Should We Stop Trying To Orgasm & Just Enjoy The Ride?

Embroidery by Sophie King
We’re always hearing that we should be having more orgasms, better orgasms, orgasms that make your toes curl, that make you scream at a pitch that breaks your glassware. There is so much pressure to have orgasms the right way, at the right moment, every single time, so when that doesn’t happen it can be frustrating as hell.
Orgasms have become the 21st century feminist cause célèbre, and rightly so. Because women suffer when society doesn’t make space for our sexual pleasure, fighting to close the orgasm gap is a worthy pursuit. For too long women’s pleasure has been sidelined, our sexual anatomy (ie. the clit) neglected, and the female orgasm is universally accepted as being a mystical, elusive phenomenon that basically isn’t really worth the effort. So for those who struggle to reach it, having an orgasm-less sex life (however pleasurable it might be) can feel like a betrayal of the feminist manifesto. It’s a lot of pressure.
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Orgasm is way too often understood as a marker of sexual 'success', which in itself can be part of the problem. Movies and TV don’t help, either. We get the message from pop culture and porn that sexual pleasure is all about orgasm, and representations of the female orgasm are almost always reductive and performative, focusing on penetrative sex and ending in an unrealistically quick and mutual climax. Yet sex in real life is hardly ever like that.
Traditional sexual scripts tell us that sex isn’t over until someone climaxes – usually the man, in hetero encounters – and if you have a hard time reaching orgasm, you feel like a failure. You feel like you’re broken, like there’s something wrong with you. But orgasm is not the be-all and end-all of a sexual experience, and it’s time we shift the focus back to pleasure.
This isn’t to say that you should be content with a sub-par sex life, and I am in no way advocating for settling for a sexual experience where your partner neglects your needs. Every woman deserves sexual gratification, but treating orgasms as the goal of sex does everyone a disservice, because sexual pleasure goes way beyond an orgasm. Sex shouldn’t simply be a means to an end, and when we put the onus on those 10 seconds of bliss, we miss out so much: the playfulness, passion, excitement, contact, intimacy, disinhibition and, most of all, pleasure. If you’re constantly thinking Am I taking too long? Are they getting bored? What if I can’t come? Maybe I should fake it?, you’re probably not paying attention to what’s actually going on, and stressing out about whether or not you’re going to orgasm distracts from the very sensations that could make you climax. Nothing shrinks a lady boner faster than anxiety.
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It’s a false trope that sex is a failure if you don’t orgasm, and this applies to both men and women. Psychosexologist and director of the Havelock Clinic, Dr Karen Gurney says sex can be pleasurable even without climax. "There are a million reasons why we choose to be sexual, ranging from wanting intimacy, for excitement, to relieve boredom and to feel attractive," she tells Refinery29. "Many of these motivations can give us pleasure without getting anywhere near orgasm. It’s useful to think back to your last sexual experience. Which moments of the encounter are you remembering? It might be the moment of orgasm, but it might also be a look from a sexual partner, a sexual act you found erotic, the kissing, the way they made you feel, all kinds of things apart from orgasm that made it extremely pleasurable."
The female orgasm is also unfairly steeped in sexism, and being able to reach it often means unlearning a lifetime of patriarchal miseducation that neglects female pleasure and tells women their bodies are complicated and wrong. Pair that with an unrealistic expectation that orgasms should be easy to achieve, and you’re left with an impossible scenario.
"The psychological and physical processes which result in orgasm involve a complex interplay between receiving bodily sensations that we enjoy, situations which we find erotic, and our ability to focus our attention on all of these things," explains Dr Gurney. "It’s normal to not have an orgasm if you’re distracted by other thoughts or worries, and this can be what gets in the way from time to time for women."
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We shouldn’t be taking orgasms for granted, nor expect that they’re going to happen easily every time. Learning what your body needs in order to reach orgasm, whether that’s by yourself or with a partner, requires experimentation and patience, and none of that can happen if you feel pressured to 'finish'. Sex is supposed to be about connection and pleasure, not about performing, so the more you stress about having an orgasm, the less likely you are to actually have one.
"If you’ve not yet experienced an orgasm alone, then this is the place to start," says Dr Gurney. "Focusing on enjoying your body, exploring self touch and sensations, ideally without pressuring yourself for it to lead anywhere in particular. If you can have orgasms easily alone, but struggle with a partner, then there are a few areas to focus on. The first is communicating your pleasure and what works for you to a partner (physically and psychologically), the second is focusing on where you direct your attention during sex, whether you are easily distracted, and finding ways to allow yourself to be more in the moment."
If we stop associating orgasms with the success of a sexual experience, we can let go of those anxieties and replace them with genuine pleasure. As Emily Nagoski writes in Come As You Are: "When you begin to feel frustrated, remember that’s your little monitor feeling like you’re not making progress toward the goal of orgasm. That’s the time to remind yourself that you are already at the goal state as long as you are experiencing pleasure. Orgasm isn’t the goal. Pleasure is the goal."
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