On the Unfinished Sexual Revolution
Katherine Rowland is the author of The Pleasure Gap: American Women and the Unfinished Sexual Revolution (2020) and the former publisher and executive director of Guernica Magazine. She holds a masters in socio-medical sciences from Columbia University, where she was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research fellow i medical anthropology. Her writing, which spans public health, cultural criticism, and utopias, has been published in Nature, Outside, Aeon, the Guardian, Guernica, and Psychology Today, among other outlets.
"We need to recognize pleasure as a public health issue, pleasure and desire as integral to not only our sexual health, but overall public health, because it’s so deeply integrated into our human, and what should be humane, interactions, into our psychological wellbeing, into the health of our relationships. We need to be the stewards of our own safe and ecstatic feeling."
Katherine: We need to recognize pleasure as a public health issue, pleasure and desire as integral to not only our sexual health, but overall public health, because it’s so deeply integrated into our human, and what should be humane, interactions, into our psychological wellbeing, into the health of our relationships. We need to be the stewards of our own safe and ecstatic feeling.
Lianne: I’m Lianne. Welcome to Strippers and Sages, a podcast that explores sex and eroticism through the lenses of art, culture, politics, spirituality, and racial justice.
Today, I’m speaking with Katherine Rowland about The Pleasure Gap: The Unfinished Sexual Revolution. Katherine just published this amazing book, and it investigates everything from Big Pharma’s attempt to pathologize low female libido, to the neoliberal underpinnings of the sexual self-help industry. She argues that women should take inequality in the bedroom as seriously as we take it in the workplace. Amen. Katherine unpacks the various social, scientific, and historical influences that have affected women’s relationship with pleasure, and surveys the current landscape. Katherine is the former publisher and executive director of Guernica Magazine. She holds a Master’s in sociomedical sciences from Columbia University, where she was a National Science Foundation graduate research fellow in medical anthropology. Her writing on public health, cultural criticism, and utopia has been published in Nature, Outside, Aeon, The Guardian, Guernica, and Psychology Today, among other outlets, so you know she’s legit and she has a lot to say. If you are enjoying these conversations, please consider dropping a 5 in the ratings, subscribing, and sharing the episodes with your friends. We’re a new podcast, and we are still trying to build our platform because we really want to bring about said revolution. Help us do so by spreading the content and helping it reach people who hear it.
Also, if you like talking about sex as much as I do, reach out to us, because we are starting a new sub-series called Street Talks, and we just really want to talk to all kinds of people about all kinds of sexual experiences. As long as you’re willing to get into the nitty-gritty, we would love to feature you in these conversations.
Lianne: Katherine, thank you so much for joining me, I really loved and felt so vindicated by your book, and I think that it's such important research and work that you put into the world to really demystify so many of our experiences. So I just want to start by personally thanking you because it helped guide and helped me tap into my own thoughts on a topic that I've been deeply investigating for many years. So thank you for that, and for being here.
Katherine: Thank you for the kind introduction and for having me with you today. Yeah, so I'd love to just start, I know that you were a research fellow in medical anthropology at Columbia. I would love to know how you became interested both personally, and professionally, and anthropologically, in this particular topic, and what compelled you to write this book.
I think the jumping off point for me was actually my first job out of college where I was working as a research assistant at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital here in New York City. And I was working for a clinical therapist and sexual health practitioner who was helping women who had had different forms of gynecologic cancers recover their sexuality and explore some issues around the diminution of libido, and the loss of sexual interest, and challenges around reproduction. And my job there was to go around administering these surveys and talking to women about how they felt. And that was incredibly powerful work to me - to hear how women were defining intimacy, how women were thinking about their own bodies. But it also really put me in touch with the broader world of sexual medical research that was coming out at the time. And I've mentioned this in other conversations, but something that really stood out was that the American literature tended to really pathologize women's loss of sexual feeling. It was always around medicalizing that, and turning it into a condition that was then treatable through a very allopathic, you know, biomedical model. Whereas a lot of the literature I noted coming out of Canada, out of the Netherlands out of the UK was much more relational or contextual. And so it was helping women to think about, well, if you're not experiencing pleasure, if you're not comfortable in sex, how do we put that in dialogue with your larger universe of circumstances? Maybe, has your partner found your clitoris? Did you experience trauma earlier in your life, and you feel just discomfort with your body? And that was really striking to me to see this divergence and discourse. And it felt so particularly American, and that dynamic has always fascinated me - how it is that we're such a hyper-sexualized culture. And yet, we're so squeamish about the beautiful components of our sexuality, about actual intimacy, about physical sensation about bodies about pleasure, we sort of paste sex everywhere, yet we shirk from opportunities to meaningfully talk about it. But that first professional experience was what sparked my interest in the larger field of sexuality. And then in graduate school, I originally went to pursue an advanced degree so that I could study sexual trauma. And I was really interested in understanding violence and trauma from an epidemiological perspective. And through that, coming up with a better understanding - how do we prevent, how do we mitigate, and how do we engage in primary prevention? So sort of shifting the culture away from looking at women as sort of bodies to consume or sexual experiences to be had, and, and dissecting the larger culture that sort of leads us to define women in a way that isn't so conducive to violence and trespass?
