Do men take women's inability to orgasm personally? Do women feel pressured to come to soothe a man's anxiety? Judging from a heap of anecdata, the answers are a definitive "most of the time" and "far too often." And that seems to be true regardless of the reasons why guys are so focused on a woman's Big O.
Last week, blogger Clarisse Thorn posted a lengthy and powerful piece about her own history as what some sex educators "preorgasmic" woman. She wrote of boyfriends who had it all — big dicks, enthusiasm for foreplay, talent at going down — but who still couldn't give her an orgasm. Quoting from her own writing before she first orgasmed, Clarisse notes she felt "broken" — but also resentful of the guys who seemed so preoccupied with making her climax, and who seemed to give up too quickly. (It's a familiar story; besides Clarisse's excellent piece, this territory was well covered in Mara Altman's Thanks for Coming: One Young Woman's Quest for an Orgasm, and in Orgasm Inc.)
When Clarisse posted a link to her essay at Feministe, a commenter named ABG wrote, "This was a very frustrating article to read as a man…. the inability of your spouse to have an orgasm is as or more important (to me at least) as my own. It's that core to many of us."
A heated discussion followed.
It's not news that many straight men use women's orgasms as a yardstick with which to measure their own sexual prowess. Though there's a hell of a lot more to being good in bed than the ability to get another person off, most people take in the message that an orgasm is the sine qua non of a good sexual experience. And men get the message that a good lover isn't just someone who tries to make a woman come -– it's someone who succeeds. It's win or go home, as they say in the playoffs.
The stereotype about orgasms is that men have them easily (by themselves or with a partner), while women find them more elusive. Women are taught that being good in bed is about more than making a man ejaculate; making him come is supposed to be the easy part. In other words, it's not about how fast you got him off, it's about the quality of the blowjob you gave him first. But since we assume that women have a harder time orgasming, straight guys like ABG assume that the ability to make their partners come is iron-clad proof that they're good in bed. If she gets off, you're a stud; if she doesn't, you're a dud, or so the simple masculine dichotomy goes.
(Of course, some women do come very easily by themselves and/or with partners. As my friend Amy remarked once, "Guys get inordinately proud when they make me come. I don't have the heart to tell them I was blessed with a hair-trigger clitoris that responds to even minimally adequate fumbling." Conversely, some men do have genuine difficulty orgasming, a fact that — like the inability to get or keep an erection — can cause some of their female partners to misinterpret that inability as evidence of a lack of attraction to them.)
Part of the problem, however, is that we often overestimate the degree to which men seek to give pleasure only to validate their own egos. When I was leading a workshop for college guys a few years ago, one said, "I don't just want my girlfriend to orgasm to prove that I'm a great fuck. I want her to come because I want her to feel good." He complained that women were too quick to assume that his focus on their orgasms was all about his own longing for affirmation. Several other guys nodded in fierce agreement.
But it's also usually the case that men — like women — want to give pleasure for pleasure's sake while also getting reassurance that they're good in bed. It's not an either/or, but rather a both/and. As I told the guys in that workshop, it's great that you care so much about making women feel good. But whatever your reason for working to make your partner come, the chances are you're going to be disappointed if it doesn't happen. When you make your disappointment palpable, you make it a woman's problem to solve. And at that point, it doesn't really matter what your motives were for wanting her to orgasm. You're setting her up to take care of you either way.
Most of the traditional advice to men about how to make women orgasm tends to boil down to three suggestions: patience, persistence, and technique. Those are all valuable, particularly when accompanied by a willingness to seek out and follow women's feedback. But there's something more important that men need to learn: to focus on all these tips without obsessing on the actual result. That means mastering another important tool — the ability to self-soothe. For women who can't come (either at all or just not with a partner), worry about disappointing or frustrating their partners tends to be a nearly sure-fire guarantee that an orgasm won't be happening.
Relatively few guys will say that they want women to orgasm in order to validate their male egos. Most will say what the dude in my workshop said, that they want women to come because they want them to feel good — and they want at the least to witness if not be the sole cause of women's ecstasy. But as I tell men when this subject comes up, in the end that's a distinction without a difference. As long as the absence of female orgasm leads to obvious male discouragement, not a few women will feel compelled to manage and soothe that disappointment. That's a recipe for resentment, not pleasure.
Orgasms matter. There's no point pretending they don't. But while we continue to pursue them in solitude or with others, it's worth asking men to think about the ways in which they use women's orgasms to measure their own worth. And it's worth challenging them to do the difficult but by no means impossible work of pursuing the goal — without being emotionally hostage to the results.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.
Image via antipathique/Shutterstock.