It’s time for me to stop lying about sex. To my ex-partners, I’m sorry I wasn’t as honest with you as I could have been, but sex is complicated. There is often history, pride and feelings involved. When I talk about sex I don’t just mean my experience of heterosexual penetration, which was the only kind of sex I was ever taught about at school. The truth is that 75% of women only orgasm with help from sex toys, hands or tongue, so let’s relegate the penis for a moment in our discussion of female pleasure.
For a long time, I have experienced pain during sex. What I thought would be an easy and joyous activity was unexpectedly difficult and upsetting. This led to me wanting sex less. Orgasm became a distant dream.
These symptoms come under the umbrella term of female sexual dysfunction, which includes problems with desire, orgasm and pain during sex. I’ve experienced all three at some point. It is estimated that around one-third of young and middle-aged women, and roughly half of older women, suffer from a form of sexual dysfunction.
Relationships were problematic. Boyfriends saw my un-enjoyment of sex as a challenge to fix and a reflection of their own sexual prowess. So I stopped telling them it hurt, because it hurt them too much.
I became accomplished at pretending to enjoy sex: faking the exact pitch of moans, covering up my pain with exuberant vocal enthusiasm. I was their cheerleader, each moan saying: “YOU are really good at sex.” I was simultaneously being very loud and very quiet.
I look back on why I was scared to speak up. Aside from upsetting my partners’ feelings, I felt silenced by the fact mine seemed a frivolous problem. Doctors made me feel silly, telling me to “have a glass of wine to loosen up a bit” or to “pop some Savlon on the problem area”.
This silence surrounding female pleasure and sexual dysfunction is widespread. Studies in male sexual disorders vastly outnumber those on female sexual dysfunction, Viagra is advertised on large shiny posters in pharmacy windows and available over the counter without prescription. In contrast, I met a woman whose doctor advised her to have a baby to “widen her out” as an antidote to vaginal pain.
Considering that the full structure of the clitoris wasn’t “discovered” until 1998 and 45% of women cannot locate the vagina on a diagram, noise about this issue is needed. At my school, the vagina was called “your fish” and girls who masturbated were seen as dirty. To this day, while I love oral sex, I hesitate to ask for it, thinking: “Why on earth would they want to go there?”
So I wrote a comedy show about it, to make some noise and reclaim the voice I so often lost in bed. Ad Libido follows my journey to try to fix sex and how, after feeling as if there was no help available, I attended a sex camp. All true.
Writing about sex makes you vulnerable. Sometimes I wish I’d written a drama about people fretting about where on earth the butler is. That way, boyfriends wouldn’t feel awkward telling their mums about my show and I wouldn’t receive tweets suggesting my “fanny” must be like a “clown’s pocket”. Audience members sometimes even offer me their sexual services after the show, convinced theirs is the penis to fix my vaginal woe.
Exes ask if my show Ad Libido is about them and I say no. This is mostly true: it’s about me and it’s not a kiss-and-tell. But to those who went in skipping foreplay because they thought foreplay wasn’t sex, and those who rolled off and fell asleep as soon as they were done, and to the one who said communication during sex ruined the element of surprise – yes, I should have spoken up more, but there are lessons to be learned on both sides.
I’m still learning to be honest about sex. I slow down and communicate with my partner about what works and what doesn’t. I catch myself if it looks as if I might be exaggerating enjoyment and try to prioritise my own pleasure. I try not to think about the amount of sex I’ve had that I haven’t entirely wanted or been ready for, but went through with because it seemed the polite thing to do. As I learn more, my show changes, it reflects the things I’ve discovered and how much better I understand my body.
I am now loud in bed in a different way. My moans of pretend pleasure have been replaced by communication, requests and curiosity. It feels a shame it took me until my 30s to put myself first in this way. It really shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does.