A Critique of the Research Methodology and Interviewing Rhetoric Used in Investigating Women’s Sexual Pleasure
by Jennifer Samaritan
Female sexual pleasure is a hotly debated subject among academics. In this paper I argue that the research done particularly on the female clitoral orgasm is riddled with patriarchal and Freudian understandings of female sexuality. Since this heteronormative research is what is available to use for sexual education, a dangerous cyclical pattern is formed in which the woman is continually reduced to an asexual being whose sole purpose in sexual encounters is to please the male ego. In order to combat this cyclical pattern, researchers should be self-critical in their studies to remove any Freudian-induced biases. I propose and demonstrate how subjectivities statements can be used to provide the reader with a knowledge of researcher biases that influence the results. This will in turn prevent skewed data from maintaining Eurocentric masculinist power narratives. In addition, particular attention should be paid to the way research questions are asked to avoid skewing data to fulfill a researcher’s biases. In conclusion, a careful post-structural and feminist approach should be used to deconstruct the present metanarratives of female sexual pleasure.
“Everything in Freud’s patronizing and fearful attitude toward women follows from their lack of a penis…”
–Mary Ellmann, Thinking About Women(1968)
Within feminist qualitative research the personal is viewed as inherently political. In other words, “the ‘private’ sphere, or areas such as sexuality…is just as structured by power relations around gender, sexuality, ‘race,’ class and age as the ‘public’ sphere” (C. Griffin and A. Phoenix 290). Therefore, as a self-identified feminist, I will be analyzing how the “Eurocentric masculinist knowledge-validation process” constructs information surrounding the clitoral orgasm (Hill Collins 1989). I will then critique the research methodologies used to gather information on women’s sexual health and pleasure with a particular focus on the rhetoric used in interview questions and how they can result in skewed data due to heteronormative diction that pressures the participant to describe sex that conforms to societal norms. I will be critiquing research done on women’s sexual health and pleasure using a critical discourse-analysis approach through a post-structural lens. I will conclude with arguing how a post-structural and feminist qualitative-research approach is necessary to gather more accurate information.
The research performed on women’s sexual pleasure is primarily phallocentric in that it continually constructs the woman as an asexual being that is the object of male pleasure (Costa, Miller, and Brody). In sexual acts, the woman is depicted as passively and emotionally receiving sexual acts while the man is depicted as actively and physically performing sexual acts with the end goal of the male orgasm. Furthermore, the woman’s orgasm is constructed as ultimately existing to please the male’s ego, which is, in part, centered around being a “good” lover. These narratives that permeate the social construction of “good” sex are seen throughout interview and interviews responses that are done with primarily heterosexual white college aged women and men. Since this information is universalized and then circulated to sexual health educators and the media, a dangerous cyclical pattern is formed in which this patriarchal riddled “knowledge” is instilled again and again in the minds of individuals who consume this information. In this paper, my aim is to deconstruct these notions that continue to seep into our social environment, entrenching themselves into a problematic cycle of phallocentric “knowledge.”
As previously stated, I will be deconstructing sexual norms using a critical discourse analysis in which I hone in on interview questions. This approach is inspired by post-modern, post-structural critiques by individuals such as Hélène Cixous. As suggested by its name, poststructuralism seeks to deconstruct the problematic narratives that plague our society which in its literature are often referred to as “metanarratives.” In this way, postmodern thought seeks “to develop conceptions of social criticism that do not rely on traditional philosophical underpinnings” (Fraser and Nicholson 85). In other words, postmodernists aim to explode the neat borders of traditional narratives that hinder intellectual growth by using universalist, objective notions of “knowledge.” This “knowledge,” which is often phallocentric, permeates touted academics’ minds such as Freud’s. Freud’s problematic work on female sexual health and pleasure is often used, even subconsciously, by researchers to prove their phallocentric ideals. In order to avoid continuing to add to the Freudian narrative of female sexual pleasure it is important to closely analyze one’s own identity to critically reflect on whether these notions can be influencing one’s research.
