When I first became sexually active at age seventeen, I had what I’d come to view as a “problem”: I wasn’t able to orgasm with a partner, even though I could alone.
I didn’t think of it as a problem initially. I loved my orgasm-less sexual encounters.
But after hearing partners talk about how badly they wanted to make me come, I started to feel bad about it. As if by not coming, I was being ungrateful for their efforts.
Medical professionals didn’t help. On the form I had to fill out to see my college’s nurse, they asked me to check off any sexual problems I had, and that was one of them.
When I brought it up to my psychiatrist, realizing my antidepressants were probably the culprit, he asked me if that was why my last relationship ended.
But I didn’t want to go off my antidepressants, and I considered sex (I’m defining sex as any sexual activity, not just intercourse) something to enjoy for the pleasure of the whole thing, not a few seconds at the end.
After a while, though, partners’ expectant and sometimes desperate glances; the media’s portrayal of sex as something that, by definition, must end in orgasm, or else you’re supposedly doing it wrong; and misguided feminist rhetoric implying that you can measure a woman’s empowerment by the number of orgasms she had got to me.
Partially for that reason, I went off my antidepressants. And sure enough, the first time I got into a relationship after that, I was able to orgasm with my partner.
I was so relieved the first time it happened. I was ecstatic to be able to share what was considered the ultimate sexual experience and offer my partner what was considered the ultimate turn-on and badge of honor.
A huge weight lifted; I was finally “normal.”
But it wore off. Having an orgasm for the sake of my partner sometimes took as much emotional labor as faking one, between all the mental pep talks, concentrated fantasizing, and physical positioning. I missed the days when I put no pressure on myself and believed sex could end whenever I wanted it to.
Then, I took an Orgasmic Meditation class. Despite the name, this is a sexual practice that takes the focus off climax. Basically, someone rubs your clitoris in a specific way for fifteen minutes, and there’s no goal. You just lie there and let whatever happens happen.
This confused me at first, but the instructors explained that they redefine “orgasm” so that every sensation in the body is reinterpreted as part of one. It sounds a little out there, but when I adopted this attitude and told myself “this is an orgasm” throughout the entire experience, I discovered a whole well of sensations.
That might not be scientifically accepted terminology, but regardless of the words you use, the point is to appreciate every part of sex equally, not value any moment over the others.
Now, I’m trying not to view orgasm (as it’s traditionally defined) as the goal of sex. Here are four reasons why.
1. It Makes Sex Less Prescriptive
One easy way to kill the fun of sex is to believe it has to end a certain way. Instead of enjoying the moment, you’re busy thinking “How can I come more quickly?” or “What if I don’t come?”
A lot of people feel like they have to perform during sex in one way or another, whether that’s by coming, making their partners come, looking sexy, or whatever.
But the kind of sex that brings people closer allows them to be themselves and, while still caring about their partners’ pleasure, do what they truly like.
Getting rid of external pressure to make sex a certain way allows me to get out of my head and connect with my partner.
In addition to taking off the pressure, adopting a less prescriptive idea of sex also makes the way we talk about sex more inclusive.
Not everyone climaxes – one study estimates that 10-15% of women have some sort of orgasm disorder – but that’s only a problem if it bothers the person. There’s no right or wrong way to have sex, and defining sex as something that ends in an orgasm implies that there is.
2. Every Sensation Becomes More Intense
I know it may sound impossible for sex without an orgasm to be more pleasurable. But I find that at least sex without trying to orgasm is more enjoyable because I’m paying attention to and appreciating every sensation.
Once I stopped thinking “I need to reach the goal” and thought “This is the goal,” I realized I was already experiencing the sensations I wanted to experience. (Ironically, those sensations became so overwhelming that I started climaxing faster unintentionally, which actually makes me feel disappointed that the best part’s over.)
I realized my body was capable of more kinds of pleasure than I gave it credit for.
Those moments before orgasm can be far better than the orgasm itself if I don’t spend them worrying if I’m going to get there.
It’s like the difference between eating in a rush because you need to feed yourself and slowly noticing every bite. Both approaches have their place, but you’ll probably enjoy the latter more because you’re paying attention to every part of it.
3. My Pleasure Should Be for Me, Not My Partner
Women in our culture are taught that their bodies, including their orgasms, don’t belong to them. Even as we’re being pleased, it’s supposedly for the purpose of pleasing someone else.
When I gave myself permission not to try to orgasm, I realized that when I did try (or faked it), it was mostly to feed my partners’ egos, turn them on, make them feel appreciated, or put the sex to an end when I didn’t feel comfortable communicating that I wasn’t feeling it anymore.
In one qualitative study, many women said they faked orgasms because they wanted an encounter to end. The pressure to orgasm is so strong that some of us feel we can’t stop until we’ve appeared to have one.
It’s as if we owe it to our partners for their effort, especially since any sexual attention placed on women is treated as an extra gift that we should feel lucky for. Rewarding our partners with an exaggerated orgasm, real or fake, feels like the least we can do.
It’s not our fault that we feel this way. But ideally, if we can get past this pressure, our pleasure should be for us. And seeking pleasure may or may not mean coming.
Any partner who really cares about you will want what feels best for you, not what feels best for them.
4. This Approach Has Change My Perspective Beyond Sex
How our society views sex is a reflection of how it views everything: as a race to the finish line. And beyond that finish line is usually some sort of achievement.
In a similar way that we have sex to get an orgasm, we go to school to get a great job. We go to work to make money. We lead the lives we think will be most impressive to others, regardless of how they make us feel.
Rather than enjoying each moment, we wonder what it’ll lead to. We try to optimize everything to have the most climactic outcome. We assess what we’ll “get out of” our experiences, rather than appreciating them for their own sake.
I’ve found this to be an empty way to live. Once you achieve something, there’s momentary excitement – and then you’re on to the next goal.
So, I’m trying to live a life that’s less climax-focused.
Where lazing around in bed is as good as going on a run or doing work because I enjoy it. Where I don’t need an outcome to validate how I spend my time. Where I don’t “kill time” while I wait for something more exciting to occur because each moment is equally valuable.
That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good orgasm, physical or metaphorical. It just means I also enjoy all the rest.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.