I’d like to talk to you about orgasm since many of the questions I’m asked about female sexuality have to do with the big O. While men are often worried about performance and about pleasing their partners, women seem more worried about whether what they feel and how they experience desire and pleasure is OK – whether it’s “right” or “good enough.” They worry whether they’re too much or not enough for their partners, or whether letting go is emotionally safe for them. And, while men expect to climax every time they have a sexual encounter, women generally don’t have that expectation. Some women feel guilty about asking for the kind of stimulation they need, or they’re uncomfortable doing what feels good for themselves. With that in mind, I want to focus on the meaning of orgasm, and how the meanings affect women’s ability to have orgasms at all or with a partner – and then give you some tips to help you do both.
The fact that we do refer to sexual climax as the “big O” says volumes about the meaning, not just its pleasure quotient. Orgasm has unique personal significance for each of us. For some, it serves as a kind of punctuation mark in lovemaking. Sometimes it’s a question mark. Sometimes it’s a comma. Sometimes it’s a … statement. And sometimes, it’s an exclamation point. Each woman’s relationship to her orgasm is different, and it changes over time. It changes day to day, week to week, year to year throughout the cycles of her life, and certainly in various relationships. For some women orgasm demands commitment and security. For others, it’s more easily induced in the opposite situations. But, for all that orgasm signifies individually, it has equally profound cultural significance. You can tell a lot about a culture by looking at how women’s orgasms are regarded. In 19th century America, for example, women were taught to lie perfectly still and not make a sound while they did their wifely duty. The kind of woman who screamed with pleasure was not the kind who was welcomed in polite society. Not only were women unable to vote during that era, but their bodies were silenced, too. Fast forward to the 1970’s when the second wave of feminism was changing the political landscape in America. Suddenly women were examining their vulvas, opening up their vaginas with speculums to see their cervixes, and claiming their right to sexual pleasure in masturbation workshops led by sex pioneers such as Betty Dodson. Equal rights meant equal right to pleasure – and it still does, though we are still wrangling with that concept today.
Culture is an important term in any discussion of sexuality because humans are culturally bound creatures, social animals who bond and cluster together in groups both small and large. Small like a couple or a family, large like a local community, or a professional organization, or promoters of religious or political or artistic ideals. You’re probably a member of a lot of difference groups, each with their own cultural mores and norms. And some may be very different from the others when it comes to their sexual norms. Think about the different cultures reflected in your social circles. In each, what kinds of pleasures are positively valued, and what kinds are either neglected or negatively valued? Think about that for a second, and then ask yourself: what kinds of mixed messages about sexuality and about orgasm itself are already swimming around inside your head? Growing up, your mother may have warned you about the very same things that your friends encouraged you to enjoy and your church outright forbid. You may have taken in one set of attitudes from Sex in the City and another from hip-hop music videos.
The more messages, the more potential for internal conflict. How closely aligned are the most important people in your life when it comes to rules and rights about sex. The more at odds they are, the more you are going to want to consider whether your own comfort with your body, with your sexuality, with your orgasms, is being undermined by the dueling choruses in the nooks and crannies of your mind. I’ll never forget one client telling me that she couldn’t masturbate to orgasm – not because she didn’t want to – but because she kept imagining the spirits of dead relatives looking down at her from the great beyond and wagging their fingers. And when it came to having sex with her husband, she avoided that too. She couldn’t get free of the idea that they were observing her, and she didn’t want to embarrass herself by enjoying it so much that she looked like a slut to them. Interestingly, she was easily multi-orgasmic – so not having sex at all was one of the only ways that she felt she could remain in control of herself. “I know it’s crazy,” she said, “but I can’t help it,” so deeply embedded were the rules about pleasure in the intimate culture of her family.
