Before I post my article about orgasms, happy Halloween:

I discovered this tiny sculpture (easily fits in my hand) at a friend’s party this weekend. Apparently it is known as a “Halloween labbit”; it was created by Frank Kozik and produced by the designer toy company Kidrobot. This discovery might just be the highlight of my entire life. Seriously. Study questions include, “What would you do if that were a real animal that ran into the room where you’re sitting right now?”

… Aaand on that note, let’s move on to “A Unified Theory of Orgasm”. This article was originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests.

* * *

I CAN’T COME.
and it’s poisoned
every romance
I’ve ever had.

masturbating doesn’t work. I don’t know why. I tried therapy too, but my smart, understanding, sex-positive, open-hearted doctor couldn’t help. drugs while fucking? check. I date attentive men who only want to make me happy, but no matter how fantastic they make me feel, I can’t get off. and believe me, I like sex. I love sex! how can it feel so good and not end in an orgasm? I tried experimenting, and I sure do love the kink. it feels great. but doesn’t get me off. I’ve tried everything. everything.

now I have the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. but just like every other one, he can’t get me off. big dick? oral sex? tons of foreplay? kink? it’s all there. nothing works. I used to lie to my boyfriends and say it was ok that I couldn’t get off. then at least they could enjoy sex without feeling guilty. but then they’d stop trying, of course. and this one is still trying … sometimes. I mean, it’s clearly never going to work. so I can’t blame him for not having the same passion for trying as he used to. and I keep thinking I should back off. after all, why put pressure on him to “perform”? he’ll just resent me if I keep asking for more, even if I’m gentle about it and compliment him and all that. since nothing he does works. it will never work.

and I try so hard not to get frustrated, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that I am fucked up, I must be broken. I mean, any normal woman would have come by now. so what do I do? I don’t know what I need. do I back off and focus on him? that’s what I end up doing, because I can’t face asking for a little more attention in bed anymore. what’s the point? he’ll just resent me when it doesn’t work again. so I back off. and I can’t help resenting him, just a little, for not noticing how much I’m hurting. and not trying, even if I am broken, and I will never ever come.

* * *

Contents:

I. Vaginal Pain
II. S&M
III. Frigid
IV. The Fight
V. Men’s Perspective
VI. S&M, Redux
VII. Figuring It Out
VIII. Study Questions

* * *

I. Vaginal Pain

When I wrote the above, I was actually pretty close to figuring out how to have an orgasm. But I didn’t know that. I’d dealt with the anxiety of being unable to come for so long — and I’d also recently begun to understand that my sexuality is oriented towards S&M — and so anguish just flooded out of me, into those words. I craved S&M, but acknowledging the craving made me feel like a “pervert”, a “freak”. It contributed to my already-overwhelming fear that I was “broken” because I couldn’t figure out how to come.

There’s one thing I didn’t mention when I poured out all that fear and shame: I experience rare vaginal pain — not every time I have sex, not even most times, but occasionally. Medical science has traditionally failed to care about how women experience our sexuality, so very little research has been done on the subject. As a result, it’s impossible to say why I get that pain. Is it some kind of physical problem? That seems likely, because my psychological comfort level with a sexual encounter doesn’t seem to correlate with whether the pain happens or not. But because female sexuality is often stereotyped as too mysterious and emotional to be worth rigorous medical investigation, I doubt I’ll ever know for sure.

For a while I was sure I was allergic to semen, because I read a magazine feature by a woman who said she was. Aha, I thought. I stopped taking hormonal birth control pills. I made my trusted monogamous boyfriends use condoms. The pain became less common. Yet throughout that time — continuing through today — I still get the pain occasionally, very occasionally. Sometimes I even feel the pain during encounters that lack vaginal penetration, so it’s clearly not about having a penis in me.

I can push through the pain; I can even have an orgasm, a reflex that feels good yet is surrounded by not-good; but I can’t get rid of the pain entirely. Whenever I think I’ll never feel it again, it sneaks into some sexual encounter.

The semen allergy theory has been ruled out, since I get the pain without semen contact. That doesn’t mean that hormonal birth control didn’t have an effect, though — the pain was definitely worse while I was taking it. The Pill intersects with sexuality in ways we still don’t understand; one common side effect is that it reduces sex drive. Perhaps the Pill affected my sexuality in some physical-medical way, worsening the pain problem.

The long and the short of it is that I experience some vaginal pain; the pain is confusing and hard to predict, and there aren’t any good medical resources on the matter. Maybe the pain points to something unusual about my constitution. Maybe there’s a reason it’s harder for me to have orgasms than the “average” woman.