Lianne: Can you talk a little bit about your process and researching and writing the book? I know that you took a ton of workshops, you attended conferences, and you sort of consciously and intentionally focused on cis-heterosexual women, because you identified that as the locus of sexual distress, which you wrote in your intro. So I'd love for you to just elaborate on why that was the locus as you see it, and what your process was in terms of selecting your research subjects, how race, age and class, entered into the picture, and all of that - the landscape.
Katherine: So when I started researching the book, I cast a really broad net, because I wasn't yet sure how I wanted to wrestle with this incredibly enormous subject. And my initial point of departure had been looking at the development, or efforts to develop, pharmaceuticals to treat low desire in women. And then from there, I moved on to a more ethnographic approach to the research. And so initially, I would, I spoke to women who identify as queer, as gay, as trans, a much broader spectrum. And when I observed in my conversations, and what you tend to see backed up in the research, is that the women who most frequently report struggling to understand their body, understand how their body works, what they're entitled to do with their body, who really suffer from a lack of sense of safety, security autonomy in themselves, and who consistently report absence of pleasure, absence of orgasm in their sexual relationships, it's heterosexual women. And that story to me, because it's so layered on this really troubled history, and on expectations of monogamy, which, even as they're giving way, are still very much held up as a pillar in American culture. I wanted to look at why that was. And because it's really, really striking when you look at bisexual or gay women, they report pleasure at far, higher rates and a much larger, a much greater level of intimate comfort and knowledge of themselves and a readiness to engage intimately with themselves. And I just think out of the gate, gay and bisexual women, or queer women know what they want. There is an active act of selecting a course that satisfies their own desire and longing that is implicit to their sexual identification and behavior. And a lot of heterosexual women I spoke to felt really alienated from their desire, there is this kind of driftless sense of, "Well, I know I'm supposed to like men. And I believe that sex is supposed to revolve around penetration. And yet, this leaves me really numb and really cold. And I've never really explored my body and maybe I have a vibrator. And so orgasm is accessible to me. But that's kind of a one and done interaction. And it's not a depth knowledge of what your body can do." And so that was a such a striking disparity that it led the project to more closely focus on this segment of the population. And in terms of other demographics, I tried to really reach across the country. The book definitely favors women from coastal cities, because that's where a lot of these more progressive workshops are taking place. And I just had greater access to those populations. But I did try to incorporate a wide range of ages. In fact, I was really moved by how many older women, women in their 50s, 60s, even 70s, really wanted to get into this subject with me. And in fact, a lot of older women were often more comfortable with this subject because they had lived through the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. They lived through the women's rights movement, and they were coming from a place of why have we gone backwards? What are we doing? What are we doing here? What are young people doing? Like why can't they just have good sex?And there is a lot more, kind of, weariness, often coming from men that I spoke to. In terms of race and ethnicity, again, I just tried to be as broadly encompassing as possible.
Lianne: Regarding what you were saying about queer and trans women, I think also it's not necessarily... it doesn't mean that they're just inherently knowing what they want, right, but that they are more engaged in an inquiry that's going against the status quo or sort of certain heteronormative kind of sexuality that's handed to them, and so that might facilitate that deeper knowledge. Whereas I feel, I'm personally speaking from my experiences with cis-hetero woman. And you speak about this in the book, like so much of my internalized sense of sexuality is from a male perspective - male centric sexuality. That's why you're calling it the "unfinished sexual revolution," which I think is a fantastic subtitle to the book and so valid. Just to underscore the importance of what you're what we're talking about, I wanted to present some of the statistics that you put, so you say that 90% of men say they usually orgasm compared to only 50% of women in sex, (we're talking heterosexual women), 80% of heterosexual women fake orgasm during vaginal intercourse, half the time another 25 fake all of the time. So I want to know, what were some of the presuppositions that you sought out to challenge when you were engaging with these statistics and what was the ecosystem of beliefs that you stepped into, and were then able to kind of debunk through your research. Everything from what you encountered in Big Pharma, and the prejudices there, to, you know, the actual the psychology for women and why it was leading them to fake orgasm, etc.
