We often find it difficult to talk about sex and sexuality. It is considered taboo, private, and maybe even a bit dirty. This is not surprising, but it is nevertheless problematic, according to researcher Charmaine Borg, because this stops us from changing the old-fashioned views we have on sex. And women in particular are the ones who suffer as a result. About time to pay attention to this, around International Women’s Day.
Text: Marrit Wouda, photo's: Henk Veenstra
‘Our sexuality is part of our identity,’ says Charmaine Borg, assistant professor and clinical psycho-sexologist at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. ‘It is part of how we form relationships, how we look at our own bodies, and an important part of how we express ourselves.’ This is something academics should also be concerned with, Borg believes. ‘The emphasis is on the body, but not on what goes on in our brain.’ Borg is definitely concerned with it. Her research includes the effect of sexual arousal on negative feelings such as disgust and pain, as well as the effect of sex on the quality of sleep. She and colleague Peter de Jong, professor of experimental psychology, were recently provided with a lab space equipped with devices to measure various physiological responses. The lab is a major development, as is the appointment of two PhD students. ‘It really feels like we’re working with a team now.’
When we talk about sex, we need to start thinking about how we define it, says Borg. Traditionally, procreation and the male orgasm were the main focus. For a long time, female pleasure and other definitions barely mattered. ‘We see that people who use this ‘old’ definition are more likely to keep going when they experience pain,’ she says. ‘Foreplay is important, but if your perception of sex mainly comprises penetration you may not take enough time for that. And when you are advised to stop when it hurts your conclusion may be that you can't have sex at all when, in fact, there are so many other things you could do to make it enjoyable for yourself and the other person,’ Borg continues. As she puts it during her lectures: ‘To me, seeing sex as penetration is like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant and saying that swallowing is great.’ She continues: ‘It’s good to have a wide menu and try out different options.’
Women still prioritize their (male) partner's pleasure over their own. Borg: ‘Women indicate in surveys that they are primarily concerned with their partner's pleasure, even when it comes to hook-ups via Tinder.’ Whereas you would expect them to go on those dates precisely for their own pleasure!’ Evidently, we can speak of inequality when it comes to sexual pleasure. Sexologist Ellen Laan, who passed away in 2022, regularly spoke about the orgasm gap: in heterosexual sex, 90% of men reach an orgasm during penetration compared to 30% of women. Women who have sex with other women reach an orgasm 84% of the time. Why is that? Because we forget about the clitoris. ‘We travelled to the moon before we realized that an organ exists for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Very sad when you come to think of it,’ Borg says.
‘We are still neglecting and underestimating the clitoris to this day,’ Borg says. For example, many people do not know that it is a large, partly internal organ, and it wasn’t until 2021 that accurate drawings of it appeared in biology textbooks. ‘We don't even give it names, even though we have lots of names for the penis,’ Borg continues. ‘We don't talk about it instead, it’s something shameful.’ Borg resents that. ‘It’s hard to unlearn that shame, but the clitoris is part of your body. You have to be aware of it and know what you want to do with it. Claim your own pleasure!’
But how do you claim your own pleasure? ‘Some people struggle with intimacy. I therefore encourage people to pay attention to it. Take a bath, pamper yourself, and explore: where do you want to be touched, how often, and with what intensity? Allow yourself to explore that intimacy, because it really doesn’t hurt to get to know your own body and your own pleasure.’
Borg is convinced of the need to pay attention to sexuality. When we learn more about our own sexuality, it is easier to talk about what we do or do not want, where our boundaries are, and what our needs are. She calls it Sexual Agency. In fact, talking about sex and emancipation go hand in hand, according to Borg: ‘If we can freely talk about sex, we are free to talk about our own pleasure. Then we have control over our own bodies: from pleasure to contraception and abortion rights. That too is part of sexuality, after all.’
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