While sexual politics at the moment appear to be fixated on hearing a woman when she says no, Katherine Rowland’s timely and brilliant new book is concerned with what happens when a woman says yes. The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution is an evocation of all the ways within consent that sexual pleasure continues to be unequal between heterosexual women and their male partners.
The primacy of penetration, as the ultimate sex act, seems to be the main culprit; intercourse is not always the best avenue to female pleasure. Rowland, a journalist and public-health researcher who spoke to 120 women and dozens of experts, reports that “80 percent of heterosexual women fake organism during vaginal intercourse about half of the time, and another 25 percent fake orgasm almost all of the time.” Why would we pretend to be in the throes of pleasure when we are not? Rowland posits that “we have internalized a distorted vision of Eros that regards female pleasure as second fiddle to the main (male) act.”
Rowland cites the sex researcher Meredith Chivers’s study of arousal, during which participants were outfitted with eye-tracking cameras and sensors that measure heart rate as well as genital response. Chivers then sat them down in La-Z-Boys and showed them sex clips. The heterosexual men and lesbian women who took part were most excited by naked women. Gay men were most excited by naked men. Only heterosexual women skewed. “Physiologically, they react to couples, men, women, even scenes of copulating bonobo apes.”
Some have read the results of Chivers’s study as proof of female sexual pliability. It’s been hypothesized that in earlier eras women were more vulnerable to rape, and so had to lubricate quickly in order not to tear. Rowland’s interpretation is less chilling and more political. Heterosexual women do not equate pleasure only with naked men because men are not always a realizable line to pleasure. “If bedroom life revolves around a modest preamble leading up to penile penetration, women may become increasingly uninterested in intimacy, because so far, it has routinely left them underwhelmed, if not sad, angry, or frustrated.”
At the same time, The Pleasure Gap teases out the cost of a broader culture that objectifies, sexualizes, judges, and undervalues women. Our sexuality is policed and seen mostly in terms of “emotional security, altruism, connectedness, and reproduction” rather than pleasure. Rowland also points to the lingering effects of sexual violence. One out of five women has been either raped or subject to an attempted raped. “The most common post-traumatic disorders,” according to a researcher she cites, “are those not of men in war but of women in civilian life.”
What, then, is the answer? Rowland is wary of the various medications that have been developed to address “failing” female libido, arguing instead for social and systemic change. Designing drugs intended to up libido, says American psychologist Christopher Ryan, is like “giving antibiotics to pigs because of the shit they’re standing in.” The drugs in development, Rowland finds, focus not on female pleasure but on female sexual availability. The vagina as viable penis holder, rather than a locus of pleasure for its owner.
I came to this interview eager to ask Rowland about the experiences she takes on in the second half of her book: going to a sex therapist; talking to women who have opened their marriages to non-monogamy; and spending time with the School of Womanly Arts run by Regena Thomashauer, author of the best-selling book Pussy: A Reclamation. But I found myself, as we talked, compelled even more by Rowland’s project of searching for the deep and varied sources of the pleasure gap. Over the course of our meeting in Brooklyn, we discussed the medicalization of low desire, the spiritual dimension of intimacy, and the idea of “moving from a culture of endemic harm to one of communal healing.”
—Darcey Steinke for Guernica
Guernica: How did you first get interested in the subject of female pleasure? What made you want to write a book about it?
Katherine Rowland: It’s so funny when people ask me that question, because I feel like: Who isn’t interested in the subject of female pleasure? Why isn’t this at the front and center of our conversation more generally? I’ve been studying this issue for a long time. My first job out of college was working for a psychologist and clinical sex therapist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering and doing research there with women who had lost their reproductive ability owing to their cancer. And what was so striking to me was that these women were coming forward with all kinds of sexual complaints, and the US research was so pathologizing. It was all framed around their desire disorders and their arousal disorders. But then looking at the international literature, what was coming out of the UK and what was coming out of Canada was much more relationally focused. It was, “Has your partner found your clitoris? Do you enjoy being touched? What does sexual healing actually look like for you beyond just reaching this penetrative end?” And so I portaged that interest along into my early career.
Guernica: As your book opens, you write: “Female pleasure likely will remain elusive and difficult so long as we—as a culture and as erotic individuals—approach sex as a linear experience that forecloses on the wider universe of eroticism.” Can you unpack this a little for us?