But the vaginal pain itself is not overwhelming, on the rare occasions that it crops up. And the vaginal pain is not even close to the most central issue of my sexuality — or the biggest influence on my orgasmic ability.

* * *

II. S&M

I identify my sexuality as BDSM — a.k.a. kink, leather, fetish, S&M, or B&D. BDSM is a 6-for-4 acronym that encompasses a host of related activities, including bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism. And yeah, I’m really into it: my desires are heavy and overwhelming; I dream of agony, of terrified screams for mercy. I’ve gone so far as to describe BDSM as my sexual orientation.

Before someone goes leaping to conclusions, there is a definite difference between “good pain” and “bad pain”. The occasional pain I feel within my vagina is not good pain; it’s not even interesting. It’s just annoying. It’s not sexy or enjoyable at all.

Some of us in the BDSM community have felt lifelong tendencies towards BDSM. We have conversations ending with thrilled exclamations: “You mean, you tied up your Barbie dolls as a child too?!” But BDSM is widely misunderstood and negatively stereotyped, and thus, many of us also went through periods of rejection. We’ve internalized so much anti-BDSM stigma from society that, at times, we freak out. We deny or erase our BDSM desires.

That’s what happened to me when I was in middle school. As my sexuality made itself more and more evident, my anxiety peaked. I’d been producing secret sadomasochistic art and stories without labeling what I was doing, but I stopped. I blockaded my thoughts of violent power-play. I closed it all away as thoroughly as I could.

I still felt sexual desire — I mean, I was entering my teens, so of course I did. Sometimes I felt so much desire, like in the middle of some inconvenient class, that I’d have to rest my burning forehead on the cold desk. I would close my eyes, and breathe deeply, and wait for the erotic shiver to pass. At home, I’d lie around my twin bed and dream about kisses; imagine men’s hair and skin and touch.

Yet it was hard for me to trace my desire, to take control of it. I thought I had no problem with the idea of masturbation, but when I touched my own lady bits, I went cold. Vibrators did nothing but bore me.

I had excellent sex education, thank goodness. I went through a Unitarian Universalist sex education program that talked carefully about different experiences, that made space for gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer folks. I didn’t only learn about sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy and condom usage; I was also encouraged to explore my sexuality, to value it. But this marvelous curriculum did not include BDSM and other non-standard sexual identities. Nor did it include much advice on how to negotiate sexual encounters with my partners. So, although I internalized many positive and feminist messages about sex, my own sexuality remained invisible, bewildering and hard to talk about.

When I started having sex around my mid-teens, I liked it — I liked it a lot — but it seemed weirdly lacking. I’d never figured out how to masturbate, so I couldn’t show my partners how to pleasure me. And although I occasionally suspected that I wanted something like S&M, I didn’t understand how far I wanted to go.

A couple of teenage boyfriends tied me up … but then they acted solicitous and went down on me, which didn’t send me over the moon (though it was fun). From this, I concluded that S&M was boring, but the truth is, I hadn’t come close to the extremes that form my preferences. It was years later that I released my need for agony, tears, bruises and blood.

* * *

III. Frigid

As I got older and had more sex, my apparent inability to orgasm became the most toxic secret I had. Most of my closest friends didn’t know. For a while I thought I must be “frigid”, and ripped myself apart over the idea that I was a “frigid bitch”, even though that made no sense. It was ridiculous to conceptualize myself that way — my sexual desire was undeniable, unavoidable. But I had no other words, no other images or stereotypes, that described a pre-orgasmic woman.

When I did tell my friends, it almost never went well. The best-case scenario was a conversation with anecdotal fragments: “I knew a girl,” one friend advised, “who couldn’t have orgasms. Then one day she was tripping, and having sex, and she fell asleep, and when she woke up she was having an orgasm.”

I also found a book on my father’s top shelf, written by a guy who said he could give “any” girl a squirting orgasm. The author claimed that the key was for the woman to be comfortable. He also claimed that the woman had to not know what he was trying to do. In fact, the book explicitly recommended that men prevent their girlfriends from reading it.

Needless to say, it was hard to extrapolate a Unified Orgasm Theory from these tales. The only things that seemed clear were that I somehow needed to both “let go” and to “keep trying”. But how?

Every once in a while I made the mistake of telling someone who was convinced they knew the answer — which was: sleep with them. When I got drunk with one sexually experienced male friend and asked for advice, he insisted that if I’d just fuck him I’d be sure to come. “Anytime you want,” he slurred, “I’ll give you an orgasm. Guaranteed!” The fact that I was not attracted to him was, in his view, unimportant.

