How The Stanford Letter Reminds Us Ignorance Of Female Orgasm Easily Becomes Lack Of Sexual Empathy For Women

A beautiful letter about the harm of sexual assault and rape culture
I noticed a few postings about a Buzzfeed article that piqued my interest, and so I read it. It featured a letter written by a woman who was sexually assaulted while unconscious on the Stanford campus. She read it in the court room, largely directly to the man who assaulted her, after he had been convicted of the crime and then sentenced to only 6 months with probation. This happened very recently, and her letter was moving and thoughtful, and I highly suggest you go read it. It's not short, but it's worth it.

The man was a Stanford freshman with a promising swimming future, and that element of his life seemed to play heavily in the surprisingly gentle sentencing. She was a grad student and accompanying her younger sister to a frat party that night. She ended up black-out drunk, unresponsive behind a dumpster with this dude on top of her. Luckily this situation was interrupted when two Swedish students on bikes saw what was happening, chased the dude down after he ran, and called the police. He was also drunk that night, clearly not as drunk as her, but even though he was caught in the act, he never really admitted to doing anything worse than getting too drunk and to the "promiscuity" that naturally happens when you're drunk.

That seems to be what really saddened the writer of this letter. This dude never really acknowledged what he did, and that part, plus the leniency of his sentence, seems to make it clear how not so seriously our culture takes sexual assault. She speaks eloquently about how fucked up the whole situation was from his actions that night, right through the trial and sentencing (although she had only lovely things to say about the police and hospital staff that were with her in the direct aftermath).

How female orgasm is involved
I won't do her words justice, so again, read it. There is a lot to chew on in what she wrote. There is all kinds of important discussion to be had around topics like 'rape culture,' the experience of victimization, our legal system and so much more. I'm sure many people out there are tackling those things beautifully. Me, I like to keep my writing here focused on the female orgasm - how it is culturally (mis)understood, and how its misunderstanding affects us, and strangely enough female orgasm does creep into this, in, I think, a poignant way. So, this is just one small consideration within a very complicated and serious situation, but I think it's worth mulling over a bit.

So, as I was reading the letter, this part caught my attention:
On top of all this, he claimed that I orgasmed after one minute of digital penetration. The nurse said there had been abrasions, lacerations, and dirt in my genitalia. Was that before or after I came? 
Why cultural ignorance about lady-gasms matters here
Here's the thing. That she would orgasm in this situation is ridiculous, and not just because she was being touched against her will and being hurt in the process. There is a level of common sense and basic physiologic knowledge of female arousal and orgasm that is missing here, and I think that ignorance causes more harm that we realize.

Now I fully understand that arousal is complicated and that not everything is exactly as it's supposed to be or how we understand it in the scientific literature, so I guess in a larger view anything could happen I guess. However, the orgasm claim from the defendant and his lawyer was very likely a bunch of BS used to put out a sense that there was consent and that she was actually enjoying herself (because since she had no memory of it, they were able to define the narrative). I honestly don't think the defendant and his lawyer would have even thought to create a story like this if the person were a male, because, frankly, it just wouldn't be as buyable. It would seem too desperate and outrageous. I mean it looks that way as is, but sadly not desperate or outrageous enough for the lawyer to think...'hmmm, we shouldn't say that.' I think there is a special problem with cultural ignorance about physical realities of female orgasm that we don't have for male orgasm. I'll show you what I mean with a little exercise.

What if it were a male in the situation instead?
Imagine if the victim in the case were a male - let's call him Ray. Imagine Ray was very, very drunk at the time of the incident. Now imagine the defendant saying that after fingering Ray's anus for a literal minute, Ray orgasmed. I think most people would
1. cringe at having someone finger their unconscious butthole and
2. call bullshit -just from instinct and common knowledge - on Ray orgasming.

I really don't think we have that same instinct about female orgasm, which is unfortunate because what really is the difference between these two scenarios on a physiological kind of level? Let us count the similarities.

