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.
In part one we learned that in order for me to get to a comfortable place sexually, I had to first crash, hard, into the myth that women who don’t get orgasms are repressed and uptight.
But we’re talking Scylla and Charybdis here, because I’ve also battered myself against destructive myths that come from a very different place: that women shouldn’t masturbate, that vaginal orgasms are the only appropriate way to have orgasms, that the female orgasm doesn’t exist at all.
In my experience, a lot of the women who have run aground on these myths can start having orgasms with the help of some the excellent books out there on claiming your right to sexual pleasure. My favorites are Lonnie Barbach from the 1970s, Julia Heiman from the 1980s, or Vivienne Cass, who I really like despite the fact that she’s writing in 2007.
But back to the point–some women have no problems with orgasms, but of those who do, we’ve all got different reasons for it, and therefore different communication hurdles in the bedroom.
The first part of getting over the hurdle is always figuring out what it is you want to communicate. I want to say that although I won’t have an orgasm, that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy sex, and yes, I want you to specifically stimulate my clitoris anyway.
The second part of the hurdle is getting comfortable with communicating that. I have feelings of guilt–“I’m sorry that I’m asking you to work hard to give me pleasure when you won’t get the payoff of watching me come”–and my friends who have orgasms, but not easily, feel similarly. I have a friend who constantly feels guilty about all the attention she needs to come, and once she told a boyfriend just that. “I’m sorry that I need thirty minutes when you only need five… it’s not actually that important that I come, if, you know, you don’t want to…”
To his credit, the boyfriend apparently stopped whatever was happening and gave the following (obviously re-written by me, although he was an economics major) speech:
“Please don’t feel sorry about your sexual responses. Partner sex isn’t about tit-for-tat, head for head, five minutes for five minutes, one orgasm for one orgasm… this is not a barter system! It’s about each of us coming away satisfied in our own way, and if you need an orgasm to feel satisfied but I don’t, I’m going to help you get there anyway, because sex is a ‘to each according to his need’ enterprise, you know? And I don’t want you to feel guilty about those needs, so… feel good about them, dammit!”
(It’s an even better speech if you imagine somebody giving it while wrapped around your legs, and upon the final crescendo, starting once more to suck whatever it is that you like to be sucked.)
I got to give a similar speech pretty recently when I was sleeping with someone who was on SSRIs and had a hard time coming. (If you can’t tell, I have been doing the Ethical Slut thing for a while now. I have a feeling it’s about to get a lot more complicated than it has been, but so far so good.) He was the first guy I’d been with who consistently had a hard time, and I’m thankful for it, because he made me realize that although I was totally a Mythbuster when it came to the female orgasm, I still had damaging stereotypes about the male orgasm floating around.
The messages men get about their orgasm aren’t quite as schizophrenic as those for women; nobody has ever called the male orgasm a myth, so score on that front, but there is a weird expectation that all men can orgasm easily within five minutes (false), but also that they’re pathetic if they can’t hold on for longer–a real man can go all night if he has to!
Moving to how to have an orgasm (here, women are dealing with the double bind of “women shouldn’t need clitoral stimulation to come/clitoral orgasms are immature” and “the G-spot is a myth/women who genuinely enjoy penetration are oversexed”) there’s also an expectation, at least I would argue, that men should have penetrative and ejaculative orgasms into vaginas, mouths, or maybe anuses–a guy who comes while being penetrated by a penis, toy, or finger, or a guy who needs a fetish object around, is not living up to his orgasm myth.
Both sexes are also unfortunately having to deal with a certain porn-ification of expectations about what their orgasm should look like; dudes should be ejaculating obviously! and hugely! and women should be screaming their heads off and maybe ejaculating (but maybe not; this is another Catch-22 where some women find themselves freaking out because they are ejaculating and their partner thinks it’s piss, and some women are beating themselves up because they can’t).
Some guys live up to these expectations, and that’s awesome for them. Most don’t, and may well be feeling guilty or weird about it in their own way, leading to apologies for not coming or coming weirdly, which leads to apologies “because it’s my fault, I didn’t make you come,” which is just not a good idea–there are things to apologize for during sex, but this orgasm stuff? Is not one of them.
Another unfortunate thing about being a guy is that as hard as it is to be a woman and need to communicate your feelings and desires, dudes in contemporary American culture (and this is absolutely something that varies depending on your particular cultural and religious background) have the compounding problem of not being supposed to show their feelings for fear of seeming weak, and the fear that showing weakness will make them an unsuitable partner.
