Isabel would prefer to have sex in the dark or opt for positions that would either bring her to climax quicker or partially hide her body from her partner’s view. She would strategically plan out her hookups. The location, lighting, and clothes that would allow her to hide most, if not her entire body. She couldn’t bear to let them see the eczema that dotted her skin and tormented her teenage years. Her family hinted that her skin condition was unattractive for a girl her age. This festered in her mind for years to come, slowly chipping away at her sexual confidence, her body image widening the orgasm gap for her. “Eventually, it got to me that I wasn’t desirable for sex,” she says.
I have often taken two people to bed with me at once: my partner and my debilitating self-doubt and shame. I was 13 and wore my first age-appropriate dress to a classmate’s birthday party. This was that age in school where attracting male attention seemed to be purpose. I remember beaming and gliding through the room as if I knew I was turning heads. At the food counter and noticed two male classmates sheepishly approach me from the corner. This was the moment I thought, still beaming. Skittishly they complimented my blue floral dress and called me pretty. If you’ve ever been a 13-year-old girl, you know that flutter in your chest all too well. I smiled and graciously thanked them. After a pause, one of them said, “But where are your boobs?” They cackled hysterically and scattered away.
Also read: Why This Orgasm Gap Between Men And Women?
And therein lies the problem.
During my first sexual encounter with a boy, I was unable to be fully naked in front of him. More specifically, I’d hesitate to expose my breasts to him. The paralyzing fear that they were too small to be desired caused me to make up excuses like “I haven’t shaved my underarms today so I think I’ll keep my shirt on”. Or sometimes, I would even subtly nudge his hands away from my bra clasp while we were making out and distract him with a different body part. I put immense effort into inventing these deliberate alibis to deny myself the possibility of pleasure, widening the orgasm gap.
Over time this deterred my ability to explore sex, and I eventually ran out of excuses to give my partners. In desperate, panic-stricken moments, I would even flee the scene leaving behind a trail of perplexed men, who were left abandoned and sometimes even semi-naked. I was left with a severely diminished libido, prompting me to purchase overpriced padded bras, and fake orgasms to prove to myself and my partner that I was enjoying sex.
So why do women do this? Male-dominated societies have cultivated a culture of unequal gender-specific sex information. And as a result, society has not had truthful conversations on sex-positive information for girls. This gap has allowed pop culture and pornography to seep in with unhealthy and unrealistic expectations for women. Women are idealised to be over-sexualised, look a certain way, and exude sexual energy. Unfortunately, women’s bodies have paid the price in the process.
Hair, skin, breasts, cellulite, teeth, butt cheeks, eyebrows, nose, lips, underarms, knees, and even the ears at some point or another have been body parts that were meant to be hidden away in the dark, or so women convinced themselves. Most women have been made to feel that they look wrong, with societal norms highlighting their ‘flaws’. This unequal depiction of how women are supposed to look versus how they actually look has widened the gap for body shaming. However, the unspoken victim in heterosexual encounters is the widening orgasm gap, and after speaking to several women it seems body shaming has lodged itself in numerous avenues along the way of women’s sexual experiences.
According to sex therapist Laurie J Watson, negative body image is one of the biggest causes of widening orgasm gap, disrupters of sexual enjoyment, desire, and responsiveness in women. In school, Akanksha* was bullied for having thick hair on her body (or maybe just for having hair), and now she shudders when her partner performs oral sex. She has become repulsed by her own hair. Despite being in a long-term, consensual, loving and accepting relationship with a partner, she struggles to enjoy oral sex. Watson says that if women believe, regardless of the truth, that others view their body in a negative light, their desire will be disrupted. “I associate hair with ugliness,” says Akanksha, “I just do. If I don’t remove the hair, I can’t perform sexually.”
But not everyone is lucky to have understanding partners. “He despised my pubic hair,” says Mahi*. “He’d make me remove it, and if I didn’t, he wouldn’t go down on me.” As a result, Mahi was perpetually distracted in bed. This further culminated in her incorporating numerous hair removal techniques. She spent her salary on painful bikini waxes and laser therapy, regrettably to no avail. “He’d often find pleasure in what I was doing for him and overlooked my pleasure. I haven’t been able to come as often as he has.” Sex became an object rather than a subject of which she felt less a part of and so the orgasm gap grew.
Negative body image can serve as an ongoing distraction during sexual encounters, making the interaction less present, intimate, and pleasurable, says Jennifer Gunsaullus, intimacy coach and sociologist.
Some girls are subjected to ridicule so harshly that admiring oneself becomes an abnormality. Urmi was told that she was unlovable because of her weight. “I couldn’t touch myself, or even look in the mirror until I was 18. It was only after I had been in therapy for a year that I really looked at myself and touched myself”, she says. But as her body developed, Urmi faced a wave of new evils: all of which could be traced back to the male gaze. Her breasts were deemed “desirable,” which reduced her sexuality to certain parts of her body. “Because my relationship with my own body was so difficult, I was confused if I was wanted for who I was,” she says. “I was confused about how my body was viewed; I don’t think I experienced sexual pleasure.”
If you study the internet closely or pay attention to male banter, there are plenty of monikers for the male anatomy and even more puns about male masturbation. All pointing toward normalising sex for one section of society and stigmatising it for the other.
Pornography is a classic example. Women in heterosexual encounters in porn play out countless fantasies for the appreciation of men. They’re often slender, big-breasted, clean shaved girls, exuding confidence, making them objects of desire, the thing you need to climax. This notion has filtered deep in our society, our conversations on sex, and the expectations of women in sexual acts. It has tainted women’s understanding that sex is meant for pleasure and desire and is not a playground for childhood bullies to come alive again.
Improper sex education, societal messages, gender stereotypes, and hypersexualized porn have led negative body images to flourish, snowballing into shame that has found its way into our bedrooms. Unfortunately, until this does not change, the orgasm gap will continue to widen, Mahi will continue to endure painful bikini waxes, and I will continue to buy overpriced padded bras, make excuses, and fake orgasms.
*The names of these women have been changed as requested.
Ishani is an editor and writer based in New Delhi and New York, and covers topics like gender, politics, and culture. She is currently pursuing an M.S. in Publishing in Digital and Print Media from New York University. She can be found on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Shreya Tingal/Feminism In India