The Politics of an Orgasm

The first time I had sex, I didn’t have an orgasm. As someone who learned how to orgasm before I could read or write, I panicked and sought the advice of a best friend who conveniently doubles as a medical student.

“We just had sex for the first time and already we’re having problems. I don’t know what’s wrong but I couldn’t cum.”

She emoticon’d the equivalent of a heavy sigh.

“Women almost never come during sex with men, so get used to it.”

I was shocked, not by the novelty of her comment but by the unmistakable confirmation of the truth of something I had heard for a long time and dismissed. Ever since I started learning about sex, talk about orgasms – the female variety – in the context of straight sex was pretty quiet.

The sex education books I was given when I was around twelve said that sex happens when a man (with a penis) and a woman (with a vagina) like each other very much, and the man has an orgasm and ejaculates inside the woman’s vagina, perhaps making a baby. They covered masturbation, but it seemed as if it couldn’t be mixed up with that other thing that is sex.

Women’s magazines like Cosmo and Elle proved the worst influence: it was in these magazines that I discovered that most women don’t, or can’t, cum from intercourse – which seemed to be synonymous with heterosexual sex in and of itself. They had the stats, the medical explanations, and real-life testimonies to prove it.

Some articles went as far as to insist that a percentage of women are simply and inexplicably unable to ever achieve orgasm by any means. And fictional representations of sex between straight, cisgender men and women, scripts that we’ve all been force-fed practically from birth, seem to take for granted that sex between romantic partners is good for both without ever getting into the specifics of it.

The overall message seemed to be that there are many reasons for a woman to want to engage in sex with a man, and having an orgasm should never be one of them. Or rather: women don’t need to orgasm.

This impression was further deepened as girls around me started getting boyfriends and having sex, and the topic was always suspiciously missing from the details of whatever new sexual discovery was being discussed.

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I, for one, was and still am very much a fan of orgasms, and growing up in the virtual haze of the 2000s, when porn and the Internet became what we know today, I had a hard time seeing a difference between what I did in private and male narratives of masturbation. They were, after all, the only narratives available. And perhaps because of that perceived similarity I assumed that, just like for men, having an orgasm was the natural, logical, expected culmination of sex for women.

From that confusing first experience on, I made it a point to cum in every sexual encounter, openly communicating my needs to my partner or taking matters, pardon the pun, into my own hands. It frustrated me that this was something that had to be thought, planned, and sometimes even negotiated at all.

My orgasm wasn’t an organic and integral part of what these more experienced (cisgender, male) partners wanted to engage in, but a nice bonus that sometimes even appeared to serve as a cushion for their egos.

Older and bolder than before, I started pressing straight female friends for more graphic discussions of our sex lives and found that most did not factor having had an orgasm or not into what made a sexual experience good or bad. Some were forthright about never being able to cum during sex at all, and seemed at peace with it.

One friend, though, had a similar journey to mine, and we bonded over our inability to understand why it was still so difficult to talk about female orgasms in straight sex and our deep sadness at having progressed so little from our grandmothers, who didn’t even have names for things like orgasms and clits. More importantly, though, we wondered why it had been hard to find another girl who admitted to masturbating from a young age in the first place.

We both felt that experimenting with our sexuality early on had helped us avoid the guilt and shame we might have felt as teenagers, and that it was this comfort we felt in our sexuality, as well as the knowledge of how to orgasm, that allowed us to be assertive in bed as adults. But why was this experience, apparently, rare? Was it still the case that parents, school and religion were cracking down on little girls masturbating? Had we been lucky? Were we privileged?

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Is having an orgasm even a requirement for good sex? A majority of men and women might answer differently along gender lines and sexual orientation. There seems to be, still, a distinct pattern: many straight women prioritizing their partners’ orgasms and forgoing their own. Then, of course, there’s the argument that sex is a deeply personal and private experience that is different for everyone; my standards for what makes an experience good are not the same as the next woman’s.

But I can’t help feeling uneasy when I am confronted with the reality that most women I know would consider sex in which their male partner didn’t cum a failure, while accepting having occasional, rare, or no orgasms at all.

If we factor in the differences in perceptions of male versus female masturbation and the fact that so many sexually active women simply don’t masturbate – which, of course, no one is obliged to, but it might explain certain things – it seems very difficult to understand how orgasm, in the context of heterosexual sex, isn’t something we should be talking about.

I’ve since had a wonderful sexual experience where neither me nor my male partner came, which made me reflect a lot on what else goes on during sex when you’re not focused on reaching that finish line. Reading the brilliant book, The Ethical Slut, helped me discover the joy of putting love out into the universe and experiencing genuine intimacy. I’m not as invested in having an orgasm as before, because I know I am capable of it if and when I want to.

But how much is that explained by the story I’ve just told? How much of it is tied in with my background, the axes of my identity? Is being able to masturbate as a child a privilege for women? These are complicated questions I don’t expect to have the answer to. But I’d like to hope that orgasms might become a current and politicized topic very soon.

1 Comment
  1. I have been dealing with this exact thing recently and I really appreciate this post! I have had a difficult time coming out of my sexual shell, even with my boyfriend of almost two years, through no identifiable fault other than… I assume expectation vs. reality. You’ve offered some really great things to think about. Thanks!

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