It was Sigmund Freud who said that whenever a couple has sex there are six people in the room. Now, Freud knew so very little about sex that he said the clitoral orgasm was “neurotic” and “immature,” but he certainly did know something about repression – and he knew that those six people were the couple and both sets of parents. In some people’s lives, the bedroom is overflowing with generation upon generation of family members who keep passing down the same negative messages about sexuality. Things like: don’t feel, don’t be happy, don’t lose control, don’t look foolish, don’t look fat in that position, don’t look ugly when you come. If there was as much baggage around food as there is around sex we would all starve to death. Well, come to think of it, there is plenty of baggage around food too – and one common and deeply embedded taboo causes some people to starve. The message is a simple one, but it packs a huge wallop. The message is DON’T DESIRE. The great cultural taboo for women is simply desiring. Yet, women are supposed to be desirable and not desire. If we’re heterosexual, we’re supposed to want to be pleasing to men and please them sexually. But REALLY pleasing a man would also mean enjoying ourselves fully because men as sex partners want women to be pleased as well. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment, and doing a good job is part of the male cultural mandate. So, we are confronted with a confusing mixed message. What happens when a husband or boyfriend with a genuine wish that his partner have that delicious orgasmic release runs headfirst into the ogres that won’t let her lose control or look silly or ask for too much? Well, sometimes, his enthusiasm is like permission that opens a door, and maybe she’s brave enough to peek over the threshold. And sometimes she won’t. Sometimes she may be too afraid. But she may not tell the truth about that. In the interests of being pleasing, she may fake orgasm. I’ve worked with women who have faked for years. Years! And then one day the longing for the real thing grows so strong, and the yearning for intimacy and truth-telling gets the best of them, and they are forced to ’fess up, and they have to admit the lie they’ve been living. And all the vulnerability, and all they’ve been hiding from, comes crashing down.
Telling the truth makes you vulnerable – to hurt, rejection, loss. And orgasm makes you vulnerable, because orgasm is a high truth. Orgasms raise the shade on your erotic soul, they let another peer into the shadows where you live. Orgasms open the gates that mark our boundaries and let others pass through to see where you stir. And that can be a very scary prospect. It’s one of the reasons that sometimes women who don’t have that gallery of finger-pointing dead relatives to contend with still have trouble letting go in orgasm with a partner. It’s just too, too intimate.
But wait – I’ve been talking about intimacy and orgasms with a partner. And I do want to talk more about that. But, I want to switch gears for a moment, because some of you out there may be listening to this and thinking “but I’ve never had an orgasm at all. I’ve never had one with anyone, of any kind! My boyfriend or my girlfriend as done everything under the moon to make me come and I haven’t. Ever. What’s the matter with me?”
Well, nothing at all is the matter with you. The only mistake you might be making is expecting your partner to figure out or stumble on that perfect blend of caresses in the right spot at the right moment at the right speed with the right firmness in the right order, to give you a sensation that you’ve never had before. And that’s asking a lot. The rhythms of orgasmic build up are so individual that until you discover what makes your own orgasms happen, it’s unlikely someone else is going to do that for you.
The best way to bring about an orgasm is through clitoral stimulation, which you can do for yourself and should, whether or not you have a partner. You can teach yourself what a climax feels like, what kind of touch does the trick, and what it feels like to be on the verge of orgasm, so that later you’ll know when a partner gets you that far. By yourself, you can take all the time you want. You can do it day after day, with no pressure, no partner’s ego, no partner’s hopefulness getting in the way. Besides, if you’re in a relationship with a man and you’ve been trying to orgasm during intercourse, you’ve added a tremendous hurdle. Only about a third of women regularly climax during penetration, and most require clitoral stimulation as well. More often, women don’t orgasm during intercourse at all – they come earlier or afterward with oral or touch or toy. And contrary to what you might think, the best way to have an orgasm is to stop trying. Stop trying to get one, to make it happen, to reach for it. When you put pressure on yourself to come, you create anxiety and distraction that halts the sexual response cycle in its tracks, and stops the erotic tension that primes your body for a climax. If you just focus on discovering what gives you pleasure, not on the outcome, you’ll eventually surprise yourself.
