We need an affirmation.

We live in a society where much of our sexual instruction is discussed in the framework of prevention and, by extension, negation. In other words, we are bombarded with messages about what we shouldn’t do with respect to sexual intercourse. First, we’re told not to have intercourse, and then, not to get caught. Then, we graduate to new goals: not getting pregnant and not getting sexually transmitted infections.

Don’t get me wrong: A prevention framework is essential to establishing good sexual health and sexual decision-making. But when this framework doesn’t indicate what we should do, it can stifle one of the main reasons we engage in sexual relations in the first place: pleasure.

Yes folks, believe it or not, the “p” in prevention can also stand for the self-affirming concept of pleasure. This immense joy occurs when every now and again we breach bodies with sexual intent or engage in a little guided self-exploration. Nestled firmly in the yoke of pleasure are practices that help us maximize not only our sex life but also our quality of life.

In an effort to pay pleasure some attention, this week we’ll unpack female sexual pleasure by looking at statistics on the orgasm deficit, tips for female sexual pleasure-givers and general recommendations on female sexual pleasure for everyday life.

When it comes to female orgasm, the word “depressing” is an understatement. According to an article in the June 2008 Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics Journal, only 30 percent of women “almost always” or “always” achieve orgasm during sexual activity. Compare that to the 75 percent of men who “always” or “almost always” do.

While I’m tempted to declare a national state of emergency, I’m encouraged by the article’s other offerings. Apparently, out of this 30 percent, 80 percent of women climax before or after vaginal intercourse when stimulated manually, orally or with a vibrator or other device. Only 20 percent, meanwhile, climax exclusively during intercourse.

It comes as no surprise then that doctors who studied orgasm in Tudor and Stuart England identified “the clitoris as the principle locus of sexual pleasure,” seconding Eve Ensler’s happy fact that the “clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings … more than any other part of the body.”

Yet 70 percent of partners engaging in sexual activity with women are either asleep at the wheel or uninformed. And our social context isn’t helping much. When we say the word “sex,” it instinctively calls to mind the act of male-female penetration.

When the many different acts that are likely to get a woman closest to orgasm don’t even qualify as real sex, women already enter the bedroom door at a disadvantage. The reality we should strive for is a more authentic image. As French feminist author Luce Irigaray notes in “The Sex Which is Not One,” female sexuality “is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex.”

Thus, to incite female sexual pleasure in your partner, you must re-imagine it outside societal confines. You must be eager to take direction from your partner and educational sources on pleasure with an understanding that women must be engaged on a multi-dimensional level.

Dr. Susan Ernst, director of gynecology at University Health Service sums it up well: “The latest theories on female sexual function are much more complex than just numbers of nerve endings in certain tissues, but state that female sexual function has a huge component which is psychological, social and emotional.”

But the practical is always helpful. Irigaray also offers some specifics on bringing about pleasure. “Evoking only a few,” she writes, “fondling the breasts, touching the vulva (vaginal opening), stroking the posterior wall of the vagina, brushing against the mouth of the uterus are … female pleasures.”

Now for three general recommendations for women:

Know thyself. Self-exploration really shouldn’t be a recommendation, but a mandate. Invest in a hand mirror and take a look. The sight of your cervix will impress you and give you an empowering perspective about your body. Purchase a vibrator and set aside time in your schedule to have a one-on-one. You can’t educate anyone on your preferences if you don’t know what they are.

Err on the side of conversation. Even if you have to call a “time out” during a sexual act, you shouldn’t endure anything sexual that doesn’t give you pleasure. A friend of mine always says, “If you are going to be a passive participant, don’t participate!” Just remember to be incremental about disclosing your sexual preferences and use positive reinforcements if your partner gets it right.

Lastly, you don’t have to choose. And by that, I mean between vaginal penetration and clitoral stimulation or pleasure and prevention. For the best results, combine all methods.

Next time, we’ll talk about the men.

Rose Afriyie is the Daily’s sex and relationships columnist. She can be reached at sariyie@umich.edu.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this column misidentified the author of “The Sex Which is Not One” as Julia Kristeva.

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