In recognizing how my “positionality affects all aspects of the research process—(from the articulation of a research question to the analysis and presentation of the data)” I will begin with analyzing my own subjectivities in relation to this paper (McCorkel and Myers 199).
I am interested in this topic because of being raised in a Catholic community that is oppressive towards female sexuality. Throughout my youth, my academic sphere incorporated a chastity agenda. My sexual education was therefore nearly nonexistent and only recognized heteronormative sexual acts. The chastity talks that I received consisted of the reiteration of the phrase, “keep your pants on.” Furthermore, these talks shamed having multiple partners and encouraged us as young women to write letters to our future husbands to remind ourselves to avoid sexual encounters. Although the boys’ separate sexual education included the evils of masturbation, female masturbation was altogether ignored.
My school’s education of the female anatomy continued along the vein of ignoring female sexual pleasure and satisfaction by only focusing on the reproductive system. The clitoris, an anatomically present organ, was left out of all textbooks and conversation. In this way the woman is constructed as the mere recipient of the penis with no agency or knowledge of her center of pleasure. This sexual education “confuse[s] the biological and the cultural” and violently drives women away from their bodies (Cixous 875).
Because of my sexual education being riddled with religion and watered down to purely reproductive rhetoric, I struggled to have a healthy and pleasurable sex life throughout the beginning of my undergraduate career. Experiencing first-hand the damage that can be caused by the constructed reduction of sex to heteronormative forms of reproduction I am passionate about transforming the mainstream dialogue surrounding female sexual pleasure. It drives me to attempt to redirect this conversation away from being one that is taboo by discussing it in an academic setting. Furthermore, the liberation I found through feminist theories and ideologies became for me a part of the solution to problematic methodological approaches.
Research shows that this experience, unfortunately, is not uncommon. In Wade, Kremer, and Brown’s The Incidental Orgasm: The Presence of Clitoral Knowledge and the Absence of Orgasm for Women they discuss how “studies discussed in the literature review suggest that school sex education does not address female sexual pleasure” (Wade, Kramer, & Brown 126). Because sexual pleasure is not addressed, this in turn creates a disconnect between women and their bodies that creates a difficulty in achieving orgasm. As Salisbury and Fisher suggest in their research “Did You Come?” A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrence during Heterosexual Interactions “a variety of factors may contribute to difficulties in sexual functioning…including inadequate sexual education” (Salisbury & Fisher 617).
After reading several research articles on anorgasmia or in other words, women who find it difficult to orgasm during sex, I was compelled to shift my research away from the focus of sex ultimately achieving the female orgasm, which was my initial approach because of the bitterness of being separated from my body. In developing my knowledge base on female sexual pleasure, I realized that in focusing purely on women’s ability to achieve orgasm I was re-constructing sex to align again with the phallocentric notions of heterosexual sex; I was becoming a part of the problem.
I came to this conclusion because the focus of common research and therefore the interview questions conducted by the researchers perpetuate socially created notions of what is good and healthy sex—sex that benefits the masculine economy by having a clear and measurable finish or climax. I believe that sexual education should include a complete picture of the female anatomy, one that includes sources of pleasure as well as reproduction. In other words, there should be an ease of access to this information. However, what is done with this information should be entirely up to the consensual participating adults. There should not be a construction of sex that places a pressure on the participants to conform to a specific societal standard. In fact, not only is an orgasm by either party unnecessary to obtain “healthy” or “good” sex, but sex is not necessary at all to maintain a happy and healthy relationship, although this notion is often understudied (Nicolson and Burr 1737).
