Pain, pleasure and porn

Amy*’s voice trembles as she recalls losing her virginity at the age of 17.

 

“It was clumsy and awkward and painful,” she said.

 

“I felt like the worst person in the world, like I wasn’t meant to have done it. Even though it was consensual, the education from school and the stigma made me feel horrible.”

 

The 30-year-old remembers her sex education focussed on abstinence and “connection to God.”

 

She carried her shame with her in her first marriage.

 

“I felt it was my duty to lay there for [my ex-husband’s] pleasure. He would do things I never liked, he would be rough, I asked him to use lube but I was ignored. He would make me turn around so I wasn’t facing him and I used to feel so ashamed. If I spoke up, he would say it was my body’s fault.”

 

Amy is not alone. A new Australian Study of Health and Relationships (ASHR) study of 20,000 Australians found that 17 per cent of women experienced painful sex compared with 2 per cent of men.

Similarly, 18 per cent of women found sex not pleasurable compared to 5 per cent of men. Over half the women surveyed lacked interest in having sex compared to a quarter of men.

 

From the moment a young woman is ready to have sex, she is told to prepare for pain, according to Associate Professor Melissa Kang of the University of Technology, Sydney.

 

Australian women might know her as the Dolly Doctor, who answered questions about their bodies in the sealed section of the beloved magazine for decades.

 

“It’s a vicious cycle. Anxiety or worry can contribute to muscle tension which can cause painful intercourse,” she said.

 

 

The prevalence of painful sex amongst women has led to calls for Australian sex education curriculums to include not just safe sex, but good sex.

 

“There is sufficient research now to show what young people want, and what they say is missing in sex education,” said Dr Kang.

 

“This includes pleasure, sexual diversity and where to go for advice and help. We need to move away from a biological or medical discourse and learn about sexuality as a part of learning about self and others.”

 

Family Planning Victoria (FPV) has also called for pleasure to have a role in sex education.

 

“We are almost intentionally being a little bit provocative using the world pleasure,” said FPV CEO Claire Vissenga.

 

“We want people to have enjoyable relationships, and an enjoyable relationship is one that doesn’t include pain, discomfort, coercion, all of the negative attributes that might be in an unsafe or unpleasurable sexual relationship. That’s what we mean we talk about pleasure.”

 

Ms Vissenga points out “imbalances” that exist in male and female sexuality.

 

“Often, a man considers good sex as an experience where he’s enjoying himself, a woman will often consider good sex where the male is satisfied,” she said.

 

She believes the absence of good sex and pleasure is “pathologised” in women.

 

“They go to the doctor to find out what’s wrong with them, rather than what their partners are doing or not doing resulting in them having unpleasant experiences.”

 

On one occasion, Amy sought medical attention to find out why she was bleeding and not enjoying herself during sex with her ex-husband.

 

“One time I had to go to the doctor’s as I had spots of blood. He had been so rough and I had been so dry that he tore the skin,” she said.

 

Experts agree that when sex education curriculums are insufficient, young people will turn to pornography to fill the gaps.

 

Ms Vissenga believes that pornography is “hugely influential” in distorting ideas of normal sex and arousal, especially now that the average age for exposure is 12.

 

The ASHR report found that 84 per cent of men and 54 per cent of women had accessed pornography before.

 

Amy identifies her ex-husband’s pornography habits as a cause of her lack of arousal.

 

“It raised his expectations of what he thought I would and could do. He would call me a ‘dirty little slut.’ There was never any affection throughout the day. Trying to get aroused instantly with little foreplay and a man just wanting to enter me, wasn’t fun,” she said.

 

Dr Kang said pornography contributes to ideas about sex that young people form as they mature, leading to “narrow scripts” about pleasure.

 

A quarter of women surveyed in the ASHR report were unable to reach orgasm compared to 6 per cent of men.

 

Lexie*, 27, has never had an orgasm in her life.

 

“I don’t think my sexual partners have made enough of a conscious effort to pleasure me. It’s always about what they enjoy,” she said.

 

Meg*, 24, has also never reached climax through sex with a man.

 

“I’ve been close but never gotten there. As a result, I go in with no expectation to reach climax and more often than not just do what it takes to get the guy there, which is a bad habit I’ve conditioned myself to get used to.”

 

Erica*, 20, said she didn’t even know that women had orgasms until she finished high school.

 

The ASHR data suggests that there has been improvement in women’s sexual difficulties since the first report in 2002.

 

However, this occurred at the same time as a drop in sexual frequency in male-female couples, as lead researcher Professor Juliet Richters notes.

 

“Perhaps at last we are starting to move away from the idea that women are there to sexually serve men, even when women don’t feel like it,” she said.

 

“However, qualitative data suggests a fair amount of that still happens.”

 

Dr Kang says that female sexuality is still “stigmatised and oppressed.”

 

“Things are changing – and have changed a lot in the past few decades – but there’s a long way to go.”

 

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