Rowland: Well, I think the first part of that refers to the pernicious but pervasive binary in how we understand sexuality. Male appetites kind of have no story there. You expect them to be robust, spontaneous, emotionally unfettered. Nothing they do surprises us; their political ambitions are derailed by their desire to chase tail. And you don’t blink an eye at all the turbulence that follows in the wake of their desire. But women’s [desire], by contrast, whether it’s perceived as mute or voracious, inspires panic and fascination. We’re so caught up in telling stories about it that we really can’t perceive what it is. But in terms of the wider universe of eroticism, we cycle through some very tired tropes in terms of what female sexuality should look like. And talking to all of these women, [I found] they’re so sold on a story that their sex and love should look a particular way that they’re not even allowing themselves to engage in the sort of act and activity that they actually crave.
Guernica: One quarter to one half of heterosexual women experience low desire. The medical terms tell us this, but you talk to feminist critics, like Leonore Tiefer, who says there is no normal that’s been lost. Can you talk about the tension between these two ideas?
Rowland: First of all, we have to take all these statistics with a grain of salt. Because in terms of there being no normal, how do we determine what is high or low in something as subjective as desire? Is there a baseline for women, or is it a male baseline that women are being compared to? How does this vary across time and space and culture and demographic background? We consistently underfund sexuality research, and we have really impoverished answers to all of these questions. So, that’s part of it. And the second part is that a lot of these efforts to define low desire or low arousal are these days attached to pharmaceutical ambitions to develop a cure. It’s almost like the cure precedes the designation of disease.
This idea of what’s normal brings a couple of exchanges to mind. There’s this one young woman in her early twenties, fresh out of college, and she’s so convinced that she’s sexually broken. Where is she getting that idea? She hasn’t had a life of experience to stir up her sexuality, to explore her sexuality, but she has latched on to some imaginary ideal that she should be feeling a certain way and craving in a certain way. So when she feels kind of mute, or whatever, she self-labels as “I’m bad and broken.”
Another woman, who is now, like, mid-thirties, had sought out all kinds of therapeutic assistance, because she just wasn’t into having sex with her partner. She was given antidepressants, which further tanked her libido, and then was given different forms of lube, and then eventually experimented with testosterone supplementation. And then eventually she left this guy and got into a new relationship and suddenly her sexuality blows wide open. Thinking about desire like a fixed entity that’s completely detached from circumstances is where we really get into trouble. Obviously, everything is going to change it.
Guernica: In the first part of your book you talk about how women internalize the distorted vision of Eros that regards female pleasure as second fiddle to the main male act. What are some of the ways you found that this idea has seeped into girls and women?
Rowland: I think viewing sex as a form of chore or duty. That it’s a grudging kindness that you give to your partner. That it’s easier to say yes than it is to say no. But faking it, as a subject, just really does not get the attention that it deserves.
Guernica: Yeah, I was surprised that you said 80 percent of women fake it half of the time and then 25 percent fake it a majority of the time.
Rowland: So many women described it as routine, or they felt so much pressure to be this sexy goddess creature that they would initiate sex and then go over the top in flaunting their enjoyments in these interactions. And then, more guttingly, all these women described faking it in contexts when they were experiencing pain or just really wanted out of something. And the fact that it was easier and to them more acceptable to feign delight, rather than saying this is bordering on abusive.
Guernica: It’s just perpetuating the same pattern over and over again, faking it.
Rowland: Right. But I think so many women lack the ability to even articulate what it is they want. So, maybe they have a relationship with self-pleasuring, but that’s often pretty rote. Like, “I hold my vibrator for three minutes, and I get off.” It’s not like they’re versed in the different tones and textures of their bodies. It’s kind of something to dispense with and move on.
Guernica: I think part of the reason that the faking happens is to turn on the man. But wouldn’t authentic pleasure be even more sexy to the man?
Rowland: I think men who crossed to the other side of understanding female sexuality really got off on that kind of expression. It could look like tears, it could look like rage, it could be all of these things. And what was thrilling to them was not seeing their partners get off but seeing this portal into their inner being. Otherwise, we’re so limited in our conversations that men will eagerly accept, “Okay, she told me she came. We’re fine. Check, done. Let’s watch the game.”
I really loved this one story that didn’t make it into the book. It was this couple, and they’re both professional sexuality educators, so they’re very in the know. But they were still coming up against their own struggles, and the woman said, “I’m really tired of pleasuring you. I want this to be about me. Just for tonight, let’s just make it about me.” And so they embark on this experiment where they completely set his gratification aside, and it became this investigation of what prompted her hunger, what prompted her interest, when was she satisfied. And they carried on for a whole year. And what was so beautiful is when they had me at their house in Northern California, they were telling me about this together, and she turned to him, and sort of looked chagrined, and said, “I’m sorry it lasted so long, but thank you.” And he was like, “No, don’t thank me. This was my privilege.” It was so beautiful.