Worse was my lesbian female friend who declared that I had “issues”. She said that I ought to sleep with a woman. Ultimately, she turned out to be right that the problem was one of sexual identity, but she was wrong that I was a repressed bisexual. Her campaign to get me to sleep with her ended in a threesome with a guy I had a crush on. I liked bits of that evening, but most of it was boring — if not distasteful. When I tried to talk to my friend honestly about it later, she insisted that I loved the whole experience. She said that I was merely feeling morning-after guilt. “You were totally into it,” she informed me. She was clearly smug with victory, but angry that I resisted her version of events. I felt resentful for years.

I didn’t even tell my partners about my orgasm difficulties until I’d known them for a while, because my secret felt like such Restricted Information: I couldn’t give it to anyone I didn’t trust. I couldn’t abide the idea of “everyone knowing” how broken I felt. I couldn’t stand the combination of pity and fascination that my problem evoked in the few who knew.

When I did get around to telling my partners, that was most complicated of all. I was quite unpopular in high school, and so I was something of a late bloomer — boyfriend-free until my late teens. It took years before I had any confidence in my boyfriend interactions. And because I had no idea how to come and no idea where to start and little idea of how to communicate about sex, I could not give guidance about what I wanted.

I also felt paranoid that lovers would resent me if they felt I was demanding something too “difficult” during the sexual “exchange”, so I downplayed my feelings. I told awful lies like “it’s not a big deal that I can’t come” — lies that broke my heart as I spoke them, but felt safer than the truth.

I did manage to have one orgasm in my teens — one. I’m still not sure how it happened. It occurred one evening when I was incredibly tired, but went out with friends to get a fudge brownie sundae anyway. When I got back, my boyfriend came over and wanted to have sex, and I let it happen — despite being tired and uninterested and full of sundae — because I had not yet internalized the notion that my boyfriends wouldn’t hate me if I denied them sex. I was barely present during the act, but I jolted into awareness when I realized I was having an orgasm. Afterwards, exhaustion overwhelmed me and I fell straight into sleep — so deep that my boyfriend was unable to wake me.

This was puzzling and hard to analyze. What aspects of my singular orgasm should go into my Unified Theory … and which aspects were irrelevant?

The chocolate? Well, chocolate is arguably a mild drug, and drugs help some people come. Also, there were studies that found mild aphrodisiac qualities to chocolate. So maybe.

The position? The position had felt really good but was somewhat awkward, and I felt weird asking my boyfriend to reproduce it, so I didn’t let myself think about the position. (I’m much better at communicating with my partners now.)

What about the exhaustion? It made sense that being very tired might help me “let go”. But I hadn’t been very turned on or enjoyed the rest of the encounter, mostly because I was so exhausted; and I didn’t want to deliberately force myself to have sex while tired. So while the exhaustion might have been a factor, I filed it under “less-than-useful” as well.

I didn’t worry about the problem too much for a while, because I figured that now that I’d had one orgasm, surely it would become easy. I didn’t tell my boyfriend it had happened, either, because I didn’t know how to describe exactly how. I thought I’d figure it out as we went along, and then I would tell him exactly what it took.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. Months and years passed without replicating the incident. Anxiety began seeping back. My Unified Orgasm Theory was not doing well.

My fear of being perceived as “demanding” during sex and relationships was at a ridiculous extreme back then. For example, I’d heard over and over that boys don’t like girls who are “high-maintenance”, so I told my boyfriends that I never wanted them to buy me flowers. I thought that men would feel relieved that they didn’t “have to cater to me”, but they were just puzzled. (One responded by buying me fake flowers.)

Because of the awful shaming stereotypes around cunnilingus, I sometimes refused that too. I couldn’t believe that the boyfriends who were willing to go down on me were actually enthusiastic about it, enjoying it — and when my anxiety became too painful, I inevitably stopped them. I always stopped them long before I stopped enjoying the act, because I was so scared that they hated it, and hated me for wanting it. I was scared that they resented me more and more, the longer they did it and I didn’t come. My fear crept up my spine and twisted around my heart until I had to make them stop.

Sometimes I felt trapped between love and disgust, like with the boyfriend who constantly complimented me on how great in bed I was, but who seemed unaware of how much I felt missing. The worst was when he went off on a rhapsodic list of my wonderful qualities ending with: “… and I don’t even have to worry about giving you an orgasm!” He didn’t see the bind he was putting me in, the awful self-suppression and self-wounding that he encouraged. He seemed unaware that I heard him telling me: “You’re great in bed because you are constantly disappearing your own needs, and never asking anything complicated of me!”

In fairness, I wasn’t giving him any guidance on how to do better with me. In fairness, I had no idea what kind of guidance to give.

