Intellect, intrigue, fire and fantasy. Female desire is more than the sum of our body parts.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds,
at the meeting of my thighs.”
– Maya Angelou
It is a bold proclamation. Purposefully brash and wholeheartedly defiant. Spoken with a twinkle in the eye and a laugh in that gravelly, honey-toned voice. Here, ladies, is a woman so sure, so absolute in the presence of her sexuality and the power in her femininity that she’s simply stating the facts. Female sexuality is a loaded notion. It is heavy with expectation and constrained by ideals. Lost somewhere between the overt, hyper-sexualised consumer age, trivialised down to a billboard simplicity and the outdated, languishing notion that a woman’s sole desire is to be understood and held tight in a loving embrace, long into the night. Is sexuality a sum of all the parts of our body? Is a woman’s libido influenced by the curve of her breast, the shape of her nose, the strut in her step? Or is sexuality born of intellect, intrigue, fire and fantasy?
A quick Google search on increasing libido returns catch-phrase promises. A satisfying sex life can be achieved in just six easy steps. Try chocolate, the higher the percentage of raw cocoa the better. Herbs; they stimulate the senses. When it comes to sugar, less is always more. Take more baths; true romance, remember? Exercise regularly; why not try pole dancing? But in the complexity of emotions that comprise female sexual desire should we look beyond the body to get our satisfaction? With approximately 35 per cent of women reporting low libidos and lack of interest in sex, has female sexuality been lost within the barrage of misinformation?
If we are to increase our libidos, how do we determine a healthy one? In truth, a ‘normal’ libido is beyond definition. Dr Elaine George, founder and director of Clinical Sexology Australia, explains that “… abnormal is relative to whatever someone subjectively deems is normal. There is no magical figure or quotient that dictates ‘thou should make love 2.5 times a week’ to be normal.
“Desire and arousal are always contingent upon a range of contextual factors such as the situation and other interrelating factors including biological – diet, alcohol, exercise, sleep, hormones etcetera; psychological – [including] stress, anxiety, depression [and] moods; sociocultural [including] values, beliefs, cultural mores; neuroscience – [including] mindfulness, acceptance, thoughts, focus and presence; and situation.”
This multifaceted nature of sexual desire means we, as women, must take an active role in determining how our sexuality is best expressed. Ariel Levy, in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs, argues: “If we are really going to be sexually liberated, we need to make room for a range of options as wide as the variety of human desire. We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy. That would be liberation.”
We need more time and more space; for boredom, for fantasy, desire and dreams. Time to lounge in moments of mindless intimacy and stretches of boredom that allow the deepest recesses of our sexuality to come to the surface.
Alisa Vitti, integrative nutritionist and hormone expert, suggests the optimum time to engage in sexual activity for both men and women is between midday and late afternoon. If this is the case, have we lost before we’ve even started? In today’s busy world, is achieving a more satisfying sex life simply a case of demanding longer lunch breaks?
On the journey to increase our sexual desire, identifying the leading cause of decreased libido is the surest start. If women’s sexual desire hinges on so many interrelated spheres, does a common factor exist? “Stress and fatigue!” George responds resolutely.
“Multitasking is ridiculous but then you see people more engaged with their mobile devices than with their dining partner – and unfortunately for many that also spills into the bedroom,” George explains. “Boundaries are crucial and technology will kill sexual desire or at the very least compete or interfere with the emotional intimacy between a couple.” On ways to increase libido, George recommends “mindfulness, rest and more mindfulness”. She explains: “As [founding executive director of the Centre for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School] Jon Kabat-Zinn advocates, it is all about ‘coming to our senses’ and essentially masturbation and any sensuality exercises will work best if we give ourselves permission to let go and truly get in touch with our senses … We all need to learn to ‘park’ the stressors of the day and be fully present with ourselves and our partner. Sleep is absolutely essential and so many of us ignore how lack of sleep can have an insidious detrimental effect on our overall wellbeing and, definitely, [on] our sexual desire or our response in terms of arousal.”
External stressors are pervasive but not entirely unmanageable. Our minds, internal dialogue and cultural upbringing, however, are another thing altogether.
Jane Ussher, professor of women’s health and sexuality at Western Sydney University, explores society’s myths about ‘woman’ and female sexuality in her work. Ussher investigates the nuances of female sexual representation, the “complexity around the messages that are out there, both about the body, what women are expected to look like and also their sexual behaviours”.
