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Sexual Wellness

The Barriers to Orgasm We Often Don’t Recognize

| 11/08/2021

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

When it comes to cis-female or clit-owners’ orgasms, there has been a long-standing (but luckily shifting) myth that they are somehow elusive. This assumption finds its roots in (shocker alert): The Patriarchy. It comes from the idea that the only “real sex” is PIV intercourse. 

When we define sex in such limited terms, the female and clit-owner’s orgasm actually does become elusive. Like, how are penis-owners supposed to think female orgasms are straightforward and simple if the way they’re having sex does not cause clit-owners to orgasm? 

Yet, despite the work of many brilliant sex educators on an endless mission to reframe sexuality and debunk incorrect beliefs, the disinformation prevails. My inbox is still filled to the brim with questions from vagina-owners about why their male partners aren’t making them come with their magic dicks. 

It’s even more complicated when you consider that orgasms do not just arise out of stimulation. Desire and orgasm come out of bio-psycho-social factors that are fundamental to sexual enjoyment—and, as we’re discovering more and more, it isn’t just women who require these things to align in order to elicit the right conditions for orgasm and pleasure. People of all genders need these things for sex to be both physically and psychologically pleasurable.

The key here is education. So, without further ado, let’s explore the barriers that often prevent women and clit-owners from orgasming—the things that are ignored, underutilized, or are simply unknown to us.

A lack of adequate stimulation (from yourself or a partner)

If you believe you’re not receiving the right stimulation from a partner, that could certainly be contributing to a lack of orgasm. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily selfish or intentional. With the way our absolutely shit sex ed curricula (nearly across the whole country) is constructed, it’s no wonder that people don’t understand what makes vulva-owners orgasm. 

Just look at this chart from Dr. Laurie Mintz’s Becoming Cliterate (adapted for Instagram):

Image shows a chart of how women orgasm, with intercourse lowest, clitoral stimulation alone medium, and intercourse and clitoral stimulation together being highest.

It could be that your partner(s) aren’t providing the correct stimulation that you need, or that you don’t feel safe with your partner, or that you are expecting them to know what you like without ever telling them.

Communication really is key. “This means getting more brave about speaking up during sex, using short, direct, but kind language,” says Kenneth Play, a world-renowned sex-hacker and sex educator. “No one is a mind reader and even the most skilled partner could well be unaware of what it is you want. Simple directions like faster, slower, harder, softer, up, down, etc. can make a huge difference between so-so sex, bad sex, or great sex.” 

And this responsibility falls on both partners. Both people should be advocating for themselves and their partner’s pleasure in a kind, empathetic way. As Katherine Angel points out in her new book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, the onus to “know yourself” shouldn’t entirely fall on women as a burden and barrier to their own pleasure. It requires egalitarian effort and an understanding of the nuances of desire (which we will get to below). Communication, trust, and content create an atmosphere of exploration and joy rather than discomfort. 

A lack of confidence about your body

Learning what you like during sex is a big part of sexual confidence. And so much of it is rooted in the body and the ways in which we see ourselves. “Body confidence is a tall order in a culture that spends a lot of time telling us how we should look,” says Moushumi Ghose, MFT, a licensed sex therapist. “Getting out of our heads, and [not] overthinking is the key to this, and of course allowing pleasure into your life.”

Self-pleasure is a radical act that has the power to give people, specifically women and those raised female, ownership over their bodies.

An amazing way to increase confidence in your body is through masturbation. Self-pleasure is a radical act that has the power to give people, specifically women and those raised female, ownership over their bodies—especially in a society that constantly tells us our bodies are not our own, but rather vessels for the orgasms of other people (specifically, heterosexual men).

So, how do you stay in your body with a partner when you’re worried about how you look? Ghose says it’s important to remember to remember that you’re the only one who’s worried about this. Your partner clearly thinks you’re hot or they wouldn’t be here trying to actively get it on with you. So focus on staying with your own pleasure. 

Focusing on smell, touch, taste, sounds, can be a great way to get [in the] present, out of your head, and lose yourself in your body. Learning that all bodies deserve pleasure and feel good is a good reminder as well,” Ghose says.

Confusion about what “sex drive” actually means

We have to get something straight: The desire and interest we have for sex is not an innate human “drive.” It is not like eating or sleeping—you won’t die without orgasms (even though you might feel that way sometimes). The misnomer comes from the similar feelings we have when we feel sexually aroused—it feels like a human, animalistic hunger—but it isn’t. 

There are two types of horniness, and we only ever hear about one because of the incorrect ways we prioritize male desire over cis-female and clit owners: Spontaneous desire. The other kind of horniness, Responsive (or Receptive) desire is much more common, especially in vulva-owners and women.

What’s really important to understand about female desire (and the desire of all genders, really) is that it isn’t usually spontaneous—it’s responsive.  

“Horniness” is usually not random, but rather triggered by an event, erotic imagery, a fantasy, a smell. There is an activating event in the brain, which then sends signals to the genitals to become aroused. These messages are circular—the brain talks to the spine, which talks to the genitals, which talk to the spine, which talks to the brain, and so on. This is, as referred to above, a bio-psycho-social phenomenon which leads to sexual desire.

For true desire to occur, we need the right number of factors to be in play: Bio (our body) needs to be receptive to arousal; psycho (our mind) needs to be in a mindset that allows for desire (i.e. feeling calm, relaxed, in our bodies, sexy, etc.); and the social aspects (the relationship with the people involved in the sexual encounter) need to align. We need to be connected to the experience both mentally and physically in order to be receptive to sex. 

This is why we need to shift away from the word “drive” and instead use something more neutral like “sexual desire.” It sends the incorrect message that prioritizes the way many penis owners (but not all!) experience desire, and leaves women without a leg to stand on. No wonder the vast majority of us have the message “I’m broken” playing over and over again in our heads. We don’t even have the right language to understand our own sexual desire.

Sexual shame

Welcome to the last and final piece of this puzzle: The Shame Game. The players? All of us. 

Shame is a major reason why so many of us have inhibitions around sex and don’t feel comfortable asking for what we want—or exploring what we want to even ask for it. “Learning to experience the needs, wants, and desires of your genitals (and heart and mind, sexually), without judging or suppressing them, is key to feeling fully in the moment when it’s time to actually get into the acting out of your desires,” Play explains.

Sex should be about joy, exploration, feeling safe, respect, and enjoying yourself. Eradicating sexual shame will be a ton of work, but—little by little—we can start to educate people on a wider scale and start to chip away at this notion that sex is bad. 

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