They had their own social programming, and I didn’t communicate well. But sometimes I still have trouble forgiving my early boyfriends.

* * *

IV. The Fight

Not all my boyfriends were willing to do as little as going down on me. One, in particular, resisted very strongly; never did it at all. This was an especial problem because he was one of the men I’ve loved most in my life, and our relationship lasted for years. I think well of him when I think of anything other than sex. But when I remember having sex with him, I feel echoes of sick panic and heartbreak.

By the end, every time I slept with him I felt nothing but disgust.

He seemed to prove all my fears: that the men in my life would loathe and resent me if I tried to discuss my confusion and desperation; that they would loathe and resent me if I asked for help with my sexual needs. Towards the beginning of our relationship, I tried asking him (very timidly) to go down on me, and he simply refused. In later conversations he insisted that cunnilingus was “too degrading”, an assertion he made with a weird lack of irony, given that I was going down on him regularly.

As the years passed, my frustration deepened and I started thinking about experimenting more sexually, but I was terrified of mentioning it. I didn’t know what I wanted to experiment with — I really believed that I’d “already tried” BDSM, and that I didn’t like it — but his initial rejection of mere cunnilingus didn’t make me feel confident.

Finally, I got to the point of directly asking for sexual experimentation, and we had the worst fight ever.

I recall that our relationship was somewhat rocky already. One of my journal entries from that time contains the sentence, “I can’t seem to not make him angry when I’m trying to discuss our relationship.” For this particular fight, we were sitting in his room reading when I scraped together my courage and asked for his help in figuring out my sexuality. “Well, what do you want me to do?” he demanded.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but I think there must be some way to find out — I don’t know, there have to be books?”

“That’s ridiculous,” he snapped. “I love you, but I’m not going to read books in order to figure out how to have sex with you.”

It got worse from there. I was crying within the first few sentences. At one point, he outright shouted at me “I don’t care about your satisfaction,” at which point I said, “You can’t mean that,” and he repeated it. Eventually, I simply turned around and walked out of his room. I had nowhere to go; it was a long train ride to visit him, and the trains had stopped running that day. It was mid-winter, and freezing cold. Crying, I put on my coat and shoes and exited the house, onto his suburban street.

I walked completely at random. I was hardly able to see. Fortunately, because it was so cold, no one else was out and about. I muffled my sobs by bowing my head into my collar. After fifteen minutes, I discovered my cell phone in my pocket and tried to call my best friend, but she didn’t answer. I was still walking around crying an hour later, when she returned the call.

She calmed me down and got the story out of me. It was the first she’d heard about my inability to orgasm, and she didn’t know how to advise me because she didn’t have the same problem. Also, it was obvious to both of us that trying to communicate with my boyfriend wasn’t working. It was obvious that there might be no way to successfully communicate with him on this topic at all.

Eventually, after she’d managed to quiet me into a trembling jellylike mass, my friend said gently, “Okay, hon, you need to hang up and go back inside.” She was right. So I did.

When I stepped back into my boyfriend’s room, he was still reading. I could sense from the texture of our silence that he felt bad, though. I was exhausted, I felt like a stiff breeze would blow me apart, but I told myself that I had to set a line. I was sure my voice would waver as I made myself say: “If you’re going to tell me that you don’t care about my sexual satisfaction, then I can’t do this anymore ….”

“I never said that,” he said softly.

I closed my eyes. He would do this sometimes, insist that he hadn’t said words I was sure I’d heard, and it always made me feel like I had gone insane. I knew he’d said it. I’d even responded with, “You can’t mean that,” and then he’d repeated it. But I felt so tired. It had been hard enough to start the conversation. Hard enough to walk around the streets crying for hours.

Maybe I really did misunderstand him somehow; I’ve been over those moments in my head a million times, and I don’t know anymore. Maybe I misunderstood. Or maybe he was falling into a classic pattern of emotional abusers. Maybe he insisted that I was hallucinating in order to confuse me out of protesting: abusers do these things because they work.

What I do know for sure is that when he halted the conversation with a flat denial, I couldn’t bring myself to even try to talk about it again. Couldn’t bring myself to resume the conversation. But I also couldn’t bring myself to break up with someone I loved so much. We talked about other things instead.

And, of course, nothing about our sex life changed at all.

When my best friend called me the next day to check in, I said, “Well, he says that he didn’t say what I thought he did.”

Her silence echoed with disbelief.

“Maybe I just … didn’t understand what he actually meant,” I said, but my words sounded weak even to my own ears.

“Maybe,” she said doubtfully, but she didn’t press the issue.

Even after that fight, I continued dating that man for a long time. I look back now and I can’t imagine how I did it.