Katherine: That's such a good question. I really came out guns a blazing, wanting to challenge a lot of the evolutionary suppositions surrounding female sexuality, namely, this idea that women are somehow inherently less sexual than men, less disposed to longing, less interested and sexual encounters, long term sexual relationships, that women are evolutionarily disposed to seek out monogamous partnership, and that they will sacrifice other aspects of their lives in order to sustain those monogamous partnerships. That seemed like a lot of BS to me, and, and having had the opportunity to have studied anthropology over the years, we know that those ideas are culture bound, and even what winds up in our broadly circulating science tends to be culture bound. So I wanted to seek out what were the larger circumstances that might sustain that impression of a gendered norm. And to talk women through their own narratives of how they either internalized those ideas or tried to challenge them through their own processes of personal discovery. And as to the pharmaceutical realm, that's where you really see these ideas built into the research and the products that people are trying to develop down to what the purpose of female sexuality is. I think, a lot of the low libido drugs are really targeting women, heterosexual women in presumably monogamous relationships, who have lost a taste for their often long term partner, and they're trying to revitalize their sexuality, so as to be, I don't want to be so skeptical as to merely say they're trying to make women more accommodating of circumstances that have grown, boring, wearisome, or distasteful to them, but it does seem like that... These aren't medical products that are bolstering women's pleasure. They're simply trying to increase women's desire. And then when you look into how they're defining desire - there actually there is no medical definition of desire, first off - but in these contexts, it tends to revolve around definitions of distress. So women are thought to be less distressed about having sex that they don't find to be satisfactory. And that's a really, really troubling idea that this is the flow of water when it comes to some of the biomedical research. And that's certainly not to say that all the practitioners in that space are proceeding accordingly. But that's a lot of what I saw taking place in that context.
Lianne: And I mean, it's built upon this a long history of medicalized violence against women and misogyny within the pharmaceutical and the male dominated medical field, right? And even what you're saying of how to make it less distressing. I just want to underscore that. How to make it less distressing to have sex that you don't want to have, or that doesn't feel good is the angle.
Katherine: Right? I mean, we should be really perturbed by that. And I think the other piece that we should be perturbed by is that we live in such a deeply medicalized culture, that those narratives wind up really internalized in how we view the most intimate parts of our lives. And so a lot of women that I spoke to in sort of more peripheral accounts that I heard, were self diagnosing. Sort of, they were labeling their low desire as a medical issue, rather, again, as a relational or contextual problem, isn't that your partner of 40 years has never done the dishes, and you are just sick of picking up his socks. And he, you know, does the bathroom with the door open, and you're just, you're done. Or that you work multiple, low paying jobs, and you feel really put upon, and the last thing you want to do is feel like you're going to go and service someone else... That women are then blaming themselves for not wanting to participate in a form of sexuality that is highly circumscribed, and our choosing to medicalize that distaste rather than alter the circumstances of intimacy itself.
Lianne: Yeah, even what you're saying in terms of the broader implications of that. I mean, I think the book jacket of the book, you say, women should be taking inequality in the bedroom as seriously as we take it in the workplace. So I'd love for you to expand and I have a lot of more nuanced questions on this. But just to sort of kick it off, on the implications of diminished pleasure and how cutting ourselves off from erotic fulfillment ripples into other areas of our lives. Like why... because I think that it's maybe not a connection that everyone is making, right? We compartmentalize the bedroom, and we don't necessarily see how integrated it is, and how our sense of self sort of becomes corroded or corrupted when our sexuality is, and then we internalize that claim. So, um, yeah, I would love for you to speak on that a little bit.
Katherine: Absolutely. I mean, to your point about how we silo off sexuality, I think, first off, is incredibly important. We literally shut the door and allow ourselves to believe that what takes place in our erotic lives is somehow disconnected from the other social, economic, political dimensions of our lives. And it's absolutely not, it's this messy stew of co-creation. And you really can't imagine any one of these dimensions not being influenced or inflected by another. And so when we're thinking about how to frame "the pleasure gap," and I have to give my agent credit for the title, I really wanted to point directly towards issues like the wage gap, that soak on for women's social experiences, and present the idea of pleasure as another facet of social inequity. And that how we feel in our bodies and what we feel entitled to mirrors are other dimensions of social experience, whether they are economic parity, or just the sense that we can walk safely down the streets of our own neighborhoods, and that this lands disproportionately on different types of bodies, in our country, and around the world.
