The Varieties of Orgasmic Experience
I had my first orgasm, age 14, staring up at the sky outside my bedroom window after rubbing a tingly spot through the thick cotton of my elasticized underwear. This spot had only just alerted me to its existence while reading a dog-eared copy of Judith Krantz’s Scruples, a very adult book my friends and I were passing around that summer. I can’t remember if Krantz referred to that magic spot as ‘the clitoris’ but once I’d discovered it I knew life would never be the same.
However, years later, I became increasingly disappointed that this out of body sensation I could so easily achieve with one finger was rarely a part of the sex I had with a man. Unlike those women in mass market novels, I didn’t orgasm after a few minutes of penile thrusting. I began to wonder if something was wrong with me.
When I started my first job in a woman’s clinic in my twenties, I lied through my teeth in order to qualify for a study testing a drug for women with ‘low sexual response.’ I decided that because I didn’t come easily, or at all, during sex, I should qualify even though I was almost constantly horny. So I fibbed, (“Yeah, I just don’t seem to be interested in sex.”) and got in.
The first week of the study I swallowed a pill, shoved a small probe up my vagina (which was connected to a sensor in the next room) and watched porn. I was told to sit very still and not touch myself. I got aroused watching other people fuck, but it didn’t lead to anything more than a little ache between my legs. However, the following week when I returned and repeated the exercise, at the point the brawny cowboy was fucking the saloon dancer, I was gripping the arms of my easy chair and feeling the pulsations of a first class climax rocketing through my body – without even so much as a wiggle of my hips.
Sadly, no new medication was fast-tracked by the FDA to meet the needs of anorgasmic women everywhere, and I’d failed to learn the name of the drug before I’d left the research institute where the study was conducted (or, for that matter, break into the lab and abscond with their entire supply). I’m still wondering to this day if the best drug of the century, one that could possibly make any woman come with nothing more than visual stimulation, got buried by reports of one too many headaches in the aftermath. Fuck headaches, ladies! We want to come! Damn.
I got more depressed about my inconsistent orgasm after reading MOAN: Anonymous Essays on Female Orgasm. What is touted as a guide for guys (and me?) on what a cadre of women feel is the best way to get them off, read to me like the exaltations of women who were preternaturally blessed. One wrote she could never not come (pity the poor thing) and another said seventeen seconds to climax was her record, followed by multiple other O’s before her boyfriend could catch up. I think they should re-title the book GROAN: Why Reading This Book Will Make You Feel Worse About Yourself Than Facebook.
I’ve spent years now intermittently interested in figuring out orgasms. Evolutionary biologists have long disagreed over the purpose of the female orgasm. Some say female orgasms are an incentive to have sex for reproduction and bonding, but there’s little support for this, especially given we’re one of the most promiscuous animals on the planet. Another theory claims the orgasm is a spasmodic function that helps suck sperm into the uterus. But the female orgasm has really no bearing on reproductive success. Given the utter inconsistency of our orgasms (less than 25% of women climax with intercourse alone and as many as 15% have never orgasmed at all) if women needed to have an orgasm to reproduce there would be, like, fifteen people in the world. A more likely consensus is that a woman’s orgasm is a happy accident, the result of sharing identical embryonic genitals with males which differentiate only after the second month of fetal life.
So why the inconsistency in orgasmic response among women? Why was someone like me, who thinks sex is pretty much the funnest thing ever, having such a hard time coming?
“Excessive rationalism is the biggest enemy of orgasms.” says Professor Osmo Kontula in ‘The Female Orgasm: What Do Women Want‘. “Simply put, thinking does alight desire, but orgasms come when thinking ceases.”
Busted. I couldn’t deny my monkey mind might serve me well on dates with brainiac men, but held me back in the bedroom. I did have first hand experience that a relaxed brain made for an easy orgasm. For instance, I’ve come many times in my dreams. The dream itself will involve penetrative sex and rapid climax, which always wakes me in a haze of astonishment. And the one time in my life I’ve orgasmed without touching myself was when my man began making love to me while I was dead asleep.
