“I didn’t orgasm. But that’s pretty normal, right?”
When you read the introductory question above, you probably made a few assumptions about the person asking it. You probably assumed that the asker had a vagina. You maybe assumed that the experience they were referring to involved someone putting a penis in said vagina. If I’m right, it is probably in part because you know plenty of people with vulvas who have not been able to orgasm from purely penetrative sex. But a larger, and perhaps less obvious, source of those assumptions is the grand myth we all know and are markedly bored by: that orgasms are easy to accomplish if you have a penis and complicated and difficult if you have a vulva.
This misconception ignores and shames the experience of people with penises who have trouble achieving or maintaining erection, ejaculating, and/or having an orgasm (yes, those three things are distinct, and yes, you can have sex without one or more of them). It leads vulva owners to believe that they cannot orgasm at all or else to resign themselves to not reaching orgasm with a partner even though they want to. It also causes people to devalue the great sex they are having when one or all partners don’t reach orgasm which gets me to my main point.
At some point, we were all duped into believing that “good” sex is only sex that ends in orgasm. This causes all sorts of issues: people thinking that if one or more partners didn’t orgasm, the encounter somehow doesn’t count; people thinking that if their partner didn’t orgasm, either they are a terrible lover, or there is something “wrong” with their partner; people feeling so anxious during sex that they can’t enjoy it at all; and those pesky, incorrect, gender-essentialist ideas about the ways that different types of bodies experience or achieve orgasm.
But if orgasms aren’t the measure of good sex, you may ask, then what is good sex? And I answer you: Good sex is sex that feels good.
Don’t get me wrong. I want you to have orgasms. I want you to have all of the orgasms you’ve ever dreamed of and then some more. And if you want help actually achieving orgasm, you’ll find awesome resources at the bottom of this column. But my focus here is on taking some of the pressure off of orgasm to begin a conversation about sex focused on pleasure.
If you have and enjoy sex (with yourself and/or others), my guess is that you have had many pleasurable, ecstatic, out-of-this-world, non-orgasmic moments at all phases (arousal, plateau, orgasm, resolution) of the famous human sexual response cycle or outside of it altogether.
My favorite thing about the pleasure-based model of sex is that it can include the pleasure of making other people feel good. It acknowledges that sometimes there is great enjoyment to be had—from doing something that will not or is highly unlikely to—cause you to have an orgasm.
It also takes away the pressure of reciprocation; if everyone is doing things they want to be doing, your sex does not need to be a back-and-forth exchange of orgasms unless you want it to be. If you get tired of doing something or want to switch gears, you do not have to continue with your current activity to the point of orgasm. If you or your partner(s) do not orgasm, but everyone was smiling or moaning or enthusiastically consenting, you can stride-of-pride home feeling great about the sex you just had.
This is the point in the discussion at which the term “blue balls” often comes up, and I have to exert actual physical effort to prevent myself from executing the most magnificent, exaggerated, Liz-Lemon-style eye-roll you’ve ever seen. Yes, orgasm is a physiological reaction, and yes, sexual frustration—both psychological and physical—happens to people of all genders and with all sorts of genitals. I roll my eyes not at the phenomenon, but at its use as a tool of coercion. If you do not want to give someone an orgasm, odds are they can do it themselves. Much, much more importantly, coercion cancels out consent. If someone doesn’t want to do something, no one should try to convince them. End of discussion.
Good sex can include orgasms or not. But sex in which you feel guilty or insecure for not having reached orgasm, lie about what you like by faking it, start or continue doing something you don’t want to do until your partner climaxes, or can’t enjoy yourself because you’re so focused on trying to come, is bad sex.
You know what feels good for you. And if you and your partner(s) are communicating honestly and well, you will know what feels good for them as well. On the flip side of things, you can never know what an orgasm feels like or looks like for someone else, and they vary even within one person’s experience. So you can never even be sure you’re talking about the same thing as your friend.
It’s like how we’ll never know if other people see colors the same way we do. I’ll put on my best Smokey the Bear voice (full disclosure: I don’t actually know what Smokey the Bear sounds like) and say, “Only YOU can know what good sex means for you!” Every body is different.
For this reason and many others, you must be communicating! I cannot stress this enough. Good communication happens before, during, and after sex. Masturbation is also important for figuring out what you enjoy and being able to communicate it to your partners. If you are uncomfortable masturbating or uncomfortable talking about sexual activity with a partner, you should work through that with yourself before you have sex. It is not fair to you or to your partners if you cannot communicate what you want and what you like.
If you are very upset with me for getting all ideological instead of giving you concrete advice on having orgasms, there are some amazing resources out there! As always, I will refer you to the magical WesWell resource room. Online, check out Laci Green’s “Guide to ORGASM,” Charlie Glickman’s “Sex Advice: Trouble Having a Vaginal Orgasm,” and Scarleteen’s “Sexual Response & Orgasm: A User’s Guide.”
Have pleasurable sex. Have safer sex. Have communicative sex. Have orgasmic sex. Leave stressful goals and concepts of normality out. Your sex life is too cool for them anyway.
Baurer is a member of the class of 2015.