In 1989, Meg Ryan faked an orgasm on camera in “When Harry Met Sally.” She exposed a truth that many had known but had not voiced before:
Orgasms are political.
There’s an expectation for heterosexual people with vulvas (PWV) to orgasm to please their partners, and for it to be loud and intense.
Sex therapist Dr. Jennifer Rafacz of The Family Institute at Northwestern University explains, “The orgasms we see in porn fit a traditional masculine model: making noise or having intense feelings around it isn’t necessarily how orgasms work or how people with vulvas experience them. For some people, orgasms aren’t as strong.”
For many of us, orgasms are a source of anxiety. Or we’re left feeling lesser than by our inability to orgasm or orgasm intensely enough. Why do we have these expectations?
Power and misogyny.
Jen explains, “There are huge gaps in research around sexuality of people with vulvas, their anatomy, and the diversity of their orgasm experience. The problem is that a lot of research started with penile orgasms, which is much simpler. There’s this expectation that PWV are supposed to process the same way, but their orgasms are more internal. They don’t necessarily ejaculate or get an erection, so you don’t necessarily see arousal or orgasm. So if you want to be visible to your partner, you can make noise.”
What are the implications of this? We end up having unrealistic expectations of orgasms.
“We’re taught that this is what an orgasm should look rather than appreciating our individual experiences,” Jen said.
We also devalue the diversity of orgasms. Not all orgasms are clitoral. People with vulvas are more sensitive to different areas and types of touch. They experience highs in different ways.
By the way, there’s a similar truth for people with penises, who can experience penis and prostate orgasms. And for some folks, an orgasm is not equivalent with ejaculation.
So what can we do?
1) Value our own experience and know that it is good.
2) Educate our partners on what they can expect (and what they shouldn’t expect) from our bodies.
Which brings us to a reader’s recent question about orgasms:
I have a lot of doubts about my orgasm and whether I have orgasms at all. All the resources I’ve looked into seem to take for granted that I don’t know my body or how to give myself pleasure, or that I am somehow inhibited or uptight, but that doesn’t ring true to me. I masturbate regularly with a Hitachi wand and enjoy that. My partner of 25 years is an extremely generous lover, and we have great communication and an active and fun sex life involving lots of clitoral stimulation in various ways. We have an open marriage, and I’ve had many other generous and imaginative lovers, both men and women.
I get aroused and seem to have sustained plateaus. I have a buildup of muscle tension, increased heart rate and breathing, I cry out involuntarily. But there doesn’t ever really seem to be a moment that corresponds to the muscle contractions usually discussed as indicating orgasm. I just more or less consciously decide that I’ve had enough, and feel satisfied, and then peaceful and sleepy.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I feel like I’m missing something, there wouldn’t really be a problem. I can’t help thinking there is something just a bit further, that if I could just hold out a bit longer I would have some moment that would make me say “Oh, THAT’S an orgasm!” But invariably, after half an hour or more of sex play, and 10 or 20 minutes of rolling peaks, I just feel done and lose interest.
I feel like the trouble is in my head – that I can never quite turn off the dialogue in my head that’s analyzing how I’m feeling and thinking about orgasm. I know this is getting in my way, and have tried several techniques to focus my attention on what I’m feeling. I’m working on convincing myself that orgasm doesn’t matter, maybe I’m having them, maybe I’m not – focus on what I’m feeling and enjoy that without trying to define. But I keep having this nagging feeling.
I guess my question is – do some bodies just not DO orgasm? Accepting my contention that I am enthusiastically and happily trying a wide variety of stimulation techniques – is it possible that my nerve circuitry is not conducive to orgasm? Or is it that I am having orgasms, I just have an unrealistic expectation of what they are, and I’m not recognizing that I’m having them? What do you think?
Here’s part of Jen’s response:
“There are things that we don’t know. I’d want to know whether she has medical issues or (is) on medications, which might explain some of this. There might also be a hormone imbalance which can be checked for.
I’d also want to know whether she’s tried Kegel exercises. Is there a muscle weakness that she’s not feeling the contractions? Orgasms aren’t big always, and contractions can be very subtle.
Those 10 minutes of rolling peaks might be her body’s low-grade orgasms, and it might not be as strong as she’s expecting – back to that inculturation of intense orgasms.
It could be a mental block. If she’s spending a lot of time analyzing how she’s feeling, then she’s not allowing herself to do the other half of orgasm, which is relaxing and just enjoying the sensations.”
I asked Jen where she could go for help.
“If it’s a medical issue, she could go to a gynecologist or even a physical therapist. If she’s having the contractions, but not feeling them, it could be because of muscle weakness. You can request an evaluation from a gynecologist that checks for blood flow, muscle weaknesses, and sensitivity to sensation.
She’d want to search for someone that has a specialty in sexuality. Because of how women’s sexuality and orgasms are treated in the healthcare industry, you’re better off going to a specialist, because you risk that dismissal of your problem.
Alternatively, if she feels like the trouble is getting out of her head, she could see someone like me. We would work on things like mindfulness: focusing on the pleasure and the journey of the sensation instead of whether or not it’s an orgasm.”