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The point of comparison

When you’re given two things that are similar but different, the natural instinct is to compare the two. That contrast is intensified when you’re attempting to compare two concepts that can only be experienced by different groups. Trying to envision the feelings and sensations of someone else is genuinely difficult. To try and imagine something that only they can directly experience is tantalising but nigh on impossible.


I’m talking about sex, in the unlikely event you haven’t guessed.

Who has better sex, men or women? I guess I could just drop the mic here and leave, having stoked the flames of an old debate, but the obvious answer is that the two things are just distinct enough to be incomparable. In times past this has been a fashionable argument: men and women are too dissimilar, their sexual experience too broadly removed, for any consistent comparison to take place.

I once had a sexual partner ask for ‘more left.’

Physical sensation, although kinda quantifiable, is difficult enough to compare because it’s actually quite hard to describe. “That feels good” makes perfect sense, but stating exactly why is harder, as anyone who’s ever received a truly baffling physical instruction while having sex can testify. (‘Can you do it harder and softer at the same time?’) I once had a sexual partner ask for ‘more left.’ I manfully tried to oblige, until I reached the limit of what I could really achieve (‘Sorry honey, but it just doesn’t bend that way’), all with no effect. Turns out when she meant ‘left’ she actually meant ‘increased physical stimulation of an area I can’t describe in a manner I can’t imagine.’ She wanted more of something, she just couldn’t express what it was she wanted more of.

So it’s hard to compare the physicality of male and female experience, and so predictably a lot of media cheaps out. There’s a tendency to don some old fashioned gender stereotypes when it comes to comparison. Men are primarily ‘visually stimulated’, women more so by touch, or emotions, are whatever rubbish the lifestyle section is subscribing to this week. Ah, gender stereotypes, like a much worn woolly jumper. Comfortable, easy to put on, makes you look like a tit, shouldn’t wear it outside the house.

‘Power Tools Lobe?’ Yeah, sure, OK.

The are plenty of studies that highlight the differences between male and female brains, and how they experience arousal, and it’s tempting to spot a basic physiological change and infer some Mars versus Venus life message. Unfortunately the science behind many of these studies is spotty, or at least limited enough to preclude drawing conclusions. That last one I linked was only performed on rats. The ‘extrapolation’ the scientist mentions seems like a pretty big leap.

I’m always suspicious when a study performed on another animal (excepting maybe bonobos, the filthy beggars) is used to further an argument about something as complicated as human sexuality. If I suggested using my own sexual reactions as a way of measuring how a rat feels about banging another rat, I’d (rightly) be laughed at, yet a reversed equation is the Daily Mail science section’s bread and butter.

So I think the idea that men and women’s experience of sex is different due to physical incompatibility is largely cobblers. Even if sex weren’t an incredibly complicated confluence of physical and emotional sensations, our perceptions of it are hugely influenced by the society we live in. The only way we can compare sexual experience is with some good, hard… evidence. Direct comparison, and the like.

I had thought those groovy Ancient Greeks I was on about last time had the matter pretty much sold. Zeus and Hera, king and queen of the Greek’s pantheon of gods (who are great, always fighting in the street and shagging each other’s spouses, it’s like Eastenders with thunderbolts), are having an argument about who gets better orgasms. Each argues that the other gets a better deal. To settle the debate they turn to a dude called Tiresias, who Hera had conveniently turned into a woman for seven years as punishment for interrupting two snakes having sex, in one of those delightfully ‘what-the-fuck’ moments for which the Greek myths are justly famous.

Seconds before Poseidon is barred from the Queen Vic.

In some versions of the myth, upon being turned into a woman, Tiresias rolled up her sleeves and became a very successful prostitute, so one assumes she would know what she was on about. In any case, having had sex as both a man and a woman, Tiresias was the perfect person to ask.

Tiresias sides with Zeus: “Of ten parts, a man enjoys one only.” Women have ten times the better deal. Hera strikes him blind for daring to side with hubby, and then presumably disappears to jill herself off.

Problem solved, question answered. Thanks, antiquity!

Unfortunately a little background research reveals a common thread: this story is largely believed to be an attempt to deliberately put women in their place. By assigning more pleasure to the female side of things, the Greeks could paint their women as wanton, motivated only by pleasure and desire, neatly slut-shaming the whole gender. Throughout history women have been represented as either virginal or wanton with no middle ground, with either representation used as justification from keeping them under close watch.

Well, cheers, Ancient Greece, just when I was beginning to think you were my answer to everything. To the Ancient Romans!

Roman sexuality is fascinating, but again, doesn’t provide many answers. Roman men were likely to practice anal sex on both men and women – their concepts of homo and heterosexuality were more fluid, and men were expected to be attracted to both genders – but unfortunately Roman society was hella patriarchal. The one doing the penetrating was always the important one, and the sexual experiences of woman were barely recorded. Damn, finally a point of basic physical comparison, and freakin’ gender roles get in the way again.

This is why everyone loves that Spartacus show.

There’s no reason we couldn’t make the anal sex comparison right now (well, not right now). Because as hard as it is to compare physical sensations, it’s not impossible. Even if we can’t experience something directly we can still imagine or envision it if the way it’s communicated is vivid enough. I’m never going to experience sex as a woman, but I’m never going to travel through a 4-dimensional hypercube either, but when I read A Wrinkle in Time at 8 years old I had a pretty solid try at imagining it. The reason that we’ve never come close to answering the original question is that we haven’t really ever given it our best try.

There probably is an answer to the question (I suspect it works out as ‘about the same’). The only way to find it, however, is to have different experiences and compare them. Genuinely compare them, objectively and with real thought. Who knows what you might learn if you do? I could finally figure out what ‘more left’ meant.

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