by Gina Ogden

Women who what?” “Women Who Love Sex,” I repeat to the interviewer on the telephone. “That’s what I call my latest book.”

The title seems to serve as a kind of Rorschach for the way people relate to their own sexuality. Responses may range from cheers, to titters, wolf whistles, and groans of dark despair.

It takes this interviewer only an instant to turn my title into a personal problem. “Oh,” she says, “You mean women who love sex too much?”

Too much for whom? Isn’t it possible that women can love sex “enough” to get real pleasure from it? I’m talking quality here, not merely quantity (the woman who’s had 150 lovers – or who always initiates sex with her partner – or who holds the world’s orgasm record), though quantity counts too.

When the subject is women’s sexual pleasure, we’re still living in the dark ages. The moral imprecations that haunted the adolescents of the ’50s (slut, whore, nympho, tramp) have evolved into the negatives of the post-recovery ’90s (love slave, sex addict, just asking for HIV victim).

Why is it still such a radical notion to accept the gift of sexual enjoyment as a valid, life-affirming source of human energy? In this age in which tales of abuse and exploitation frame almost any serious dialogue about women, there is, at best, a scrambled consciousness of what positive sexual expression means for us. The question du jour is not: “What are the proactive attributes of ecstatic relationships?”, but: “What’s the difference between date rape and a bad night in bed?” It’s a stretch for today’s pundits to deal with women’s good nights, to consider that there are women who actually love sex and are willing to talk about it.

We’re on the verge of the 21st century, but sexual normality is still defined by somebody other than the women experiencing it. It’s the shrinks, scientists, lawyers, moralists, filmmakers and corporate advertisers who dictate what our most private and intimate responses of pleasure are supposed to be like.

Whether you get your information from scholarly journals or talk show TV, by and large it all boils down to the same basic concept. Sex means old-boy sex. Dominance-submission role playing. Male performance trips. Massaging the male ego. Accommodating the male member. For many women, that amounts to ho-hum or degrading sex, in perpetual missionary position.

Even though anyone you care to ask has an opinion about what’s right and normal for women, there is no universal agreement on just what the sexual norms are. For religious fundamentalists, for instance, normal means good: the wife who toes the line, the sex act that’s by the book, face-to-face, in the dark, to procreate children. For sexual scientists, normal means functional, and functional means anything goes as long as it pleasures the penis and the activity can be measured and documented. Listen in anywhere – at the water cooler, in the custody courts, in feminist academia, in the media, even in the staff meetings at your local nursing home – you’ll hear still other notions about what limits should be placed on our sexual energy. As a therapist, I am continually confronted with the fallout from this kind of objectification, often in the form of self-blame:

“I take too long to come to orgasm.” “What’s wrong with me? He never looks at me when we make love.”

“If I admit what I really want, I’ll be seen as a sex-crazed maniac – I mean, it’s certainly not politically correct.”

Don’t get me wrong, some of the limitations imposed on our sexuality may be okay for some women. As long as you have a partner. As long as your partner is male. As long as he doesn’t suffer from impotence, premature ejaculation, or loss of desire. As long as you’re orgasmic on intercourse or don’t mind taking it. As long as you’re young enough, able enough, eager enough to try out all the love positions from the Kama Sutra or bear the babies that will bear his name….

During my twenty years of research and clinical work with women, however, I’ve been privileged to hear vastly expanded definitions of normality, from women willing to describe their experiences of sexual ecstasy. Their ages range from 24 to 70, their backgrounds from WASP to Native American, their orientations from lesbian to heterosexual. Taken together, their stories suggest that women’s sexual energy is an untapped source of personal power.

These women who love sex say they’re aroused by outercourse as well as intercourse; that touching all over their bodies can sometimes excite them even more than touching genital hot spots. Some say they can be orgasmic with no physical stimulation at all – simply by thinking. Almost unanimously, these women report that sex is a whole-person proposition involving body, mind, heart, and soul. They say essential ingredients of their peak sexual experiences are a sense of self-appreciation and connectedness with a partner – sometimes lusty, sometimes spiritual, even transcendent. They say these kinds of sexual relationships begin long before the bedroom and last long beyond – in creative energy that informs their entire lives.

Perhaps most notably, these women speak of the lushness of their own desire. “Before I met my partner, I spent my adult life sobbing over the things I’d missed out on – play, caring, someone to hold me. WeD, now I don’t have to cry about the losses anymore. Sex isn’t just a separate part of our lives. It’s at the core.”

There are costs, of course, in our anxious society. For women who love how they feel when they are touched by desire or kindness or intelligently tender hands, it can mean the stigma of wanting “too much,” as this morning’s interviewer implied on the telephone. Too much pleasure, too much imagination, too much, well, sex.

Speaking out about loving sex can subject you to attack. Last week, I found myself the designated expert on a national TV talk show. The subject was: “When Your Wife Wants Too Much Sex” – a set up if I ever heard one.

One panelist was introduced as a woman of high appetite. The audience was incited to hoot and jeer her as her husband reeled off his litany of complaints: “She wants too much attention…She wants me to tell her I love her..She always wants me to be touching her…”

What’s the big deal? I wondered. “Jeez,” he whined on, “She’s at me to do it during Monday Night Football!” The boos directed at this woman are another instance of blame the victim. The problem here is not that she wants so outlandishly much, but that the husband values her desires so minimally, and that their communication skills are not up to dealing with the discrepancies.

This couple’s plight underscores the yawning gender gap in sexual consciousness. Women who love sex generally do want more. More contact and eye contact, more pleasure, tenderness, and partnership. Much, much more soul. We’re off the charts sometimes. Off by a lot, depending on which charts you read – and this can feel scary both to us and our partners.

To change a cultural system invested in keeping us down, we have to learn effective ways to say “yes” and make ourselves heard. Just saying NO isn’t enough. Until we interpret sexuality for ourselves, intentionally and positively, it will continue to be interpreted for us and will retain the power to repress and confuse us – even if our partners are women, even it we have no partners at all.

Women who love sex – and who are out about it – can be our models for social change, offering us insight and courage. They can teach us that intimacy can be self-affirming as well as partner-pleasing. They can give us language beyond the date-rape dispute or the porn debate or the man-made division between heterosexuals and lesbians. Their stories can help us identify the ecstasy of personal connection and make it easier for us to talk with each other.

We need to act collectively, though; we can’t re-do relationships all on our own. Perhaps we should all make our move at the same moment – say on Monday nights, during the half times of the big televised football games. We might create an unstoppable vortex of energy: instant critical mass.

Think how our partnerships will rebalance when we collectively insist on fair play, not just foreplay. Think what will happen to the missionary position when women, en masse, opt for pleasures that stir body and soul instead of doing goodgirl intercourse by the book.

Sex isn’t everything. It’s only a part of everything. But, as Audre Lorde suggested, once we’ve experienced the full flood of energy, we can joyfully settle for no less in living the rest of our daily lives.

Gina Ogden, Ph.D. is a therapist and author of several books on women ‘sexuality, including Women Who Love Sex (Pocket Books).