In elementary school, I knew how to have a good time, but I didn’t know what that good time was, exactly. At recess, all the girls in my class would take turns scooting across the top of a big red metal tube on the playground; mid-scoot, I would rock to and fro, my legs dangling down on either side, until I got a sparkly feeling in the pit of my stomach and felt like I had to pee. At that age, I had no vocabulary for concepts like orgasm and masturbation, and when I did learn those words from Judy Blume, I didn’t feel comfortable applying them to myself. Just as I was certain that I was the only one menstruating in seventh grade, I was also certain that I was the only one masturbating.
So, it never occurred to me to translate my jungle gym techniques to my groping sessions with my first boyfriend in high school. After all, my private orgasms (though I wasn’t positive they were orgasms) were perverse and embarrassing not to be repeated in front of boys. Sadly, I had no sexual instinct toward boys at fourteen, so I merely aped the gestures I thought were expected of me: idly squirming under his body, puffing hot air into his ear, sloppily French kissing until my face became scaly.
Once, he did the unexpected he put his face between my legs and sort of jabbed his tongue at me, hard and without direction, like a cattle prod. I was sprawled on the blue shag carpet, frozen and bewildered, unsure of what I should be doing in response. About five minutes in, my two front teeth started to tingle, like they were asleep. No sensation south of my navel, but those teeth were on fire. I ran home and barraged my oldest sister with questions is there such a thing as a dental orgasm? She sagely referred me to her book, Becoming Orgasmic. There was no mention of it.
In high school and college, I finally learned how to climax with a partner after hours of eyeball-squeezing concentration during cunnilingus. But, as hard as I tried, I remained virtually parapalegic during intercourse. I was sure that all of my friends, as well as my mother, effortlessly achieved orgasm during sex. My vagina, on the other hand, seemed to be as enervated and unresponsive as a sponge, no matter how much I wiggled around.
Considering all of my youthful discretions, I was practically a case study for what’s come to be known as “female sexual dysfunction.” In the wake of Viagra, numerous medical experts have stepped up to diagnose this distaff version of erectile dysfunction, excitedly identifying symptoms which ranged from anorgasmia (the inability to orgasm) to a lack of libido to pain during intercourse. I wrestled with the first two for years.
Evidently, I’m not alone. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than forty percent of women have “sexual problems.” And most of those women are between the ages of eighteen and thirty-eight as opposed to men with erectile dysfunction, the majority of whom are fifty to fifty-nine years old. In October, more than five hundred doctors gathered in Boston to discuss this hot new disorder, a conference presided over by FSD expert Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a professor of urology at Boston University. (Um, since when are urologists specializing in female genitalia?) Unsurprisingly, Goldstein and his cohorts focused on the mechanical side of sexual dysfunction: physical glitches such as hormone imbalances or circulatory problems. With these new diagnoses, they recommended a flood of gadgets and potions, including testosterone (to increase libido), Viagra (to increase blood flow to the genitals), tingly creams and clitoral suction cups. Almost half of all women, they suggest, have a physiological disorder that requires medication a bleak diagnosis, to be sure, and one that seems a little simplistic to me, like prescribing Valium to the legions of depressed housewives in the sixties.
This Mr. Fix-It approach has its critics. In coalition with several of her colleagues, prominent clinical psychologist Leonore Tiefer published a response called “A New View of Women’s Sexual Problems,” arguing that doctors shouldn’t ignore social, economic and cultural factors when diagnosing women with sexual problems. The FSD docs have been generously funded by pharmaceutical companies, she points out, including Pfizer, the manufacturers of Viagra. Sure, some women have medical problems, Tiefer argues but many don’t, and understanding women’s sexuality as a merely mechanical system is a dangerous dead end.
Tiefer’s view is obviously more comprehensive: our sexuality flows from many sources, and mind and body can’t be separated. (For one thing, being labeled “sexually dysfunctional” at an early age would most likely have a hindering psychological effect on any woman.) Culture can’t be separated from the mix either. Maybe a woman who’s lacking a libido is simply depressed. Maybe she’s repressed. She could be a woman raised in a Christian fundamentalist family who’s disconcerted by sexual pleasure. She could be a closeted lesbian. In cases like these, Tiefer’s approach makes more sense than a Viagra prescription and a pat on the head.
And sometimes, sex can still slip through our grasp, even when we have plenty of resources at our fingertips, just because of its inherent blurriness. I was born from the union of a Second Wave feminist and a doctor, and have two older sisters who freely discussed sex, birth control and abortion with me at a tender young age. I read Our Bodies, Ourselves at the same time I pored over Sweet Valley High. And in spite of all this pro-sex feminist dogma, I still dog-paddled for years in a sea of sexual dissatisfaction. I knew all the dance moves, but I had shit for rhythm.
Yet, honestly, I wouldn’t define these early sexual stumblings as “dysfunctional.” In my situation, it was perfectly functional a function of youth, of ignorance, of sexism and uncertainty. I needed time to accept and become comfortable with the awkwardness of my own body, not to mention the awkwardness of my partner. I needed time to overcome my sheepishness about telling my lovers what was wrong, or right. When I think about the relative youth of the women diagnosed with FSD, I realize that some of them could be in that same process of sexual learning. Everyone trips their way through it, men and women and, usually, we emerge on the other side. I think that the female sexual dysfunction tribunal (therapists and doctors, alike) overlooks the notion that a large part of sexuality is made up of fumbling, missteps and gaffes.
There’s another reason I don’t want to fix my sexual faux pas as “dysfunctional:” I wouldn’t appreciate sex without its clumsiness. Take the time I lost my virginity: my boyfriend and I, flailing around on his bed to the libido-crushing sounds of the Grateful Dead. He penetrated me for a nanosecond, after which we were convinced that I was definitely a soon-to-be mother. (Never mind that neither of us came.) That stupidity and bravado makes my first time memorable for reasons other than orgasmic pleasure and smooth functionality. It wasn’t perfect, but shouldn’t sex be the one thing in our lives that is free from striving perfectionism? I mean, no one likes a know-it-all. Why be embarrassed? Instead of regretting them, I relish the sexual debacles of my past. They aren’t symptoms just moments that make my life more human, honest and all the more dear.
What Are We Thinking?