Here’s a fact that doesn’t get enough airtime: getting intimate (with someone else or on our own) is good for us. Sex can help reduce stress and is (aptly) good for our hearts, while regular sex can even bolster our immune systems. But despite it being 2020, sadly, there’s still a fair bit of moral outrage when it comes to talking about women’s sexuality. God forbid admitting you masturbate or *whispers* use sex toys.
Indeed, a Public Health England report found that more than 40% of women say they’re dissatisfied with their sex life, while another survey discovered a third of people think men need sex more than women. Stereotyping much?
But here’s the thing: even a hug can lower blood pressure. What’s more, your sex life can tell you a lot about the state of your health. Loss of libido, for example, can be caused by everything from tiredness to diabetes. So getting to know what ‘normal’ looks like for you could help.
While sexual liberation in the 60s and 70s made huge strides, another leap is needed now. The good news? There’s progress, with everything from a sex-positive festival, Sexolution, to the new Vagina Museum in London.
Spearheading this movement are inspirational women saying sexual pleasure is not only natural but also good for our wellbeing. We talked to some of them about getting educated and learning to express our needs.
Think back to your school sex-ed lessons and it’s likely that putting a condom on a banana was as good as it got. Sexplain, founded in 2016 and run by Amelia Jenkinson (left, above) and Dolly Padalia who have experience in the education and events sectors, is teaching young people about sex positivity, one playdough vulva at a time.
‘We started after the Women And Equalities Committee inquiry into sexual harassment in schools was published,’ Amelia explains. ‘When we read that, in 2014, almost 60% of girls aged between 13 and 21 said they had faced sexual harassment at school or college, we felt we had to do something. Our programmes are firmly sex positive, LGBTQIA+ inclusive and non-judgmental. We’ll talk about sexual pleasure, but also hygiene, and make sure everyone knows the correct names for parts of the body.’ The ambition? That young people will never feel awkward when it comes to explaining their body parts when seeing their doctor.
With sex education becoming compulsory in secondary schools from September 2020, Amelia hopes the new curriculum will follow suit. ‘I’d love it if all sex education ran along the lines of Sexplain’s approach,’ she says. ‘So much of it is negative in tone and framed around risks, which doesn’t empower young people to be confident in making informed choices about their sexual health and wellbeing.’
If you haven’t heard of Dami Olonisakin – aka Oloni – take note. The blogger (Simply Oloni) and podcaster (Laid Bare) has been in the vanguard of women’s sexual empowerment for more than a decade. She’s won awards for her writing and become an agony aunt for women’s hard-to-answer sex questions.
‘I’ve always liked talking about sex,’ she says. ‘I thought, “Why can’t we have the conversations guys are having?” But when women started sending me their dilemmas, it was a shock. I didn’t have the answers – I was just writing about my experiences. But, over time, I thought I could help people, which is how I built my platform.’
The number one subject she’s contacted about? The big ‘O’. ‘It’s usually, “I’ve never orgasmed; I don’t know what it feels like; how do I tell my partner I haven’t climaxed yet?”’ As for where to begin, Oloni suggests women get to know themselves first. ‘A lot of them can’t orgasm because they don’t understand their bodies,’ she explains. ‘Try masturbating on your own and taking time to get to know your body. Then you can incorporate everything you’ve learned when you’re with your sexual partner.’
When it comes to sex, opening up to a partner can be tough. But help is at hand from Lohani Noor, the sex and relationship therapist who stars in BBC Three’s reality show Sex On The Couch.
Lohani says women often lose interest in sex because they ‘feel pressurised to behave or to act out their sexuality in a particular way’. She adds that this means relationships can lack real intimacy, because women are performing, rather than enjoying, sex. ‘Real intimacy is about allowing yourself to connect with another person, and allowing them to connect with you. The question we should be asking ourselves is: “What do I want to experience?”’
She recommends couples therapy as a ‘safe arena’ to discuss your sexual desires with a partner. But if this isn’t your bag, there are other ways to feel sexually empowered in your partnership. ‘Express your feelings away from the bedroom,’ she says. ‘You could say, “I’d like to try…” or “It would help me feel great if…” Make it about you – not them – and really own what you’re asking for.’
When Jannette Davies (above) met Sarah Beilfuss at a networking event in 2015, it was a meeting of minds that would go on to form Sonder & Beam (formerly Scarlet Ladies), a social enterprise that hosts events and talks about female sexual empowerment.
They wanted to create a safe space where women could talk about sex – something they both felt was lacking. ‘We focus on female sexuality through events and by building a community where women can connect with like-minded people,’ Jannette explains. The London-based events cover everything from finding your perfect relationship style to exploring your true sexual self, and are hosted by a range of trained specialists, from sexologists to psychologists.
Sarah left the business in 2019, but Jannette is excited about moving the conversation on. ‘We’re focusing more on cultural barriers to feeling empowered about sex,’ Jannette says. ‘For example, I’m from Sierra Leone, which is one of the few countries that still practises female genital mutilation (FGM). It’s estimated that nine out of 10 women or young girls there will experience it. This isn’t usually addressed in the sex-positive community, and I’d like to be at the forefront of that conversation.’
Meet Flo Perry, feminist, bisexual, and author and illustrator of How To Have Feminist Sex, A Fairly Graphic Guide. It covers topics such as tackling conversations about sex in long-term relationships and dealing with bad dating-app behaviours (hello, ghosting), and was fuelled by Flo’s desire to change the narrative about women’s sexual enjoyment. ‘A lot of the conversation in the media around women and sex is about sex being a trauma,’ she says. ‘It should be balanced with the idea that it’s meant to be fun and joyful – which a lot of people forget.’
So, what is the key to enjoying feminist sex? One thing is to understand that what you like in the bedroom doesn’t always have to match up with what you like outside of it. ‘Sexual fantasy is just play for grown-ups – and in that play, you can do whatever you like, because it’s pretend,’ Flo says. ‘If those fantasies aren’t feminist, you can still bring them into your sex life without them having to infiltrate the relationship as a whole.’
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Our tweens and teenagers can have a rough ride when it comes to confidence, thanks to social media and airbrushed images everywhere. But, together, Dove, Boots and social-change charity WE.org are working hard to change that. Click here to find out more about how they can help you to help the young people in your life.