Mythbustin’ Monday: Women Can’t Have Sex

It started when I was first faced with homophobic comments like “How do two girls do it together, anyway?” and “Is it actually sex if it’s just girls?” Though they seemed curiously innocent enough, over time I realized that this was not simply an issue of not having learned enough in Sex Ed 101. These types of questions stem from the widespread idea that women can’t actively participate in sex, but that sex can only take place if there is a penis involved to penetrate something.

It seems that this inane idea has spread to heterosexual relationships, too. Take the use of the word “fuck,” for instance. A man and a woman can “fuck,” but when it becomes a verb that one person does to another, we are most comfortable saying that a man fucked a woman, and not the other way around. It is acceptable to (however homophobically) validate sex between two men, because there is penetration involved. However, a woman can’t fuck a man because it’s emasculating, and she certainly can’t fuck another woman. The implication here is that the woman is passively participating in sex; it is being enacted upon her, but she isn’t the one doing the action.

If you ask a few lesbians what they consider “sex,” you’ll likely get a range of answers. Some will claim that anything that gives one partner an orgasm is sex; others will say that penetration is the determining factor; still others will claim that it is only sex if both partners are naked and have an orgasm. So, why the wide range of answers? It’s because we are taught that sex is the missionary position between a man and a woman, and that’s that. With such a narrow view of sex, it’s no wonder that we are a society in confusion. In the accepted model of sex where penetration is the determining factor, the only guaranteed orgasm is the male’s. While the definition of sex between women often has a large focus on sexual gratification, the penetration definition doesn’t include pleasure at all. It’s no wonder that 70 percent of women don’t orgasm from penetration alone. That’s not to say that men can’t do the job. Because every woman’s body is different, however, it just may mean having to pay attention to her needs and asking her what feels good. If both partners needed to be satisfied before it was considered “sex,” there would probably be a greater emphasis on both partners’ satisfaction.

Orgasms aside, what’s the harm, here? When women and girls are taught that they can’t be active participants in their own sex lives, it takes the power away from them. This power inequality perpetuates a culture in which women aren’t in control of sex and are objectified and turned into vessels for male pleasure instead of active and consensual sexual beings. We can’t understand a woman having the sexual autonomy to choose her own partner without calling her a slut. We can’t validate her right to say “no” because we think she is supposed to be the passive key to penetration. We can’t understand that two women can be attracted to one another with no desire for male approval and attention. And we certainly can’t understand two women having sex together.

In a society where we can’t accept mutually consensual sexual pleasure as sex, I have to wonder, then, who needs real sex when you can just have orgasms?

7 thoughts on “Mythbustin’ Monday: Women Can’t Have Sex

  1. VERY interesting ideas here! I couldn’t agree more with the confusion of the definition of sex and whether its accurate or not to label “lesbian sex” as our common era sex associated with masculine penetration.
    From my perspective, it seems sex in derived from the biological necessity to procreate. Biologically speaking, it does seem relevant to call acts that allow the opportunity of reproduction as sex. Though, I think in society today we use this term much more loosely.
    Though, that’s not to contest the idea that this type of scientific justification can be used as an oppressive tool of heteronormativity.

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  2. I think she said this in Full Frontal Feminism, but Jessica Valenti talks about how she defines sex as anything that gives you an orgasm — that way masturbation isn’t discounted, queer couples are not discounted, and you can disregard anything that was bad/you want to disregard. Which is typically the rubric I use, and I think it’s the most useful one. But a friend pointed out to me that most of her sexual encounters haven’t ended in orgasm, but she counts them as sex anyway (and she was offended that someone wouldn’t count them). I think it’s important to remember that these definitions are very personal, and everyone has different ways of looking at their own experiences, but, regardless, the dominant constructions of what is or is not sex should be reworked to be waaaay more inclusive to queer couples, and also ensure that women are having enjoyable sex too.

    I hate the dominant idea of women as completely passive in sex, that we always have to get fucked, or lie there and take it. And, as you say, societally this makes lesbianism pretty much null and void, which is also bullshit.

    I feel like part of these issues with sex/the idea that women can’t have sex comes from the cultural disregard for the clitoris. Like, it’s not even discussed in sex ed, even though it’s the only part of the body designed specifically to give pleasure. So I think some of this may come down to sex ed reforms (to make it less heterosexist and stop teaching that sex is gender and all non-abstinence only, etc) , which we DESPERATELY need, and teaching that hey, the clitoris is an awesome thing. Thoughts?

