The pleasure principle

Why women can’t shop for sex

“Gigolo in Italy” - The Boat Boy, Monterosso

Last month I went to a luxury fitness resort in a warm country. It had a vast spa, one of the biggest in the world. As well as daily massages and body treatments, there was a huge array of classes and activities – from thrice-daily aquafit, to spinning in an air-conditioned treehouse, to yoga on a deck in the sea, to scuba diving and water-skiing. Guests had to pick their way judiciously through a tsunami of sumptuous food, both sinful and virtuous – the only guidance being to do what felt best to your body. At resorts like this, and there are many in the modern luxury sector, the body is king (or queen). Happy body, happy mind.

But I couldn’t help wonder, what about sex? My ruminations were sparked by the clientele, of which there were many women roughly my age (39) to mid-40s. Single women of this age can feel caught in the double bind of being at their sexual peak while also suffering a lack of sexual options – dating is notoriously unfairly stacked against women nearing the end of their reproductive years, whether or not they want children.

I talked to these women a bit. They were burned out from exhausting jobs in finance and management consultancy, in Chicago, New York and London. Some were overweight. Some just looked pale and peaky from a rough pandemic of too much work and too little play. One woman, a single 47-year-old banker from London, had been extremely ill from covid and was only just beginning to get her strength back. During lockdown she’d dated two rich but nasty men, including an emotionally abusive alcoholic.

As I looked at my prosperous but physically and mentally depleted sisters picking over their breakfasts, their brows dripping from an early morning HIIT class, doing their best downward dogs on the yoga pavilion, or sipping cava while staring out to sea, I knew what was missing. A good shag.

It was hardly surprising that this was not on the otherwise exhausting menu of body treatments, and when I thought about how it could play out if it were, I ran into a series of mental obstacles that pushed against the boundaries of feminism, both conceptual and applied.

The first and most obvious of these was that sex work in general is uncomfortably steeped in bad associations. Some of these are merited, founded in millennia of plain and real misogyny: it is men’s needs, and men’s sometimes violent treatment of female sex workers that the whole sector must reckon with.

At a moment in which worries about the trafficking of women and exploitation of female Ukrainian refugees is rightfully at a high pitch, it could be insensitive to muse too freely on a sexual service for wealthy women. Proper reflexivity is needed about what the wider edifice of sex work can mean in practice for far less privileged workers – indeed, in the case of Ukraine, mortally endangered women.

Women should be able to pay to find sex that is safe, sensuous, skilled, patient, and hot… without shame

But the fact that some men have made sex work dangerous for women, doesn’t necessarily mean women’s sexual needs, as potential clients of male sex workers, should also be overlooked. Until about five minutes ago, European women’s sexuality – and the importance of sexual release for physical and mental health – was in shadow for all but the lucky, and usually aristocratic or royal few. It was put there, forcibly, to mitigate the perceived power of women’s sexuality to wreak danger and havoc on the values of church and family.

That’s all changed, of course, at least in the West. Since Kinsey’s 1953 report, women’s sexuality has slowly been brought into the light. We know more about women’s pleasure than ever before, from the complex genital and mental structures that regulate and foster it, to techniques for stimulating it. Most straight men now know one end of a clitoris from another and know it’s their business to care. I was watching #MeToo comedy Chivalry on Channel Four with a 27-year-old buck recently and there was a bit of repartee about the outside area of female genitalia often mis-labelled the vagina and he piped up authoritatively, “it’s the vulva!”

We also know about the orgasm gap: studies have repeatedly shown the multiple ways in which heterosexual women orgasm less than any other sexual group, including lesbians and heterosexual men.  Straight women are far less likely to orgasm during a sexual encounter with a man than a man is with a woman, but even on their own, only a fifth of women always orgasm when they masturbate, just six per cent do so during penetrative sex. 20 per cent of women say they don’t orgasm at all, compared to just two per cent of men.

This is not because women aren’t cut out for orgasm: we are in fact uniquely designed for it, with the capacity for multiple orgasms and an arguably more intense and long-spooling sexual response than men. Women in their late 30s and early 40s can be especially voracious, our sex drive having been cresting for well over ten years. This is in contrast to men’s, which declines after the age of about nineteen.

Despite all this, and despite rising rates of erectile dysfunction among younger men, men are still far outpacing women in the sexual satisfaction stakes.

And here is where a safe, technically skilled and stigma-free sex work service for women ought to come in. It is clear from numerous academic studies that circumstance and prowess – sensitivity, patience, sensuality, genuine care, tenderness and open communication – play a greater role in the fruition of women’s sexual pleasure than they do for men. Sex work can’t provide the tenderness and communication of love or friendship, but it can do the other things that, in many cases, would be far better than nothing.

Sex work also has an obvious role in the context of the severe man drought facing educated Western women. A 2011 article in the Atlantic marshalled vast amounts of data to argue that women, better educated and better employed than their male peers, must increasingly choose between “deadbeats” and “playboys”. Other research has suggested that misogyny on dating apps is turning single women away from them – and away from partnered sex in general.

And so, if we acknowledge both that there is a deficit of male options for satisfying women’s sexual needs, and that good, orgasmic sex is for many women an integral part of their wellbeing, physical and mental – just as it is for men – then we arrive at the crux of the issue. Surely, just as they can pay thousands to have their bodies serviced with exercise and spa treatments and fine foods in lovely hotels, women should be able to throw money after this key piece of the puzzle too, seeking out and finding sex that is safe, sensuous, skilled, patient, and hot. We should be able to pay for it without shame – and the fact that we can’t yet is telling; after all, compared to men, women are a far more appealing, because safer, clientele.

But the landscape is evolving. Sex has already been nudged into the wellbeing menu for women, but in a more relaxation-oriented way – tantric yoga, for instance, is now mainstream among the urban upper middle classes, though this is more akin to spa and meditation than straightforward messy pleasure. Or there are serious mental health applications: sex workers are sometimes employed to have therapeutic sex with women who have experienced the trauma of sexual violence.

But some women undoubtedly want more straightforward orgasmic treatment: to be able to go to a luxury hotel and, along with that Dead Sea mud facial or reflexology extra, get to experience technically, affirmingly perfect sex with a gorgeous hunk. I’m certain at least some of my sisters-in-deckchairs at the resort would have opted for this if they could (and sex gives a glow no facial can achieve).

Ideally this model of paid-for, premium sex would be accessible to all women, not just rich ones. The women of Stevenage and Aberdeen or Cincinnati or Mumbai who work long hours in manual or caregiving jobs are just as deserving of a fabulous, enriching and above all safe sexual service as lawyers and bankers.

This might come with time if the sex trade were to evolve, if sex workers were legal, unionised, regulated, taxed and held to stringent health and safety law. Crucially, if the trade were to take women seriously as a clientele, then in time there might be a service that was safe, affordable and satisfying – for all.

Zoe Strimpel is a columnist and interviewer for the Sunday Telegraph and a historian of gender in modern Britain

Life

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