Swat Ed is the Phoenix’s biweekly sex education Q & A. We accept all questions and they are kept completely anonymous. If you’re looking for medical advice or a diagnosis for that weird thing on your genitals, get in touch with a medical professional! For everything else, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s subject matter is a deep dive into heterosexual female pleasure.
I read the column that talked about a couple where the girl was faking her orgasms. I feel like that might be a problem in my relationship. My girlfriend keeps saying she really likes sex, but it doesn’t feel like she’s that into it and she just doesn’t seem especially satisfied. I’ve heard her joke with her friends about how “guys don’t know what to do” and even though she tells me that she’s not talking about me, it kind of feels like she is. I don’t know what to do about this and it’s harder for me to enjoy sex because I’m worrying about whether she’s really enjoying it or not. Then she’s started picking up on my feelings because she’s asking me what’s wrong all the time during sex. I think she feels bad because she thinks I’m not having a good time. I’ve tried to talk to her about it but she gets really defensive and thinks I’m just calling her a liar. Help!!
-Burglarized Squirrel (Potentially Nutless)
This is a tough situation and I really respect your efforts to work through it with your partner. This is a problem that a lot of heterosexual couples experience because of our culture, but the good thing about it is that you’ve recognized it’s a problem and you’re trying to fix it. That’s the sign of a good partner.
I’ve heard from a lot of folks in similar situations, so I think it’s worthwhile to really break down this problem and try to go into the minutiae. We’re going to start on a wider, more cultural scale so we can understand how these problems begin. This response will be focused more specifically on the experiences of heterosexual couples, but since (of course) our sexual culture affects everyone, it affects people in every kind of relationship.
The basic problem here is that there is a gap between men and women’s perceptions of good sex. Men tend to categorize their experiences as “good” based on their pleasure, whereas women tend to categorize their experiences based on their partner’s pleasure (McClelland 2010). This is a pattern that holds steady across sexual orientations, which might explain why the orgasm gap is so much smaller in lesbian relationships. Without going too deeply into the patriarchal origins of this pattern of behavior, it essentially stems from the idea that the only opinion that is relevant is a male one. I’m not making this point to make you feel bad or defensive – no one blames you for being born into a culture. It’s just important to isolate the root in order to fix it.
So we’ve established that this problem begins as the belief that male pleasure is what makes sex good. The problem manifests when women, during sexual activity, are not thinking about themselves at all. They are rating the entire experience on the opinions of their partner. Sometimes they feel as though there are active societal consequences outside the relationship (for example, if a guy doesn’t enjoy a hookup, he might tell his friends and people will think the woman is bad in bed). Or they might just be concerned about what their partner thinks of them. This creates a phenomenon known as spectatoring. It means that instead of being inside their own bodies, enjoying the physical sensations, they are looking at themselves from a third person perspective and judging what their partner must be feeling. That can mean twisting oneself into uncomfortable, porny positions or being preoccupied with sucking in your stomach or anything else that isn’t motivated by pleasure.
When we look at it from this framework, it makes absolute sense that there is such a pleasure/orgasm gap between men and women. Our culture sets up men for success — both they and their partners are extremely vested in their pleasure, and mainstream portrayals of sex (mainly porn, but also television and movies) primarily display techniques and sex acts designed for men. Conversely, since women are taught to maximize male pleasure, their own experience is left by the wayside. I think it’s fair to say that our culture denigrates men who don’t make their partners orgasm, but ironically that particular realization did not lead to an influx of orgasms, just a lot of faked ones so that men could feel as though they were the ultimate lover.
Let’s take all of this and apply it specifically to your situation. Your girlfriend says that she really likes sex, but in actual practice she doesn’t seem to be that into it. So she feels societal pressure to be a woman who likes sex, because that’s what men want. When you began having sex, she was extremely focused on your perception that she was sexy and good at it — so everything she did was you-centric. Because of the media she’s seen, she knows what she can do to make you feel good, and because of the media you’ve seen, you probably don’t. She didn’t want to tell you that, because she didn’t want you to feel like you were a bad lover. So, to spare your feelings, she spectatored and performed what she thought you wanted to see. For a while, your satisfaction was enough to make her happy with your sex life. Now, however, because she is consistently doing a lot of work to make you happy and not getting any satisfaction, she is increasingly apathetic. At this point, she probably feels too deep in pretending to admit that she’s been lying. Part of this is the fact that sex culture and porn portray women orgasming from male pleasure-centric activities (penetration, and bizarrely, fellatio). Women who cannot orgasm from solely penetration (about 70 percent of women, incidentally) can feel defective as a result. It’s important to always remember porn is not a depiction of real sex, any more than James Bond is a depiction of real government intelligence work. It’s a male-oriented fantasy with actors, not actual partners.
I’m going to reiterate that this is not a blame game and it is not your fault. Again, people cannot help the culture they’re born into and because we lack resources like good sex education, people end up having to rely on porn and the media to inform their sexual behavior. You are making a serious effort to work on your relationship, and you should absolutely be proud of that, because this is completely fixable, and here’s how we’re going to do it.
Let’s start by throwing away the standard sex playbook you learned from porn. There’s a lot of problems with it, but the big one is that it’s penetration-centric. All other activities are relegated to “foreplay,” and female-centric activities like cunnilingus are frequently treated as just a mechanical switch used to create lubrication for intercourse. Penetration is one of many parts of sex, not the defining feature or the ultimate source of pleasure. Think about which acts you’re going to focus on that prioritizes your partner’s pleasure.
The quickest and most straightforward way to figure out what stimulation your partner needs to orgasm is to ask them how they masturbate — after all, women alone aren’t spectatoring or thinking about aesthetics: they are entirely focused on sensation. If you are struggling to communicate with them or feel completely uncomfortable asking that question, it’s impossible for me or any other educator to tell you what exact physical technique can work with your partner, because everyone is different. However, we can lay out some general principles that should steer you in the right direction.
- Think clitorally. Throw away the penetration-centric mindset and focus on external clitoral stimulation, which is how the majority of women masturbate. This can be oral or with fingers, but keep in mind:
- Not too much. Porn emphasizes vigorous, at times aggressive movements and stimulation — slapping, biting, or rubbing like they’re trying to start a fire. Some people might like that, but you should never, ever start out roughly, only gently. Your partner can always tell you they want more, but starting out too hard can be painful and upsetting.
- Be enthusiastic. Your girlfriend might perceive this as you doing something out of obligation. It’s important that you emphasize that you enjoy when she enjoys things.
- Communicate about what’s holding you back and think about logical ways to fix it. If you think she’s spectatoring, you can try turning out the lights so she doesn’t have to think about what she looks like. If you can’t quite figure out what’s she’s asking for during intercourse, get in a position that lets her control the pace. The same goes for clitoral stimulation — she can guide your fingers or provide the movement herself against your hand.
Focus on pleasure, not an end goal. If you tell her “I’m not resting until you have an orgasm,” she might just end up faking to make you happy. Focus on what makes her feel good (ask for feedback, communicate during!) and a relaxed, pressure-free environment will be much more conducive to an orgasm.