Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
…wouldn’t it be neat if this were a column about hot mythological roleplay? Yes, Andromeda, yes it would.
But it’s not a column about that. It’s a column about this: there are a lot of contradictory messages out there about the female orgasm (it strikes me that I always hear “orgasm” described as gendered, not sexed, and so what’s the word for an orgasm with a pussy experienced by someone who identifies as a man or vice versa? is there one?) and most of them are wrong.
I’m so confused by all of the issues surrounding orgasm that I actually tell my lovers that the female orgasm is no longer a relevant concept for our sex life–we will work together to make sure I enjoy myself as much as possible, and maybe my cunt will spasm and maybe I’ll get flushed, but I don’t want you to be driving towards any specific goal beyond having fun in the moment, so you shouldn’t be thinking about my orgasm, and I don’t want to have to pin labels on the reactions I do have to your touch, so I’m not going to. This bed is an orgasm safe zone, I say.
This is what I tell my lovers, but unless that made perfect sense to you, it’s not something you should tell yours. How did I get to the point where I started rejecting the concept of the orgasm entirely for my own body? That’s going to be the topic of this column.
(There’s discussion of sexual assault in what follows, and it’s long, but it’s something I needed to read two years ago, so it stays. That said, if you’re not interested in reading my autobiography, but do want to hear more about my bigger theory of orgasms and how to talk about them with your partner, you should wait for Part Two of this column, which will be coming out Friday.)
The story starts with me being in eleventh grade and masturbating, mostly while doing my AP Chemistry homework. I think eleventh grade is when I first realize that this masturbation thing has a goal, and that I don’t really understand what the goal would feel like, just that I’ll know it when I get there, and I can’t imagine ever knowing something like that, so I will remain skeptical.
(In tenth grade I started thinking I was bisexual, but I felt like it must be more honest to call myself asexual because I’d never kissed anyone so how could I know, really? Like I said: skeptical.)
The summer after eleventh grade is when everything happens. Three days after I first tell someone “I’m bisexual” comes my first kiss and three days after that comes my first attempted rape, and all of these events happen with different people.
In the month after that, a teacher sexually harasses me, a student sexually harasses me, I make a new male friend who really likes talking about sex, a girl seems to be flirting with me and I’m freaking out, and suddenly there is a boyfriend, a great guy who I agree to date at least partially because I think that if I get with him, maybe everyone else will stop bothering me.
There are suddenly people pushing my sexual boundaries all the time, and all I’m sure of is that since the attempted rape was my fault, the rest of it must be too. It’s the perfect mindset to be emotionally coerced into doing things I don’t want to do, and that chapter of abuse starts in the fall.
What’s important for the story I’m telling is that everyone is suddenly very concerned with my orgasm; my boyfriend, my abuser, and the boy who attempted to rape me and who later raped a friend, who writes, in an in-class essay about The Second Sex, that the book shows why feminists are so hot, and it’s because they take charge of their own orgasm instead of just lying there, and also it’s hot when women have orgasms, did he mention that?
He hates it when women don’t have orgasms.
(It’s been four years and the thought of him thinking that still makes my mind crawl.)
I learn how to fake it because faking it is easier than dealing with their frustration and anger. At the same time, I know, just like I knew the attempted rape was my fault, that not being able to have orgasms made me less of a woman, and certainly not the sexy feminist I wanted to be.
I continue to feel like this even as I extract myself from the abusive situation and move into dating new people. Fast forward to the end of freshman year, when I am dating someone who knows that I don’t have orgasms but “would like to try for one…” where by that I meant “every day that goes by when I don’t have an orgasm I hate myself a little, and I’m going to focus so intently on it that I will be monitoring myself for signs of an orgasm all the time and will sometimes announce that maybe I had one but then retract that announcement because this is something I’m supposed to just know.”
One day the two of us have just had sex when I start having what I jokingly call “the Anti-Orgasm”; in the blink of an eye, my vagina has seized up tight, my entire vulvar area is painful to the touch, and I am doubled over in pain and unable to walk. I hope that it’s just an anomaly.
I’m wrong. This is my completely atypical and probably misdiagnosed vulvodynia; for the next two years, whenever I get aroused, the anti-orgasm will come along to leave me wishing I were dead.
We don’t yet have the biology to say much about what exactly is happening to me and why, but luckily for me, I can easily point to some psychological explanations. My body is not happy with the way I am treating it. “You don’t like me?” it says. “You blame me for getting you abused and then you put me under all this crazy pressure to orgasm? Well, screw you, because I’m fighting back.”
Repairing my relationship to my body is, I guess, what this column is all about. One of the answers to getting better, at least for me, was to go on SSRIs. At the time I went on SSRIs, my “anti-orgasms” were so bad that the sexual side effects were, you know, small potatoes that I wasn’t even going to notice. Now I’m still on SSRIs but no longer have vulvodynia; it’s hard for me to say what the exact side effects are, since I don’t remember having a “normal” sexual response. But I’m sure they’re at least a small factor in my continued difficulty with orgasm.
How did I get rid of the vulvodynia? The intensity and frequency had both been lessening as I was working through my own issues with survivor stuff and sex stuff and self-esteem stuff, and maybe it would have gone away entirely eventually if I had continued on that path.
But I’m a lucky girl, because I got to take a quicker route: I got raped by a stranger while I was studying in a foreign country, I had an orgasm, the nurses at the hospital were dismayed that I hadn’t been hurt enough to prove anything in a court of law, and I became really angry.
Somehow in having endless amounts of time to think about this stuff, somehow in really getting to feel my rage, somehow in forgiving myself–finally forgiving myself–for everything, and in that process forgiving my body, my body decided that it didn’t need to seize up and scream at me to protect me from myself anymore. The pain went poof into thin air and I haven’t had a relapse since.
Around the same time I decided that at least for now, it made the most sense for me just not to care about orgasms as discrete events, and to not have any other goal other than having fun. That’s never an easy idea to maintain–for example, I can’t read erotica because whenever some girl is having an orgasm, and she always is, I feel like they’re saying sex can’t possibly be fun without it, and I wonder if there’s non-orgasmic erotica, and then I get all political, because it’s not just crazy old me disenfranchised by the lack of non-orgasmic erotica, but everyone else who has trouble and sometimes likes to not even think about it, and there are a lot of us, we’ve got a bigger tent than you’d think–but “orgasms don’t exist in my world and I don’t want to think about their existence,” as an attitude, has been more successful for me than anything else so far.
But this isn’t always the easiest idea to explain to your partner. So let’s bring them back in. Tomorrow we’ll talk about how to talk about your orgasm expectations to your partner (whether you’re me, somebody who can usually orgasm with the right stimulation, or somebody who always orgasms) and we’ll also talk about the male orgasm and some of the fucked-up myths surrounding that. Sound good? Good.
Signing off sleepy but possibly cathartically,