I’ve been working on a long article about my experiences with sexual dysfunction. It’s a project that’s been in the making for quite a while, but now that I don’t have so many distractions I’m ramping it up.
This is a complicated and difficult subject for me. I have a satisfying sex life now — I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating with partners, setting boundaries, seeking what I want, and masturbating to orgasm. It took me a long, long time to get here, though, and I had to get through a ton of confused feelings. Not just about coming into my S&M identity, though that was certainly a factor, but also dealing with feelings around the orgasmic dysfunction itself — for example, feelings about how my apparent inability to have orgasms meant that I was broken. (I had and still have some vaginal pain, too. Not every time, not even most times, and nothing overwhelming — but enough that I’ve developed coping mechanisms.)
In order to write this article, I’ve been going through a lot of years-old journal entries. One quotation particularly struck me:
[My boyfriend] comforted me the other night when I broke down and cried. I wept and wept and he said it was okay, you’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay, he said, not to want sex. But I do want sex, I’m just sickened and terrified and disgusted by it, and I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be able to watch sex scenes and not be enraged and disgusted, to read sensitive ones and not collapse in tears.
I wasn’t entirely sickened and terrified and disgusted by sex, of course: I often liked it. Loved it, really. Sex usually felt good even before I could have orgasms, even before I’d found S&M, even before I’d parsed out my feelings and learned more about sexual media such as porn. And I’ve talked a lot about how awesome and sex-positive my sex education was.
But I knew I was missing something, something crucial and integral to my sexuality. And I hated the way society seemed to always be informing me how to sexually act: I felt crushed into approaches that obviously weren’t working, weren’t meant for someone like me. It was hard to walk the line between craving sex and being unable to stand it.
Here’s another excerpt from my journal, around the same time:
I really hate reading explicit sex scenes. I didn’t used to hate it as much as I do now, and since I broke down in tears during the last one, I guess it’s pretty obvious why. Jealousy and hurt and hatred of the ideals I feel like they’re trying to forge into me, [one ideal being] that love and sex and particularly orgasm are all irrevocably intertwined, and that by missing out on orgasm I’m missing out on not only an aspect of sex but of love.
But mostly I guess the discomfort does come from not wanting to read the intimate details of another’s sex life … and the jealousy for the orgasm, still there, too deep to banish. Christ, it’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this miserable about this. It’s so fucking unimportant in the grand scheme of things. — but the tears that startled me in my eyes as I typed tell me just how unimportant it really is to me, I guess.
I started reading some sort of book on having orgasms and wept all through the first chapter because it was so miserably true. And because it was so miserably true I feel as though I ought to read the rest of the book, just give it a chance and go with it, and maybe make it that way, but it hurt so much and I’m so scared that it won’t work, and then I’ll be really unhappy. (A reaction the book even outlined, by the way. Yes, it’s about as true as it gets — the only thing I’ve ever found seems to understand how I really feel about this.)
The book that struck me so much is the monumental For Yourself, by Lonnie Barbach. It’s a famous book. I searched it out at the San Francisco library recently, and spent an afternoon sitting around the Mission branch, trying to locate the passages that once touched me so much. A few quotations:
Do you sometimes feel that you would be happier if sex were eliminated from your intimate relationships altogether? If so, possibly you feel abnormal in this regard, or like a misfit or not whole as a woman. Or, perhaps you just feel that you are missing something everyone else has enjoyed, a part of life that you’d like to have be a part of yours, too. You probably feel as if you are one of only a few women who have this problem. But the truth is that you are far from alone. (page xiii)
A real fear that can keep some women from doing anything to solve their sexual problems is the fear of failure. When Harriet joined the group, she didn’t believe she could become orgasmic. She said, “If I tried, I’d only fail, and then I’d be really miserable.” … Harriet eventually did defy her fears, as did all the other women mentioned. It takes time and effort to counteract these fears. It means saying “I’m afraid” and yet pushing beyond. (page 14)
Is it because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated? (page 15)
Empathetic and accurate so far. (As it happens, the only lover I ever directly asked for help during this orgasm-discovery process refused and got angry, which just goes to show that being afraid he might react that way was not all in my head.) Merely confronting so much understanding was hard to face.
But, although I read it a long time ago, I think I’ve figured out what it was that made me unable to read further: the way Chapter 1 ends is a bit much. The last page of For Yourself‘s first chapter contains this:
You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.
Well, okay. Except that how do you assume responsibility for something if you have no idea where to even begin? If you know something’s missing but you’re not sure what it is? If you’re sure your partner will be frustrated and resentful when you ask for help?
Orgasm involves us surrendering to what we’re feeling, and really rolling with it, even if and when it feels very emotionally precarious. It’s control we’re letting go of, really, and that’s harder for some folks than others.
I’ve been an off-and-on sex & gender geek throughout my life, so I already knew these things intellectually. I’d already absorbed these ideas: that I must both take responsibility for my sexuality, and lose control in order to enjoy it. I think even then I knew that both of these ideas are actually good advice. But the problem is that they’re often put in patronizing and less-than-helpful ways. For example, “It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.” Condescending as hell! To me, those words implied that I was making myself into a helpless child. Pulling a wounded-bird act and forcing other people to take care of me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was doing that!
I am frustrated by the insensitive guilt trips that often happen, even (especially?) in feminist and sex-positive circles, where people will sometimes act as if these things are simple, as if it is oh-so-easy to stand up and take on one’s own sexuality and Just Deal With It. Especially when you’re in a situation where you know for a fact that some men you have sex with will resent you if you’re honest about not having orgasms, and yet you don’t know how to have orgasms and aren’t sure how to start on the journey. What then?
Some women end up faking in those contexts (I didn’t very often, back in the day, but once or twice I did). Of course, some feminists and sex-positive writers are especially unhappy about this:
I’m sure I’ll offend some choice feminist who thinks that it’s unfair to criticize women who make the totally autonomous choice to flatter a man with a fake orgasm instead of working towards a real one, but I’m taking a stand on this one. It’s un-feminist to fake, ladies!
I don’t advocate faking orgasms, and I actually also don’t advocate dating a man who gets angry and resentful when a female partner asks him to pitch in. (Oh my God, sometimes I have nightmares that I’m back in that relationship, and it’s been years.) At the same time, the idea that screaming “It’s un-feminist to fake!” will fix the problem is ridiculous. It’s the kind of idea that will just make feminists (like, say, myself many years ago) feel even worse about trying to figure out our relationships while not having orgasms. I see, so now not only am I failing to be responsible, I’m also un-feminist? Awesome.
This is not easy. It’s actually really hard. I get that people have to want to work on their sexuality, in order to do it — obviously I get that. But telling people that they’re being weak or self-centered or un-feminist because they aren’t sure how to do it? Or are actively pressured out of it?