Freud: The Father of Misogyny
The dominant conversation that does exist involving sex often reduces female pleasure and orgasm to the “objects of male desire [author’s emphasis]” (Nicolson and Burr 1737). The demand for a woman to orgasm is reduced to a “responsibility of ensuring their male partner experiences himself as a good lover. If the woman fails to enjoy sex, then she is somehow to blame, because if she were not, it would suggest male sexual inadequacy [author’s emphasis]” (Nicolson and Burr 1737). Even more so there is a pressure that women orgasm specifically through penile penetration even though “research evidence that is available suggests that orgasm through intercourse is not necessarily common-place among women” (Nicolson and Burr 1737). This is because the idea that women can reach climax without male intervention is a threatening notion to the heterosexual institution on multiple levels. Outside of the obvious threat of men being sexually expendable, the idea that a woman can orgasm without a man threatens the key aspect of male chauvinism in which “men have chosen to define women only in terms of how they benefited men’s lives” (Koedt). In terms of sexuality, “a woman was not seen as an individual wanting to share equally in the sexual act, any more than she was seen as a person with independent desires when she did anything else in society” (Koedt). This construction of women as asexual beings that won’t receive pleasure outside of stroking the men’s ego permeates the research revolving around female sexual pleasure.
These constructed notions can be pinpointed to Freudian understandings of the female body, which have been given a great privilege in our white-male dominated society. In Anne Koedt’s piece The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm she counteracts Freudian notions of sex in which “Freud contended that the clitoral orgasm was adolescent, and that upon puberty, when women began having intercourse with men, women should transfer the center of the orgasm to the vagina” (Koedt). This understanding of sex is strictly heterosexual, assuming that women will or should only have sex with men. Furthermore, the premise of this argument is phallocentric; it maintains that women should orgasm in a way that is pleasing to a man’s penis. Freud continues his argument by saying that “whenever a woman is incapable of achieving an orgasm via coitus, provided the husband is an adequate partner, and prefers clitoral stimulation to any other form of sexual activity, she can be regarded as suffering from frigidity and requires psychiatric assistance” (The Sexually Adequate Female 64). This again places the role on the men to make women orgasm instead of women being viewed as able to take an active role in physically stimulating themselves to achieve orgasm in addition to penetrative sex. This type of rhetoric is highly problematic because “women who were perfectly healthy sexually were taught that they were not” (Koedt). Again, these results have very real, very physical effects on women’s bodies and “looking for a cure to a problem that has none can lead a woman on an endless path of self-hatred and insecurity” (Koedt).
In Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous also critiques Freudian ideals and discusses how women’s “libido will produce far more radical effects of political and social change than some might think” because it counteracts the masculine economy that encourages a visible, definitive ending (882). She describes how women have several erogenous zones and intimidate men by their ability to “arrive, vibrant, over and again” (Cixous 882). Furthermore, Cixous explains that “you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogenous, classifiable into codes—any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another [author’s emphasis]” (Cixous 876). However, this is exactly what is done in research. Research around female sexual pleasure aims to construct female sexuality in simple, universal, and neat terms. Men are constructed as placing orgasm as their top priority in sex and women are constructed as placing the man’s ego as their top priority in sex.
Interview Questions Maintaining Socially Created Rules
A highly problematic study that is riddled with Freudian notions of female sexuality is Costa, Miller, and Brody’s Women Who Prefer Longer Penises are More Likely to Have Vaginal Orgasms (but Not Clitoral Orgasms): Implications for an Evolutionary Theory of Vaginal Orgasm. In this study, conducted by three men, on female sexuality, 323 “coitally experienced women” were surveyed to gauge that a longer penis provides more vaginal orgasms (Costa et. al 3081). This study, which is riddled with misogyny, defines sex as “PVI” or “penis-in-vagina intercourse” and is given precedence as the main source of orgasm for women. Women who did not engage, or even did not frequently engage in PVI, were excluded from the study as “inexperienced” (Costa et al. 3081). Only “160 women qualified to judge size effects (because they have had PVI-induced orgasms and enough partners to make informed size comparisons)” (Costa et al. 3082). The definition of “enough partners” was allowed to be up to the discretion of the participant as well as the presence of a PVI-induced orgasm.
