Most of us women tend to think that we’re emancipated,
modern creatures. We drink, drive, smoke, have casual sex, and do
all those other things that 50 years ago were largely reserved
for the less-fair sex. And yet there are some female things that
we still consider taboo. The worst name anyone can be called is ‘cunt’. The
best thing a cunt can be is small and unobtrusive: the anxiety
about the largeness of the penis is only equalled by anxiety
about the smallness of the cunt. No woman wants to find out that
she has a twat like a horse-collar: she hopes she is not sloppy
or smelly, and obligingly obliterates all signs of her
menstruation in the cause of public decency. Women still buy sanitary towels with enormous discretion, and
carry their handbags to the loo when they only need to carry the
pad. If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the
idea of tasting your menstrual blood – ”if it makes you
sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby.” Statements like
this, from Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), were
radical even then. But let’s face it: female masturbation,
vibrators, periods and even tampax, damn it, are still not
considered acceptable topics of conversation. And yet, there is
seemingly no objective reason why these things should be set
apart. Indeed, they have not always been so. In 1869 the electronic vibrator came into being, as an object
recommended by doctors to cure female illnesses such as
“hysteria”, depression or general malaise. A plethora
of advertisements still survive, with engaging captions such as,
“Invented by a woman who knows a woman’s needs.”
Well, quite. But then, disaster struck: vibrators began to be used in the
early blue movies of the 1920s, and, threatened with the
terrifying taint of disrespectability, they disappeared from
general use. By the 1950s, it was generally accepted that a woman who
couldn’t have an orgasm through penetrative intercourse
alone was ‘frigid’, and probably in need of psychiatric
help (see, for example, The Sexually Adequate Female by Frank
Caprio, 1953). Research by the famous sexologists Masters and Johnson,
published in 1966 as Human Sexual Response, did much to
re-appropriate the pursuit of sexual pleasure as a
‘healthy’ activity. However, the team also decided
that, given adequately sustained stimulus, most
‘normal’ women could be trained to have vaginal
orgasms. In the rapidly changing world of the ‘60s and ‘70s
women now gathered the courage to respond to some of
Masters’ and Johnson’s conclusions with suitable
outrage, pointing to deeper, sociological and psychological
factors in men’s desire to assume that all women needed
their penises in order to have satisfying sex. So, how far have we come since those heady days? This is going
to hurt our generational pride, but I’m afraid I have to say
it. Not very. In fact, we’ve possibly even gone backwards.
For example, recent studies conclude that only 30% of women can
have vaginal orgasms, and yet items such as vibrators are pretty
taboo. Have you ever seen one in a (non-X-rated) film? Do you own
one? And would you admit to the people sitting next to you right
now that you do? Websites that sell vibrators offer to ship them in plain
cardboard boxes, and reassure buyers that not even the name of
the shop will be written on the package. Some websites, such as, seem to see no distinction between sex
toys and pornography, (this one offered a “free, live and
uncensored webcamera” as well as various sex toys). Even the high-street retail giant Ann Summers has an aura of
the slightly kinky, the on-the-edge-ofsmutty, with its lurid red
and black polyester cutaway barmaid outfits and red-tipped
plastic penises adorning everything from drinking straws to
key-rings. How can, and do, women put up with this? The most
obvious response is that, actually, increasingly they
don’tput up with it. There are mail order websites that take
a less pathetic approach, such as British,
or the amusingly named
(oddly enough, its American counterpart is A quick browse on Google led me to the mind-expanding, which showcases a range of toys as well as
“salon sexuals” brimming with advice from how best to
perform oral sex on a woman to where to find female-friendly
erotica. And, despite my minor misgivings, by bringing a range of these
products onto the high street Ann Summers is nonetheless taking a
huge step in the right direction. However, this isn’t the whole story. To limit sexual
satisfaction to orgasms is narrow minded, when, as any gal knows,
there are lots of different types of fun to be had, and of
differing degrees of satisfaction at that. And of course,
although sex is an important part of many relationships, this is
not the case for an equally substantial number. Whatever your preferences, though, the real problem I guess
I’m trying to get at is the paralysing sense of taboo that,
as the more astute of you may have noticed, has stopped me (and
probably most other writers in this special ‘sex’
edition) from talking from a personal standpoint, whatever our
views. We seem able only to laugh nervously like school childen at
sex, to treat it with distaste or to pretend that it doesn’t
exist, and that seems to be even more the case for women’s
sexual practices than for men. So let’s applaud those brave voices in the dark over the
decades, to Germaine Greer and others like her, without whom we
would all feel that little bit more weird.ARCHIVE: 3rd week TT 2004