I was twenty-one when I slept with James. For the most part, our time together was fairly ordinary: James was a casual acquaintance whom I slept with a few times before passing on to someone else; though I enjoyed being with him enough to do it more than once, there was nothing incredibly memorable or significant about our time together. But I still remember something that he said to me the first time we had sex.
“If a girl doesn’t come during sex, what’s the point?”
Even at the time, I knew what he was trying to say. I knew that he was attempting to position himself as a champion of female pleasure, as someone who put a lady’s needs first and foremost. But I still found myself chafing at the statement, because what he was saying, in effect, was that there was absolutely no point to having sex with me.
For a large swath of my teens and twenties I was anorgasmic. I would say that I was preorgasmic (as this is the more politically correct term), but that would suggest that I had never had an orgasm, which wasn’t exactly true: at seventeen, masturbating next to my first girlfriend, I felt a quake of pleasure that wouldn’t be replicated again for years.
It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable with sex, or that I didn’t experience pleasure. To the contrary: I loved sex. I masturbated frequently, with a variety or instruments of pleasure. But no matter how good things felt, I never seemed to explode in a wave of pleasure. I never seemed capable of getting to the assumed end point.
In retrospect, there were varied reasons for this state of being. The year I spent on antidepressants was an obvious culprit, and years on hormonal birth control more than likely didn’t help. But mostly I think it was due to an inability to relax, give in, and just let myself go—an inability that was, paradoxically, heightened by the pressure I felt to have an orgasm.
When we talk about sexual pleasure and orgasm, we often act as though the two things are inextricably correlated. If you have a capable, caring partner, you will experience sexual pleasure followed by orgasm; if you don’t achieve the latter, then you are not being stimulated properly and you are not actually enjoying the sex. The possibility that you could be having wonderful, enjoyable sex that doesn’t result in massive explosion of pleasure is rarely, if ever, considered.
I do not mean to discount the importance of orgasm in general, or the female orgasm (which fought so hard, and so long, simply to gain recognition as real) in particular, or to imply that orgasms themselves aren’t great, wonderful, and good. Because I love orgasms. I love giving them, I love having them, and I think that we should all be entitled to plentiful, frequent orgasms if we desire them. But I think that using orgasm as the hard and fast measure of a successful sexual experience is, fundamentally, missing the mark.
In the years when I couldn’t come, I didn’t feel broken or incomplete. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t enjoying sex, or like I was massively missing out on something—except, sadly, for the times when some partners would berate me for not being able to climax, which felt, at times, more about their ego than about a genuine pursuit of my own sexual pleasure.
And to be honest, when I did start having orgasms, I never actually experienced it as a massively momentous change. Sex was still largely the same: a soothing, pleasurable experience; a lovely pursuit of pleasure—only now I found that sometimes the pleasure would build to the point of overflowing, and I would spill over in a wave of release. Orgasms were nice, to be sure, but they were, at the end, more of a pleasurable addition to the joy I was already experiencing, rather than a transformative, eye opening experience.
I am thirty now, and though orgasms are vastly more frequent and accessible than they were when I was twenty-one, I don’t achieve them during each and every sexual experience. And to be honest, it doesn’t really bother me. If I am having a pleasurable sexual experience with a partner who cares about making me feel good, if I am giving and receiving pleasure and ultimately just enjoying myself, that counts in my book as a successful sexual experience. If I happen to orgasm as well, so much the better. But I’d rather not distract myself from a lovely, beautiful journey by a singleminded devotion to arriving at a specific destination.