The questionnaire administered primarily to Scottish students, contained questions that mirrored the heteronormative, Freudian-riddled political stance that Costa, Miller, and Brody maintain throughout their paper. This question is as follows:
The effect of penis size on the likelihood of having an orgasm from PVI was assessed by the question “All things being equal, are you more likely to have an orgasm from penis-in-vagina intercourse with a man who has a somewhat larger than average penis length? (Assume that average erect penis length is the length of…any U.S. dollar bill)” (3081)
By beginning the question with the unnecessary and confusing statement “all things being equal” the prompt is already presenting a bias. In using the term “equal” the researchers are using a term that has positive connotations. The term “equal” carries positive connotations because equality is often used as a goal in modern society for most social interactions. Most human beings are conditioned to strive for equality in their sexual encounters as a means of achieving a “healthy” sex life. This conditioning is not necessarily negative if it is not limiting the types of sexual practices that are considered equal to PVI. More importantly however, there is no explanation for what is being considered as “equal.” Instead it is merely alluding to the fact that PVI can be seen as “equal” sex, which other research shows, particularly when in reference to sexual pleasure, is not always the case (Nicolson and Burr). This type of questioning further normalizes heterosexual sex as the only type of equal or acceptable sex and can lead the participant to form an inaccurate correlation between PVI as the main form of equal sex. In further evaluating this question, the use of the term “somewhat” can also be seen as problematic in that it allows room for significant ambiguity which could result in their participants broadening their response. In addition “larger” is defined in terms of length which exludes any recognition of penis girth that could possibly be influencing their data results.
The study continues with the question: “‘How important to you are the following activities (rate them from 1=least important to 10=most important?’ a) penile-vaginal intercourse, b) other sexual activities’” (Costa et. al 3081). This question is highly problematic in that it creates a dangerous binary of PVI verses “everything else.” “Other sexual activities” is an ambiguous statement that can encompass a vast number of activities. This question is also leading in that it only allows room for these activities to be listed as “important.” By choosing to say least important as the lowest possible answer instead of unimportant, this question implies that these activities should be important to the participant. The question might as well have been rephrased as the dichotomies a) right, b) wrong.
This study’s questions present a bias by creating social sexual norms which could have influenced their data results. Furthermore, even though the majority of the results came from a small portion of Scottish university students, the results were generalized to a global scale. This can be seen as dangerous in that it contributes to the pressure that women face to achieve orgasm through PVI despite the medical research that this is not the norm. This study also fails to recognize that “even during vaginal-penile intercourse alone there is usually some form of clitoral stimulation, either direct or indirect” (Darjling, Davidson, & Cox 1991). So in turn, although participants may think they are having a vaginal orgasm, they could in fact be having a clitoral orgasm.
Besides confusion over clitoral versus vaginal orgasms, this study also claims that the amount of orgasms you have per month can be recorded accurately. The study gives a table that shows “women who are more likely to reach orgasm from PVI with longer than average penises report having more vaginal orgasms within a previous month compared with women for whom penis size is not important for PVI orgasm” (Costa et. al 3083). Did these women keep journals next to their bedside table for months to record the measurements of their partners’ penises in addition to tallying how many times they orgasmed in order to accurately report these numbers for this survey?
Another claim that was made in this research study that cannot be measured accurately and therefore cannot produce the evidence to make this claim is that “consistency of women’s orgasm during PVI is predicted by the partner’s dominance, masculinity, and attractiveness” (Costa et al. 3080). How can these attributes be measured and generalized when they are so subjective and cultural? Although the researchers claim that the “hypotheses about adaptive functions of vaginal orgasm do not rely on Freudian psycho-analytic concepts” their research material contains Freudian themes throughout (Costa et al. 3086). A thorough subjectivities analysis could perhaps have prevented these researchers from such a blind oversight.
In a different, more in-depth study, Salisbury and Fisher interviewed college-aged men and women to learn more about the knowledge surrounding the female orgasm. This study, titled “Did You Come?” A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrence During Heterosexual Sexual Interactions, broke up its participants into 3-5 person groups to perform interviews. Although this study is radically less problematic than the Costa et al. study, it still focuses mostly on white college-aged students and uses problematic rhetoric in its questionnaire that can result insufficient data.
