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Research into human sexuality

Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychologist (1856 to 1939), was the first scientist of note to talk of female sexuality. Freud’s methods were based on observation rather than science. He treated women for what was thought to be repression of their natural sexual urges. In those days, the general public was not aware that women were even capable of orgasm. Nevertheless, Freud invented the term vaginal orgasm, as if such a response was possible.

Freud dismissed clitoral orgasms as immature no doubt because of the male experience. Young boys may discover orgasm by masturbating but grown men prefer the erotic pleasure of intercourse. But unlike the male experience (where the same anatomy is involved in masturbation and intercourse), female masturbation involves the clitoris rather than the vagina. No one saw any contradiction in suggesting two quite different sources for female orgasms. Mental arousal motivates us to stimulate the phallus. But men want women to respond to the stimulation they provide.

No one thought that Freud, as a man, might be unqualified to pronounce on how female orgasm is achieved. Men have always been confident to assert how women should respond sexually and women tend to accept male opinions on sex. Science has always been a male domain. Women wrote books about topics they felt qualified to write about such as cookery, housekeeping, child-raising and even childbirth. But they did not write authoritative books about sex. Sexuality has also long been a male domain.

Sex is a subject on which every adult feels entitled to have an opinion, however uninformed. Individuals and institutions fight for scant resources. Everyone is competing for recognition. Those who can conjure up an attention-grabbing headline, regardless of any facts or logic, get noticed. Research that produces unpopular conclusions is ignored. Everyone, both amateurs and professionals, think their personal experiences and opinions qualify them to know better. No wonder we have so little sex research!

Theories in sexology are promoted on the basis of sensationalism rather than credible evidence. Men propose theories and assume they are correct because women lack the authority to put men right even on their own sexuality. But women’s silence does not constitute proof. If sexology were a science, then women’s sexual experiences would be accepted for what they are. If sexologists were scientists, they would welcome alternative points of view. They would encourage active debate of the topic. Instead sexologists disseminate their beliefs like political activists. They never reconcile their opinions with the silence of women in the population. The goal of sexology appears to be to educate women in their role of providing male pleasure.

An unfortunate by-product of sex research that involves talking to women is that unrealistic orgasm claims are promoted and given a credibility just because they have been given to researchers in the name of science. Researchers must challenge what they are told. They should establish women’s motivation to enjoy sexual activity alone and with a lover, their appreciation of eroticism and their willingness to explore a variety of sex play. Researchers must establish the psychological and physical stimuli that cause orgasm. Instead of sensationalising accounts of orgasm, researchers should promote ideas for enjoying pleasure and longer-term relationships.

Most people are only interested in sex research or sex education as a means of confirming fantasies. Few are interested in an intellectual understanding of sexuality. Everyone seems to assume that erotic fiction is gospel rather than stories aimed at arousing and entertaining. Sex research has always been led by men. Men’s lack of objectivity about female sexuality is never acknowledged. Men only fund sex research that backs their own interests.

Sex research can never compete with the sex industry that is dominated by the fantasies of the male consumer. Misleading information and exploitative images are everywhere. Researchers need to abandon their personal opinions based on ignorance, prejudices and assumptions. They need to approach sexuality with a scientific mind that is ready to accept the facts and conclusions before them. A scientific understanding of human sexuality involves studying the behaviours and responses of the whole population.

A study of sexuality is not just about promoting the activity of men impregnating women. It includes understanding how we become aroused as well as the function of turn-ons, sexual invitations and consent. Anyone can contribute to the understanding of human sexuality. There is no reason why a gay person, a transvestite, an intersex person or even a paedophile, for that matter, could not assist with understanding how sexuality works in the broadest possible sense. Sexuality involves a spectrum of experiences.

Considering the importance which sexual problems have in the practice of psychiatry, medicine, psychology, and counselling of every sort, it is disconcerting to realize what scant bases there have been for over-all statements that have been made in this field. (Alfred Kinsey 1948)