Lianne Sonia: Absolutely. You talk about the concept or this idea of interoception. And that, to me was just a big like, aha moment, really validating, because, a big focus of this podcast is the idea that there is this connection between sexuality, and personal agency, and self actualization in the world. And so you write, "our ability to feel or sense the world and our bodies is fundamental to existence, to our empowerment, and of course, to our pleasure. Human agency, the sense that one is in control of one's life starts with interoception, which means being conscious of what is taking place inside your body." And so, I mean, it's so beautifully articulated in such a strong concept. It also makes me think of Audre Lorde's definition of the erotic as this powerful and replenishing source of power and information. And yet, as Audre Lorde writes, the suppression of the erotic is not only a symptom of, but actually this tool of patriarchy. And so I'd love for you to expand particularly on interoception and how that idea entered your work. Maybe speaking about trauma, which we can get a little bit more into. But really first, just with how this whole disembodiment and our sense of being able to feel, and make sense of, and have control of our own lives, really stems from that, and where does it get cut off in the research that you found?
Katherine: So this idea of interoception, and just our ability or inability to feel, became an increasingly steady drumbeat, as I dug more and more into the work. And I say this knowing that it's not fully validated by the science. But I became increasingly convinced over the course of my research, that culture makes landfall on the body, and really just at a cell level, it influences how and what we are able to feel and what we seek out. But interoception in research terms, refers to the, I would say, the dialogue between the subjective and the objective in the body, if you will. And I came at it through the work of a Canadian researcher named Meredith Shivers, who has done - and to the work of Laurie Brodo - both of whom who have done a lot of work, registering what's happening in women's bodies, and then what they state is happening in their subjective perception in the context of sexual stimuli. And so Meredith and Laurie, both have conducted studies where they put women in easy boy recliners, and they show them a battery of sexual and non sexual images. And they ask women, you know, what did you find arousing, and what's interesting here is that, for queer women, queer women will respond, they'll say that they respond to images of women with women, or women alone. And measurements of sort of what's taking place in their genitals will reflect that. So that's seen as sort of a state of accord. And what's happening for heterosexual women, is that they will take in all of this stimuli, and say, "None of this was moving to me at at all". And yet, their genitals will show arousal. And it's sort of led researchers to suppose that arousal might be running like a river through your body. And desire is just a matter of being able to tap into that vast river of arousal. But what is happening internally that allows women to feel that relates to interoception, and just our ability to drop in and feel the sensations of our own body. And men tend to have higher rates of interoception. Because even though we tend to think of women has really emotionally pre-determined and guided by the sort of rhythmic changes of their own body, you know, it's their menstrual cycle, and it's changing hormones, and they're really moody and crabby based on their own bodies. But what researchers have actually found is that women tend to, kind of, not listen to their bodies, and move through the world as though they're inured to what's taking place on a physiological chemical level. Whereas men's moods are much more heavily tied to things like heartbeat, blood sugar, and hormones, which is really fascinating. And why is it that that's taking place? And people don't know. There's a real divergence, I think, in the research community over whether this is an evolutionary thing, or whether this is sort of a product of social conditioning. And one piece that I referenced in my book is that, you now actually see women experiencing symptoms of heart disease, and they will continue going about their day and their activities, and overlook early signs of a heart attack because it's like, "No, I'm just gonna finish these dishes" or "I'm gonna tend to the 90 other competing demands for my time and attention," and so they are just literally silencing the cries of their own body to their own peril.
Lianne: Wow. Yeah, I thought that part was really interesting. That connection to me made a lot of sense - the sociological conditioning around that, of that we're just conditioned to do for others, and take care of our kids and take care of our partners, and also like, do our our big job and all of that. That the only way to survive it in some ways is to do that cutting off. And then of course, there's the cutting off that you talked about that happens from trauma, so traumatic experiences you spoke about, like, neurologically, how you could see that connection being cut off in survivors of sexual assault. And I'd love for you to talk about that. And just even before you do, too, one thing that you wrote in your book is about how the landscape of hazard in which we live creates this atmosphere - I call it atmospheric trauma, ambient trauma for women - and so you don't even have to have suffered from an acute sexual assault, we live in this sort of rape culture where there's a threat, you're cat called on the street, you put yourself through a sexual experience that you otherwise don't want to you, override your own essential sensation to please your partner. And all of that degrades our sense of trusting, or listening to that internal compass. And before I let you speak on that I just, I was reading Rebecca Solnit's memoir in conjunction with this book, called Memoirs of my Non-Existence. And it was just very, you know, you provided a lot of research, and she spoke a lot about her own personal experiences and offered some really beautiful language that I just wanted to quote. Though, now I'm gonna have to edit this out, because I just had it and I just lost it. So much. Yeah. So there's two things she writes about. Let's go to here. Here we go.