Male vs. Female incident - the similarities
  • Stimulation inside the vagina has never been shown in scientific literature to elicit orgasm (Seriously. I don't want to go deep into this now, but check HERE and HERE for more explanation) and neither has stimulation inside the male anus (*I'm actually much less sure of the anus one because I don't study that much, but I feel pretty certain....although less certain than the vagina statement). 
  • Stimulation inside the male anus and also inside the vagina could both stimulate the prostate/g-spot and illicit ejaculation, but that seems to be a minority experience for both men and women, and it's never been shown to cause orgasm
  • There is anecdotal evidence for both vaginally stimulated orgasms and male anally stimulated orgasm, but again neither have been physically verified in scientific literature even after over 50 years of research into it..and even the anecdotal evidence would put both these as a minority experience (I have no data on the anal, but women claim vaginally stimulated orgasms on surveys at around 20-30%, although I would argue it's much less
  • There are tons of people who find fingers in their vaginas or butts very pleasurable...In fact male butt play is way on the rise!
  • This one is my favorite and should be the most obvious. Neither situation involved stimulation of the organ of sexual pleasure - the penis and/or clitoral glans. Seriously, the clit should be as synonymous with orgasm as the penis is.  
  • In both situations the person being fingered was really drunk, and frankly the more drunk a person is (and this is absolutely as true for females as it is for males), the less blood flow they get to their genitals (which causes erection in men and lubrication of the vagina in women - and yes males and females will each have a similar amount of extra blood flow down there during sexual arousal - men's is just easier to notice), the less their body will be able to physically arouse (even if they are mentally aroused), which means they will be less likely to orgasm because orgasm in all people is the release of physical sexual arousal through a series of rhythmic pelvic muscle contractions. If there is no physical arousal, then there can be no orgasm because there is no physical arousal to release...So in both situations, the level of drunkness in itself makes an orgasm unlikely.
  • In both situations, the hole that is being fingered is probably not very lubricated, so it should bring to mind, well, pain, not pleasure. I mean, the anus doesn't really make it's own lube so there's that, and the vagina sure as hell doesn't make much, if any, lube when you're black-out drunk (even if the woman was mentally aroused). So OW! on both accounts. 

Lack of knowledge = Lack of empathy
Point is, I think this lack of basic understanding about physical female arousal and orgasm makes us all less empathetic to females and sex than it does to males and sex. I think that believing women can orgasm through ways that are super unlikely (if even possible at all) like stimulation to only the vagina, anus, nipples or through fantasy alone, and the sense that the female orgasm is somehow beyond physical limitations and extremely unpredictable is quite harmful. It makes us all a little more open to seeing sexual situations for women that are actually quite unarousing and painful, as possibly more arousing and pleasurable than they sensibly could be.

This woman had abrasions and lacerations in her genitalia. If a man came out of an incident with abrasions and lacerations on his penis, would a court still be going about things as if it were sexual? It would be some masochistic shit indeed. For women, though, it seems pain and genital injury is assumed par for the course. Take the 1st time of sexual intercourse, for instance. It's assumed women will have pain, even though there is no physiological reason that this is inevitable. Baring any injury or illness, it merely means there is not enough arousal, lubrication and comfort, but ladies are expected to power through. If intercourse was hurting a man's penis, I guarantee the intercourse would stop. And what did the defense lawyer say about the significance of this woman's abrasions? (from the woman's letter about the defense lawyer's arguments)
To say, yes her nurse confirmed there was redness and abrasions inside her, significant trauma to her genitalia, but that’s what happens when you finger someone, and he’s already admitted to that.
The lawyer didn't say that injury to the genitalia and inside the vagina during fingering is normal because he was assuming people would completely disagree. He said it because he knew it would kinda ring true - because to some extent we expect there to be injury to women when they have sex.

I think this kind of ignorant blind eye to female sexual pain and boredom, and the easy way we can allow ourselves to transfer those types of experiences into narratives of possible pleasure and orgasm is beautifully paralleled in oh-so-many erotica stories and porn. How often in those stories do we find a woman initially not wanting the sexual aggression and even being initially hurt my his/their penetration and body manipulation, but ending up coming sooooo hard, soooo many times? There's clearly a whole element of women-actually-like-rape narrative in erotica like that and in stories like the one the defendant above told, and it is something people who talk about rape culture talk about often.

However, I think it is often overlooked that at the center of that narrative is a willingness and a cultural permission to believe women can realistically have orgasms from things that just straight up would never cause orgasms in a woman; things that are utterly unarousing, things that ignore her organ of sexual pleasure, things that are painful, and things that simply don't take a realistic and accurate understanding of the body into account...things we don't associate so easily with male pleasure and orgasm.

So, although there are lots of problematic things that should be considered about our culture after reading this woman's letter, I would like us not to forget that the defendant in this case and his lawyer thought it sensible enough to try and insinuate this woman's consent and enjoyment of the encounter by claiming she orgasmed from 1 whole minute of digital penetration while she was black-out drunk...and they thought it was sensible enough to say, because, well, in this world it kinda is -and there is a big problem in that.

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