Guernica: I was recently at a dinner party in which one of the women said that the men she wanted to have a lot of sex with did not make good partners. She’d finally learned this. Do you think that women can feel intimacy in not having sex?
Rowland: Absolutely. I got really interested in that too because some of the most empowering stories that I heard were around really drawing boundaries, or women in long-term monogamous-expectant partnerships learning to say no to their partners. Or introducing consent as part of what needed to be in their repartee. It was erotic for them to be able to say, “Don’t touch me. I’m tired.” This was them [acting as] erotic beings by designating what they did not want.
Guernica: You write that so much of the therapeutic focus is not on feminine sexual enjoyment, but on female sexual availability. I found this true in researching my own book, Flash Count Diary, which is about, in part, menopause, as well. Even at medical menopause conferences, the main interest was in getting the vagina in shape so it could be penetrated by a penis by using hormones, or vaginal rejuvenation lasers. Vagina as a penis holder. The medical intervention doesn’t seem to be pro-woman.
Rowland: It’s pro-availability. For me, the doctors I heard from, particularly in the sexual medicine community, [put forward] this reductive idea of, “We’re helping women have better relationships.” It wasn’t, “We’re helping women have a better relationship with themselves.” It’s, “We’re helping them be better wives and partners.” The frequency with which I heard language like, “We’re going to get them back to normal, we’re going to get them functioning again.” It’s code for sexual availability or the receptiveness. The vagina is the penis holder.
Also, it strikes me that in your world of research there is a focus on actual female genitalia. Sort of like the vagina has aged out of service and we need to recruit her back into the mix. But for pre-menopausal women, the vagina is ignored altogether. And it’s like, How do we recruit women as willing participants? The vagina’s fine; there’s something with your brain that’s wrong. Because all of that research on sexual concordance continually surfaces to find that female arousal is unproblematic. Genitals are swelling, blood is flowing. What emerges is that women report that they’re turned off, so it’s sort of how to intervene at the level of women’s minds to make them willing.
Guernica: You write that one woman in five has been either raped or someone has tried to rape her, and that a sexual violation can limit a woman’s feeling of safety during sex. You also suggest that women who have not been raped still feel anxiety and undermined by a culture of violence against women and girls. Does this mean that seeking more pleasure for women has a political as well as a personal dimension?
Rowland: Absolutely. I was shocked that it was almost ubiquitous, almost a universal experience of having had some awful form of trespass take place. But even if it wasn’t a direct experience, I feel like there’s so much indirect exposure, that that really speaks into how you hold yourself, what’s okay. And we’re not going to get to a place where we’re on equal sexual terms when women move through the world with a guarded sense of risk and hazard. It has to be a political undertaking.
Guernica: Can you think of some things we can do in the political sense to help with women’s pleasure?
Rowland: That’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about now. It was interesting wrapping up this research as all this Me Too stuff was going on. There’s this question of what to do with all the “bad men.” I think we haven’t gotten beyond asking that question, and I think that the way we get beyond it is by thinking about primary prevention and rehabilitation, and really moving from a culture of endemic harm to one of communal healing. And sort of going beyond thinking about survivors versus perpetrators, victims versus assailants, and thinking about how we’re all victimized by this culture that objectifies bodies and sexuality and turns a blind eye to where actual risk is taking place. I’ve been thinking a lot about the registry and how that’s potentially throwing 95 percent of our sexual violence prevention resources at, like, 3 percent of the problem, and then ignoring the fact that it’s known entities who are violating people, and refusing to peer into what’s taking place in American homes, and what’s taking place in American schools.
Guernica: You write in your book about the Meredith Chivers study: Heterosexual men get most aroused when they see women, lesbians get most aroused when they see women, but heterosexual women seem to be aroused at a wide variety of sexual images. And then the scary idea is that we may have been made this way because if you’re going to get raped in the woods it’s better, it’s safer for you, if you’re…
Guernica: Yeah. That’s dark. But I really like your idea of, “No, actually, it’s that women haven’t universally been pleased by men.”
Rowland: Right. Heterosexual women are firing on all cylinders because there’s no reinforcements. It’s so interesting that so much of the media embraces this finding from when Daniel Bergners’s work came out, his conclusion from talking to Meredith Chivers and others was that women are rapacious creatures and cultures try to smother their relationship with their sexuality. But Chivers suggested to me that this is not a complete or wholly accurate interpretation. We can’t take women’s genital reactions as a truer marker of their sexuality than what they’re actually saying they feel.