Rebecca Solnit writes, "distrust, a woman's distrust of her own capacity to interpret the world leads to an erosion of confidence that results in self doubt, and self effacement, which makes young women, or any women excellent targets for assault, especially when they've been trained to let other determines what's real and acceptable." And so again, if that internal source, the erotic, is our internal compass, and our our source of information, and we override that, then we really become more vulnerable to the world and to manipulation.
Katherine: I'm so glad you've read that passage. I think that it's so resonant with what I found. And I really emerged from the project, frustrated by the lack of conversation around pleasure as it pertains to our safety, sexually. That again, this is our compass. And this alerts us to what is healthy and acceptable, and where we want to travel with our bodies. And I think we run the risk of being in a state of constant, low level traumatization if we are groomed, if you will, to engage in a sexuality that's not inclusive of our own enjoyment.
Lianne: Absolutely. And so what are some of the other findings that you... so what else did you find in your investigation of trauma in particular, and you said that you started off your first job actually looking at, I don't remember how you put it, but like the sexual healing, in particular, of traumatized victims. But then I think also in your book, you mentioned how there's emphasis on other kinds of healings, but not looking at how one's pleasure, or capacity for pleasure, may be corroded by trauma, and why that is equally important, foundational even to one's sense of unification and recovery. So yeah, how how is pleasure treated within discourse around trauma and healing and what else might you share from your investigation into trauma?
Katherine: I'll say a few things here. First, I'll go back a couple of beats just to say that one of the major pieces that I kept on encountering, in studying trauma and talking to women who had experienced trauma, was the trauma is so much more widespread in our society than simply the event, as you as you note. Trauma is like this haze that we're all moving through. And that's a really distressing conclusion to come to- that when I was reading some of the more clinical literature on trauma survivors, there tends to be either a numbing out that follows a traumatic experience, or a hypersensitivity - you're over-aroused in a way, like the light is too bright, and sounds are too harsh, and you're sort of living in this flash of anticipation all the time, you're hyper activated. And a lot of women that I spoke to, even if they had not directly experienced a trauma shared aspects of their lives that sounded like one of these extremes or the other - that they were either, kind of, moving towards the realm of being almost insensate, so cut off from their body, that they're not registering any kind of touch or sensation... some women spoke about feeling dead in their genitals, of just not being able to register any kind of quality of touch on their skin, or seeking out any sort of sensation on themselves. Whereas other women were on the brink of, almost, like, a crisis of nerves because they were so stimulated, or they were so on edge from just constantly encountering objectification or aspects of contemporary life that made them feel deeply uncomfortable. And yet, there is no outlet to disperse with that discomfort. Because first, I'm thinking right now of two women who talked to me about their partner's pornography use, and how that disturbing that was to them because their partners favored kind of borderline pornography involving young women. And they felt like they had to sanction their partner's use of pornography, because pornography is very American, and you're supposed to support it, and they didn't want to seem like a downer. They didn't want to seem overly critical or sensitive or morally conservative somehow. And yet, it was traumatizing to them to see their partner's sexuality through this lens and then to see themselves through that particular lens. But just to go back to your more recent question, it is fascinating when you look at the world of sexual recovery, in trauma recovery dialogue, and it is remarkably anti-sexual, or de-eroticized, and if harm to you has taken place in the realm of erotic, that we leave the erotic out in terms of our healing, does a great disservice. And it abandons women to have to find routes to healing on their own. And some women never do, as we know. Or for other women, it's just battling through the muck of shame, and uncertainty and fear as they're working to reclaim this essential aspect of themselves that has been wounded at its core. It was remarkable reading some of the survivor literature, because, it'll sort of cast a very concerned eye issues like, well, this places you at greater risk for using drugs, or not completing your education, or not attaining the heights of your career that you're capable of, or you're sort of failing on the markers of expected capital accumulation in society and living as a decent, stalwart mother. But there's no attention, not no attention, but there is far lesser attention to how do you reclaim that sense of safety and again, entitlement in your own body?
