Unless one is intersex biological maleness and femaleness is typically discernible at birth. Reproductive science indicates that babies born with two X chromosomes will develop female genitals, while those with an X and a Y will possess male sexual organs. However, exactly when and how psychological gender materializes will likely always be debatable. The proportionality of biological and societal influences on gender development continues to be a conundrum even as we evolve with conceptualizing gender as a spectrum.
Still, as neurosexist as this may seem to the moral gatekeepers of political correctness, some sex differences are simply behaviorally, anatomically and cognitively hard-wired.
Hence, when a few years I was questioned by a journalist about my views pertaining to the SESTA-FOSTA bill to fight online sex trafficking I was bewildered by her interpretation of my response. My commentary had more to do with my personal analysis of sex work based on the women I clinically treated throughout the years in the public and private sector of NYC, then my concerns about the bill. Nevertheless long story short, I was painted as a misogynistic stigmatizing practitioner for imparting the opinion that “regardless of whether the sex worker was a homeless drug addict being sold by a brutal pimp or the ‘entrepreneur’ of a high-end brothel, commoditizing one’s sexuality is damaging to one’s psyche, body, and spirit.”
Naturally the translation of the aforementioned comment was skewed to fit a narrative asserting that sex work is a profession fraught with challenges like any other occupation. I still beg to differ. Being an ally to sex workers does not mean glamorizing prostitution and ignoring the detrimental repercussions of commercializing one’s body and sexuality. Nor does viewing sex work as psychologically and physically damaging equate with believing that prostitution should be criminalized. Although I don’t conceptualize marketing sex acts as ‘sex-positive’ I certainly don’t ascribe to abolitionist notions.
As with most things in life this is a highly complex matter that cannot be narrowly defined. While many studies affirm that decriminalization and legalization of prostitution can facilitate access to health insurance and safety measures, these same studies conclude that this step could also result in extensive rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other mental health issues. (Farley & Barkan, 2008; Valera et al., 2001) There is no denying that when sexuality takes the form of commodification it has a dehumanizing effect on women and gender relations in general.
That said, given the variable forms of sexual expression, spanning intimacy to violence and economic need, it’s relevant to understand not just how the cultural edicts of gender, but also how female biology and genetics are relevant to embracing what we as women are inherently aligned with when it comes to our libidinal needs.
According to the American Psychological Association we are usually aware of our sexual orientation (heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality) between middle childhood and early adolescence. For girls entering puberty the initiation into sexual activity is compounded by the awkward testing of new behaviors and the desperate longing for peer approval. Territorial issues are not defined, and dating etiquette encourages her to ignore instincts that conflict with being accommodating and ‘nice’.
She may succumb to the myth that men cannot control themselves once they are engaged in any sort of sexual activity. Irrespective of sexual orientation she may learn to believe that in order to be loved and desired she has to defer her power and give in. To resist is equivalent to being alone and discarded. These cultural mores encourage a sexualized prey-predator motif. Within this paradigm males are encouraged to ‘score’ and ‘conquer’ and duplicitous tactics are euphemistically framed as seduction.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted) compared to about 3% of American men (or 1 in 33) having experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
Irregardless of ideological perspectives about gender fluidity one doesn’t have to reach too far to consider how the prevalence of rape and the basic mechanics of male-female sexual intercourse render a woman vulnerable. For this essential reason a woman’s sexual responsiveness is largely predicated on the basic need for emotional and physical safety.
As Dr. Dianne Grande explains ,“Before a woman’s arousal shifts to a sense of desire, she must make a determination that she is safe. In other words, women must be able to turn off fear to move from physical arousal to conscious desire. At the basic biological level, her brain is wired to assess her safety and evaluate her risks.”
A study titled “Feeling Scared During Sex: Findings from a U.S. Probability Sample of Women and Men Ages 14 to 60,” published in The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy (April 2019) gleaned results consistent with these observations. Essentially the study concluded that women were significantly more likely than men to have experienced scary sex (70.9% of female respondents vs 46.9% of male respondents).
It’s important to note that scary sex for women was characterized as forced sex/sexual assault, their partners not stopping when they said no, unexpectedly choking them during sex, or being overly rough and aggressive. The male respondents however characterized scary sex as the prevalence of menstruation, a condom breaking, or the number of prior sexual partners a woman had. Clearly these gendered differences regarding sources of fear signify a vast divide as to what constitutes safe and pleasurable sexual experiences.
Indeed, when recalling memories of sexual acts in which I acquiesced or yielded to a confusing sense of obligation, or simply ignored when desire turned sour, I experience a disturbing sense of discomfort throughout my limbic system. Yet in those instances, consent was apparently offered. Although my mind interpreted what was happening as okay, my body didn’t register it as such. I was bewildered and perhaps even afraid to know what my body knew.
This is a common dilemma when consent is muddled. Even when there is no conscious malicious intent involved, the absence of sexual consonance and humane interaction can induce injury. No doubt, this requires us to realistically examine what rules of engagement need to be deployed in the service of self-care and protection. This is a nebulous undertaking for many.
While sex may appear consensual there is tremendous confusion amongst men and women as to what individually and collectively defines appropriate sexual conduct and how those parameters need to be communicated. In fact, women are often labeled sexually and mentally disordered when their bodies are asserting self-protective boundaries (i.e. vaginismus) in response to perceived harm.