* * *

V. Men’s Perspective

The gendered societal pressures that affect men are worth discussing, and worth analyzing, and I often do just that. There is undeniable pressure on men to “perform” sexually, for example. I try to have sympathy for men who feel this pressure — but it is difficult sometimes, because its major effect on my life has been to silence me. To make me feel as though I couldn’t ask for anything sexually. As though I couldn’t express my needs without hurting my boyfriend’s feelings or making him angry.

And even now, when I talk about this stuff, I am as vague as I possibly can be about the exact timeline. The last thing I want is for people who know me to read this and know exactly when I started having orgasms. I don’t want anyone to know exactly which partners “couldn’t perform”. Because I know those men might feel it as a social punishment, and as much as I hate the dynamics at work, I can’t hate the men who were part of them. They had their own social anxieties and their own blind spots and if I didn’t understand what was wrong, how could they?

I recently had dinner with a former partner. At one point we found ourselves having a very explicit conversation, and I mentioned that I’ve figured out how to come. He looked sad and apologized: “I’m sorry I was never able to get you there.” I had no idea what to say. [1]

* * *

VI. S&M, Redux

I finally came into my BDSM identity around age 20. At first, when I was faced with the fact that I wanted to be hurt until I cried and begged for mercy, I freaked out. I had no idea what to do about BDSM, no idea how to feel about it. The only thing I knew for sure was that I’d found something I really needed. But what did that mean for me, when I was also trying hard to be an independent, rational feminist with self-esteem and integrity?

It took me years to parse out my thoughts on feminism and BDSM, to feel comfortable with BDSM, and to talk openly and comfortably about it. During that process, I got better and better at finding partners who were interested in my sexual desires and willing to experiment. I also got to the point of reading sexuality advice books on my own, including books specifically on BDSM (I recommend The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy; here are some other resources).

And I gritted my teeth, forced down my anxiety, and looked into books about the female orgasm.

One book that came highly recommended from Amazon.com was Lonnie Barbach’s For Yourself. By the time I was halfway through the first chapter, I was crying because what she wrote felt so true. At the end of the first chapter, I put it down and was never able to pick it up again. Barbach wrote compassionately about experiences very similar to mine — for instance: [Are you afraid to talk to your partner about your problem] because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated?

But she also ended the first chapter this way: You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.

It was the same “let go” and “keep trying” advice I’d been coming across for years, except that now it was wrapped up in a nice package of assumptions about me: implications that I wasn’t assuming responsibility or being assertive. I felt like she was telling me that I chose to depend on a man to take care of me.

Maybe it would have been okay if the rest of the chapter hadn’t been so miserably true, but the combination of reading a bunch of truth about how I was feeling — then being told that I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I was choosing to avoid responsibility …. It was toxic.

I also had the bright idea of asking my gynecologist. The doctor rolled her eyes as I spoke, then told me that the problem was obviously my partners. When I insisted that I needed more guidance, she referred me to a center that gave orgasmic dysfunction “evaluations” at $1,500.00 a pop. I was earning $7.50 per hour at the time. I didn’t go.

I got up my nerve and talked to my mother, who had been extremely helpful and caring when I came out to her about BDSM. During the BDSM conversation, I’d been scared — then I felt immense relief as Mom told me that there was nothing wrong with me, and reassured me that I wasn’t “giving up my liberation”. When it came to orgasms, though, she seemed unsure of what to say. She did at least tell me that she, too, couldn’t come easily, which made me feel a little better.

Most helpful was the therapist I found on the Kink Aware Professionals list — a list of doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who believe they understand alternative sexualities such as BDSM. I tried one therapist who didn’t seem to get it, but the second therapist I saw was wonderful. He helped me through an enormous amount of my BDSM anxiety. The orgasm problem was thornier, but he didn’t make any assumptions, and he did listen carefully, which was more than most people did.

My therapist gently encouraged me to get a second opinion about my how my body worked, from a new gynecologist. Irrationally, I didn’t. I suppose I still felt crushed by how the first gynecologist had reacted. I also hoped I’d learn to come as I explored BDSM more — which turned out to be true.

* * *

VII. Figuring It Out

In retrospect, I recognize that I went through a brief period where I had orgasms sometimes — weak ones. But the orgasms were hard to hang on to because they happened during sex with my boyfriend. This would be the same boyfriend I described at the beginning of this piece, when I wrote: now I have the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. but just like every other one, he can’t get me off. big dick? oral sex? tons of foreplay? kink? it’s all there.