Lianne: Yeah, and again, it's something for all of us really. I'll just quote one of your...a quote I have of yours on that topic of trauma and more generalized trauma, and you write - and referring to that study where you found the disconnect in the women who weren't even noticing what was happening, that "their sensations or lack there of point to how simply being a woman, and I would expand this to, or a queer person, or a person of color, or anyone whose bodies are historically unsafe in the streets and in our culture, in our hyper-sexual hyper-objectifying casually violent rapist society affects the body in much the same way as an episode of overt abuse". And completely. And then also when you're speaking about the pornography, and I think what's interesting is there's the cut off of the internal sensation, but then the hyper vigilance, the self-policing and the self-doubting and the worrying, "oh, I need to override or subject myself to please my partner," because that kind of violent porn is American and is appropriate and is, you know, what it is, even if it doesn't resonate for me. So I think they go hand in hand in some way. That's the self-policing along with the disconnect, the embodied disconnect. It's just it's really rich terrain that you're covering. So I want to go from here to talk about the healing and the self help. And all of these - you did a very comprehensive, personal investigation into these different modalities and teachers, and what I so appreciate it, because I've gotten down some of the same rabbit holes that you that you write about, is this idea of self-help becoming like the neoliberal approach to our sexuality. And both that you have the chapter on the human potential on the open market, and how as consumers in a free market, we are enjoined to become entrapreneurs of the self striving to integrate better versions of ourselves, and that it's against this backdrop, the sprawling genre of personal betterment that women go about investigating fretting over and seeking to alter or enhance their sexuality. And as you write, and this is what I'd love for you to speak about now, is just how it both takes the onus off of society, and all of the factors that we've been speaking about, and places it completely on the woman, and overrides that, and then also seeks to capitalize on sexual distress or dysfunction as people will pathologize it. So, please share with us this really important idea.
Katherine: I mean, it's a sneaky terrain, because sort of on a superficial level, it looks like oh, my gosh, this is incredibly validating. Here are this parade of gurus and guides and self proclaimed experts who acknowledge that this is a problem that deserves solutions, and they're here to provide women with solutions. So, at a glance, it just seems great. And two, I think a lot of consumers that the sparkle of that great, doesn't really fade. But then when you sort of dig into what the message actually is, as you just mentioned, it really places the onus of a larger problem squarely on the woman, and on the women as an a consumer of these services. So there's a lot of class issues implicitly built into this marketplace of personal betterment. But I think where this really differs from sort of human potential increase of your, and certainly radically departs from the early infrastructure of the women's movement, was that the initial object to dismantle was social. It was the patriarchy. It was wage structures. It was inequitable and dismal childcare options. It was the enemy without. And I think in sort of our newer, and far more nuanced and slick interpretations of the self help industry, it is an increasingly deep and deeply lodged enemy that you are trying to dismantle. It's your own personal history of baggage, it's like the trauma that you need to divest yourself of, as opposed to wondering why it is that we're all so traumatized in the first place. And so, again, the locus of work and it really is work, it's more emotional labor and financial commitment that women are then sort of expected to participate in. It's become another sort of grooming that I would say is parallel to getting your nails done, or following a fad diet and spinning away at Soulcycle. It's sort of an expectation that you're constantly going to be mining yourself for a better version of you, and that now really broadly encompasses sexuality as well. And specifically, a liberal, freewheeling, sort of juicy, goddess form of sexuality. That might be nice and really work for some people but need not be this oddly progressive, yet packaged model.
Lianne: Completely. Yeah, I mean I, it creates that same sort of these heightened standards, like the beauty standards that we have, and the feeling of inferiority if you're somehow not able to just unlock it all. And also these, like heightened expectations that you write about being promised, and all of these different modalities that you explore. I'll also quote Rebecca Solnit once more when she writes about this in terms of, again, putting the fault on the woman, and it's something that we need to change, instead of shifting the focus on systemic change. And so she writes about the prevalence of sexual assault and the reality of rape, a reality "which was treated as inevitable as the weather. But it wasn't weather. It wasn't nature, it wasn't inevitable and immutable. It was a culture. It was particular people and a system that gave them, meaning men or assaultants latitude, looked the other way, eroticized, excused, ignored, dismissed and trivialized. Changing that culture and those conditions seemed to be the only adequate response and it still does." So I'd love to know, what do you think that a more systemic and collective approach to pleasure equity might look like as an alternative to these neoliberal self-help models?
Katherine: I mean, I think two things. First and foremost, one is that we need to recognize pleasure as a public health issue, pleasure and desire as integral to not only our sexual health, but our overall public health, because it's so deeply integrated into our human and what should be humane interactions, into our psychological well being, into the health of our relationships. And so incorporating a standard of that, and in so doing de-stigmatizing pleasure, is critical. The second piece, and I think it's closely aligned with that, because as we understand pleasure, as a feature of our overall well-being and not something to be shushed, and dismissed, and subdued, and tiptoed around, we can begin to integrate it into how we educate around the body, and into human relationships, and into feeling. I think that sort of a fundamental, age-appropriate pleasure education needs to be built into our sex-ed in this country. And I know to talk about sex-ed, is to a set off all kinds of flares, because in so many parts of this country, there is no sex-ed. So do you talk about, you know, having there be an intimate body knowledge component of that, or even encouragement of pleasurable self touch is absolutely taboo. But that should happen, we should be first in the tones of our own bodies, I believe, before we seek to go out and share those bodies with others - especially now when we can expect to encounter a far wider array of partners and experiences over our lifetime. And sexuality has thankfully been liberated from the bonds of marriage or economic compacts, largely. We need to be the stewards of our own safe and ecstatic feeling.
