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SEX AND FEMALE STRESS

Undoubtedly man has a much more intense sexual appetite than woman. . . . With a woman, it is quite otherwise. If she is normally developed mentally, and well bred, her sexual desire is small. If this were not so, the whole world would become a brothel and marriage and family impossible.

It is certain that the man that avoids women and the woman that seeks men are abnormal. Woman is wooed for her favor. She remains passive. This lies in her sexual organization and is not founded merely on dictates of good breeding.

Joseph Richardson, M.D. (and seventeen other authorities)

Although this statement was made in the year 1909, American women are still often expected to be sexy but not sexual, enticing but not forward, and available but not eager. American humor paints the picture vividly.

"What does the French woman say when she is made love to?"

"Oooo, la, la!"

"What does the Italian woman say when she is made love to?"

"Mama mia!"

"What does the American woman say when she is made love to?"

"Frank, the ceiling needs painting!"

Is this stereotype true? Not usually. Women share with men the capacity for sexual fantasy, desire, arousal, and satisfaction. Female orgasms involve contractions of the pubococcygeus muscles every 0.8 seconds, just as male orgasms do. In fact, women seem to have little or no refractory (unresponsive) period after orgasm, have greater sexual stamina, and are more likely to experience multiple orgasms.

Why, then, is the American woman presumed to suffer more from headaches than from desire? One reason may be male defensiveness. That is, if a man can believe that women have a low sexual drive, his own performance anxiety may be relieved. "She doesn't enjoy it anyway," he can think. "She's just going along with sex for my sake," he may want to believe.

Patricia Schreiner-Engel, assistant director of the Human Sexuality Program at Mount Sinai Medical College in New York City, points to another possible problem, which is that women, unlike men, do not have external signs of arousal to distract them from preoccupations and worries. Men see their own erections, label themselves aroused, and turn their attention to sexual pleasure. Women, however, are frequently unaware of their vaginal lubrication or genital swelling. In fact, both clinically and in her research, Schreiner-Engel finds that women often do not know how physically aroused they actually are!

Low sexual desire can be a female stress symptom for various reasons. Sometimes the stress is created by gradual life changes that have crept up over long periods of time. Sometimes the stress is related to unresolved anger and resentment toward a partner or toward men in general. Sometimes the stress is a crisis situation. Most often, chronic low sexual desire results from fears and anxieties left over from past learning.

Women in this culture seem to have been raised amid conflicting sexual messages. They face at least four different sexual dilemmas.

The fear of saying "yes" vs. the fear of saying "no." To say "yes" involves taking responsibility for birth control, monitoring male methods of contraception, or risking an unwanted pregnancy. To say "no" involves risks ranging from rape to angry rejection.

Performance anxiety vs. castration concerns. If a woman absorbs advice from her mother and the media on "How to Please Your Man," she may become a spectator during her own sexual encounters and suffer from performance anxiety severe enough to inhibit her own sexual response. If, on the other hand, she absorbs advice on "How to Maximize Your Sexual Pleasure," she runs the risk of frightening off men who may see requests as instructions, advances as aggression, interest as promiscuity, playfulness as manipulation, and passion as competition.

Fear of discovery vs. fear of frustration. Young women, older women, married women, religious women, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers all seem to be potentially embarrassed by their sexuality. There is someone, in almost every case, from whom they would prefer to hide their sexuality. More frequently than not, even husbands are unaware of their wive's capacity to masturbate or fantasize. Frustration, however, is an unsatisfactory alternative, particularly since current research assures us that women, like men, have sexual needs. To deny or hide these needs may not only add to the Female Stress Syndrome, but deprive women of a natural stress antidote—satisfying sex! 4. Dyadic duet vs. do-your-own-thing. Humans seem to be a bonding species, and women, particularly, find themselves looking for long-term partners. Too much emphasis on finding a husband and defining oneself in terms of his success, however, has led to a reaction among women against the "Cinderella complex." Too much emphasis on going it alone seems to be equally unsatisfying, however. Betty Friedan suggests in her book The Second Stage that the trick will be to find new ways of working with men to build and rebuild lives, rather than bailing out of bonding altogether. Finding a balance, then, is an ongoing problem. And ongoing problems contribute to female stress and low sexual desire.

Sometimes female sexuality becomes a victim of motherhood's stresses:

Less time

Less privacy

More distractions

Fear of another pregnancy

Self-consciousness about body changes

Concerns about adequacy as a mother

To make matters worse, a mother's own sexual desire can become a victim too. She may feel that she no longer should be either sexy to her husband, or sexual in her own interests. Too often, her husband may feel the same way. He would feel guilty if he allowed himself to have sexual feelings about a "mother," so he experiences a mysterious loss of desire or arousal instead—the Madonna Complex.

As sex fades from a couple's life, stress grows. An important expression of adult affection has been lost. An important source of physical pleasure has been lost. An important type of stimulation and punctuation of a routinized life has been lost. An important aspect of love has been lost. Such a couple must rediscover each other as people, remind themselves that they are entitled to sexual pleasure—entitled to each other!

*27\287\2*


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