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Let’s be clear on one thing: Orgasms are great! This is in no way an anti-climax (ha see what I did there) post. But I AM going to offer the hot take that orgasms are not a requirement for great sex, and they’re not a measure of anyone’s sexual prowess or talent as a lover.
Okay, you can get up off the fainting couch now. I know that as a sex-positive, feminist, queer- and trans-inclusive practice, it seems like our job should be to champion the big O as often and as loudly as possible. Our political, religious, and cultural hegemony has spent centuries demonizing orgasms for anyone except straight cis white men (and sometimes even for them) and trying to eliminate or control them through any violence necessary. So shouldn’t we be fighting back against that?
We are, actually. Here’s the thing: Sex positivity is often misinterpreted as YES ALL SEX ALL THE TIME, and that’s not what it is. True sex positivity includes not being sexual at all, or holding space to deal with sexual trauma. It includes challenging assumptions about what constitutes “real” sex or “good” sex and focuses on individual desires and experiences over peer pressure and “shoulds”. Holding up orgasm as proof of valid sex and insisting on it as a requirement of sex is just one more way to police people’s sexuality.
De-centering orgasm can and does comfortably co-exist with the belief that climaxing is sexy and wonderful and valuable. Especially for anyone who was shamed for being sexual or taught that cumming is sinful or dirty, it is incredibly empowering to discover what it takes to send you over the edge into bliss. However, the pendulum swings too far the other way the minute you feel pressured to orgasm every time you have sex, or you pick up on the message that being rapidly and easily multi-orgasmic means that you’re a better lover.
So let’s have a little chat about building a healthier relationship to orgasm.
The harm caused by orgasm obsession
When you believe that you have to cum every time you have sex, whether to make your partner(s) feel good or to prove that you’re sexually functional and worldly, you’re putting an awful lot of pressure on yourself (and possibly your partner). Feeling anxious and stressed not only makes it harder to have an orgasm at all, it robs you of the joy of savoring the sex you’re having. It becomes a race to the finish line.
Over time, the pressure to perform (especially if it makes it hard or impossible for you to orgasm) can lead to depression, loss of interest in sex at all, difficulty having sex, and body image issues. It can erode your relationships with your lovers when one or all of you avoids sex, or when struggles with sex lead you to think that your relationship is broken or doomed.
It can feel even worse if there’s no one you feel like you can talk to about it. When it seems like all your friends are joking and bragging about their hot sex lives and earth-shaking O’s, you might feel too ashamed to share your challenges. If your community or culture holds a lot of judgment about sex, it might even be taboo to talk about at all.
Unhappiness in our sex lives tends to affect our lives in general, leaving us wondering if we’re normal, if we’re hopeless, if we’re going to end up alone because of it.
How to re-frame your relationship to orgasm
The whole point of this article is to help you relieve all that pressure and lift that heaviness and anxiety off your life. It’s absolutely possible to reconnect with your sexual joy.
This is the takeaway I want you to remember: Good sex isn’t defined by the presence of an orgasm, and you don’t owe anyone an orgasm as “proof” that the sex was real or good. (click to Tweet)
Sex is about connection and pleasure—connection with yourself, and/or with one or more other people. And pleasure can take many forms. It includes orgasm, but it also includes arousal, and comfort, and safety. Pleasure includes enjoying your lover’s kisses, or how good a pinch or lick or nibble feels, or the pressure of your partner’s weight on your body, or even the joy of clean sheets on a soft bed.
Did you feel safe being vulnerable with your partner? Were you excited to try something new? Did it turn you on to use your favorite toy? Did you get a thrill from your partner’s happy moans when you did something they like? These, and many more, are signs of good sex.
If there was a time when you didn’t have an orgasm, or your partner didn’t, or it took one or both of you a long time, think back—did you enjoy it otherwise? Even if you can only remember a few minutes toward the beginning where everything was hot or sweet and felt amazing in its own right, zero in on that. Can you shift your perspective to see that sexual encounter as a positive one that was simply affected by anxiety at some point?
The more you can start appreciating the value of everything about sex for its own sake, and not just as a means to reach orgasm, the easier it becomes to really enjoy and savor sex again.