Lianne: I love that. Yes. What I want to bring up here is, again, going back to this male model of sexuality, which I think would need to be like an integral reframing in that sort of claiming of pleasure and sexual education. One of the quotes, or statistics, that I wanted to share, is you write that only 8 to 15% of women actually enjoy penetrative sex, which I think so many people, women listening would really feel vindicated hearing that statistic, because of course, penetrative sex is sort of, you know, the expectation when you're with a male partner. And I just had paired with that stat real quick, that even though that statistic is true, meanwhile, in 1953, which outdated and yet still influencing how we think about sex, the psychiatrist Frank Caprio published in this book called "The Sexually Adequate Women" (which just, I mean, what a title, adequate!) that "a woman who is incapable of having an orgasm from coitus and preferred clitoral stimulation might be regarded as suffering from frigidity and require psychiatric assistance." So that would imply that 85% of women are just frigid, and in need of psychiatric assistance. And I think when we have that sort of misinformation and that perspective of what quote unquote, normal sex is, and what should give us pleasure, without a more nuanced education at an early age and conversation and shift in perspective, as a public discourse, that, again, results in a lot of harm and feelings of inadequacy and feeling just sexually broken. And so something that I came up a lot in the book, I think, was women's self blame, right? We weren't looking to our partners and saying, "oh, maybe you're, like, jack rabbit timing, or your lack of understanding of my anatomy, or the lack of emotional intimacy, are current and there's something that we can shift it there." right? It's the self blame, which then, of course, feeds into that neoliberal cycle. And so I'd love for you to speak a little bit about just those patterns that you saw and the sort of gendered biases and internalized, I don't know, patriarchy, misogyny, misinformation around the science that fuels those feelings in people who aren't abiding by antiquated statistics.
Katherine: I mean, we get this out of the gate. I think, even if you're not learning, comprehensive sex ed, if you're learning basic human biology and physiology, you've learned about a model of sexuality, that implicitly includes male pleasure, because you're thought to move naturally towards male ejaculation, and ejaculation and orgasm are tied in men, there's some debate there. Whereas you learn about women's reproductive facilities only, or their risk and pathological potential, from non-accepted sexual interactions. But there's just no space or tolerance for a discussion that thinks about women as more than being passive recipients of the sort of drumbeat, linear model of male sexuality. Women are just thought to be overlaid on that stepwise model, and not to have their own autonomous sexual cycle, which likely looks very different from men cycle. And I would just veer off for a moment to pose that, I think we also, as we underestimate women's sexuality and overly complicate it, I think we oversimplify men sexuality, and we don't give them their due in thinking about their need for emotional depth, and tenderness, and the complexity of their own feelings and responses in a culture that is equally problematic for them. And that these sort of presumptions around men, sort of, getting hard, seeking release, and finding peace and satisfaction is also an inadequate picture.
Katherine: But anyways, that's just but of a piece that I think women start to internalize from the very getgo. And I think that we've, in many respects, moved away from a sort of, don't catch yourself, don't talk about it, don't just sit with your legs crossed culture, though parts of that certainly still exist, to a culture that more frankly sexualizes women, and compels women to participate as sexual players from a much younger age, but not as equal players in terms of being able to pursue, and articulate their own desires and pleasure. So women feel compelled to participate in sexual interactions from which their desires have been scrubbed clean. Or just, they don't even enter into those dynamics. And that's not to say that young women aren't really sexually aroused by what they participate in, but they are not having conversations around, "well, I want to be stimulated in this way and touched this way. And here's sort of the range of my satisfaction and what I'm seeking out." All of us, men and women, need to be brought into a dialogue around what our bodies want and desire and what we seek out. And I think, to even talk about solutions in such a way that it rests only on women undermines the health of the greater good.