Here’s how you can do that. The key is to spend a lot of time caressing yourself slowly, melodiously, striving only to feel the tickly tension and the insistent tightness through your vulva, vagina, thighs, everywhere. Try massaging the glans of your clitoris with and without lubricant to see which feels better to you. Try touching near it, but not directly on it. Pay attention to points around the clitoris, and just off of it, and near your vulva, your labia, the vaginal opening, the area around your urethra. And don’t forget your breasts and belly, too. Try using a vibrator as well. If it feels too intense, put the bedsheet between your body and the toy. Breathing can also be a turn-on! Blood flows better when you’re letting some air in and out, so you’ll feel more intense pleasure if you relax and keep the air flowing. Meanwhile, fantasize about the yummiest or the nastiest sex you’ve ever had or imagined having. If you have an internal censor that keeps your fantasies, especially your “bad girl” fantasies at bay, give her the boot, because she will censor your orgasms, too.
Once you know how to give yourself orgasms and peaks of pleasure, you can bring that expertise into your relationship and continue exploring new sensations with your lover – everything from fantasy role play to g-spot adventures. But, if you have trouble bridging the gap from coming by yourself to coming with a partner, you can work with the ideas I’m going to describe next. Some women are pure divas when it comes to orgasms for themselves. They can have them every which way, they can have them in multiples. But the minute a partner enters the picture, forget it. Maybe you’ve tried introducing your self-pleasuring methods, maybe you’ve tried gently moving someone’s hand with your own, you’ve tried dozens of different intercourse positions and nothing happens. You want to share an orgasm – you’d be happy if your partner was just in the same room when it happened! But you haven’t been successful. So, what can you do now?
Here are my top tips for transitioning to sharing orgasms with your sweetie – one way or the other. First, consider that trouble sharing your orgasm with a partner may be telling you something important about where you are in that relationship – or in any relationship, for that matter. How ready are you to trust, how ready are you to be vulnerable? If you’re not willing to surrender, ask yourself why not? What does it mean to allow another to be privy to your most intimate moment of release? Consider stopping the effort to push past a limit you’re not really ready to cross, and respect why it’s there – respect the need to wait. Pressure, as I’ve said, is always counterproductive.
Second idea – think about whether your partner once said something or did something that left you feeling anxious about your orgasm – maybe compared you to another woman, maybe showed some impatience with the time it was taking, and those words or attitudes are now in your way. If that’s the case, talk about the issue. You need to work that out together before you’re likely to let go.
Third – are you sidetracked by distractions? Your kids, to do lists, work – these are all common distractions, but sometimes distractions can be more sensory. Some women have trouble focusing on their erotic sensations if the music playing in the background, and the lyrics in the music are drawing attention away from their body, or if the TV is on, or if the room is too hot or the room is too cold, or if their partner is talking when they need him to be silent, or quiet when they need her to talk.
Next – be sure you are smokin’ hot before you strike out in search of the big O. If you’re not at a high level of arousal, then trying to come is more of an exercise for its own sake than a natural extension of your sexual response cycle. Think about what you need to get high on excitement. Let THAT be your goal, not the orgasm itself. You may have to take a different kind of risk to make that happen, though – only daring to share your needs and fantasies is going to get you there. Also, notice if the fantasies that push you over the edge when you orgasm on your own are dramatically different from what your sex life actually looks like. If you’re fantasizing about sweet, tender lovemaking, and you’re getting raunchy, sweaty, athletic sex – or vice versa – you may need to talk with your partner, and find out if you can bridge the gap between what you imagined and what you’re doing, so that they are better aligned.
Masturbating with your partner while he or she holds and caresses you is actually often the easiest way to break through your reserve and get used to sharing your orgasm. But some women have a problem with the idea of being watched while coming. An interim solution is to add a blindfold to your lovemaking. Put one on your partner, and let him or her remain close to you tactilely, but not visually, until you’re more at ease. Once you’ve been able to come with your partner beside you, try alternating stimulation between the two of you. Pleasure yourself for a little while, then let your partner have a go, then you do it again – back and forth, like a game of erotic musical chairs. Who is going to be in charge of the action this time when the music reaches a crescendo? Make another game of getting close to orgasm and then backing off instead of trying to push through and over the edge. Getting to the edge and pulling back on stimulation two, three, even four times is a great technique for anybody who wants to intensify their orgasms, or it can help provoke one that is just out of reach.