Today, we’re going to talk about orgasms.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say something a little controversial: you should forget about them. I’m going to tell you why, but first, a little bit of back story:
I used to get performance anxiety. It’s a little weird to say that as a cis woman, seeing how that term is generally reserved for the bepenised folk, but it’s true. For a very long time, I couldn’t orgasm with a partner.
Often during sex, partners would make what they thought were encouraging remarks during the act – “I want you to cum for me. I’m going to make you cum!“ When my partner finished, they’d check in with me – “did it happen for you?” When I said no, the result was always the same. Their faces fell, and I guiltily tried to reassure them yes, I did have a good time and no, they didn’t do anything wrong. I hated disappointing them. My friends presented me with an easy solution: fake it! On principle, though, I didn’t believe in faking orgasms.
- I’m a terrible liar.
- I thought sex (largely penis-vagina sex) was fun, even sans finish.
Rather than talk about it too much, I would instead put so much pressure on myself to orgasm that every time I would ever come close with a partner, I would nervously scrutinize every sensation I experienced. Unsurprisingly, that approach didn’t work so well. In the end, I just tried my best to redirect the action to focus on my partners and call it a day. In my eyes, I was defective. Clearly, there was something wrong with me.
Around my sixth or seventh partner, I noticed small changes in the (male and female) partners I found, but still not great. Finally, I met my current partner, heretofore known as Ladyfriend.
Suddenly, I started having orgasms. Not just one or two on occasion, but tons of them. I cried. It was amazing. All it took was one sentence:
It’s okay if you don’t orgasm, I just want to make you feel good.
The approach — focus on pleasure without worrying about where it’s going to end up — was entirely new to me. I know she wasn’t the first person to think this. I’m sure some of my later partners could have been on board for a pleasure-first approach, but Ladyfriend was the first person I met who acted that way from the outset.
In preparation for this piece, I asked Ladyfriend for her thoughts on sex and pleasure. She had a lot to say:
I think I first got there through masturbation. When I was younger, I didn’t know what an orgasm was, how to have one, or what it felt like. So I did some research. I read that they can be small or they can be big. The less you think about making it happen, the more likely you’ll be able to make it happen.
It’s also useful to note that Ladyfriend is a lesbian who has had sex with men before. So for her and many people figuring out their sexuality, sex wasn’t about orgasms, it was about proving something. ‘Yes, I can be straight. Yes, I can enjoy heterosexual sex.’ So for her, orgasms weren’t part of the equation during hetero sex, it was just about feeling good.
Orgasms were more of a ‘by myself’ activity…that definitely translated once I started having good partner sex.
Thinking back on my previous sexual experiences, so much of it was entirely goal-oriented, and understandably so. After all, a lot of the ideas we have about sex and pleasure are predominantly phallocentric: orgasms should be the end goal of sex because after the orgasm, sex is over (oh no! You lost your erection! We can’t have sex anymore!). Moreover, penetrative sex is typically seen as the culmination of sexual activity, despite the fact that very few women are able to achieve orgasm from penetration alone. In reality, there are lots of different types of sex, just like there are lots of different types of orgasms and ways to feel pleasure. As Bridie Marie put it so wonderfully in an email about this post:
…there’s the pleasure of closeness with a partner. Or pleasure in another’s pleasure. Or the pleasure of being fully in your body. Or the pleasure of feeling desired and desirable. Or just the pleasure of hugging, of touching skin to skin, all the important brain chemicals that sends. There is so much more to sex than orgasms.
Unfortunately, these tropes even get pushed onto same-gender couples, especially women. Without a penis involved, people have a really hard time figuring out how two women have sex with one another. When I first stared dating women, it took me about a month to feel confident that what I was doing in bed was actually sex. It sure felt like sex, but because there were no dildos and there was no oral sex, I couldn’t be sure. Thankfully, Autostraddle come up with a handy chart:
So where do these hangups come from? A lot of it is mass media, especially men’s/women’s magazines; romance novels and movies, and porn.
The Pervocracy has an amazing post on models of sex, whereby one of the most pervasive models is a competition model of sex. The competition model of sex posits that sex is about “showing off your prowess,” and a failure to do so would be an embarassment. Women’s and men’s magazines are one of the biggest culprits in perpetuating this model. Nerve has a recurring collection of ridiculous sex tips from Cosmo, Maxim, and other magazines. Point of the tips is less “how to make everyone feel awesome” and more “how to be a great lay so they don’t leave you for a superior partner.”
When it comes to porn and romance novels, they form two sides of an equally harmful coin. Porn is all about orgasms — loud, multiple orgasms that happen exclusively through penetration and with absolutely ZERO communication before, during, or after. Often, what’s pleasureable in porn has little basis in reality. The absolutely NSFW site, Make Love Not Porn, breaks this down brilliantly, discussing how the tropes in porn are decidedly unrealistic in many ways.
Romance novels and movies are just as much at fault. Let’s be real, how often do two lovers who barely know eachother “come together in a roar” without first talking very explicitly about what makes them do that? You hardly ever find romantic heroes experiencing a super awkward first sex scene, or having to work on what makes eachother feel good. Heroes and Heartbreakers says it perfectly:
For romance novels that follow the more popular route, the sexual compatibility is instant, often established during the first sex scene (if not the first instance of passionate eye contact), and is depicted as miraculous and inexplicable. The hero no longer feels attracted to any other woman. The heroine experiences sensations she’s never felt with another man.
Furthermore, romance novels and rom-coms reinforce the idea that sex is always tied to love. Even in casual sex comedies like Friends with Benefits or No Strings Attached, the protagonists are unable to have sex without eventually falling in love. Sex and love are great, but they aren’t always linked. Creating that false expectation sets people up for a lot of upset and disappointment.
Relatedly, Joseph Gordon-Levitt just released Don Jon, which discusses the two together. One protagonist has a ritualistic obsession with porn. The other can’t stop pining after the heroes in romantic comedies. They fall in love. Obviously, they’re going to have some issues when their porn- and romance-fueled fantasies don’t align with reality. I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds like a thoughtful exploration of the misleading and completely unrealistic expectations instilled in us by mass media.
Ultimately, I want people to see orgasms as a beginning, middle, end, and maybe-we’ll-get-there point. Strictly adhering to the “orgasms as sexual prowess and thereby value as a human being” model is inherently harmful. In real life, it takes time to figure out how to make a partner feel good, and a lot more factors go into it than just their attraction to you. Seeing orgasms as the be-all, end-all means that if your partner doesn’t orgasm, there’s something wrong with what you’re doing. Moreover, seeing sex and pleasure as driven by one specific activity is similarly limiting. People with all different types of bodies can enjoy sexual activities that have nothing to do with erections or P-in-V sex. By dismissing models of sex that don’t culminate in penetration and orgasms, you’re not just alienating people and stressing people out. You’re cheating them out of really awesome sex.
And that, my friends, is surely a crime.