Guernica: You say right up front, “This book is mostly about heterosexual women, because this is where the gap exists.” My lesbian friends I talk to are mostly like, “No problem here. She knows where my clitoris is.” I read the Kinsey Report for my book too, and even then, in the ’50s, lesbians had more satisfying sex, partly because they were familiar with female anatomy.
Rowland: Right. And that you’re approaching sex with the expectation that even if it’s one partner more so than another, it’s going to be a woman who is gratified by the sex. And also just duration. I did some roundtables, and this one lesbian was talking about how she and her partner had sex for hours, and this very straight woman there was like, “Doesn’t that hurt?” Because her understanding of it was being penetrated for hours. Which, of course, would be dreadful. It was such a moment of moving the veil aside, watching the straight woman’s face as the lesbian was like, “No, no, no, no. This is what sex is.” And sort of taking her through an array of intimacy.
Guernica: You write about the new drugs for female libido. Can you talk about the tension between the fix-it pill culture and the idea of improving women’s lives inside and out of the bedroom to help raise their desire?
Rowland: The pill culture is so fascinating to me, because it really is trying to solve this problem in a black box. Your desire has mysteriously vanished and it’s manifesting as your reluctance to be intimate, and it’s your fault. You have to fix this. It’s completely divorced from circumstances having to do with the pressures of being a professional, or a parent, or a partner, or a caretaker. You’re exhausted and the world bombards you with all kinds of nonsense all the time that completely derails your libido. And the libido is supposed to be a fixed thing that we can just reignite with a pill. Part of the tension there that I found so striking is that when you talk to the people involved in the pharma research, they’re like, “This is the holy grail.” And my sense in talking to women is that a lot of them view it as kind of creepy. Like, “Why would I want to be stimulated to do something that I don’t feel compelled to do?” It makes you compliant. The sad thing about these drugs is that none of them really cultivate desire. I mean, Flibanserin, trade name Addyi, is a failed antidepressant.
Guernica: Even the amount of sex. I did a little research on this too, and I remember some of the pills resulted in, like, .5 more times a month. Really? You’re going to take a pill every day for that?
Rowland: That’s also such a male measurement. This idea that the way we evaluate the strength of desire is through sexual frequency as opposed to the force of my longing, and my enjoyment.
Guernica: You write that “if desires can only be contained, and not extinguished, perhaps it would be a collective kindness to adjust the parameters of intimacy so that monogamy becomes but one of many choices, rather than the sole, and sometimes stifling, vessel for all our wild range.” What prompted this thought?
Rowland: I think that for some women, or some commentators, part of why the idea of non-monogamy is so appealing is that much of contemporary monogamy is so closed. We have become insular as a society and composed of these really cloistered units that are cut off from our larger communities. So, non-monogamy was seen as a way of breaking free of that isolation and connecting with others outside of these often wearied, over-stressed bonds. That rang especially true for mothers, who were like, I’ve gone from having this really robust life where I’ve been in the world, and I’ve been active, and now the whole scope of my existence has been whittled down to this little speck of reality and I’m cut off from being a larger participant in the world around me. A couple years ago I stayed at this intentional community that revolved around non-monogamy. Part of it was very beautiful to me. It seemed like almost a spiritual undertaking: How do I manage my jealousy? How do I manage my biases around what a relationship is supposed to look like in order to forge these new connections? But I was also almost wounded on behalf of some of the people around me for how disposable relations became. What is your community, where can you find trust, when you’re holding your heart and your desire as the ultimate barometer of your actions? I think we need to find some path through the middle.
What really prompted me to write that particular sentence, though, was just hearing over and again from women that they really beat themselves up for their passing fantasies and were longing for something else: “Why am I not content with having realized the dream, and why do I instead just feel kind of suffocated?”
Guernica: This idea of seeing sex as separate from the full human experience. And the idea that good sex is over here, but then my life and my amnesty is over here.
Rowland: Actually, I had a chapter on that at the end, and that was kind of trimmed by my editor. But I really wanted it. Because I wanted to get into the spiritual dimension of intimacy. I found myself hesitating around using terms like “spirituality,” but it was a spiritual undertaking. [It explored] what it is to open to yourself as well as to others. I feel like that’s part of the larger project of human awakening. So to even think about that in terms of what did you do, how did you do it, how many times—it’s such a crude underestimation.
Guernica: Yeah, it’s like the difference between reciting the Lord’s Prayer and…
Rowland: Actual faith.