Happy Friday! Here's a question from a reader about orgasm. Who doesn't want to know more about orgasm?
I'm a 35-year-old cisgender woman, I've been on a long journey of understanding my relationship to orgasm (or non-orgasm). I've never experienced this elusive release (alone or with a partner). I am wondering if you have any additional resources for someone who is trying to both accept and work through this journey.
Before we talk resources, though, I want to let you know that I met a woman who told me she had her first orgasm at age 70. I believe any woman interested enough in sex to want to have an orgasm can have an orgasm, given the right context.
I also believe that no one has an obligation to have an orgasm. For some people, orgasm is really important. For others, they’re a nice bonus of sexual pleasure. For still others, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. People vary. Our sex lives can be profoundly pleasurable and entirely satisfying with zero orgasms, and every single person reading this gets to choose how they feel about the orgasms that are (or aren’t) in their lives.
But this question is coming from the point of view of someone who’s interested in exploring that part of their sexual terrain. There are lots of books for folks who are exploring their sexual terrain and finding some of the landscape difficult going. Here are some that have helped a lot of people:
Becoming Orgasmic by Julia Heimann and Joseph LoPicollo
For Yourself by Loni Barbach
Sex for One by Betty Dodson
The Explorer's Guide to Planet Orgasm: For Every Body by Annie Sprinkle PhD and Beth Stephens, illustrated by YuDori
Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-first Century by Barbara Carrellas
That’s a buncha cisgender white people, mostly. Sorry about that.
The world of pleasure-focused sex education in mainstream publishing is still super white. You’ll find a lot more sex educators of color putting pleasure front and center on social media, especially, I find, Instagram. Here are a few I follow:
Pleasure-focused sex ed books for trans folks are even thinner on the ground, and it’s a known gap in the world of sex education. If you’re ever lucky enough to have a chance to see S. Bear Bergman teach his “Sex Ed for the Trans and Sexy,” do it omg. Holy crap, I wish he would put that in book form. One place to start is with Trans Sex by Lucie Fielding, which is written with clinicians in mind, but has so much great information I recommend it to everyone. Here’s an online resource, too, to get started.
First tip: Stop trying to have orgasms. Take them entirely off the table. The performance demand of trying to have an orgasm is going to hit your brakes and make it more difficult to have an orgasm! The irony! So genuinely, truly, stop trying to have an orgasm and instead just explore pleasure, wherever it takes you. If you start to notice chatter in your head, like you’re worried about orgasm while you’re at a high level of arousal, remind yourself that orgasm isn’t your goal, pleasure is your goal. If you enjoy exploring the sensations you’re experiencing, you’re doing it right already. No need to worry.
Second tip: Pleasure isn’t always easy. Sometimes pleasure can make you feel anxious or like you should stop. When that happens, stay really still and just notice. And when you feel ready, step toward the pleasure instead of away.
The late, great Betty Dodson coached many women to orgasm, and she made a series of instructional videos showing women’s evolving relationships with their own sexual pleasure. Her “rock n roll” method taught women to ride the visceral wave of arousal and orgasm as pleasure rolled through them like a rising tide. Betty’s work in particular provides a lot of insights into ciswomen’s relationship with orgasm. A lot of us are raised in a “purity” culture that tells us sex is bad, dangerous, and disgusting, but also in what I call a “corporate sexy” culture, that tells us our sexual performance is a measure of our worth as humans, and orgasm is the ultimate measure of whether or not you’re an adequate sexual human. We are taught to perform, but we are shamed for experiencing any actual pleasure.
Betty coached women not to back away from pleasure.
In one memorable video, Cynthia, age 41, wasn’t sure if she was having orgasms or, if she was having them, thought they were small, almost-nothing orgasms.
She tells Betty, “What I picture it being like or I think it should be like, is just bigger, all over bigger and more where you’re just out of control and you’re… just… very dramatic.”
Betty assured her, “You’re never out of control. I mean, my biggest orgasm, I can stop instantly. […] You’re in your body; the only thing you’re out of is you’re out of your mind.”
Early in her coached masturbation session, Cynthia tells Betty that the lowest setting of the vibrator is good and she doesn’t want lube, and eventually Betty more directly invites more intense vibration and lube. Immediately, Cynthia recognizes, “That’s better.”
“Hang on it, oh hang on it,” Betty coaches her, as Cynthia’s moans crescendo.
After her second orgasm, she describes her revelation: “I never let [the vibrator] stay on long enough. That was a big difference because I… instead of backing off when it feels so intense, I just kept it there and that’s when it gets very… When you meet it, it feels like it really changes the whole thing. […] It felt like, ‘Oh, I have to take it away, it’s too much,’ but it isn’t too much.”
“That’s the most important thing to learn,” Betty praises. “When it gets really strong, strong, move into it.”
When it gets really strong, move into it
“Meet it,” Betty tells her. “Get in it.”
Throughout her session, Cynthia has, by my count, at least three orgasms.
This is the story of our relationship with pleasure. We feel like it’s too much; it’s not too much.
When pleasure feels strong, move into it.
If you know of more great sex positive resources for exploring sexual pleasure, especially those by and for people of color and trans or NB folks, please do share them!
EMILY NAGOSKI is the award-winning author of the New York Times bestselling Come As You Are and The Come As You Are Workbook, and coauthor, with her sister, Amelia, of New York Times bestseller Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. She earned an M.S. in counseling and a Ph.D. in health behavior, both from Indiana University, with clinical and research training at the Kinsey Institute. Now she combines sex education and stress education to teach women to live with confidence and joy inside their bodies. She lives in Massachusetts with two dogs, a cat, and a cartoonist.