If you're having sex with someone and you don't get off, how often after the sex does the person immediately attempt to remedy that? Usually? Sometimes? Never? I would argue that whosoever is eager to try either already knows how to get you off, or will do anything to find out. However, that is not always a good thing.
I say this because I read a piece recently about young women in relationships who are "in love and happy" in their relationships, but don't orgasm with their partner. It's the sort of thing that sounds crazy on the surface until you read their stories, or unless you've found yourself in such a scenario yourself.
Sometimes, orgasm-less (relative) bliss happens because you're young and inexperienced. At the Huffington Post, Catherine Pearson tells us about Lisa, a 21-year-old from Arkansas who got with her husband when she was 16 and he was 19. When they fooled around and had sex, it felt great, so she assumed that she was having orgasms and so she "moaned appreciatively." Pearson writes:
"It was like, 'I'm happy — I think — so I guess this is what everyone's talking about,'" said Lisa, who chose to use a pseudonym. "I thought, 'Yeah, sure, I guess I'm having orgasms.'"
Five years, a wedding and one child later, Lisa knows she was not. (She was among several women who candidly discussed with The Huffington Post their experiences in committed, sexually active, but orgasm-less relationships.)
Lisa's realization came three years ago, while the couple was having sex crammed together in the front seat of a car. "It just all of a sudden flushed over me. My fingers got numb, my toes ... it was like the best thing I'd ever felt in my life," Lisa said. "I was like, 'Wow! This is what I've been missing!'"
I assumed, reading this, that what happened is that they had sex in such a way that she was getting some clitoral stimulation from them being pressed together, finally leading to orgasm. But in the ensuing years, they have not been able to replicate the orgasm for one reason or another. Pearson writes:
She's had no more than four in the ensuing years, though they have sex three to five days a week. They've tried oral sex with limited success, even as Lisa coached her husband on how and where to touch her. They've used a vibrator together, but he complained it made him ejaculate too fast and then told her he didn't think sex toys were a good idea anymore. Now, Lisa simply fakes orgasms with her husband and masturbates in private, several times a week — climaxing every time, she said.
And then Lisa drops this sad bomb of sadness:
"It still really bums me out, whenever I think about the fact that I can't have that with him," Lisa said. "But honestly, I could probably live the rest of my life the way I am now, just orgasming by myself and acting like it with him."
From the cheap seats, it's easy to look at this tale of woe and see that her husband is not necessarily doing everything it takes to help her have orgasms. He's made uncomfortable by sex toys and clearly won't risk reducing his own AMPLE pleasure for hers. But she is part of this broken circle, too: She's no doubt reassuring him that everything is great, and if she's faking again anyway, what reason does he have to reevaluate those conclusions?
Pearson's piece is interesting because it lives at the messy intersection of all the reasons we deem sex any good and how that is often different for men than women. While we can acknowledge that it's often more complicated for women to orgasm than men, and that men are far more likely than women to leave a sexual encounter having gotten off, especially in younger couples/hookups, we also can't assume that all good sex must end with orgasms for both partners, unless that is what both partners want. There are other values, right? Like emotional and physical closeness, and warmth, caring? Right? Or just getting fucked real good for a while even if you don't come?
I've written about this before, in response to a Vogue piece asking if orgasms are really necessary. In defense of not going hard to get off, Karly Sciortino wrote:
We've all been told that men just need a little direction to get us off: "I like it when you put your hand here; it feels amazing when you do this." But when it comes to casual sex, maybe we're getting too hung up on the big O. I might be hanged for saying this, but for me, achieving orgasm is not always the be-all, end-all of my hook-ups. I've certainly had many pleasurable experiences with men I hardly knew that didn't result in a climax for me. There were other times when I had multiple orgasms, and the guy only had one. (That's one advantage women have). But ultimately, being intimate with a relative stranger can be fun, freeing, and empowering, whether you come or not. And often, just rolling around naked is the most fun and most intimate part of sex. Taking a step back to remember this would be beneficial for both sexes, but especially for men, who often seem to be humping robotically toward the finish line.
She's right, of course: every individual sexual encounter need not necessarily meet the same rigid (heh) set of criteria. And yet, there's this larger cultural imbalance that persists. But for a moment, back to Lisa. Pearson writes:
Like just about everything having to do with sex and love, experts say it comes down to individual preferences and expectations, not a broader cultural assumption that sex is only satisfying if it ends with an orgasm.