Now I see, in retrospect, that not everything was there: neither of us had questioned our sexual assumptions, our societally-determined sexual scripts. And one of the biggest sexual scripts is that sex ends with the man’s orgasm. That the man’s orgasm is the goal.

It’s very hard to think around these scripts. It’s very hard to even be aware of them. So, since my paramount goal during sex was obviously “satisfying my man”, I often pushed my orgasm away due to my focus on him. I knew that if I came then I’d feel tired and less interested in sex (at least for a while). And obviously, if he were to have his all-important manly orgasm, I couldn’t go falling asleep on him could I? I couldn’t even pause to mentally process my sensations if he seemed to be enjoying himself, now could I? Plus, once he’d come, I certainly couldn’t expect him to stimulate me any more than he already had, because he was tired; he’d just had an orgasm!

(These days, one of my #1 judgments of whether a new partner could be good for me is this: if I didn’t come before he did, then does he take a moment post-orgasm to catch his breath, and then turn to me and smile and offer to do what it takes?)

In the end, figuring it out was almost anticlimactic.

I saw an online video from sex educator Betty Dodson called “Did I Orgasm?” … and I realized that I’d been occasionally having weak orgasms already. I was also experimenting more and more with BDSM; simultaneously, I put more and more power into the hands of my fantasy men; and once I had compelling private fantasies to feed on, I couldn’t help masturbating. Here was the key: initially, I’d felt that masturbating in itself involved having too much control over the situation. And that’s not how my sexuality worked.

Oh yes, in practice I take responsibility for my pleasure; and now I’m pretty good at clearly discussing what kind of role my partners will take ahead of time, describing what they’ll do with me. These days, I sometimes take the dominant role, too. But even now, it’s hard for me to come if I feel like I’m in control.

On some level, even if it’s the most tissue-thin fantasy, I usually have to convince my emotional-sexual self that I’m not in charge. It helps if I have an emotional connection with whoever I’m fantasizing about, too. If I don’t have an emotionally involved romantic partner, I seem to automatically create BDSM-themed fantasy worlds with hilariously ornate storylines. Years ago, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t reach orgasm because my internal characters weren’t compelling or my plotlines weren’t dramatic enough … but sometimes it’s true!

In my case, I believe that BDSM is the key to my sexuality. It is as close to the core of my sexual identity as I can get; close enough that, like some other BDSMers, I occasionally call it my “orientation”. But I don’t think BDSM is like that for everyone, and I don’t even think that’s the whole story with me — because during the whole time, this self-discovery process, I was doing things like eating more regularly, keeping a healthier diet, putting some weight on my previously stick-thin frame, and exercising more. Health plays a big role in any kind of sex, and it’s important to think about. Still, even now I can’t come without some thread of dominance and submission, even if it’s an entirely internal fantasy that I imprint on whatever is happening.

When women ask me for advice on how to have orgasms, I feel helpless because there is no “one true way”. I don’t want to fall back on the old “let go” and “keep trying” that I received — it’s decent advice, but it’s so vague. Perhaps something more useful would be this: first, it really helps to have an idea of what you want. I know this can be hard in a society that soaks us with sexual images designed for stereotypical men, rather than images for women (and especially not for non-normative women like myself). And I feel so aware of how patronizing and useless the “you aren’t in touch with your sexuality, that’s why you can’t come” argument can be. Remember, I had that argument used against me by my lesbian friend. But it was, in fact, kinda true for me — just in a different way: I need BDSM.

If you’re not sure what you want, don’t panic. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and try to monitor your reactions. It may surprise you. If it does, don’t worry — just research it! No matter how unusual your sexuality, there is probably information on the Internet about it. (And even if your sexuality is unusual, odds are it’s not nearly as unusual as you think it is.)

My personal favorite sex education website in the entire world is Scarleteen.com, a grassroots feminist effort with an amazingly comprehensive perspective. Scarleteen has an incredible impact on many, many lives. Sometimes I read it just for fun!

Secondly: it may help not to prioritize orgasms. I am not saying orgasms aren’t important; I just don’t want the importance of orgasms to wound you, the way it wounded me. For me, it is helpful to imagine sex as a journey. For me, it helps to focus on having fun throughout, instead of doing what it takes to reach the “goal” of orgasm. If you’re not taking pleasure in the journey — or at least indulging some curiosity — then why keep going? Why not stop and try something else?

Experimenting sexually in an open-ended way has been, for me, the most productive possible attitude. And in fact, once I knew how to make myself come, I discovered that — though it’s helpful to be able to attain that release if I really want to — orgasms aren’t actually my favorite part of sex! There are lots of other things I like better.

It’s also worth noting that our definitions of “orgasm” are fairly narrow. Some research indicates that there may be other ways to conceptualize orgasms than the stereotypical genital-focused approach.

