I was perusing the content platform of sexual wellness brand Sustain Natural recently when a headline caught my eye. "Saying No to Sex is Still Sex Positive," it read, and I realized in a lightning bolt of clarity that my own thoughts around sex positivity were beholden to a rather outdated definition of the term: one that equates liberation with a lot of casual sex and an unflagging thirst for doing the deed.
It's a cultural byproduct of the free-loving 1960s, when the sexual-liberation movement first disrupted the fabric of a deeply conservative American culture, ultimately changing it for good: This is the era that normalized contraception, legalized abortion, and made those first enormous strides toward gender equality.
But Woodstock celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Times have changed, and the conversation around sex and reproductive health has become more nuanced and socially conscious than ever. To that end, it seems like the only appropriately modern definition of sex positivity is one that acknowledges our individual needs—even saying no, like the author of that article on Sustain.
In other words, it's about empowering an individual to define what pleasure and sexual wellness mean for them in any given moment on their own terms. It's an invitation to reject any fixed notions (and old stigmas) around female sexuality, especially as movements like #MeToo continue to reshape the way we talk about harassment, consent, and power imbalances. It's translating all of this into a consistently gratifying experience in the bedroom.
The Orgasm Gap
"At the core of the 1960s sexual revolution was female sexual empowerment. It fell short of this goal," writes psychologist and sex therapist Laurie Mintz, Ph.D. "Specifically, while the revolution made women having intercourse before marriage acceptable, it didn't lead women to have equally pleasurable sexual experiences."
While having the best sex possible seems like a rather physical pursuit, Mintz and Sustain founder Meika Hollender insist that education plays a key role in closing the so-called orgasm gap. Research shows that during sexual encounters, only 39% of women almost or always orgasm, compared to 91% of men.
While popular myth tells us, "It's just harder for women!" science suggests otherwise. In fact, one landmark study showed that 95% of women are able to orgasm during masturbation (and quickly, too—within an average span of four minutes). What gives? Clitoral stimulation, that's what. Thanks to the 8000 nerve endings that reside there, it's what most women need to climax, and just knowing that might be all you need to close that orgasm gap. See? Education really does make all the difference.
Hollender believes so deeply in this knowledge-first ethos that Sustain is running a campaign timed to Valentine's Day called Get Off to Give Back: For every orgasm reported to the brand, it's pledging $1 toward sex-positive sex education in the U.S.
There are other factors to consider, though
If the orgasm gap seems like a relatively easy fix at face (er, clitoral) value, the misconceptions that instituted it in the first place indicate that the issue goes beyond physical cues. It's one symptom of the longstanding imbalances and stigmas that women are still working to unravel.
Consider Hollender, whose own work—as necessary and forward-thinking as it is—has made her vulnerable to a certain kind of vitriol. "I started Sustain five years ago, which started with all-natural, fair-trade condoms, and within the first few days of launching our brand, I was slut-shamed on the internet," she recalls. "While I knew starting a sexual-wellness brand as a woman would be hard, it was so much harder than I'd ever imagined."
To be clear, serious social change is underway—at a clip so rapid I can't help but wonder if 50 years from now, we'll view this era as comparable to the upheaval of the '60s. Hollender agrees. "In some ways, with the help of the 2016 election, things are changing at a much more rapid pace than before," she says. "Women, in particular, see what's at stake and are fighting for change. I think we can all relate to the real change in the national conversation around women's rights. Especially in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, women are increasingly speaking up and standing up."
But our work is cut out for us. Facebook still notoriously censors female sexuality on its platform, making it tricky for brands like Sustain to educate their customers. Only 24% of single, sexually active women use condoms regularly, according to the CDC. And believe it or not, STD rates continue to rise.
"We are moving in the right direction and faster than ever before," says Hollender. "But there is still so much education and progress that needs to happen to finally realize a world where female sexuality is celebrated not stigmatized."