Lianne: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think, to the extent that we oversimplify male pleasure, when we also create this mystification of "the complexity of women," that also feeds into this. Well, I think it discourages a lot of women from really committing or sticking with the pursuit of pleasure, because they get frustrated with their own bodies complexity. And yeah, I think making space just for the spectrum, and for the nuance across genders would be a really healing way for our society to reorient. I just have, well, maybe two more pretty short questions, if you're available for that. So we've talked about this morality and how that influences and inhibits both... well, our culture for sure, I mean, you wrote about Lisa Brown in 2012, being barred from the State House floor for using the word vagina in a speech, and that the US government has spent $2 billion on sex stigmatizing abstinence promotion programs, and that Congress has legally blocked studies of human sexuality, calling them unethical. And meanwhile, this is like, you know, the thing that perpetuates the human race, the most foundational thing to our humanity. So I'm just curious, if you encountered any censorious morality in your own research, or in terms of publishing the book, and if you are aware, like where you see the culture heading in terms of those broader, like, more dominant, cultural-legal infrastructures around sex.
Katherine: I mean, I wish that I could speak more positively and more hopefully towards the direction that we're currently heading. But as we are in this incredibly polarized moment, where pockets of the country are just whirling around single issue subjects, I don't see the larger trend as being one moving towards a sort of humane, fact-based de-stigmatizing, compassionate discussion. I mean, to be less pessimistic, that is certainly happening in the cities where you and I live. And you see that on the coast, but across the country as a whole, I think there's often just a drift in the other direction. And that is deeply disturbing, because it has such long lasting implications. And it continues to drive these rifts between who is accorded power and privilege in our culture, and who is fundamentally thought to be setback. And that's not just an issue of gender, that's one of race and class and bodily ableness and overall health.
Lianne: I would love to see sexual pleasure or our right to ecstasy included on the DNC platform, for example. Like, when will be the day.
Katherine: But what's interesting is that you see that being accepted internationally. So when you look at World Health Organization understandings of sexuality, pleasure is included, and satisfaction is included, and there is a much greater push to embrace sexuality as, sort of, a facet of life that intersects with other aspects of your life, and something that is more than a transactional encounter - it's a much more holistic understanding. And so, there's something particular about America and our political divisiveness in our just dizzying swing between the censorious morality and then the neoliberal explosion of sexual explicitness that... you don't find that in other in other countries as much as you do here. And I think that has a lot to do with our deeper history and the continued multiplicity of our of our country.
Lianne: Well, it's a close, you know, the show is called Strippers snd Sages, and we speak about demystifying sex while also celebrating its mysticism. And I know that you have entered some so called New Age spaces, as one inevitably does on the path to healing or sexual discovery, Tantra, etc. and you write about them with a really refreshing, critical understanding. And so I would just ask you, how do you think about spirituality in regards to sexuality?
Katherine: I think of them as intimately and inextricably connected. And I should say, by way of framing that, that I don't think of spirituality as a religious affiliation or as a devotion to a particular entity, I think about it as sort of the depth-potential of ourselves and our connectedness with one another. And our sexuality feels like... not feels like, I believe, with my entire being that it is this incredible portal into ourselves, and into spaces with other people, and into a greater sense of compassion, and what we're just capable of experiencing as humans on this planet.
Lianne: Thank you. Yeah, you wrote also about one phrase, I'll paraphrase, is that perhaps, it's not about the explosive, never-ending orgasm, that sort of that gets promised in some of some of those development programs, right? But it's an experience of a holy unified self, and that sexuality can be an invitation to that. So thank you so much for sharing all of your insights and for the comprehensiveness with which you approach this topic, and your generosity and speaking on it today.
Katherine: Thank you so much for having me with you.
Lianne: I loved talking to Katherine. She is brilliant and generous, and she shares some truly fascinating information and statistics that really made me feel vindicated in my own sexual journey, and in my desire to create this podcast. There’s just so many factors that influence our sexuality, and this book really underscores, as its title suggests, that the sexual revolution is unfinished. And Strippers and Sages wants to be part of that revolution, especially when it comes to the pleasure gap, because we want women everywhere to be sexually fulfilled and thriving. And those two things are, in fact, related, as Katherine reveals. She really unpacks just how layered the issue is, and that it is something deserving systemic change, which is what we’re all about. So I hope that this conversation serves you, whoever you are, because the issues we’ve discussed go across and beyond the gender spectrum.
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Thank you to Ben Newfrat for scoring and mixing and editing all of Season One, and for his continued guidance on the show. We still are using his fantastic music that he created. Thank you to Liana Estes for her incredible work on this episode and various others, she is mixing and editing and getting into the groove, and we love her for it. Thank you to Casey Odesser, Ayla Khan, and Sasha Carney for their fantastic research and development and prep for all of these interviews. For more information, tune into strippersandsages.com. We are posting resources, transcripts, and more information about all of our guests, so please join our community, and join the conversation.