Header image source: Getty Images / Mic
If you’re a woman and listen to Nicki Minaj and Amy Schumer, sounds like you should be! But is there more to the story? Read on to find out. My colleague Rachel Kramer Bussel wrote a piece on orgasmic parity and interviewed me for it, where she explained the impetus for the article:
Recently, both Nicki Minaj and Amy Schumer have come out swinging for “orgasm equality”—namely, that when a woman has sex, especially with a man, she is entitled to an orgasm. Minaj declared in Cosmopolitan’s July issue, “I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that.” Schumer told Glamour in the August 2015 issue, “Don’t not have an orgasm. Make sure he knows that you’re entitled to an orgasm.”
It’s a great article that raises many valuable points, including how some people use orgasm as a bargaining chip or power-play tool, and I’m so glad I was able to contribute to it. Alas, as often happens, I had way more to say than could fit in someone else’s article, and so here’s an expansion on my thoughts, beyond what got used.
Orgasms: What Do The Numbers Say?
Jessica Valenti, in an article defending “orgasm equality” and Nicki’s words, gave us the scoop:
According to the Kinsey Institute, while 85% of men believe that their partners had an orgasm during their last sexual experience, only 64% of women report actually having one. And the Cosmopolitan’s Female Orgasm Survey this year shows that only 57% of women climax regularly with a partner. Those numbers change a bit depending on who women are having sex with though – a 2014 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine showed that lesbians had a nearly 75% orgasm rate.
Men across the sexuality spectrum, however, all reported around an 85% orgasm rate, and another study shows that 75% of men report always having an orgasm during sex. Every. Single. Time.
Nicki And Amy’s Rx For Orgasm: Too Prescriptive?
I bristle at most definitive statements about how people should exist in the world. Whenever I hear “always” or “never,” it sends up red flags in my brain because those words usually erase a lot of nuance and variability of human experience, and often go hand in hand with oppressive ideas. I can’t help but eye-roll when people, especially professionals and/or media darlings who have big platforms, use prescriptive language about how people should be having sex or perpetuate the assumption that everyone WANTS to be having sex in the first place. Still: that doesn’t mean Minaj or Schumer’s comments are entirely off the mark or unimportant.
I believe that Nicki Minaj is speaking from a place of seeing societal orgasm disparities and trying to resolve them in her own life, then, at its core, giving advice to others to not put up with inconsiderate partners [particularly men] who demand orgasm but do not reciprocate. That’s the key message I think people should take away from her comments. I see her speaking from a place of empowering women, even if she isn’t doing it in the most nuanced or inclusive way, and suspect that’s also because she wasn’t giving a manifesto on the matter, but instead briefly commenting on it. The people criticizing her for being “demanding” or “not caring about the man’s feelings” are missing the point AND also contributing to harshly judging the words of women of color, and especially Black women, who are already culturally presented as “loud and angry” for even existing.
Honestly, I care less about if Nicki self-identifies as a feminist or somehow embodies “perfect feminism” for all [coughrespectabilitypoliticscough] and more about what she says and does, and what we can learn from her that supports our personal visions of feminism—and there is a LOT there to work with. As scholars, educators, sexuality professionals, activists, whatever: our work shouldn’t be to undercut Minaj, but instead further nuance her statements and get at their roots rather than a superficial understanding, especially if we want to reach the people she’s talking to.
Similarly, Schumer speaks about body positivity, being deserving of love regardless of size, introducing partners to the marvels of the human clitoris, and not letting dudes get away with just ignoring her pleasure. But her entitlement isn’t exactly the same as Nicki’s stance that women demand orgasms, and Schumer’s feminism often lacks a critical race analysis that Minaj consistently brings to the table. In fact, Schumer has shoved her foot deep in her mouth around racial matters various times and excused some of her actions by holding steadfast to her “feminist” label. Is Nicki perfect? Of course not. But as far as I know she’s not pretending that her feminist cred exempts her from messing up.
Entitlement: Revolutionary, Oppressive, Or Both?
The idea of ensuring women’s pleasure without an underhanded agenda is a radical idea, period. Even the heading for the Cosmo article where Nicki was interviewed—that calls her demands for orgasm “high maintenance”—shows why such demands can be revolutionary in a society that teaches women to be servile; the idea of women putting their pleasure at the forefront and on equal footing to men’s is seen as “too much.”
Especially for women of color, and particularly Black women, that message is key in a society that also exploits our sexuality and makes us objects much more than subjects. Heck, this also connects to age and ensuring that sexually active young women learn how to achieve or at least communicate about orgasms from early on instead of wasting precious years of sexual encounters being too timid, uneducated, unempowered, or whatever to navigate those waters. [That said, I’m not saying it’s young women’s fault that society does a terrible job with sex education or empowering us.]
From a feminist standpoint, demanding orgasms makes sense. “We’re here, we’re horny, and we want to come!” But which women are doing the demanding and which women are prevented from doing so?
In a White supremacist society that hypersexualizes women of color and gives more overall bargaining power to White women regardless of how sexual they are assumed to be, Schumer’s call to be entitled comes from both her body-positive feminism as well as her Whiteness. For both Nicki and Amy, this also intersects with their able-bodied-ness. For women with physical disabilities, who are often desexualized entirely or fetishized by select groups of the population, being entitled to climax with partners intersects with a host of other issues, including mobility concerns and worries about not being able to even enter a partner’s house if it’s not accessible. [Check out the work of Robin Wilson-Beattie with SexAbled, Bethany Stevens with Crip Confessions, and Shanna K. (as well as her peer-reviewed papers) if you’re curious about that!] For Millenials [shout out to my generation!] who are already billed as “spoiled brats” or “lazy and entitled” people who “haven’t paid their dues yet,” demanding better sexual encounters also operates at an interesting crossroads of identities, including age.
So while there can certainly be strength in entitlement, as well as the ensuing action when things aren’t up to snuff, we must not ignore the structural barriers to being able to demand orgasms and the reasons why some people find it waaaaaaay easier to be entitled than others. In short: if we truly want life, liberty, and orgasms for all [who want them], we need to do a lot of social justice work, not just generic sex ed and feminist action.
Is Orgasm Equality Where It’s At?
As was mentioned by other sexuality professionals in the Bussel article, people’s understandings vary in regards to how orgasms happen in the first place, who is responsible for whose orgasms, the value of orgasms vs. the overall sexual journey, and if one can ever truly “give” someone an orgasm or if a better word is “facilitate.” Because of that variability, I don’t really care to focus on the “should you be entitled?” question once I have your attention. I’ll even let you in on a little secret: I actually don’t believe in orgasm equality. I think it misses the mark.
What do I advocate for instead? I believe in striving for pleasure equity and orgasm justice: pleasure, including but not limited to orgasms, for those who want them in the amounts they desire. It’s about giving people autonomy to figure out what they want from sex, the space to communicate it, and the resources to work toward it, not forcing people to have sex to fit someone else’s standards. It’s not about EQUALITY, which means SAMENESS; it’s about FAIRNESS. This graphic that has made the rounds in activist circles explains it perfectly:
During sex, if orgasms are desired, I see them as the product of collaborative effort unless negotiated otherwise. I believe in sexy times where the goals are negotiated among its participants, whether that’s one or twenty one. Is the goal overall pleasure? Is the goal orgasm specifically? Is the goal stress-reduction before a big event, building intimacy, making a baby, making money, something else? Whatever it is, it can’t just be unilaterally decided. Each person should measure their sexual satisfaction based on their reasons for having sex in any given instance, and goals can be multi-faceted and complex.