The Principles of Pleasure, Netflix’s new miniseries, which dropped on Tuesday, is a warm and lively pastel-colored exploration of women’s sexuality, a show full of vulva diagrams and sex toy tutorials, and discussions menstrual cycles and masturbation. There’s one question, however that’s a bit harder to answer: Why do we still have to do this? Why, despite living in a society that’s in many ways more sexually open than ever before, do women who sleep with men find it so challenging to access sexual pleasure and avoid pain and harm?
When it comes to straight women’s sexual pleasure, stats are often grim. Nearly a third of women and 7 percent of men have reported they experienced pain during vaginal intercourse, with a majority saying that they didn’t mention this pain to their partners. While orgasm is far from the only measure of sexual pleasure, a whopping 10 to 15 percent of women have have never experienced one. There’s also the unknown percentage of women who believe they are having orgasms, but actually aren’t. (As only about one percent of people say they are asexual, many anorgasmic women may not be entirely content with that status.) The orgasm gap is something like a canyon: A 2016 survey of more than 50,000 Americans found that, of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and heterosexual adults, straight women were the least likely to orgasm during sex. Then, many women in search of that elusive pleasure have to actively try to avoid pain and danger—from men subjecting them to unwanted choking, slapping, spitting, gagging, or the removal of condoms mid-coitus.
“I would say the most common question between elementary, high school, collegiate, is surprisingly pretty much the same,” says sex educator Ericka Hart in The Principles of Pleasure, “‘Is sex supposed to hurt?’” Like the series, Washington Post columnist Christine Emba’s new book, Rethinking Sex, also debuted Tuesday. In it, she describes meeting a woman who told her of a burgeoning relationship with a guy she really liked, but who had the habit of choking her during sex, which she did not really like. “I mean, what do you think?” the woman asked Emba, “Is that okay?” It’s a variation on the same question: Is sex supposed to hurt?
The Principles of Pleasure offers practical, familiar solutions. It suggests that we explore our bodies, communicate with our partners, and perhaps try audio-erotica. Women whose dissatisfaction with their physique prevents them from being able to enjoy sex are advised to stand in front of the mirror each day and identify parts of their bodies that they love. “The road to wellness starts with self-love,” the series’ narrator advises.
We could all probably cultivate bit more affection for our bodies. But the constant exhortations to self-love and communication suggest that it is the failure women, not a failure of society, that prevents so many of us from accessing sexual pleasure. It’s part of what researchers Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill deemed “confidence culture”—the move to turn responsibility for systemic societal problems back on women as individuals, through (often friendly, usually motivational) instructions to improve our self-esteem, sex lives, and careers by becoming more self-confident and assertive.
Yet few problems that are so widely shared can be solved with individual fixes, and there’s been a spate of recent books written by women that have tackled the shortcomings of contemporary sex culture, from Emba’s new release, to The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan and Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again by Katherine Angel, who both UK academics. On the horizon is Nona Willis Aronowitz’s Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, which asks, “ What, exactly, do I want? And are my sexual and romantic desires even possible amid the horrors and bribes of patriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy?” (That Willis Aronowitz is the daughter of Ellen Willis, a writer who was among the early -80s progenitors of the idea of sex-positive feminism, gives some idea of just how long questions of how to create a sexual culture conducive to women’s pleasure have been circulating.)
A running theme among writers who attempt to diagnose our sexual ills are the limits of the #MeToo era’s understandable focus on consent. It’s a crucial legal framework, but focusing solely on the question of whether or not a sexual encounter was assault can give cover to all kinds of bad sex that was technically consented to and still resulted in physical or emotional harm. Angel argues that consent culture, like confidence culture, puts the onus on individual women, who must not only learn to love their bodies but to thoroughly excavate their desires in order to be completely sure of what they want or do not want before embarking on sex. “Consent and its conceit of absolute clarity, places the burden of good sexual interaction on women’s behavior,” she writes. “Woe betide she who does not know herself and speak that knowledge.” Any injury that happens in technically consensual encounters can be brushed off; she did, after all, agree to it.
“If everyone involved is glad to be there, and free to leave whenever they choose, we’re allowed to do anything we want,” one sex expert says in Principles of Pleasure. It’s a familiar formulation, and one that Srinivasan notes sounds an awful lot like “the norms of capitalist free exchange.” Should our behavior truly answer to no higher ethical bar than the invisible hand of the sexual marketplace?
Emba’s book is subtitled “A Provocation,” and tends towards the prescriptive—she points out that people are more likely to be injured by the sex they do have than by the sex they forego, and that a world more committed to avoiding bad sex might be a world with less sex in general. That we’re already having less sex than prior generations, and don’t seem particularly happy about it, isn’t fully addressed. She also tends to glide over the fact that the shift away from purity culture has improved the lives not only of many women but of countless LGBT+ people. (“Casual sex, in particular, disadvantages women,” she writes, as though women were perhaps not sexually disadvantaged before the advent of hookup culture.) Despite that, the idea at the core of her book—that we might owe sexual partners something more than the prevailing popular norms dictate—rings true.
“The question shouldn’t just be ‘Did I avoid raping this person?’—that’s the floor, not the ceiling,” she argues. Love should perhaps factor into things, though not of the romance and candlelight variety. Instead, she quotes Thomas Aquinas’ definition of the word: “willing the good of the other.” It’s another individual approach to a structural problem, but it does have the benefit of looking outward, to our communities and the broader world, rather than the inward-facing dictums of self-help. And unlike most of the commandments to love ourselves and our bodies, it would demand something of straight men, too.
Women’s sexual safety and pleasure has often been promised as an outcome of some broader shift—the contraception revolution, sex positivity, freedom from the confines of the nuclear family. After decades of calls for change, it seems like the bad sex problem is unlikely to take care of itself after any other landmark of progress is reached. As Willis put it, it’s “dangerous to assume certain kinds of behavior will disappear ‘after the revolution.’” Sexual satisfaction for women is unlikely to be a happy side effect of societal change; instead, it will have to be pursued as an end goal in itself.