Realizing all of this, and thinking about how it might affect my male partners in their relations with me, has made me a much better lover. Guys orgasm easier, sure, but they’ve got a whole bunch of other ideas about masculinity they have to live up to, over-burdening their penises with a bunch of cultural meanings that they just can’t sustain (and as much as I like penises, I have never met one that I would trust to hold up the culture for me–and this metaphor makes me think of the Greek Parthenon, but with penises in place of the columns). So what is to be done?
(We need to smash the patriarchy.)
But while we’re waiting for the smashing to run its course, we’re still going to be having sex, right? So what can we do to develop our own healthy relationship to orgasms in the midst of all the cultural baggage sitting around? I’ve got, as always, a couple of suggestions.
1. Orgasms are a bonus to sex, not the definition of sex. Follow my lead and declare your life an orgasm free space–or just try not to put pressure on you or your partner to have an orgasm for the moment, because not having orgasms all the time? Totally normal! Another thought here–we’re taught that sexy talk often includes things like “I can’t wait for you to cum inside me” or “I need your cum so bad,” but since that sort of talk can make your partner feel pressured, it might not be a good idea for them specifically, you know? Think about it.
2. But hell yes you deserve orgasms. There’s no sense in giving up easily if you have a hard time with orgasms, and this is true in a single sexy session as well as in your life. Don’t be like “oh, whatever, it will take too long for me to have an orgasm, I don’t really need one” if that’s not actually how you feel. (If you feel “anxious anxious anxious can’t perform,” slow down and cuddle and rub heads and don’t think about orgasms for the moment. But if it’s just a matter of time or different stimulation than what you’re getting, speak up and say so!) And if you’re a woman who hasn’t had an orgasm ever, seriously, pick up one of those books I mentioned above. I can also lend all of them out–drop me a line and I will put them in campus mail, seriously.
3. Don’t fake it. There is no possible good that can come out of faking it with a partner. You’re cheating yourself out of having them learn what it is you really like, and you’re cheating them. If you’re afraid they’re going to be disappointed in you or in themselves if you don’t have an orgasm, yes, it’s appealing in the short term. But thinking about the long term? NOW is the time to have them learn Lesson One–orgasms are a bonus, not the be-all and end-all.
4. Your orgasm is not your partner’s responsibility. Don’t expect your partner to know what will get you off, and don’t expect to know the same thing about them. Communicate! Communicate! Also, don’t be afraid to use your own hand sometimes. Women who have a hard time getting off from penetration alone should realize that there are options.
My favorite and most simple penis-vagina-sex-enhancing trick is to press down on my clit with my hand, and then take two fingers and use them to stroke the base of my partner’s cock. So you’ve got two fingers pressing on either side of his cock, and the part where those two fingers join pressing on your clit. This works for multiple positions with a little jiggery. You get clit stimulation, he gets extra cock stimulation, and it can be really hot to be able to feel the thrusting action with your hand.
5. But if there’s something simple your partner can do to get you there, let them know. And if you’re the partner hearing this simple thing, as long as you aren’t actively uncomfortable (and there’s a difference between “feeling weird” and being actively uncomfortable), go ahead and do it! Being open to new sexual practices is the key to being a good lover.
You know what I keep stressing here? Communication. You know why? Because it is the only tool we really have for improving our sex lives.
This is harder said than done, but please trust me on this one: we’ve all got some awkward spaces around sex, some things we want to talk about but don’t, and so it’s likely that your partner will be grateful you’ve opened up a conversation, not judgmental about whatever it is you’re saying.
I promise. Really. I promise. Admittedly I always have a hard time making statements like “people are just good” because I have so much proof that they’re not, but “your partner will be grateful that you’ve said ‘I want X, what do you want?’ and will not hate you forever because of it” is still just about the truest thing I know.
So take care of yourself over break, OK, kids? Here’s a self-care activity we can all enjoy:
Set aside twice as long as you usually do for a masturbation session (it’s break, you have time–if you don’t regularly masturbate, well, pick an arbitrary amount of time) and spend the first half touching yourself in ways you think of as non-sexual. Stroke the inside of your knee. Feel the curves of your ear. Rub your head, and your feet. After the first half go to whatever your regularly scheduled plan is (or just rub your feet all day because it feels that good) and see how it feels different. Does loving the curves of your ear have a positive effect on your self-loving?
The results may be pleasantly surprising.