Five thoughts on orgasms and whether they matter as much as we think they do:
1. At 14, I confess to a couple friends that I’ve never actually, you know, had an orgasm. They stare back at me with matching expressions of shock.
“But you jerk off, right?”
I do. Maybe not in the most typical way, since I hate the slipperiness and contours of my vagina, which reminds me of a raw chicken, and prefer to keep my fingers strictly on the outside of my underwear. It’s not that I don’t think I could orgasm — sweat dripping down my forehead and thighs vibrating, I get pretty close. But…
I say, “I just want the first time I come to be with someone I love.”
My friend replies, “That’s the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard.”
2. Sophomore year of high school during winter break, I am reading a book a few seats away from my family on a train in Europe, when I start to feel warm and tingly. I cross my legs to increase the pressure, move my thighs back and forth ever so slightly, glancing around to make sure no one is watching. I stop reading and look out the window. Lush farmland rolls past, but all I can think about is the heat of my skin and how the pressure of my thighs against each other doesn’t feel like enough. When I can take it no longer, I rush to the train car bathroom, rip down my pants and even my underwear, balance backward on the toilet and rub my finger furiously over my clit until I at last (and for the first time) come. For reasons that I will never truly understand or be able to explain, the book I was reading when this all began was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
3. A friend casually refers to sex with her boyfriend as “making her come every time” and I am shocked at her body’s consistency. Another friend confesses that she’s never actually able to come from sex with someone else, but that she has immediate and regular success with her vibrator. A friend shamefully says the boy she was hooking up with didn’t come from sex the night before and worries she did something wrong. I explain to yet another friend that, yes, I can come from sex, but I need at least an hour of foreplay first and that it helps if the other person whispers, “Come for me.” She crinkles her lip in slight repulsion; I reply, “Can I help it if my body is obedient?”
4. We are obsessed with the orgasm. It occupies our waking thoughts, our bored-during-lecture fantasies and our late-night anxieties. But how important is the Big O really? Does sex actually have to end with this kind of completion, and if so, for both parties, or just for one?
Despite being a bisexual girl, I grew up thinking of sex as ending specifically when the man ejaculated. In high school hook-ups, I felt satisfied and fulfilled knowing I had made a guy come. I accepted that, with the briny taste of semen in my throat, the encounter had reached its natural conclusion — even if my vagina was still dry as the Sahara.
Another question implicit in all this is what we actually define as sex. In high school, I was careful to identify as doing “everything but,” meaning I would give a blowjob, but no penis was getting past me to my vagina. But defining sex based on penetration and male ejaculation is arbitrary and heteronormative. What if I am with another woman (cis or trans) or someone non-binary? What if I have penetrative sex, but I’m totally unenthused and the person’s dick feels like a fish flopping around inside me? Should this really “count”? Shouldn’t sex be defined by consent and mutual enjoyment — whatever that might look like? What if I don’t actually come from sex, but still find it extremely pleasurable?
5. After having sex with Lonely Hearts Club Boy my freshman year of college, he asked if I had come. I was pretty sure I had, but it was kind of in an uncanny valley where it had definitely been really, really good, and I had at least been close, but in the heat of the moment, I wasn’t totally 100 percent positive if it had actually crossed the orgasm threshold. “I did,” I replied. “Really? You aren’t lying?” he said back. Even though it was nice that he cared and wanted to know, the question made me uncomfortable. Why couldn’t he just take my word for it, rather than interrogate me about my body?
The truth is, my body isn’t always consistent. Sometimes, I’m soaking wet in a minute and reaching orgasm from penetration or fingering is easy. Other times, I feel stuck in my head and it takes a lot more slow, gradual foreplay before I’m really in the mood. Some orgasms are definitive, are being struck by lightning vagina-first, and others are softer and (if we’re being honest) a little less clearly orgasms at all (though actually no less fun!). And sometimes, especially when I don’t know someone well or fully trust them, it doesn’t matter what you say or do to my vagina, but I am just not going to be able to come — even if I still enjoy myself.
It’s hard to talk about these things when we’re taught to consider the inability to orgasm some kind of personal failing, even though sex can be exciting and beautiful with or without the Big O and all the label brings with it. But I don’t want to be ashamed anymore; I want to have the conversation. Whether you’ve come a thousand times or haven’t so far, or you’re stopping short and waiting for your first time to be with someone you love, having or not having orgasms doesn’t define your sex life. Your job in the bedroom isn’t to make sure your hook-up partner or significant other comes every time, but to try to make them feel as good as possible within the realm of what you’re both comfortable with. Talk to your friends and partners about orgasms. Ask for what you want. Listen to your heart and your genitals; and know that whatever your experience of sex and orgasms, you are normal and worthy of pleasure.
Dirty Blonde is a student at Cornell University. Love in the Time of Tinder runs monthly this semester. Sex on Thursday appears every other Thursday.