Guernica Magazine

Katherine Rowland: The Force of Women’s Longing

The public-health researcher and author of The Pleasure Gap on the medicalization of women’s sexuality, the politics of “faking it,” and why female desire “inspires panic and fascination.”

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, 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

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