Rebecca Woolf’s sexual wake-up call came as a shock.
Her awakening didn’t fit the usual hallmarks. The popular US-based sex columnist had long been engaged in adventurous sex.
“I couldn’t be vanilla if I tried,” says Woolf, 41, over a video call from her Los Angeles home. She participated in threesomes in her 20s. She’d had reams of casual sex. “I was always furiously masturbating and watching porn,” she says. “It wasn’t like I didn’t know my body.”
And yet, four years ago, after Woolf’s husband of 14 years died of pancreatic cancer, the writer was stunned to wake up to the fact that, in all her relationships, she had never thought about her own sexual needs. What turned her on.
Or, as she recently put it in an interview: “In the wake of my marriage, I realised I had only ever f—ed like a mum.”
By this, Woolf meant that she was “a caretaker first” in the bedroom. She put her partners’ sexual needs first, often engaging in acts that didn’t particularly interest her. “It was never about what I wanted, what felt good to me, what was interesting to me,” she says. “We’re programmed to take care of men. I wasn’t even raised that way, specifically, but it’s just everywhere. It’s in our bodies to think that we need to do that.”
After Woolf’s “f—ed like a mum” quote was shared last month on a couple of popular Instagram accounts for mothers, the response was a resounding: Me too.
Speaking openly about sex may now be par for the course for women in their 20s and 30s and beyond. But for many women, Woolf’s comment was a wake-up call to confront an underwhelming reality they’d endured for years but never discussed openly, simply because they’d never had the words to describe it. No one had mentioned it.
As one woman put it on Instagram: “Thank god, people are finally saying this s—.”
Or as Diablo Cody, the 44-year-old Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno and a mother of three, wrote of Woolf’s memoir, which explores caretaker sex among other motherhood taboos: “[It] reminded me that honesty saves lives, and that it’s an act of love to be truthful about feelings and experiences.”
In Australia, sex researcher Mary-Lou Rasmussen says that for all their openness about sex, many of her female undergraduates in their late teens and early 20s are still preoccupied about tending to the sexual needs of their male partners, in a way that their partners aren’t.
“I think there’s [still] an expectation that women are nurturing,” says Rasmussen, a professor at the Australian National University.
For Woolf, the result of decades of selfless sex was disastrous.
“I didn’t ever really know who I was as a partner,” she says.
Things intensified after she became a mother at 23.
“When your kids are babies, you do what you’ve got to do [to get them to] go back to sleep, to get them to eat, to go to school, to get in the car, to put their jackets on,” says Woolf, who became pregnant with her first of four children three months after she met her husband. “That’s sort of what my marriage was like, I think, sexually.
“Our sex was like that a lot of the time. What do I have to do to get you to leave me alone? There’s a bit of a survivalist instinct. Like, ‘if I can make him feel good and make him come and he’ll fall asleep, then I can go to my s—.’ It’s like giving the baby the bottle. Like, ‘here’s the bottle’.”
Woolf says numerous women have written to her saying they’ve had similar sexual experiences.
“I think the idea of being a caretaker sexually and not prioritising our desire is pretty universal … I know women faking orgasms their entire marriages because they were faking them in the beginning and now it’s too late to un-fake it. When you’ve been faking it for 20, 30 years, you get to the point, you wake up, ‘I don’t even know what I’m into’.”
Australians are no exception.
“I see a lot of couples where the wife’s been pretending she’s been enjoying it [sex] for a long time, and then admits: ‘Actually, I don’t like what I’m doing’,” says Sydney-based sex therapist Jacqueline Hellyer, founder of The LoveLife Clinic. Often women come to see her when they’re about to give up on their relationships because it has become nearly – or completely – sexless.
Woolf thinks the problem is that female sexual desire is verboten. No one talks about it. Especially if you’re a mother.
“It feels squeamish, almost grotesque to pair them together, no one wants to have that conversation,” she says, adding that women aren’t taught to explore what they like sexually separate from a partner. “It’s like a partner activity, something you do together, something that brings you together, that you’re supposed to do to keep your marriage alive. But what about you? How do you make yourself feel good? There’s so much shame.”
Author and columnist Rebecca WoolfCredit:Flickr
Even sex toys have long been geared around the idea of men’s pleasure rather than women’s, says Woolf, noting that when she recently asked the readers of her Romper sex column about their favourite sex toys, 98 per cent responded with toys that massage the clitoris.
“Those didn’t even exist five years ago,” says Woolf. “Think about that. These are toys that are designed for women’s pleasure that weren’t even [around]. The phallic ones, they’re designed by men. This is how new we are to female desire and pleasure. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
Australians are waking up, too, to the unacknowledged obstacles that regularly stand in the way of women fulfilling themselves sexually.
“The [long-held] idea is that it’s the woman’s fault,” says University of Melbourne social psychologist Emily Harris, of women experiencing low sexual desire. “A lot of the research looking at lower sexual desire in women [compared to men] often focuses on how the woman needs to be less stressed and needs to be more in the moment and like, ‘just have a massage or try this pill, increase your testosterone’,” says Harris. “[But] what’s often the core problem is gender inequity, and women having a lot on their plate because they’re trying to do everything.”
This was the recent finding of a study she co-authored, which surveyed 400 Australian women. Those who viewed their male partners as a “dependant” for whom they cook, clean and organise, had lower sexual desire for their partners than those who didn’t perceive their male partners this way.
“You know, it’s not hard to imagine how that is not going to be a huge turn-on in the bedroom,” says Harris, who is working on another study looking at sexual desire in relationships where women are partnered with women and men are partnered with men.
So, what to do if you find yourself marooned on this particular sexual desert island?
Open up communication with your partner without accusing him or her of neglect, says Simone Buzzwell, a gender studies lecturer at Swinburne University.
“It’s like, ‘OK, this is how things have historically been, how can we move forward in a positive manner?’,” says Buzzwell, a psychologist who has encountered many women over the years who have attended to their partner’s intimate needs and forgotten their own.
Hellyer tries to get her couples to embrace a new model of sexuality – one centred around pleasure and connection, rather than arousal or intercourse.
“It’s about, ‘What would bring me pleasure and make me feel connected in this moment?’” says Hellyer, noting that this focuses both people on what will be mutually pleasurable, and moves away from the concept of ‘dutiful’ caretaking sex.
“It could be, ‘yes, let’s go to the bedroom early’, but we’re not thinking ‘you’ve got to end up with your penis in my vagina’,” she says. “It might just be a nice cuddle or conversation. It’s moving away from that linear view of sex. So, we take the focus off the genitals and kind of move more to the heart. Then, once you’re feeling safe and connected, then you can bring your genitals into it, if you’re feeling right.”
For Woolf, moving forward meant moving away from monogamous relationships and embracing short-term connections, and separating her home life from her sex life. She doesn’t let the people she dates into her home, where she is “super present” with her four children, aged 17, 14 and 11 (the youngest are twins).
“This is my escape, I get to go be with him,” she says of her current partner’s home, “and be like this version of myself that I’m not there [at home].”
She finds she now has no problem communicating what she wants sexually.
“Now I’m like super, ‘I want to do this, and this is what I’m into’.
“I’m not telling anybody to leave their partner, but you’ve got one life and one body,” she says. “You deserve to feel good in it.”
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