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    1. I agree with your analysis, Katie O., particularly the last part in which you address the necessity of reforming sex education. When sex ed is taught in schools, it’s strictly in heterosexual terms, which 1) leaves people who don’t identify as heterosexual out, thereby reinforcing heteronormativity, and 2) conveys the idea that sex is only legitimate when it serves a means of procreating. This last point is especially prominent in abstinence-only sex education. However, by shifting the focus of sex education from strictly procreational to one emphasizing mutual, consensual pleasure and sexual safety, we can create an environment in which sex is seen as a positive experience, regardless of the gender of the participants.

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      1. Isn’t it sad that Gen Ed Health Classes at JMU pretty much contain every fault that you list here? As neutral as they feign to be, I have an incredibly hard time believing that there is not a political agenda behind those courses (that I have failed numerous times and thus have been enrolled in three separate ones) that do any of the following: Almost entirely ignore any identity that isn’t heterosexual (Its the “norm” right?), tell women that biological difference makes them weepy and somehow infer that women like weddings, men like jobs (totally happened), making abortions appear like the most traumatic, horrible you-deserve-the-stigma-medical-procedure possible (if we even talk about it) and pretty much just contain a bunch of blatant socialized nonsense that the textbook tries to pass off as “scientific” or “natural fact”. Ughgughgugh. I mean, that’s the education we PAID for, so how great can it be when it is free in high schools?

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  3. Very interesting post! I actually read something like this for my psychology of women and gender class. It was an article called “Are We Having Sex Yet?” by Greta Christina. It touches on what her experience in trying to determine what sex is.

    I really feel that sex, as Katie O. said, is a very personal thing. The search for what defines sex will go on forever. Even between heterosexual couples, sex cannot be defined. There are girls who say they are still virgins because they had anal sex but not vaginal. Yet that is penetration which would assume that it is indeed sex. Trying to define sex between queer couples is probably just as difficult. This focus on sex between women rather than between men or a man and woman becomes, as you said, more the idea that women are passive. As long as the women come out with an enjoyable experience, defining sex really doesn’t matter. There’s also the idea that women are passive but then we are portrayed as overly sexual beings which really makes no sense. In pop culture, like music videos, women look for attention from men so does that really make us passive?

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  4. I really enjoyed reading this post on Monday. I also found the discussion from the comments interesting, too. On Monday, I thought a lot about what I define sex as. It was an interesting project to see if I could even pin down a definition. I couldn’t, at least not in a stable sense. I think it is important to question that the defining characteristic of sex is penetration. I think Int’lCupcake makes a great point here about the need for a biological definition. However, I think Valenti’s definition is also persuasive because it is more inclusive. But, I do see an issue with Valenti’s definition, similar to what Katie O. is saying. It is problematic to characterize sex as something that gives you an orgasm when not only are there are people who haven’t experienced an orgasm, but the term orgasm is also hard to define. It seems obvious because we relate it to personal experience, but is there a way to prove that it feels the same for everyone? Furthermore, it seems the definition doesn’t clear up specific situations. For example, if you engage in “sexual” activities but don’t climax, was that sex? I guess a way to clear that up would be to reframe the def. as anything that has the potential to make you orgasm? Not sure on that one. I think the other important thing to discuss here is that there are different kinds of definitions (obviously). So, I think it makes some sense that they would vary based on scientific, practical, personal, etc., situations.

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  5. Thanks, everyone, for your great feedback. I agree that biological imperitives are certainly sex, and I think that we need to widen, not narrow, our definition of sex- to include criterion such as that which Jessica Valenti discusses in additon to the penetration = sex model, because sex doesn’t necessarily need to end in mutual orgasm to be valid.

    In terms of Sex Education, I wish that defining sex was a more popular discussion, because every individual has the right to determine what constitutes sex for them. I also hope that Sex Ed classes begin emphasizing pleasure more, because if you are ready to have a sexual encounter with someone, each partner has the right for it to be a positive one. It should also include serious and in-depth lessons on the very real issue of consent, as we are clearly a society that is uncertain at best about what constitutes consent and who has a right to it.

    I agree that women are often portrayed as sex vixens of a sort, but it seems to me that this portrayal turns them into sex objects instead of people, and in that way they become passive objects for someone else’s pleasure. This isn’t to say that women are actually passive sexual beings- we certainly aren’t and shouldn’t have to be- but only that we are percieved to be this way.

    Because sex is so personal, my hope is that everyone would feel comfortable taking the definition into their own hands and taking active interest in their own sexual life.

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