are responsible for controlling their sexual encounters. Society has attributed many traits to masculinity including a high sex drive. This high sex drive asserts that men are constantly interested in sex and once they are sexually aroused must be satisfied through orgasm. This drive is intertwined with the male identity and consequently creates a momentum that once started is difficult to stop. Society has also attributed many traits to femininity including altruism. This trait has caused women’s sexual desires to be largely ignored and because men are seen as unable to control their sexuality, women become responsible for enforcing condom use instead of the "uncontrollable" male. However, others speculate that the responsibility for condom use falling on women is not so much societally imposed but is instead resultant of the possible consequences of unprotected sex being generally more serious for women than men (pregnancy, greater likelihood of STD transmission, etc.).
Another commonly believed social idea of sexuality is the coital imperative. The coital imperative is the idea that for sex to be "real" there must be penis-vagina intercourse. For many women, this imposes limitations to the sexual possibilities and a condom is seen as a symbol of the end. It is easy to assess how these two ideas, male sex drive and coital imperative, paired with the social construction of femininity can easily lead to an imbalance of the power to make the decision to use a condom.