Guest Post by Monica Karpinski from The Femedic
When we first learn what it means to have sex, we learn from either the perspective of a man or a woman. We watch movies and listen to playground chatter, and, if we’re lucky, we sit through awkward sex-ed videos about what it’s like to give birth. We cobble this information together to form ideas of how we should behave and what we should expect when we have sex.
Mainstream culture teaches us these perspectives as the only two characters within a single narrative: that sex is heterosexual and penetrative. Men play the role of penetrator, and when they climax, it means that sex is over. This, we’re told, is the mechanism of what sex ‘is’.
Learning about sex this way — gender role first, libido second — restricts our libido to the confines of that role. While we might experience pleasure functionally through our genitals, which may be assigned as either ‘male’ or ‘female’, pleasure itself is something completely ours, that exists deeper within us than the gender roles society imposes on us.
By defining libido fundamentally in terms of our gender role, rather than allowing libido to organically become a part of our gender expression, we’re tapering its potential.
Gender Isn’t Genitals
Men and women in the conventional narrative of sex are defined by their genitals: a penis has to enter a vagina for it to ‘count’. And if libido is a function of the role we play on either side of this binary, then it’s essentially a function of our genitals.
There is so much more to sex than genital sensation. And, obviously, so much more to sex than penetration.
Ever heard of foreplay? It’s more than just a ‘warm up’ to sex. It sets the scene for sensuality and play, involving touch and sensation including and beyond our genitals. Physical foreplay was an important aspect of sex for 60% of female and 63% of male respondents in the 2008 Global Better Sex Survey (GBSS). More so, for women, than the intercourse itself (50%), and for both men and woman, than the intensity of orgasm (44% women; 54% men).
Sexual intimacy isn’t necessarily confined to the genitals, either. This can be a hugely important part of sexual relationships. Researchers in 2008 found that increased intimacy was one of the key reasons that people in long-term, sexual relationships wanted to have sex, while in turn, the pursuit of intimacy actually increased their sexual desire.
This was true for both men and women. Interestingly, the study participants were students aged 17-19, a demographic often (wrongly) associated with hedonistic sexual behaviour.
The possibilities of touch and intimacy are literally endless, and when coupled with various genital sensations create an infinite amount of ways two people, one person, or more people, can have sex.
Imagine if that was our starting point when getting to know our libido, rather than from arbitrary rules imposed on us about how someone with our genitals should behave sexually.
Hormones Aren’t Everything, Either
If being defined by their genitals weren’t enough, men and women within our story are also, by extension, defined more broadly in terms of biological difference.
Society is, and has long been, obsessed with ‘proving’ and quantifying these differences. But many of the people doing the proving are products of a society whose odds are stacked against women, who interpret their results through this lens. This has lead to false understandings of ‘male’ and ‘female’ libidos.
Victorian Men of Science like Charles Darwin argued that not only was gender determined by biology, but that women were naturally weaker, emotionally dependant, and hard-wired with a deeply-rooted desire to please men. These ideas were influential, and we’re still feeling the hangover from them today.
A quick Google search for ‘male and female libido’ exposes watered-down versions of the same thinking.
WebMD, the first hit at the time of writing, argues earnestly that not only do men have higher sex drives than women, but that their libidos are much more “straightforward”. Apparently, it’s “common wisdom” that women are more vested in emotional connection when it comes to sexual desire. Plus, they add, men clearly think about and seek out sex more.
There is a sea of pseudoscience — past and present — supporting these ideas.
Typically higher levels of testosterone in men is sometimes considered an explanation for a seemingly higher male sex drive. However, libido and sexual behaviour are impacted by much more than just hormones. It is possible to have high testosterone levels and still experience low libido, whether you identify as a man or woman.
“If libido was only hormonal [women] would be experiencing this in cycles and you would mate with anything that moves,” consultant gynaecologist Dr. Shirin Irani told The Femedic in June 2017. Social circumstances and cultural factors, such as pressure to conform to norms, can also influence sex drive.
Biology and hormones, then, have less than a defining role in what our libido is like. It can be environmental factors, including the way we are socialised to understand our sex drive to what sort of day we’ve had. These guide our conscious decision-making and thought processes when it comes to sex.
If that environment decrees that the version of sex drive available to us is contingent on our gender role, our understanding of libido takes on that baggage.
Gender-Neutral Sex Toys to the Rescue
Sex toys are products like any other: created with a market in mind. Designed and advertised to meet that specific market’s needs. It makes sense, then, that sex toy designs over the years have been reflective of society’s broader attitudes to pleasure.
We are currently on the cusp of a sexual revolution. Sextech is booming with more inclusive and technologically-advanced toys. These create new and exciting possibilities for play. With this, comes choice: women are no longer relegated to pink vibrators or feminised vibrators, they can choose between a variety of toys that better reflect their unique sexual identity.
Gender-neutral toys are at the forefront of this, removing libido from categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ to celebrate individuality as the locus of pleasure. Whether we want to play with them or not, their very existence makes the conversation more inclusive.
This by no means suggests that it’s not okay to play with gendered toys, but that doing so should be a choice we make rather than represent assumptions made about us.
By broadening and challenging traditional ideas of what pleasure can be, the sex tech industry is paving the way for more progressive conversations about libido and desire. Gender-neutral and inclusive toys remind us that our libido is our choice, in ways deeper than the confines of our prescribed gender role.
Monica Karpinski is the Founder & Editor of The Femedic, a digital publication and discussion space that seeks to normalise taboos surrounding women’s health.