3.2 THE FEMALE SEXUAL RESPONSE
Every healthy woman as well as every healthy man can respond to sexual stimulation. While this response is never exactly the same in any two individuals, its basic physiological pattern is shared by all human beings, regardless of sex.
The importance of this research for women can hardly be exaggerated. In our Western culture, women have, for a very long time, suffered from a social attitude that denied them the full expression of their sexuality. It was generally assumed that men were possessed by a powerful "sex drive" that demanded satisfaction. Women, on the other hand, were considered incapable of strong sexual feelings. Their only recognized biological function was childbearing. As a consequence, men were usually granted considerable sexual license while every effort was made to prevent women from engaging in any nonmarital, nonreproductive sexual activity. Men were encouraged to enjoy their sexual capacities; women were taught to regard sexual desire as base, improper, and degrading. (Also see "The Social Roles of Men and Women.")
This so-called double standard for male and female sexual behavior has had some very unfortunate consequences, not only for the moral health of society but also for the physical well-being of the individual woman. For example, women often find it hard to develop their sexual responsiveness, and a great number of them go through life without ever realizing their erotic potential. While practically all men easily achieve orgasm after a certain amount of stimulation, there are many women who despair of reaching this simple goal. Some women have their first orgasmic experience only after many years of sexual intercourse.
Aside from a few rare cases of physical disability or illness, these strange and unnecessary difficulties are clearly related to the way women are brought up in our society. During their formative years, girls are forced to deny their sexual urges even to themselves in order to maintain an appearance of "decency", "modesty", and "respectability". They are allowed to indulge in romantic and symbolic fantasies, but not to develop their sensory capacities which could turn those vague yearnings into realistic experiences. The resulting inhibitions can become strong enough to prevent any normal sexual functioning. (See also "Sexual Dysfunction.")
For centuries, this deplorable state of affairs was accepted as "natural" and unavoidable. The sexual satisfaction of women was not seen as an attainable or even desirable goal. Those who challenged the double standard found themselves confronted with dogmatic beliefs in a God-given inequality of the sexes and poetic assertions about the "eternal mystery of woman". Nevertheless, in modern times there has been a growing demand for sexual equality, and in recent decades the emancipation of women has made much progress. Part of this progress has been the result of scientific sex research. Undisputable data have now clearly demonstrated that the sexual capacity of females is at least equal to and, in some respects, even greater than that of males. It has further been shown that the sexual response follows essentially the same pattern in both sexes. In an unbiased world, these discoveries would hardly have been startling. Indeed, they only confirm what should have been obvious long ago: Most of the differences between men and women are not inborn but inbred, and sexual behavior in particular is deeply influenced by social conditioning.
Today, we know that both women and men can respond sexually to the same sensory stimuli. Touch, vision, hearing, smell, and taste play an important role in all human sexual arousal. Women as well as men possess a special sensitivity in the same general areas of the body, and they can develop the same erogenous zones. Since these matters have already been discussed in a previous section, there is no need for a repetition here. (For details, see "The Male Sexual Response.") However, it should perhaps be reemphasized that there are a few differences between the female and mate responses that may not be due to social influences. For instance, it has been found that the average female is less easily stimulated by mental images alone. Women in general are more easily distracted even when aroused, and many of them reach orgasm only as a result of continuing physical stimulation. (There are exceptions to this rule. Some women can achieve orgasm in response to purely psychological stimuli.) Further biological differences are listed below.
The following summary of the human sexual response is not meant to establish a norm or an ideal of sexual performance. Its only purpose is to provide women and men with some general information about those physiological processes that may accompany sexual activity. Individual variations should always be expected. Still, a particular woman's basic responses are usually the same.throughout her life, and it makes no difference whether they are brought about by masturbation or any conceivable form of sexual intercourse. (See "Types of Sexual Activity.") Psychologically, these experiences may very well feel entirely different, but the reactions of the body remain unchanged.