Thirdly, although it’s possible for a person to explore sexuality on her own, relationships can make or break the process. We all make some compromises for romance. But when we compromise, we should know what we’re compromising, and we should think about whether the compromise is worth it.

For me, sexual exploration and satisfaction are incredibly important — but it took ages to develop the courage to put my foot down about them. After my boyfriend shouted at me that he didn’t care about my sexual satisfaction, it took me an embarrassingly long time to end things with him; I really was in love, and we’d been together for years. But my sexuality wasn’t even close to a priority for him, and breaking up with him was one of the best decisions I ever made.

After ending that relationship, I was able to build my self-confidence and self-esteem with new boyfriends surprisingly fast — and my boyfriends helped me more than they probably know. I owe countless small debts to men who accepted my inability to orgasm, took my anxieties about it into account, and sometimes gently pushed me to try new things.

One particular guy comes to mind: I told him I couldn’t come, but that I wanted to experiment with S&M, so we arranged to buy rope and some painful equipment. During our conversation, he gently drew me out on my history, and then he said, “You know what I think we need to go along with this rope? A vibrator.”

I blinked and said hesitantly, “I don’t know, I’ve never really liked vibrators.” But I was willing to try it again, and that’s when I learned that vibrators are awesome. That’s when I learned that what I really need is to convince myself I’m not in charge — that once the correct fantasy is in place, vibrators make everything easy.

Even today, few things make me happier than a man who grasps the tension I still sometimes feel about “being demanding” or “asking for too much”. I communicate with straightforwardness that amazes most partners, but it’s crucial for them to understand that I still have hesitations. That even I, sometimes, need a moment to articulate what I want — or need to be asked whether there’s anything he can do.

Lastly, and most importantly: don’t let go of your boundaries unless you’re sure you’re ready. If you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to make yourself do it. I’m writing this because when I was growing up, all the sex-positive work I read encouraged exploration at the cost of boundaries, and I think that’s wrong. There were times when that attitude hurt me — for example, I did things I didn’t like because people claimed I hadn’t yet gotten over my sexual “issues”, like my lesbian friend in college. And I know that attitude has hurt other women, too.

I don’t like seeing sex-positive feminism equated with making oneself freely sexually available. Exploring sexuality does not mean you have to ignore your warning bells.

Sexuality is so complicated. Sex cannot be reduced to bodies, or hormones, or psychological stereotypes. Sex cannot be reduced to certainties, to shoulds and shouldn’ts. If I could destroy every force in our lives that drives home ideas of sexual “normality”, I would. Which leads to my final piece of advice: don’t let me tell you what to do. This is just my experience, just my ideas. As with everything, I want you to do whatever feels right for you — as long as it’s among consenting adults.

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VIII. Study Questions!

Here are some things that might be interesting to reflect on:

1) What questions do you have about your orgasm?

1a) Where have you researched the answers to those questions?

1b) Have you ever discussed those questions with your partners?

2) What questions do you have about your partners’ orgasms?

2a) Have you ever asked your partners about their orgasms?

3) What’s one thing you wish you’d said in bed to a partner?

3a) What would have made it easier to say it?

4) What are your favorite sexual acts? Are there other ways you could perform them?

5) What’s the best sexual experience you remember? What made it great?

6) What’s the hottest thing you’ve seen or read? What made it great and are there ways you could participate?

7) Does anything from this article resonate with you? What?

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This is the end of the original article. I wrote a followup some time later called, “Orgasms Aren’t My Favorite Part of Sex, and My Chastity Urge“.

The footnote below goes into tangential issues of manliness.

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Footnote: When this article was first posted, a guy grabbed the first comment on Feministe protesting that I clearly don’t get the men’s side of this equation. I don’t usually get super angry about comments on the internet, but in that case I did, and I had to take a while to calm down.

There was a mild comment fracas. Eventually, in response to that guy, I wrote:

I worked really hard on this article to try and note both:

A) how men’s perspective might make this difficult for them, but simultaneously

B) why men’s insecurities aren’t actually an excuse for men to treat women badly.

In my experience women are actually extremely aware of men’s insecurities. Women frequently silence themselves and put up with a lot of crap because we are afraid of “emasculating” our man, as I specifically noted in the article.

Given that this was an article about:

1) a woman’s experience,

2) and what it’s like to be a woman,

3) and why this issue is difficult to take on as a woman,

4) and why women shouldn’t allow men’s insecurities to shut us up …

… can you see why I would avoid putting a lot of text towards describing men’s insecurities in loving detail?

For more on why I got so angry about it, you can read this set of comments over at Alas, A Blog.

