One morning in my office a woman told me her biggest fear about beginning to date again was about sex; specifically, how to deal with the fact that orgasm had been so difficult with her last partner, and she just didn’t want to go through that again. That afternoon, another woman told me that she’d been faking orgasms with her partner for three years. Interestingly, the first woman blamed herself, and thought she just had a lot of hang-ups about sex. The second woman blamed her partner, because she had a previous partner who “knew all the right buttons.” Both of them were embarrassed.
They are not alone. At least 20%–probably more-of all women never have an orgasm with a partner, and at least 50% worry about “taking too long.” The fact is, women have different orgasm thresholds. Some women climax very easily and quickly (4-5 minutes), many need around 15 minutes, and some need 20-30 minutes. We’re just built differently, and need different degrees of intensity and duration of stimulation to cross the threshold. And speaking of intensity and duration–most women need multiple sources of stimulation, like fantasy, vibrators, or self-stimulation, in order to cross the threshold. It just has a lot to do with how accessible your pudendal and pelvic nerve endings are; i.e., your very own anatomy and physiology.
Imagine when two women have very different thresholds: one crosses in 3 minutes, the other in 20. We could accuse either of them of being too much of something–too crazed about sex, or too uptight–or we could just say they’re different and need to learn how to accommodate each other in bed.
I think there’s an extremely common delusion that difficulty with orgasm is always due to psychological “issues.” It’s true that anxiety doesn’t help you have an orgasm. But maybe if you both have accurate information you won’t be so anxious. Then you can try talking about what you need, without assuming either of you is basically and hopelessly flawed.
In an episode of The L Word there was a funny scene where a woman gives explicit, nonstop directives to her lover. “Go round and round, faster, not like that, smaller circles, harder, faster, no, like that–not like that–that’s it, more–not so hard–keep going…” Okay, this was not a turn-on. This is not the kind of talking I mean. I’m talking about telling your partner you want to have orgasms with her, tell her what is most pleasing to you, and help her learn to touch your body the way you touch yourself. Don’t expect her to “just know.” She won’t. You can tell her, show her, guide her, whisper to her, write her a note, text her–just let her know. After all, she’s a different person than you are. How would she know what your magic buttons are?
Actually, the best talking –not touching–probably happens in the car, on a relaxed long drive in the country, where you can’t run away but you don’t have to look straight at each other. Then maybe you can take a deep breath and start with “how we could make our sexual intimacy even better.” And it’s fine to say “this is hard for me to talk about.” In fact, that’s a good heads-up to your partner that this is important, and worth her full attention.
Why is it so hard to talk about sex? Two reasons are given most often: I’m afraid to hurt her feelings, and I’m embarrassed. It is a little risky to talk openly about your sexual experiences, but it’s even more risky not to. A brush with hurt feelings, or with temporary embarrassment, can leave you both feeling more vulnerable and sensitive to each other–more connected, more trusting, more loving. That’s much better than the frustration, resentment, and alienation than will build up if you don’t talk. Short-term risk, long-term gains. How important is this? On the one hand, most of us know that we should stop being so goal-oriented about orgasms. We can miss out on a lot of pleasurable feelings in the rush to reach the finish line. On the other hand, as one woman expressed so perfectly, “Lovemaking without climax is like going to a great theater performance and missing the last act.” Who would keep buying tickets for that? Occasionally, maybe–but not often.
On a regular basis, I meet with women who stopped buying tickets to sexual encounters. They may say “I don’t miss sex” but when we get into the details, it often turns out that they don’t miss feeling frustrated, inadequate, or resentful about not having orgasms. They settled into silent thoughts of “This is hopeless because there’s something wrong with me, or You’re a hopelessly bad lover.” No wonder they decide to skip the show!
Anyone can handle an orgasmless experience occasionally, but not all the time. Physically, there’s built up tension and no release. Emotionally, there’s often either shame or blame. “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why are you such a bad lover?” And almost always there’s disappointment. Orgasm can be the ultimate bonding experience, and it’s sad to miss out on that.
The good news is that orgasmic difficulties are usually very easy to resolve, with accurate information and positive communication. There are written guides for learning to have orgasms; Lonnie Barbach’s For Yourself and For Each Other, or Vivienne Cass’s The Elusive Orgasm are both excellent and explicit. You can read these–or the chapter on orgasm in my book–and do the exercises with your partner, and you’ll like the results.
So really, let’s talk about it!
Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Dr. Corwin writes for the Huffington Post: Gay Voices, Epochalips.com, as well as her own blog on www.DrGlendaCorwin.com. She presents frequently at professional conferences, and is a regular guest on Barb Elgin’s LesbianLoveTalk radio program.