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Sex and the Female Mind

Why are so many women dissatisfied?

Anita Clayton Luca DiCecco

The sly smile of the woman gracing the cover of Anita Clayton’s book Satisfaction: Women, Sex, and the Quest for Intimacy begs readers to fall into bed with it. What does she know that the rest of us don’t? For starters, a growing number of American women consider a night in bed with a great book more gratifying than a romp under the sheets with their partner. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Clayton (Med ’82), a UVA professor of psychiatry.

Clayton believes the way to truly great sex rests somewhere between the ears for most women. Until a woman delves into her psyche, daring to untangle her desires and unleash them, the search for satisfaction will continue—as will the less-than- sizzling sex. Getting there requires a woman’s willingness not to pine for a skilled lover, says Clayton, but to mine her own experiences of childhood, religion, identity and furtive fantasy. “Most women have bought into restrictive family, cultural and religious beliefs that sexual feelings in a woman are shameful,” says Clayton. “As a result, we are unwilling to even privately examine our sexual selves both emotionally and physically, much less share our passions with another.”

Nearly half of all women in the U.S. have sexual complaints, she says, citing a Journal of the American Medical Association report. The mindset spills across the borders of race, level of education, age and class. “We might just be scratching the surface,” says Clayton. Studies since the book was published show that women across the world share this complaint.

So why do they endure the discontent? Why the eagerness to aim for brilliance in other areas of life, but resignation when it comes to fulfillment in the bedroom? Clayton’s book, based on almost 20 years of research, dissects how women are taught at an early age to take responsibility for the happiness of others, often at the cost of their own. They fear that unburdening their sexual malaise will trigger their partner to leave, says Clayton, who is considered a leading expert on women’s sexuality and depression.

“I have heard a lot from readers who have said that they relate to the women’s stories—that in them they see themselves, their sisters, their friends, their mothers,” Clayton says, and some of her academic colleagues have recommended the book to their patients. Wrote a reviewer in the Washington Post: “This book is not an exploration of the female body but of the female mind ... Clayton makes a compelling case that settling for mediocre sex—or no sex at all—can be terribly damaging.”

The media bombards us with unrealistic miscues about how much sex people are having and how astonishingly good it is for them. The phenomenon has a profound grip on a woman’s ability to see herself as desirable, causing many women to turn viciously on themselves. Physical imperfections become failures to compare on every level of female sexuality.

“This idealization of sex and always feeling we don’t measure up is the most damaging for women,” says Clayton. “Women don’t talk about it, but the media-generated image of powerful, confident women in the bedroom is not real. We don’t know what’s normal because we haven’t talked about it in any serious way. Instead, we look to the media, which shows idealized, glorified or sensational versions of what is sexy.”

Shame and anger couple to snuff the quest for intimacy. If a woman feels inadequate for not being able to conceive or bear children, then she feels shame, says Clayton. “Holding back affects our ability to give and receive pleasure,” she says. “Anger is suppressed because women cannot compartmentalize their feelings. We are continuously juggling the parts of our lives, trying to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. We can’t relax to make love—we carry that worry all the way through sex and end up not enjoying it or not engaged and feeling stressed. We have to learn to be in the moment.”

Changing women’s perception of themselves and debunking the myth that only sexy people have great sex is a primary aim of her book. “Part of changing that perception is putting themselves higher on their list of priorities. Self-love and good sex are intertwined,” she says. “There is a cultural limitation on expressing our desires, but the people who have the best sex lives are the ones who are the most confident that they are going to enjoy the sex, both emotionally and physically.”