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In defence of lube

There’s a deeply entrenched cultural and social aversion to lubricant that needs to be tackled – we need a lube revolution

As conversations about female pleasure and sex positivity pulsate in the zeitgeist, all and all, the trajectory of women’s sex lives looks optimistic. Yet, despite progressive advocacy and research around sexual health, there’s one taboo that seems relentless: lube. Our cultural aversion to it is doing a disservice to people with vaginas.

According to recent research by condom brand Durex, three quarters of sexually active British women (73 per cent) have experienced sexual discomfort, and because of it, almost one in 10 have faked an orgasm to make sex end more quickly, while one in five (20 per cent) stop having sex completely. The fact that the vast majority of women accept pain to be a normal part of sex (it’s not) is disheartening enough, but even worse is the fact that only a third (34 per cent) would use a lube, despite nine in 10 saying that sex feels better when they do. Lube exists for a reason, so why are we so adamant about using it?

“Many young women don't know how they are expected to feel when they are having sex, or that discomfort or pain isn’t normal, and this is a real problem,” says Kate Moyle, psychosexual and relationship therapist, who attributes the issue to a lack of sex education. “We also have a general level of embarrassment and shame around sex and often find it hardest to discuss (it) with the person that we are having it with, and can fear their judgement or criticism,” she tells Dazed. “Often people would rather go along with what they believe is “normal” (clue: there is no normal) or expected of them, rather than what might feel better. Using lube isn't a bad thing, but it often feels like the idea of adding something else into your sex life can be thought of as an indicator that things aren't alright as they are, and this just isn't the case.”

Durex also revealed that just over half of men (57 per cent) noticed when a female partner feels discomfort during sex. Putting aside the cis, heterosexual men surveyed’s problematic inability to pick up on nonverbal sexual cues, many women are embarrassed to speak up, choosing instead to suffer through uncomfortable sex rather than reach for the lube. In a society that prioritises male orgasms and treats female pleasure as an afterthought, it’s not surprising that women keep quiet about discomfort for fear of hurting their partner’s ego, and that something intended to make sex more pleasurable for women gets such a bad rap.

There’s also a pervasive notion that needing lube means you’re sexually deficient, frigid or menopausal, and it’s steeped in miseducation and misogyny. Contrary to popular belief, vaginas aren’t perpetual slip’n’slides, they can only produce so much natural lubrication, and wetness and arousal aren’t mutually exclusive. Lube-shaming implies that if a woman is turned on it means she’ll be wet but that’s not always the case. “There is no correlation between arousal and lubrication level,” adds sexologist Megan Stubbs, EdD. “Yes, those two things often happen together, but it's not a rule. Sometimes things like medication, age, or environmental factors can impact someone’s natural lubrication. They may still be very turned on, but just not lubricating. It's totally normal.” Vaginal lubrication is controlled by your autonomic nervous system, meaning that you can be horny but totally dry, and vice-versa. This is referred to as arousal non-concordance, which essentially means that genital response doesn’t always overlap with how turned on you are.

“We often talk about lube being on a ‘need to use basis’, but it doesn't have to be used this way, and this is largely because there is the misconception that women ‘should’ just be wet and ready to go, which can cause difficulties for those whose bodies aren’t responding in exactly that way,” says Moyle. Yet, the general consensus is that lube is a sign of incompetence. Stubbs blames this on how sex is portrayed in pop culture, where it’s rare to see lube use depicted unless it’s for comedic effect. Even Rihanna, who can seemingly do no wrong, brags “a bitch never ever had to use lip gloss on it” in “Sex With Me”.

“Lube often isn’t being represented as the life-changing, empowering, quite fabulous resource that it could be” – Tiffany Gaines, Lovability

Over the past few years, a number of new and emerging indie brands have been trying to sell lube to the modern, sex-positive generation. With Instagrammable branding and millennial-oriented marketing, companies like Unbound, Nécessaire, and Lovability Inc. are proposing lube as an everyday staple, rather than an illicit product meant to be used when something isn’t working properly.

When Nécessaire first launched last November, one of the three products in the line was The Sex Gel, a personal lubricant with chic, minimal packaging. The decision to seamlessly proposition lube as bodycare was intentional, and its avant-gardist approach might just break down sexual health stigma. Meanwhile, Lovability’s hero product, Hallelubeyah, was the first ever lube to be sold in international retailer Urban Outfitters. Co-founder Tiffany Gaines says they want to help people with vaginas "take control of their wetness", and make women more comfortable using sexual health products.

“Despite the fact that lube can drastically reduce pain and even increase pleasure during sex, only a relatively small percentage of people consider themselves lube evangelists,” Gaines tells Dazed “Why? Similar to condoms, lube often isn’t being represented as the life-changing, empowering, quite fabulous resource that it could be. We took it upon ourselves to change that.”

Sexual health is often spoken of in hushed tones, and for too long lube has been relegated to the family planning aisles of Boots and backrooms of sex toy shops. Seeing modern, youth-oriented labels rebrand lube as a normal component to a healthy sex life not only takes all the embarrassment out of the shopping experience, but encourages everyone to level up the quality of their shags.

For all the good the sex positive movement has done, giving lube a complete PR makeover is still on the to-do list, but convincing people to change the way they have sex takes years of advocacy (regardless of the fact that it’s in everyone’s best interest). Changing consumer habits, however, is slightly easier. The faster lube becomes a staple in everyone’s lives, the faster women everywhere can start having the great sex they deserve.