In a digital age where baring all on Instagram can be equated with feminism, have we become more liberated or have we simply found a way to win at a man’s game? “I think it’s quite complicated,” she answers slowly. And it is. And it should be. You can’t minimise female sexuality down to a single viewpoint. It’s personal.
“There have always been double standards for men and women’s sexuality,” Ussher explains. While a woman’s choice to exhibit her body on her own terms, in her own time, is surely a good thing, Ussher argues that perhaps it is the origin of the desire that is confused: “They have very little idea about what their desire is because they are very much objectified and expected to be the object of men’s desire and I don’t see a lot in those [Instagram] images of their desires. It is very much them as objects.
“It is about saying all you are as a woman is sex and appearance and what your weight is like, have you had fillers or not, how big is your bum. It’s not about how bright you are, about how much they’ve achieved, about what their desires and dreams are.”
This notion is echoed in Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth. “Their [girls’] sexual energy, their evaluation of adolescent boys and other girls goes thwarted, deflected back upon the girls, unspoken, and their searching hungry gaze returned to their own bodies. The questions, Whom do I desire? Why? What will I do about it? are turned around: Would I desire myself? Why? … Why not? What can I do about it?”
“It’s about thinking about yourself as a person as well as a woman,” Ussher argues. “So about what you want, and what you desire … I’m not saying women pay no regard to what they look like, but it is about thinking about what do you want to achieve in life, how do you want to spend your time, what sort of things do you want to do in your life?”
It is one thing to find liberation in one’s body but another entirely to find self worth and satisfaction in areas so separated from our bodies that our sexuality does not rest upon the fragility of our outward appearance. So, if we as women are searching for representations of our sexuality free from objectification, where do we go? Spaces that celebrate a woman’s libido, acknowledge its presence, power and strength while simultaneously leaving space for nuance and diversity?
Par Femme, a ‘part content and part e-commerce’ website concerned with reshaping how women view their own sexuality, began on Instagram as a creative outlet for co-founder and creative director Ruby Heery. “I’ve always been fascinated with female sensuality, which can be such a powerful (and often subtle) force, and as I started to play around with found images I loved … I suddenly had the ability to take everyday things and occurrences that when recontextualised suddenly took on new and more erotic implications,” Heery explains. “It got me thinking about sexuality and sensuality on an everyday level, which is what I think is at the heart of Par Femme.”
It has developed into a platform that aims to educate and facilitate the sharing of stories and experiences, where women can just as easily buy a sex toy as they can jewellery. “I want Par Femme to allow women to make sexuality a part of the everyday,” says Heery. “Just because we have busy lives and jobs doesn’t mean we have to ignore that part of ourselves. We don’t necessarily have to go all ‘boudoir’ with lace and high heels for this either. It can be as simple as putting on some underwear that makes you feel great before you go about your day, or remembering the night before when you tried an adult toy (and thinking that maybe you’ll try it again when you get home). It can even be remembering an erotic story you read and passing it on to your friends to read for themselves. It’s about getting back in touch with your sensuality, embracing it, being able to share the ups and downs along the way with the people in your life, and to be able to have a bit of a sense of humour about it all.”
For someone who has taken the bold step in pulling female sexuality out of the closet and placing it so assuredly into the open, Heery explains the personal meaning of sexual liberation. “For me, it means the freedom to be able to explore the hidden corners of your mind and your body without shame or fear of judgement. Sex is such a personal, intuitive and subjective thing, a way to let go and be completely in the moment. To just feel.”
Thanks to history, women’s sexuality is a little more complex than that of our male counterparts but not so different that the hierarchy of sexual desire society has created needs to carry on existing. Pinning male sexual desire to a higher rung as a stronger, more important sexual expression means we lose the ability to create space for our own version of sexuality. We must teach ourselves to be consumers and not just the consumed.
The duty to embody the role of a perfect woman pales in comparison with a life well lived, with a life that is your own, and being an interesting person to come home to, to go to bed with, be it a solo adventure or otherwise.
If we are to achieve full and rich sex lives we must demand something of life, of love, so that our achievements reach further than our reflection. We need to search for a deeper, truer sexuality. Born of intelligence, nuance, guts and grit, of a desire to satisfy our innermost feelings.
In the end, we must demand something from sex; purely for the joy of it, the lust of it, the pleasure of it. For ourselves.