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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 sexual activity. 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. 70-80% of women require direct clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm, 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 many (or more in some cases) nerve endings present in the human penis or glans penis. 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 area 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 may 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 generally do not require a refractory period like men do after the first orgasm; though generally reported that women do not experience a refractory period and thus can experience an additional orgasm, or multiple orgasms, soon after the first, some sources state that both men and women experience a refractory period because women may also experience a period after orgasm in which further sexual stimulation does not produce excitement. 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 increase 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 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 classed in many male-dominated cultures as subordinate to male sexuality, and as something to be controlled by society through restrictions on female behavior. Within these cultures, the most popular conceptions of female sexuality may be 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, creating a double standard in regard to male and female sexual expressions.
Some controversial traditional cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), have been described as attempts at nullifying women's sexuality altogether. FGM is defined as "procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons". FGM has no health benefits, and it can cause serious negative health problems, including bleeding, infections, infertility, and pregnancy and birth complications. It is practiced primarily in certain regions of Africa and the Middle East, as well as in some immigrant communities in Western countries. The procedure is typically carried out on young girls, before the age of 15.
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 "blaming the victim" attitude which punishes women who have accused 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". In an honor killing, the female is killed by a member of her family or social group, due to the perpetrators' belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family or community, usually for reasons such as refusing to enter an arranged marriage, being in a relationship that is disapproved by their relatives, having sex outside marriage, becoming the victim of rape, or dressing in ways which are deemed inappropriate.
Another historical devise meant for controlling female sexual behavior was the chastity belt. A chastity belt is a locking item of clothing designed to prevent sexual intercourse. Such belts were historically designed for women with the purpose of protecting their chastity and preventing masturbation or sexual access by unauthorized males.
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, research, such as that 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, Sanger, Kinsey, and 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. One of the first such popular non-fiction books 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 of interest within feminism. A short-lived concept of political lesbianism within the feminist movement led to temporary schisms 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.
Feminist attitudes to female sexuality have varied in scope throughout the movement's history. Generally, modern feminists advocate for all women to have access to sexual healthcare and education, and agree on the importance of reproductive health freedoms, particularly regarding issues such as birth control and family planning. Bodily autonomy and consent are also concepts of high importance in modern feminist views of female sexuality.
Matters such as the sex industry, sexual representation in the media, and issues regarding consent to sex under conditions of male dominance have been more controversial topics among feminists. These debates 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. Parts of the feminist movement were deeply divided on these issues.
With regard to the responsibility for safe sexual activity in heterosexual relationships, the commonly held definition of safe sex may be examined; it has been argued that there are three facets to the common perception of safe sex: emotional safety (trusting one's partner), psychological safety (feeling safe), and biomedical safety (the barrier of fluids which may cause pregnancy or transmit disease). The phrase "safe sex" is commonly known to refer to biomedical safety.
Since the emergence of sexual independence (in the West), health officials have launched campaigns to bring awareness to the risks of unprotected sexual intercourse. While the dangers of unprotected sex include unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs/STDs), with HIV/AIDS being the deadliest, the use of contraceptive devices (the most reliable being condoms) remain inconsistent. Campaigns that advocate consistent condom use are frequently targeted toward women. They often 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 construction of masculinity and femininity play a lead role in understanding why women are commonly held responsible for the outcome of sexual encounters. Often, societies create different sexual norms and assumptions for women and men, with female and male sexuality often seen as being the opposite of one another: for example, females are commonly taught that they "should not want sexual activity or find it pleasurable, or have sexual relations outside of marriage," while males are commonly taught to "feel entitled to have sexual relations and pleasure and that their self-worth is demonstrated through their sexual prowess and notions of authority and power". Sexual interactions often take place in unequal structural circumstances in the context of imbalance of power between men and women. Feminists, such as Catharine Mackinnon, have stated that the inequality in which heterosexual intercourse takes place should not be ignored and should play a crucial role in policies; Mackinnon has argued: "The assumption is that women can be unequal to men economically, socially, culturally, politically, and in religion, but the moment they have sexual interactions, they are free and equal. That's the assumption - and I think it ought to be thought about, and in particular what consent then means."
Socially constructed masculinity might suggest that men have a higher sex drive than women, that men are constantly interested in sex, and that once men are sexually aroused, they 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. Socially constructed femininity might suggest the connotation of passivity, which has impacted the cultural importance of female desire. This is a factor that contributes to women's sexual desires being largely ignored; because men are seen as unable to control their sexuality, this can make women responsible for enforcing condom use instead of the "uncontrollable" male. Some scholars argue that a contributing factor in this division of responsibility for safe sex factors is the privileged status of male desire in Western culture, as indicated by the commonly held belief that the female sexual experience is not adversely impacted by condom use but that the male sexual experience is diminished with the addition of this barrier. They believe that this is problematic, as the use of condoms is symbolically linked to casual sex and promiscuity, which goes against the social norms of femininity. This link is considered something that cannot be underestimated as "discontinuation of condom use becomes a test or a marker which signifies the existence of a committed and exclusive relationship," and demonstrates trust.
Others speculate that the responsibility for condom use falling on women is not so much imposed by society, but is instead resultant of the possible consequences of unprotected sex being generally more serious for women than men (pregnancy, greater likelihood of STI transmission, etc.). Bacterial STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, show that rates among women can be three times higher than men in high prevalence areas of the United States, and one-fourth of pregnancies in developing countries and one-half of pregnancies in the United States are unintended.
Another social idea of sexuality is the coital imperative. The coital imperative is the idea that for sex to be "real," there must be penile-vaginal intercourse. For many women, this imposes limitations to the sexual possibilities and a condom is seen as a symbol of the end of the sexual experience. Public acceptance of penis-vagina penetration as central to a sexual relationship is reinforced by the focus on condom use. These ideas, male sex drive and coital imperative, paired with the social construction of femininity, may lead to an imbalance of the power in making the decision to use a condom.