An old friend once texted me out of the blue asking to talk about something. Three text messages later, she got to the point — ”how do I have an orgasm? I’ve never had one.”
This particular friend had been with her partner for a decade, but in all that time, had never had an orgasm. Except…she actually had.
Later in the conversation, she told me that she did have orgasms — when she hid in the bathroom and secretly got herself off after sex. But she wasn’t having them during intercourse and had been faking them ever since she and her partner had started dating.
That key piece of information changed the whole conversation.
When I’m working with clients who want to improve their relationship with pleasure, this is often where I start. Like my friend, many of us feel like our orgasms outside of penetrative sex “don’t count” because in our minds, the sexual things we do outside of penetration “don’t count” as sex at all.
In our culture, we’ve been taught to prioritize sexual penetration as the pinnacle of sexual activity. It’s the thing we’re supposed to want the most, that’s supposed to mean the most, and that is supposed to feel the best.
The reality is that for many of us, penetration isn’t the point, option, or desire.
There are many reasons why penetration might not be of interest to someone, including (but not limited to):
- Postpartum recovery
- Erectile difficulties
- Gender dysphoria
- Pelvic pain conditions, including IBS/IBD
- Body size and movement limitations
- Personal preference
Lack of sensation
When we start to look at different sex acts as opportunities for pleasure all on their own — not as a stepping stone toward penetration — we open ourselves up for more fulfilling sexual experiences.
So if penetration is off-the-table or simply not of interest to you, don’t fret. There are plenty of ways to build a pleasurable and fulfilling sex life, no penetration required.
Measure Pleasure, Not Orgasm
How do you define sexual pleasure? For many of us, that definition would boil down to “everyone had an orgasm.”
Don’t get me wrong — orgasms are great. But they’re not the only measure of sexual pleasure. A more expansive definition of pleasure would be a feeling of satisfaction or enjoyment. It’s not about any technique, event, or outcome; it’s about your experience in the moment.
So, try writing another definition of sexual pleasure. One that might include orgasm, but doesn’t validate the whole sexual experience based on if one happened.
If you’re someone who hasn’t experienced orgasm, or if you haven’t in a while (despite trying), focusing on this lower-pressure definition can actually help relax you and make orgasms more attainable.
Create a Comprehensive Sexual Menu
What do you count as sex? When I ask my clients this, they usually list off the usual suspects — vaginal sex, anal sex, sometimes oral sex, and on rare occasions, hand stuff.
Because many of us have been taught to prioritize penetrative sex, we often overlook the other sexual experiences that we enjoy.
So, take some time to write up a comprehensive sexual menu. The items you include on it don’t need to be things that are reliably orgasmic for you. They don’t even have to be things that you always or often want to do. If you’re in a sexual relationship with someone, you can even create a shared sexual menu so that you can easily keep track of all of the things that are on the table!
Think of it this way — at your favorite restaurant, there are probably things on the menu that you’ve thought about ordering, but haven’t yet. That might be because you really loved the first dish you tried. It might be because you’re afraid of ordering something that you regret. Or, it might be because you know you have to be in a very specific mood to order that one thing.
But you know that those dishes are there for you to try, even if you don’t opt for them most of the time.
Now, try taking that same approach with your sex life (yes, including your solo sex life). What are all of the things that you could do? What toppings or accessories could you bring into the mix? Make sure to factor in acts that you’re down to give (but not receive) and vice versa.
Be specific, too. Rather than just “oral sex”, write down the specific types of oral sex that you’re down for, and then include if you’re interested in giving, receiving, or both. You can even include things like sexting, mutual masturbation, erotic massage, watching porn, impact play — be creative!
Now take a look at the comprehensive menu you’ve created. I’d bet that penetrative sex acts comprise just a small proportion of what you’ve written down.
Use Your Senses
When we’re hyper-focused on checking the penetration box, we often forget to pay attention to how we physically feel during sexual encounters. I don’t just mean how your skin and genitals feel, either — I mean how all of your senses feel.
Many of us have cultivated sex lives that are sexual, but not sensory. In other words, we’ve downplayed our overall sensory experience in favor of just doing it.
Focusing on your sensory experiences can actually help intensify your experiences of pleasure and show you areas of your body and types of stimulation that have significant capacity for pleasure, but have maybe been overlooked.
For more tips on engaging your five senses, check out this article: How the Five Senses Can Intensify Foreplay
Pleasure Is in Your Hands (Literally)
One of your most underrated and underutilized sex tools isn’t something you can buy in a bottle — it’s your hands.
If you’re looking to deprioritize penetrative sex, try incorporating more handsy stuff. Handjobs, fingering, massage, light touch, impact play — your hands are capable of creating so much sexual pleasure.
While we tend to think of our genitals as our primary erogenous zones, the reality is that every part of our bodies can be a source of sexual pleasure. So, use your hands to explore what feels good for you and your partners! Try out different types of touch (soft and tantalizing, firm and deep) feel good on which parts of your body.
If your hands have movement difficulties or limited sensation, you could try using a wearable vibrator like Fin as an extension of your hands and fingers.
Focus on Outstanding Oral Sex
Oral sex can be reliably orgasmic and incredibly intimate — so why do so many of us treat it like a necessary pit stop on the way to our true destination?
When we treat oral sex like the less interesting, more laborious counterpart to penetrative sex, of course it isn’t going to feel exciting.
Oral play is a category of sex all on its own! So, if you have an aversion to oral sex, take some time to really understand what’s at the root of it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What was I taught about oral sex?
- Do I feel like genitals are inherently dirty or gross?
- How do I feel about having my mouth near genital fluids? (pro-tip, you can always use a barrier method for oral play!)
- Do I feel like my mouth gets dry or my jaw gets tired?
- Do I feel pressure to “perform”?
- Am I uncomfortable receiving pleasure?
As with any type of sex, it’s important to understand our relationship with it. You won’t be into everything — that’s okay, and perfectly human — but sometimes, our “yucks” come from early lessons or outdated beliefs that we don’t want to hold onto anymore.
So, once you’ve done some soul-searching, spend some time honing your communication skills and your oral techniques to create truly fantastic oral sex experiences. Try new positions for giving and receiving, bring a vibrator into the mix, or use a positioning aid like Pillo to alleviate neck strain.
Ultimately, your sex life can still be delicious and satisfying — even without any type of penetration on the menu. So take the time to explore what feels good and create the menu that works best for you.