This supports the notion that deep relaxation is a conduit for the intensity of arousal needed to result in orgasm. A handful of women who can orgasm by just thinking their way there were studied in an MRI. “What we found, to my great surprise, is that when [the women] thought about stimulation of a body region, the corresponding region of the sensory cortex map was activated as if they were physically stimulating that body region,” says Barry Komisaruk, a distinguished professor at Rutgers University, who has studied “non-genital orgasms” extensively, including women who can “think” themselves to orgasm. (OMG, Barry, you get paid to do this?)
“But there was a much greater activation in the prefrontal cortex,” he continued, “when the women thought about stimulating a particular body region than when they actually physically stimulated that body region.” So this means a woman could potentially have more intense orgasms using neurocognitive training than rubbing that clitoris to exhaustion. Sign me up! You can read more about this research in ‘Yes, Women Orgasm in Their Sleep. Science Explains Why‘.
This is great news for those of us who believe visualization can bring us closer to our sexual goals. I’m convinced I once treated a bladder infection in the wilderness by visualizing the sun inside my urethra eating up all those nasty bacteria like Ms Pacman. If orgasm is simply a matter of training my brain to both visualize my own arousal and turn off its thinking, surely it could be as easy as patting my head and rubbing my belly at the same time. Uh, yeah. But there are women out there who believe we can think our way to orgasm with some practice. And even if a mental climax isn’t as luscious as a genital one, exploring neurological biofeedback might still accentuate the pleasure we experience during lovemaking.
Of course, there are all sorts of herbs and supplements that proclaim they will rev up your libido and send your genitals into orbit with consistent use. But I once read horny goat weed caused some guy to suffer a fecal impaction, so I shy away from taking little capsules not regulated by the EU. However, what I do have accessible to me for occasional consumption in my progressive state of Washington is marijuana. And there is consistent data which show, for women at least, THC whether smoked or ingested, contributes to easier and more intense orgasms. My own unscientific research supports this. Add a little pot to an evening with a man I feel completely at ease around, and I come so quickly there’s enough time to watch another episode of Rick and Morty before lights out.
But getting back to Dr Kontula’s research: The best recipe for good orgasms is, according to her, being “in the mind and in the relationship.” Women who felt positively about their own sexuality and their partners, as well as those who could talk openly about sex with their partners, were found to have the most consistent orgasms. Also, women who regularly masturbate have more orgasms, both with partners and on their own. When you practice, you get better and that goes for anything. Having been a regular masturbator since that summer afternoon at 14, I was dumbfounded at 50 when men I dated told me their other partners rarely masturbated. I wanted to visit every one of those women and ask, “What are you thinking?!”
I can’t write about adopting a positive attitude about sex without plugging one of my favorite books on sexuality: Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski. I found the book to be a game changer, especially as it pertains to understanding the fluctuating seasons of our sexual response as women and how our attitudes about our bodies affect our ability to experience pleasure. Just accepting that we are normal, no matter how different our sexual style may be from another person’s, is enough to help you relax more into sex.
As women, it’s not always easy to talk about sex with our lovers, especially one you’re just getting to know naked. When I hit menopause, I didn’t care about being appropriate any more and talked about sex with men all the time. And they were constantly telling me I was refreshingly open. That’s also the time when I started having the best sex in my life. Which might be one of the reasons so many people report sex getting better with the same person over time despite the cliche that it gets boring. Surely, the best ingredients for this recipe are imagination and dedication.
If you’re a woman who thinks her orgasm will never change for the better don’t give up the quest. Renew your devotion to seeking out new ways to expand the frontiers of your lovemaking, whether with a partner or with just yourself. Do you have any idea how many sex toys there are out there now? Ergonomic, flexible and with multiple vibratory settings? Can I just tell you that my first vibrator had one speed and felt like a broom handle? Personally, I look forward to my even later years, as some people are coming out now about how good sex is in their 80’s! And maybe by then that mystery drug will be available over the counter and I’ll be able to think my way to orgasm from my wheelchair.
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