Now. With that having been said ….

One of the guys in the Clarisse Thorn Manliness Brain Trust ™ emailed me with some thoughts in the wake of this article. Once again, I want to emphasize that I don’t want anyone to feel that they “ought to” give a crappy partner “another chance” if that partner is treating them badly. I spent years giving a terrible boyfriend millions of second chances because I kept telling myself that he was just “insecure”. Walking away from that oh-so-“insecure” man was one of the best choices I ever made. Nonetheless, I think that the following comment from my Manliness Brain Trust ™ friend might be useful for some people:

When I first saw this post, my first thought was that I have to pass it on to a couple of the people I’m involved with, who have difficulty reaching orgasm because it’s an awesome, awesome article. My second thought was that it seemed like Clarisse didn’t really grok the guy’s side of this exchange.

Somewhere among 5th, 7th and 9th thoughts, was the notion that I’d be a jerk to raise that point in the comments. This article is a great reference for women working through difficult climax issues and there’s no need to drag the conversation off to the guy side of the experience … So I sent Clarisse an email about it instead. Because the thing with Unification theories is that they’re never all the way done. And things could have been so much easier for Clarisse if her boyfriends didn’t suck. Maybe some insight into why they sucked would help with the ongoing development of the model, or at least provide some eased management strategies.

The thing is, I don’t feel attacked or diminished or anything else by this article. Despite the fact that I’m a guy, I have insecurities and I can in some places see a stupid, obnoxious mirror of myself in Clarisse’s dumb ex boyfriends — that isn’t at all why I thought I should talk about the topic more with the author. It just seemed to me like Clarisse hadn’t quite got her head around what the guys were going through with their side of this interaction. Where their insecurities came into play.

In my head, I see a young woman, working through her own issues with orgasms reading this, and seeing her young boyfriend reflected in Clarisse’s past relationships. And the take away from Clarisse’s experience at the moment seems to be that if your boyfriend is insecure and stupid, maybe he’s not the right person to work through this with you. And I’m not sure that’s doing anyone any favors. I mean shit, maybe that is what you should take away from reading this — that the guy you’re with isn’t the right person for you right now if you’re struggling with difficulty achieving orgasm. But maybe there are other stories going on as well. Maybe he’s insecure about his role and his failings (or his body or whatever) and maybe he could be the right guy to work through this with you, if you’re the right person to work through his insecurities with him?

And please, please don’t take that to mean let things slide because you don’t want to emasculate him. I’m not for a moment advocating putting up with nonsense because he’s a guy with a precious male ego. But lots of guys, certainly including myself, have personal insecurities, about masculinity and about sexuality, and attached to the perceptions of masculinity in sexual situations. As a guy, we’re all taught that real men don’t give head — or at least that it’s a private thing that we don’t admit too — which is so fucking stupid, but is still really out there in heteronormative western male culture. We’re all taught that getting a woman off is our job, and to be a good man, and a good lover, we have to get our partner off before we get off. I don’t know a single sexually active guy who has never felt humiliated because he came too early, and too early is largely defined as before our partner gets off. And we’re all taught that real men get their partners off with nothing but the awesomeness of our cocks. Hand jobs/digital penetration are fine for highschool or fore play — but our image of a good man, and a desirable lover doesn’t integrate with those things. We’re coached by pop culture and porn to believe that the guy every woman wants is the one who sticks his cock in and makes her explode with joy from the very first thrust. And any time that doesn’t happen, the guy is at fault.

And again, to stress my position here, I think all of those things are stupid, illogical nonsense. But those are the pressures that are on guys. And maybe, if the guy that you’re with is struggling to work through your orgasm issues, maybe it’s because he’s so far under the weight of his own insecurities that he doesn’t know how to cope with his own issues, and be a supportive partner to work through yours. But the thing about a good relationship, is that together you’re stronger than the sum of your individualities. Maybe as a couple, you can work through his insecurities and your orgasm difficulties at the same time. Nobody’s problems exist in a vacuum, and sometimes finding the support you need is easier if you just fix the support you already have.

That comment was originally posted over here, and there was some discussion afterwards — including some guys saying that they never got any memo about cunnilingus being “not manly”.

Here’s my wrap-up: sympathy is good. Trying to build a better relationship is good. And I understand that some people may have serious, important reasons that they can’t or don’t want to walk away from their romantic partner. (That’s one of the things feminism has always worked towards: giving people many sources of support and safety nets, so people can leave abusive partners if necessary.) But. Seriously, if your partner sucks? Walking away is an option — it’s even an option, sometimes, when you think it’s not an option. Just remember that.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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