Pleasure and "Choosing" Whether To Have An Orgasm - Why Women Deserve Just A Little Better

I read this post on BlogHer entitled "The Orgasm Gap: Are Women Faking It?" It and the comments for it, started me thinking more about the words "pleasure" and "choice." These are common words used in discussions about the female orgasm, and I think they are often used sloppily. But to get into that, let's first answer the question posed...do women fake? Of course the answer is yes. Lots of women fake it. The author points to a study of about 6000 people where 85% of men claim their woman climaxed in their last encounter and only 64% of women claimed that they orgasmed in their last encounter. This discrepancy is nothing new. One could find a number of surveys showing that there is a chunk of women out there faking orgasms. Since men don't seem to fake nearly as much as ladies do, she wonders if women are just too used to pleasing without return or too tired with work, kids, and home to make the time for getting turned on. (Maybe faking quick helps you get more shut-eye without feeling like you are always saying no to sex). Then she goes on to wonder the following: 

Or could it be something even deeper. Right now, I’m on a book tour for my new book, What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend Just today alone, I got these questions:
  • What does an orgasm feel like?
  • How do I know if I’ve had an orgasm?
  • My boyfriend is bummed if I don’t look like I’m having fun, but sex hurts me. What should I do?
  • I don’t really know what I like in bed. How can I find out?
What this tells me is that many of us honestly don’t know what gives us pleasure. Many of us don’t even know what an orgasm IS! 

I think she's oh so right. Although I would make a small distinction.
I think it is not pleasure that women are uncertain about. I think it is the orgasm in particular. Pleasure is easy, and we understand pleasure. We eat for pleasure, talk for pleasure, read for pleasure. We really can tell if we like something or we don't  - and that is no different in sex. We can find pleasure in all sorts of sexual activity; the sensation of kissing, the emotional closeness, the intensity of rough touching, the high of risking someone catching you, the freeing feeling of being naked, the calming nature of romantic candles and scented oil, even the pleasure of having sex without someone trying to make you have an orgasm you feel you'll never have...I could go on forever. In this, our notion of what is pleasurable, we as people can be diversely unique and those unique personal pleasures can often cause physical sexual arousal.

The orgasm, however, that could result from the pleasure and arousal we can easily come by in sex is not so obvious and not so diverse. It is not so diverse because the female orgasm is a specific physical reaction that results from clitoral stimulation (however that stimulation happens to come about). This is in the same way that male orgasms are a specific physical reaction that results from penile stimulation. Although women's orgasms are often discussed as if they are diverse, unique and mysterious, there is no good scientific reason to believe that. They are as unique, diverse, and mysterious as male orgasms are - that's about as far as I will go.

Our orgasms are not so obvious because we are constantly misled about how we should get them. The depictions of women orgasming that we see, the advice we get, the discussions that take place, the jokes that are said, the sexual education we receive in school, and the types of sex that are considered normal all point to women's orgasms resulting from vaginal stimulation through intercourse. Yet, there is simply no good scientific evidence that this is ever the case. Although there may be a woman out there who can have an actual physical orgasm through vaginal stimulation alone, she has not yet been recorded as doing so. The scientifically recorded orgasms out there come from clitoral stimulation - indirect or direct.

So, we need to make a distinction when we talk about "pleasure." It is so often used as interchangeable with orgasm. Using it this way confuses the already confusing myth of the female orgasm. When we say achieving pleasure in sex can be done in a large variety of ways and is vastly unique to each woman, it often seems as if we mean orgasm can be achieved in a variety of ways (anal, vaginal, clitoral, backrubs, fantasizing, etc. I've heard much crazier - believe me). We wouldn't say off hand that men's orgasms are vastly unique in this way, so it adds to the idea of the female orgasm being some mysterious, fickle beast that no one completely understands. Yet we actually do understand it at least as well as we understand men's.

So, whereas vaginal intercourse may be quite pleasurable to a woman, that doesn't mean it is orgasmic. This is important. Men and women can both find pleasure in sex and the ways of finding pleasure can be as unique as the people themselves. Men, way more often than women, also have an orgasm along with that pleasure. This could be because men naturally just care more about orgasm, and women just naturally have less inclination to care about orgasm. This is what is often purported. In fact, the comments added to the post we are discussing, show plenty of women saying that they aren't worried about orgasms too much; saying there is plenty of other things to enjoy about sex; that we're too obsessed with women orgasming; that they have never orgasmed and don't see why it's such a big deal - they enjoy sex just fine. In a way these women are right, because there is a lot to enjoy about sex besides the big O.

However, this isn't just a matter of women choosing to either have an orgasm during their sexual encounter or not. It's not as if when women get down and dirty in that one-night stand or the midnight sex with their husband, they get to a point and say, "You know, I'm going to not have an orgasm. I haven't just sat back and really enjoyed the feeling of a naked body against me or reveled in the pride of giving a man pleasure without asking for anything in return in a while." This is a valid choice in a sex act, and one that maybe men should feel is more legitimately available to them, but this is not what is happening for most women. Women are not having orgasms largely because they don't know how to with a partner. Women and men are both led to believe that orgasm should happen for women through intercourse, and that intercourse is the ultimate in sexual contact, yet that is not how women orgasm - except in porn, movies, tv, comics, jokes, etc... Women generally need confidence, luck, boldness, willingness to try out-of the-ordinary things, a nice willing partner, and a variety of other things to obtain an orgasm while with a partner. Men generally just need a woman willing to go about sex in a fairly normal fashion. So to speak about women's orgasm as if it is a choice whether to have one or not is bothersome to me.

Once we get to a situation where we have a generation of females who grow up understanding physically how male and female orgasms work, and seeing the depictions and discussions of sex accurately portraying the actions involved in both male and female orgasm during partnered sex - then I will concede that whether to have an orgasm during a sexual interaction is a choice. It is not a choice for most women*, and focusing on the other pleasures of sex is really their only choice. This is something that can be changed in the future. It is not because women are naturally and physically less able to orgasm (they are not) or are naturally less inclined to want orgasm (given the cultural circumstances we've discussed so far, I hardly think this is something innate). While acknowledging that women can enjoy and find pleasure in sex without orgasm, we should also be working to make the choice to have or not to have an orgasm an actual viable choice for women.

*Thanks to some constructive criticism,  I'd like to point out "most" refers to the approximately 2/3 of women who claim they do not have orgasms always or most of the time they have sex. This is a pretty consistent finding, but specifically can be found in the 1976 book The Hite Report on Female Sexuality by Shere Hite. Besides her own survey, she documents at least 3 others that are consistent with her own.

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