Perhaps what is medically labeled a dysfunction in women is in fact just an organic response to sexual dissatisfaction, sexual trauma and feeling unsafe.
Lest we forget, like the medical field psychiatry is notorious for pathologizing and characterizing women as naturally masochistic, prone to victimization, and morally undeveloped (Freud). Psychiatry’s role in promulgating shadow projections and stigmatizing women is grim.
In fact, early in his career many of Freud’s female patients frequently reported sexual abuse, most often naming their fathers as the abusers. Initially Freud attributed his female patients symptoms to repressed memories of sexual abuse trauma. That these symptoms were so prevalent throughout Viennese society meant that child abuse was rampant. According to Freudian scholar Dr. Jeffrey Masson, Freud dodged the prospect of scandal and political suicide by discrediting his findings of sexual abuse. Rather, he revised that these traumatic memories were in fact unconscious fantasies.
One of the tragic repercussions of Freud’s decision is documented in Louise DeSalvo’s book, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work (1989). DeSalvo postulates that Virginia Woolf’s confusion about Freud’s Oepidal theory, which states that children fantasize their sexual abuse, contributed to Virginia’s decision to commit suicide.
Dr. Charlotte Kasl imparts in her book Women, Sex & Addiction, “Sex is sex. Sex is simple. Unfortunately, when our minds and egos become involved sex becomes complicated. While the desire to be sexual with a partner can be spiritually motivated, because we love and care for that person and desire to feel connected, it can also come from feelings of hate, anger, fear, need, sadness, or insecurity. It can come from a desire to feel important or a need to alleviate tension. It can come from wanting to fill a big empty place inside. But, sex is still sex.”
While as Kasl imparts, sex takes on sundry meanings and applications, it is pertinent to recognize that female biology and what Dr. Carol Gilligan referred to as an inherent ethics of care disposition, has bearing on a woman’s experience of sex. Commensurate with a woman’s heightened need for safety is a cyclical physiological sexual response (Dr. Rosemary Basson, 2002) that differs from men. In fact, it turns out the traditional linear Masters & Johnson’s model of excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution did not take into account how context and desire play a crucial role in a women’s sexual response.
Sex researchers now believe that it is more common for arousal to precede desire in women, whereas in men desire typically precedes arousal. In other words, female sexual response is best understood as desire that occurs in response to pleasure, not in anticipation of it. Hence, women are more sexually aroused by concrete, auditory, olfactory, touch and emotionally relevant sexual stimulation, then visual cues and fantasy. (Spiering, Everaerd & Laan, 2004) Likewise, environment and the surrounding conditions are incendiary elements when it comes to sexual desire in women.
This overall failure to recognize female specific developmental trends and physiological needs continues to exist within psychiatry and the medical industry. Discriminatory biases towards women in healthcare reflects how female development and female sexuality has typically been viewed through normative measures of health specifically applicable to men. Viewing men as the gold standard from which all else is measured not only contributes to overlooking women’s health concerns, but also promulgates a comparative deficiency in receiving basic evidence based care.
Author Elinor Cleghorn exposes in her book Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-Made World how the mistreatment of women within the medical establishment is clearly evidenced in lobotomies, clitoridectomies to ‘cure hysteric disorders’, unwarranted hysterectomies, and the fatal repercussions of the synthetic hormones found in the original birth control pill. The list goes on. Of course when factoring in race and class one sees an uptick in such atrocities.
Clearly, misogyny is intricately woven into the fabric of culture, inclusive of healthcare. Our psyches are infiltrated with notions of female inferiority. Innate female dispositions and proclivities are viewed as deficient or damaged.
According to social justice theory, when oppression and inequality is internalized the oppressed group employs the methods of the oppressing group against itself. This lends itself to a desire to be like the more highly-valued group. Accordingly, repudiating what is prototypically viewed as feminine is not specific to males.
We see this unfortunate trend of misogyny in women play out through slut shaming and intrasexual competition. Moreover, some female misogynists unwittingly ascribe to the male ethos ideology while touting themselves as feminists. Contemptuous of female specific traits and what is prototypically viewed as the feminine nature, superior value is assigned to male behavior, suggesting these qualities are advantageous for women to emulate. This is clearly prevalent in the competitive marketplace where alpha women in leadership positions emulate a masculine leadership style so as to be deemed effective. A linear pragmatic mode eclipses an intuitive, interdependent approach, often resulting in an imbalance that devolves into ruthless, sabotaging tactics.
The idea of equanimity or equality being achieved by following a masculine example presents an interesting paradox. It suggests that (albeit clichéd) female proclivities such as being nurturing, demure, gentle, agreeable, or sensitive are contemptuous. It’s not a stretch to extrapolate these judgements onto a full range of female expression, including our sexual nature.
Returning to the truth of the unique grandeur of our female essence along with feminine principles of creative collaboration and nourishment encourages us to ignite solidarity and take healthy pride in the varied dimensions of our intrinsic nature. Embodying our ambiguities and paradoxical truths is a path to fully appreciating the value of our complexity. It is only from this place is it conceivable for women to collectively mobilize as a driving force of positive change for all.