How would you describe the colour red to someone who's never seen it? Is it the breathless tension of fury? The racing pulse of a passionate kiss? Is it that micro-second before your senses engage, when your hand is too close to the flame and a pain explodes in your palm. That hot pain, is that the colour red?
Recently a friend who'd never had one asked me to describe an orgasm. I found myself reaching for those kinds of equivalents.
'It's like… it's a…building, bubbling, fizzy excitement. An explosion. A release. It's drawing your first breath after being underwater for a fraction too long. The moment the air floods in and your chest expands and your whole body is relieved. It's that kind of pleasure.'
I've always thought of myself as sexually, y'know, woke. Toys and cable ties? Three, four, five in a bed? Murmured 'I love yous' and lights-off missionary? Do what you do, as long as everyone's happy and consenting.
But hearing that someone had never had an orgasm, this surprised me - so much so that before I could rearrange my face I'd already bleated out a disapproving 'whoa, really?'
'Yeah. Really,' she replied. 'Don't be so judgey.'
Melissa* is 29. She was 16 the first time she had sex with the man who would go on to be her boyfriend for five years. After they broke up she had a string of relationships - the longest was a year - a handful of one night stands, countless dates. She is beautiful and funny, with long coltish limbs and dark hair. I'm not just being a good friend when I say that she's a ten.
Not that GSOH or a nice face have anything to do with orgasms, but she's never been short of suitors, and from our conversations, she's had the full range of sex - from twee to filthy. But no big 'o'.
Nope, not even on her own.
Is Orgasm Always The End Goal?
Like most people I know, I'd come to assume that orgasm was the end-goal of sex. I'm not saying it happens every time, but that's the aim, right?
'But if that's the case,' Melissa countered, 'does the fact that I haven't had one make my sexual experience somehow lesser?'
Last month the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy surveyed over 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 94 and found that around 9% of women never experience orgasm through sex. 'I don't watch porn and don't really masturbate,' says Melissa. 'The times I've tried, I've found it frustrating or boring.'
In fact, only 44% of women masturbate. It's a startling figure considering the many campaigns which have surfaced of late (like the one run by Durex last April) aiming to tackle so-called orgasm inequality (i.e. the fact that men, on average, come more regularly than women).
Obviously, we should all be putting our needs, and our pleasure, at the forefront of any sexual experience; in the immortal words of Nikki Minaj, 'I demand that I climax...I'm a pleaser, but it's 50-50.'
Does the fact that I haven't had an orgasm make my sexual experience somehow lesser?
But as Melissa points out, 'it's not always as straight forward as 'give one get one'.'
She continues: 'For a long time I was ashamed to admit that I'd never had one because according to everyone – magazines and just culture at large – having orgasms meant I was in control of my own sexuality – and not having them meant I wasn't. At one point I started to feel like the fact that I'd been having sex without coming somehow made me a bad feminist.'
In fact, female pleasure has been a topic for feminist debate ever since Freud argued that clitoral orgasms were infantile – a sign of sexual immaturity and 'frigidity' when compared to orgasms experienced through penetration. In her seminal essay The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm, published in 1970, feminist theorist Anne Koedt, pointed out that 'it was Freud's feelings about women's secondary and inferior relationship to men that formed the basis for his theories on female sexuality.'
She explored the plainly ridiculous idea that women who didn't achieve orgasm through hetero-normative, missionary position penetration needed either psychiatric evaluation or – as Freudian psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte argued at the time – corrective surgery ('the suspensory ligament of the clitoris [is] severed and the clitoris secured to the underlying structures, thus fixing it in a lower position' – ouch.)
What if, though, even in these sexually awake times, we still haven't shaken off the spectre of Freud?
'It makes perfect sense that you should expect to come,' says Melissa, 'but I've also had some really great sexual experiences without it –I've felt intimacy and pleasure. I've tingles all over my body – all that kind of stuff – but I've also felt like this was never good enough. But there has to be some way in which all sensations are thought of as valid.'
11 Different Types Of 'Orgasm'
In her new book Sensations: Adventures In Sex, Love & Laughter, author Isobel Losada undertakes a year-long sexual odyssey in search of a sustainable sex life – one that lives and thrives beyond the red-hot, just-started-seeing-each-other, fuck-all-the-time phase.
'One of the ways that sex has been hijacked for many people is by the idea that it has to be 'successful,'' she tells me. 'Even in the language we use: we talk about 'achieving' orgasm. But the idea that you can fail or succeed at sex has damned both men and women.'
In her book she advocates for sexual experiences which focus less on 'end-goals' and 'achievements' and which prioritise sensations. For instance, she explores the simple, tickling ecstasy of having someone run a feather across your thighs.
'Sex is about making each other feel good, but orgasm is just one facet of that – and one which isn't always attainable, depending on things like how much time we've got.'
'Even the concept of an orgasm is an interesting one. While writing Sensation I learnt about 11 different forms of orgasm – ten of which I haven't had. There are many different things that the body does and can do that people describe as orgasmic experiences – and they are very varied. But typically, when people speak about orgasms they're describing a screaming, contracting, body thrashing type of experience. That doesn't mean that ideally both partners won't have that type of orgasm, should they want it, but it would be nice if there were other so-called 'goals' on the menu.'
Sex is about making each other feel good but orgasm is just one facet of that – and one which isn't always attainable
I mentioned to a man recently that I was writing this piece and his first question was telling: 'has she seen a doctor?' When I tell Melissa this she seems offended. 'I'm not sure I need to be medically diagnosed… maybe I need to experiment more on my own, but I find it offensive to think that someone assumes there's something medically wrong with me.'
Personally, I don't plan on giving up my quest to come often and, erm, thrashingly, but as Losada points out, other experiences and sensations can be just as fulfilling. And ultimately couching sexuality in the language of power and productivity – goal, achievement, success – is a bit like describing the colour red as 'a pain that explodes in your palm': you know what I'm getting at, but it's still not quite right.
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