One of the most frequently asked questions I get from women who come to see me for counseling (AKA sex therapy) is about their ability (or inability) to orgasm. In many cases, women who struggle with having orgasms believe that the issue is theirs and theirs alone, and that there is something fundamentally wrong with them if they don't orgasm during partnered sex, especially heterosexual intercourse.
Orgasm it seems, is the main outcome or goal so many of us focus on when discussing sex. We probably have to owe much of that to movies, TV shows and other pop-cultural representations of partnered (and mostly heterosexual) sex.
Linguistically and culturally, we tend to think of orgasms as the scale we should use to determine whether or not sex has been not only satisfactory, but more accurately, worthy of our efforts. Fewer men seem to struggle with orgasm in the way women do, yet orgasm has become a symbol of gender equality in the bedroom.
But, for a lot of women orgasm is culturally and personally more loaded than for men. It may symbolize the perfect union, a state of bliss, a personal or political triumph or proves to our partners that they are valuable and worthy lovers, which ultimately leaves us feeling more connected. And for many women this is more fulfilling than a mad race to orgasm strictly for its own sake.
I am an absolute advocate for a woman's right to orgasm, and often give my female clients advice about how to increase their pleasure during partnered sex. But even more so, I am an advocate of a woman's right to freedom and pleasure, even if it appears nothing like what the science books say orgasm should look like. I don't believe in thinking about orgasm as the one and only goal, the singular sign of good sex.
After all, orgasm has been traditionally defined in the context of a very "linear" expression; fast, singular, brief and explosive. So when women try to shoehorn themselves into a model of sexual satisfaction that doesn't always suit them, they are often the ones left being questioned, rather than the scale with which they measure themselves. So this begs the question, is it possible that the scale we use for measuring sexual satisfaction is just not right for women?
While having an orgasm can be amazing, it's often not the reason many women engage in sex, so it's often actually not the main focus during their erotic encounters. These women may still find themselves implicitly pressured to use their ability — or inability — to orgasm with a partner as the sign of whether or not the sex was good, even if that wasn't their main desire in getting together with their partner to begin with.
Plus, many women's reasons for having sex will change over the course of a month, a year and a lifetime, and by association, so will their scales of satisfaction. When we are better able to understand our own reasons for having sex, we are going to be better able to measure our satisfaction on a scale more suited to our own needs and requirements.
Sex for everyone, not just women, is influenced by not only biology but also a range of emotional and psychological factors. The trouble with the function vs. dysfunction model is it greatly reduces the majesty of sex, boiling it down to a series of functions to measure outcomes rather than richness of experience.
For some women, the presence of orgasm means nothing if the overall experience leaves them feeling cold. For others it's the reward of many years of practice and dedication to finding out how their bodies like to be touched. What distinguishes so-so sex from utterly mind-blowing sex is exactly that: our capacity to distinguish, to truly be with the experience of our bodies, our minds and our hearts.
By allowing our minds to be blown and our passion the chance to soar, we are not distracted by trying to do or be something that a text book or magazine article tells us we ought. When we are truly free to focus on our own experience and trust in the validity of personal experience, we can reframe the cultural interpretation of orgasm to be one of satisfaction, rather than a strictly scientific endeavor.
At the end of the day, if the only goal of sex is orgasm, masturbation may be a much more direct way to get there. But if your reasons for sex are more textured, nuanced and context based, you may find pleasure and fulfillment in places that science hasn't even considered yet.
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