The difference between de-centering orgasm and giving up
One important point I want to make is that dethroning orgasm as the end-all be-all of sex does NOT mean gaslighting yourself about how you should just accept never having orgasms and never feel bad about it. Anorgasmia is a very real thing, and you don’t need to resign yourself to it.
Absolutely, see a sex therapist or a doctor if you’re unable to climax and you feel sad or angry or frustrated or ashamed about it. There is help available (including in our Resources page) and you have every right to seek it out. You don’t have to just live with trauma, sexual pain or discomfort, body dysmorphia, or anything else that makes sex hard for you.
It can help, however, to still decide to focus on aspects of sex other than orgasm for a while. Taking the pressure off and relieving anxiety by giving yourself permission not to have an orgasm can ultimately help you reach a point where orgasming becomes possible again.
If the idea that orgasm isn’t the goal of sex or proof of good sex intrigues you, here are some tips to help you explore it, alone or with a partner:
- Give yourself permission not to cum. Remind yourself often that if it happens, that’s great, but it’s okay if it doesn’t.
- Spend some time masturbating or just exploring your body in ways that feel good, with the intention that you’re not trying to have an orgasm but rather just to experience pleasure.
- If you have one or more partners, you will need to talk to them about what you’re doing and why, and ask them to support you.
- You might need to reassure your partner(s) that they aren’t “failing” or bad lovers if you don’t have an orgasm. Tell them, “You’re a great lover because you’re really present with me, enjoying being intimate with me, and listening to my desires. You make me feel amazing, and me not having an orgasm is just about where my body is at in that moment, not about how skilled you are or how good our connection is.”
- If you feel yourself getting fixated on “having to” have an orgasm while you’re having sex or starting to try hard for it, interrupt those thoughts and pay attention simply to what feels good about what you’re doing. You might even say it out loud to your partner—“Love, I’m starting to pressure myself to cum. Can you help me by reminding me that it’s okay not to, and asking me what feels good about what we’re doing?”
- If your partner is getting tired and you haven’t had an orgasm yet, or you can feel yourself getting sore or uncomfortable, take a rest! Cuddle for a bit, or switch what you’re doing, or even just decide that you’re both ready to be done. Tell each other what you enjoyed about having sex this time, and how you made each other feel good.
- Be playful, even silly or exaggerated, about the pleasure you’re getting during sex. Wild moans during a massage, or telling your lover in wicked detail how much you love going down on them, or wriggles and gasps and big smiles when their touch feels amazing, can help both/all of you learn to trust that non-orgasmic pleasure is truly great and not just settling.
- If you have a BDSM aspect to your relationship, you can negotiate to make this exploration part of your dynamic. For example, a submissive partner who’s been having trouble orgasming might be ordered not to cum as a way to relieve the pressure they feel; a dominant partner might instruct their submissive to give them pleasure for its own sake without expectation of causing an orgasm.
- Make plans to spend sexual time with your partner that’s purely focused on exploring each other’s bodies and touching each other in ways that feel good. At these times, skip the activities that usually make one or both of you expect orgasm, whether that’s penetration, oral sex, or anything else. It’s okay if one of you does have an orgasm, but agree that you’re actively not trying to go for that– just for connection with each other and pleasure for its own sake.
- If it IS important to you to be able to orgasm, give yourself occasions to explore and experiment just for the purpose of learning your body better. Try out some sex toys, seek out different times of day or different locations, play with pressure, speed, intensity, and types of sexual contact to see what works best. Check out Emily Nagoski’s groundbreaking book Come As You Are to learn more about your sexual excitement and what helps or blocks it. Seek out a sex therapist if working through this feels like too much to manage on your own.
You deserve to have all the pleasure, all the joy, and all the bed-shaking orgasms you desire. I’m rooting for you to discover everything your body is capable of! Just remember that not only is no one entitled to sex with you, no one is entitled to your orgasms for their ego or sense of self, either. And if you don’t care about climaxing and feel like you could live happily without it? That is 100% valid and no one gets to tell you otherwise. The sex (or absence of sex) that feels fulfilling and validating to you is the sex that is right for you, orgasms or no.
Are you struggling with your sexuality and need help? See our Services page and find out how we can help you through therapy (in DC, MD, or VA) or coaching.