There are many myths about differences between men and women in the area of sexual arousal. It used to be thought that women are very slow to be aroused compared with men, and that a man who was a successful and considerate lover would spend a lot of time on elaborate foreplay to arouse a woman before they had intercourse.
Whether or not particular lovemaking tech-niques improve arousal is a debatable point. A great many words have been spent in books and magazines promoting the idea that a woman needs a lot of arousal in the form of manual or oral stimulation – usually directed towards the clitoris – before she will achieve an orgasm. Many couples do find a long period of foreplay is a very pleasurable and sensual experience, and certainly many women find stimulation of the clitoris an effective way to reach an orgasm. But there is no set of rules or magic formula.
The whole cult of’sex technique’ can be rather damaging if it produces a mechanical approach to sex. Too often it leads to an anxious and self-defeating exercise in which the man may feel himself to be in a test situation, where a mutual and simultaneous orgasm is die goal and anything else ‘scores low marks’. In the end, there is no substitute for a couple having a relaxed and frank approach to their sex life, regarding sex as a way of giving whatever kind of mutual pleasure they choose, rather than a ‘performance’.
Arousal response in women and men is basically very similar, though there are a few obvious physical differences. The male response -developing and maintaining a firm erection – is clearly noticeable. It can occur in a few seconds in a young man, but may take several minutes to develop fully in an older man.
In women, sexual arousal is not signalled so dramatically. The lips around the opening to the vagina swell to some extent and in states of high arousal they’open’ slightly. Internally, the walls of the vagina secrete a lubricating fluid – and the upper part enlarges considerably. At high levels oi arousal the lower part of the vagina swells slightly to form a kind of ‘cuff called the orgasmic platform. While all these changes are occurring the clitoris enlarges, as do the two tiny folds of tissue that surround it.
All this sounds rather complicated, and one might imagine this response would take some dme to build up, but experimental studies have shown that full physical arousal can easily occur in women within a minute or two of being stimulated sexually.
After orgasm there are once again slight differences in the male and female reactions. In men as the sexual excitement level falls, the erection is lost, and what’s known as a’refractory phase’ occurs – when they are not able to experience another orgasm. In a young man this period may last just a few minutes, sometimes hours in an older man.
In women, however, orgasm does not lead inevitably to a refractory phase. Some women find that if the partner continues sexual stimulation they can experience repeated orgasm -hence the much-quoted phenomenon of the multiple female orgasm.
When it comes to sex drive, the idea of what’s covers a very broad range of behaviour. It differs tremendously from one person to another. One way to measure the average sex drive is to look at the frequency of having sex- a number of different surveys have done this. These all show a slightly higher level of sexual activity among men than women, and a gradual decrease towards middle age, but it’s interesting that they also suggest that the sex drive has actually changed with the times. A survey of married men in 1953 showed an average weekly figure for intercourse of 2.45 for 16-25 year olds, and 1.95 for 26-35 year olds. This compares with 1974 figures of 3.26 and 2.55 for similar age groups.
It’s not possible to explain in any precise way the various ‘triggers’ that initiate sexual desire. The sex drive is quite a complex mixture of biological urges and external triggers, and the kind of real images and mental pictures that can act as sexual ‘turn ons’ are very varied.
What has come to light, however, is the important part which fantasy plays as a stimulus to sexual activity, and the wide variety of erotic fantasy that most people experience. Sexual fantasy questionnaires have been used to work out a way of broadly grouping people as having high, ‘normal’ and low sex drives.
The survey indicated that someone with a low sex drive is more likely to fantasize about having intercourse with a single partner, whereas someone with a higher sex drive tended to have more varied erotic fantasies, such as having oral sex, being forced to take part in intercourse, or having sex with more than one partner.
It’s a fact that lack of sexual satisfaction often leads to a of sex drive. It’s largely a psychological process – the man or woman concerned may initially have had a normal sex drive but will soon lose interest in sex if they have a continued problem with intercourse.
One of the commonest sexual problems in men is the failure to achieve an erection and this can affect men who have had no sexual difficulty of this kind before. Whatever the underlying cause – it may be some kind of”, emotional upset, a physical problem or any of several possible reasons – unless the condition resolves itself or is successfully treated, the victim very quickly loses interest in sex.
In women, a similar type of reaction may develop. Unlike a man, it is quite possible for a woman to take part in sexual intercourse while in a very low state of arousal. But if her experience of sex repeatedly fails to arouse her to orgasm, she may eventually come to view intercourse as a mechanical business, totally lacking in interest.
A low level of sexual desire is sometimes linked with another quite common sexual problem in men – premature ejaculation. This means the man finishes his sexual activity too soon for his partner, coming to orgasm and losing his erection too quickly for her to be sufficiently aroused. In this case, the female partner may herself eventually lose interest in sex, because it continues to be an unsatisfactory experience.
It’s natural enough to avoid any activity which causes pain – and sex is no exception. Intercourse for women can become painful or difficult for a number of curable physical reasons. Unless the problem is properly resolved, a turning away from sex and even a complete dread of it may result.
When the sex drive has been ‘switched off’ for some reason to avoid intercourse, it may be that the man or woman is not aware of feeling frustrated. Nevertheless, the damage to a relationship can be very great. A sexually-frustrated partner, a personal feeling of guilt, resentment or rejection may cause severe emotional problems. In such cases, it is always worth seeking advice from a doctor.
Starting to communicate about sexual needs can be a problem. In the early days of a relationship a couple often find it difficult to talk about sex; this may be a barrier that is gradually broken down-but it can unfortunately become a ‘taboo’ area for discussion. There is really no easy solution, but it’s surprising how, if one person plucks up courage to talk about their sexual needs, the other partner, too, will often be eager to have the opportunity to talk.
On this score, it is well worth remembering that sexuality is an area where almost everyone feels a degree of vulnerability, despite the fact that it is a very natural and pleasurable activity. In most cases, provided sexual problems are worked out against a back-drop of love and respect, the differing needs slowly resolve themselves.
Sex therapists and counsellors often find that many of the men and women who consult them know very litde about their partner’s feelings. One simple device used by therapists is to give the couple a ‘homework’ assignment, in which they list five things they think their partners like best about sex, then five things that they like best in sexual relationships.
Usually the couple are asked not to discuss this between themselves. They give the lists to the therapist, who then sees the couple, first separately and then together, using the lists as effective talking points to discuss the facts and fantasies of their sex lives with a greater degree of honesty.