"If the only bother is that [a woman] has told a friend and the friend gasped and said, 'What are you saying?!' ... that friend is misguided," said Stephanie Buehler, a psychologist and sex therapist who runs the Buehler Institute in California.
"If someone is having a wonderful time with their partner even though they don't have an orgasm with them when they're with them," she continued, "then that sounds like good sex to me."
The caveat here is how you define "wonderful time"—maybe as something genuinely pleasurable, maybe as something that's just good enough that working any harder to reach a more desirable goal would resurrect too many weird feelings.
Pearson notes that some 10 percent of women are incapable of orgasm due to physical conditions, medication, or illness, and that for other women who don't typically orgasm during sex, it's likely due to preference or roadblocks of a psychological nature. She cites sex therapist Kimberly Resnick Andersen, who says, "There's still a lot of messages in our culture about good girls/bad girls, so a lot of women still feel shameful about having orgasms and allowing somebody to witness that, even somebody they're partnered with and you think they'd trust and feel safe with."
All this can easily create a scenario where for some reason, it's just too difficult to either say what you want or need to be done, to relax, to be vulnerable, to stop overthinking, to not feel guilty when it feels like it's taking forever, to not freeze up if the person acts at all like it's taking too long or is tiresome. And that creates a pressure in itself. We've been fed this idea that the male sex ego can't handle not feeling victorious in bed, and so we fake it. Our egos come into it, too. 80 percent of women cannot get off consistently from intercourse alone, then many women will understandably wish to be part of the 20 percent who can. Which then creates another set of issues altogether, especially if you ever decide to 'fess up. One of Pearson's subjects did exactly that, and as you might suspect, it did not go well!
Sex with her boyfriend has never been what she would call "bad," Alyssum said, and there is "a ton" of chemistry between them. But when she finally came clean to him about faking orgasms last month — steeled by a cocktail and tired of acting — he did not take it well.
"I said, 'I'm not trying to make you feel bad. I just wanted you to know that this just doesn't happen, because I don't like lying to you,'" she said. "His initial reaction was shock, then rage."
The thing is, she doesn't fake it anymore with him, but she still doesn't get off. He said he wasn't going to try any harder because she seemed fine with it.
Brace yourself: Another woman in the piece admitted to faking it with her husband for 44 years.
For-ty-four mo-ther-fuck-in' years.
Think of all his actual coming, and all her not coming, paired together like some sad Kabuki theater of half-pretend coming.
Other women in the piece either say they don't mind that they don't get off, or simply don't see it as a burden because they love the person they are with. But the lingering feeling here is one of unresolved issues and not, "Well this is simply another way people are about sex and it's great." (Also, it goes without saying that counseling could help in these situations, but that would require the openness and comfort level that seems to be in short supply in some cases.)
I'm not going to say women who don't want to get off—or who don't insist on getting off, or don't work toward a happier resolution that involves some getting off if possible—are living under some kind of orgasm-less false consciousness. (And also, clearly some men try very hard to resolve this very issue with their ladies, to varying degrees of success.) In a recent Slate piece about things women wish men knew about sex, Amanda Marcotte polled women informally on Twitter about things they wish men knew about sex. One relevant result:
4. "Getting there" is more trouble than it's worth.
This is only true for a minority of women, but when I put the call out on Twitter for women to tell me what they don't tell men, the women who said this were the most passionate respondents. For women who have trouble orgasming, sex could be fun, but it isn't not because of their lack of orgasm so much as their fear they'll disappoint their partners. They find themselves avoiding sex because they don't want to have to endure endless attempts to bring forth an orgasm that will never come, but they still like to masturbate, even if they usually can't reach orgasm. So, when you're having that talk explaining that you're not going to freak out if she starts speaking up about her needs, be clear that you're not going to judge her if she's feeling like orgasms don't have to be the star of the show every time she has sex.
But I will say that, regardless of everyone's right to feel how they feel and prioritize sexual pleasure as they wish, there's almost always a larger issue here. In this cultural conundrum, it's obvious who among the chicken or the egg came first: the dude.
Image by Tara Jacoby.