Some of the questions on the surface seem to not be problematic, but upon deeper evaluation it can be construed that the questions construct a norm that the participant follows. For example the question that is posed for women on the lack of orgasm is: “When a woman does not orgasm, what is she most concerned about?” (Salsbury and Fisher 630). But the question that is posed for men on the male orgasm is: “If a man doesn’t orgasm during sexual interactions, what is he most concerned about?” (Salsbury and Fisher 630). By choosing the word “when” for women and “if” for men, the questions are proposing that women are expected to not orgasm during sexual interactions but men are usually expected to orgasm through sexual interactions. Furthermore, the question for women implies that there should be something to be concerned about in not orgasming. The responses by the participants demonstrate that they did in fact have concerns about not orgasming but those concerns where in relation to hurting the male ego, and not about receiving certain levels of pleasure in sexual interactions.
Similarly in a highly cited and famous survey performed by Laummann et. al in 1994, the way research questions are phrased can be seen as further constructing social norms about sex. The questions are as follows:
The next questions are about your sexual life now. During the last year has there been a period of one month or more when you:
…lacked interest in having sex?
…were unable to orgasm (a climax)?
…came to orgasm (a climax) too quickly?
…experienced physical pain during intercourse?
…did not find sex pleasurable?
…felt anxious about your ability to perform sexually?
…had trouble keeping an erection when you wanted to? [Asked of men only]
…had trouble with vaginal dryness? [Asked of women only] (Ritchers 232).
All of these questions can be viewed as having a theme of a constructed notion of what is considered a normal sex life. Juliet Ritchers in Bodies, Pleasure and Displeasure reframes these questions in a way that demonstrates the social construction within them. She states,
But it is very revealing to examine what is implied by these questions if we phrase them the other way around, as injunctions:
You should be constantly interested in having sex
You should be able to reach orgasm
You should not come too quickly
It should not hurt when you have intercourse
You should find sex pleasurable
You should not feel anxious about your ability to perform sexually
You should be able to keep an erection when you want to/You should easily become lubricated. (Ritchers 232)
As Ritchers notes, by rephrasing the questions in this way you can see that they “are obviously social rules of behaviour. Making their regulatory nature explicit also makes it easier to spot the illogicality for treating the failure to obey the rules as dysfunctions” (Ritchers 232). In this way we are further treating women in particular as if they have a disorder when their sex does not align with the research-question-imposed rules of social behavior. This again can lead to a devastating situation of a woman thinking that she has a disorder when she does not.
From a linguistic standpoint “verbal categories reflect social attitudes and a system of deeply anthropocentric and indeed misogynist ideas about the body, and about how our concepts and even surgical practices are framed by those verbal categories” (O’Connell 1981). This quote demonstrates how the way these studies are performed and worded result in very real effects on the human body, in particular women’s body. Verbal categories create our knowledge base and influence our day-to-day lives. The current social behavior that is demonstrated is that women should be passive during sex in order to maintain an allusion of femininity while men should be active (Laan and Relini 2011). With this guideline, there is a pressure placed on the man to be the one who actively, physically makes the woman orgasm. Research suggests that this pressure in turn creates a pressure on the woman to orgasm in order to protect the male ego that is constructed through masculinity to encompass being a good lover (Salsibury 2010).
In order to avoid people thinking they have a dysfunction when they do not, the notion that an orgasm is the tell-tale sign of “good” sex versus “bad” sex should be deconstructed. Researchers should also be careful that heterosexual, penetrative sex is not constructed as the norm. Furthermore, not only should researchers have to thoroughly analyze their own subjectivities and how they can be influencing their data results, they should also analyze aspects of their participants’ identity such as race, class, ability, and religion. All of these facets of identity could gravely influence a person’s understanding of sexual pleasure and orgasm and should therefore be analyzed to see how the data is being affected instead of being grossly ignored like they were in these studies.
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Acknowledgments: Jennifer would like to thank the Women’s Studies Department at UGA for their continued support and dedication to their students’ success. She would particularly like to thank Stephanie Shelton and Angela Hall for their encouragement through the writing process of this paper and their critiques of previous papers that have pushed Jennifer to achieve her full writing potential.
Citation style: MLA