The following pieces were originally published at the girl-power site Off Our Chests: here’s Orgasms Aren’t My Favorite Part of Sex, and here’s My Chastity Urge. I’ve combined them in one post because they feel, to me, like they deal with fundamentally the same issues, and belong together.

A month or two ago, I published a piece called A Unified Theory of Orgasm. In that piece, I talked about my own history, and how long I took to learn how to orgasm. Basically, learning how to orgasm took a long time and a lot of angst. And I’m really glad that I eventually figured it out — and that I have many years of experimentation still ahead of me.

That piece was really well-received, and a lot of people have thanked me for writing it. As always, though, there’s some mixed feedback too. And I’ve been worried about one thing in particular: it seems like a lot of people missed the part in my article where I said that, now that I’ve learned how to have orgasms … orgasms aren’t even my favorite part of sex. It’s a long article, and I can see how people would miss that, but I did say it and I think it’s important.

Specifically, I wrote:

[It may help some people] not to prioritize orgasms. I am not saying orgasms aren’t important; I just don’t want the importance of orgasms to wound you, the way it wounded me. For me, it is helpful to imagine sex as a journey. For me, it helps to focus on having fun throughout, instead of doing what it takes to reach the “goal” of orgasm. If you’re not taking pleasure in the journey — or at least indulging some curiosity — then why keep going? Why not stop and try something else?

Experimenting sexually in an open-ended way has been, for me, the most productive possible attitude. And in fact, once I knew how to make myself come, I discovered that — though it’s helpful to be able to attain that release if I really want to — orgasms aren’t actually my favorite part of sex! There are lots of other things I like better.

It’s also worth noting that our definitions of “orgasm” are fairly narrow. Some research indicates that there may be other ways to conceptualize orgasms than the stereotypical genital-focused approach.

And now I want to talk about it some more.

It may be ironic that I spent so much time feeling terrible and broken and depressed because I couldn’t figure out how to have orgasms … whereas now I prefer not to focus on them. In fact, I estimate that most of my current sexual encounters don’t include my orgasm, and very few of my most pleasurable sexual encounters have included my orgasm.

I’m the first to admit that I don’t know everything about sex, and there’s a lot that I haven’t experienced. Anything might change. But seriously. The best sex I’ve had in my life has been connective and emotional and, for me personally, has frequently involved intense BDSM. My favorite sex so far? Has also mostly been orgasm-free.

Some people in some sex-related communities have asserted that for maximum amorous power, it’s actually best to limit one’s orgasms, because then the contained sexual energy ends up channeling into a deeper connection with one’s partner. I can see that. For me, another way of thinking about it is that I’m really into being teased — and I’d rather experience hours of being teased without an orgasm, than have a quick encounter that ends in orgasm.

And …. (Oh no, I can already tell this is going to get complicated … but hey, sex is complicated, so I’ll give it a shot.) …. Especially when I’m doing BDSM, it can actually be hot sometimes if I don’t have an orgasm. For example: if I go to sleep so turned on that I can’t dream about anything but my partner, and then I wake up in a damp mess, and then my partner makes my life difficult all morning, it’s pretty awesome. (Although it’s very nice that I know how to give myself orgasms now, because that means that if I’m really feeling overwhelmed by my own sexual energy, I know how to give myself release if I have to. You know, like … if I need to get some work done.)

Aaaaand … here’s the most painful, ridiculous, circular irony of all. Ready? Here goes: now that I’m capable of having orgasms, I’ve found myself occasionally having orgasms only to satisfy my partner. How absurd is that? Plus, I know I’m not alone, because I’ve talked to other women who do the same thing!

I’ve written before that in the past I’ve felt trapped by fake plastic ideas of “what hot girls look like during sex”; I’ve written about how the pressure to “perform” my sexuality can hurt. What has amazed me, as I’ve gotten older, is just how pervasive that pressure can feel with some partners … and how little pressure there is with other partners. The question of how to create a low-pressure environment for sexuality to flourish is big and complicated, so let me just say here that although I’m all about people giving each other orgasms … it’s no good if my partner’s desire to give me an orgasm turns into pressure for me to have an orgasm!

Scarleteen, my favorite sex education site, has a great article about “squirting” orgasms and how some women feel pressured to “squirt” for the sake of the sexual “novelty”. On a similar note, I’ll close this post with an anecdote about a guy I dated a while back who was very focused on giving me orgasms. To his credit, he figured out how to make me come very quickly. But the problem was that — I soon realized — the biggest reason he wanted to make me come was because he wanted to feel like he could. Fundamentally, it wasn’t about my pleasure; it was about him feeling like “the man”.

Let me be clear: he was a great guy, and I was into having sex with him. But it became very obvious to me that if I didn’t have an orgasm every time we had sex, then he would be really bothered. So there were definitely a few encounters where, although I wasn’t especially interested in having an orgasm, I still closed my eyes and flicked through fantasies with a kind of panic … until I managed to kick-start my body into coming. Isn’t that messed up?

One thing I’ve learned, in years of writing about sex and gender, is that anything — anything at all — can be a tool for limiting or stifling sexuality … just as much as it can be a tool for releasing sexuality. Turns out, orgasms are no exception. Even orgasms can become a difficult duty. I’m so glad that I know how to have an orgasm now; for me, that was an important step for my sexuality and my self-esteem. But now that I’ve learned how to do that, I find myself questioning why it’s such an important and destructive issue in the first place!

Sex is a journey. There are so many directions, so many forks in the road, so many stops along the way. There are so many speedbumps and roadblocks, uphills and downhills, free and easy open stretches. Sometimes people stop to rest. Sometimes people double back. Everything is evolving. A lot of people find it most awesome to simply … enjoy the road.

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When I was in my late teens, I had a couple straight lady friends who did this thing where they took a year of chastity … although they had already had a fair amount of sex. It wasn’t that they thought sex was bad. It wasn’t that they especially disliked sex. It wasn’t that they regretted choosing to have sex previously. But these women felt powerfully drawn towards taking a year away from sex, a year where no sex happened in their lives … and I instinctively understood because I felt the same urge. In fact, I came up with the idea of deliberately taking a year of chastity on my own, before I heard that anyone else was doing it.

I’m not telling you this because I want to sound like one of the “cool kids”; I’m not trying to say anything like, “I was into chastity when it was underground!” As it happened, I never actually went through with my chastity urge. But I thought about it a lot, and I thought about the fact that other girls I knew were doing it. We didn’t have backgrounds that one would normally consider anti-sex. We had liberal backgrounds, liberal parents, liberal educations. Why were we so attracted to the idea of taking a year without sex?

I thought about it a lot, and I concluded this: We felt like we didn’t own our sexuality. We felt like our sexuality wasn’t for us. Or at least, that’s how I felt.

Even though on the surface it looked like I was totally in charge of my sexual decisions, there were social pressures and expectations that made me feel overwhelmed and confused. Not always, and not all the time! But enough that there were plenty of times that I just felt like all I wanted to do was stop and be done with it … “take my body back” from a world that seemed intent on constantly telling me how I must look, how I must dress, how I must have sex.

I’ve written about how much easier it was for me to learn how I ought to look and “perform” while having sex, than it was for me to learn what I actually wanted from sex. That, I think, is where the chastity urge came from for me. That, and the way I kept finding myself making out with guys who I had zero interest in because it was “too awkward to say no”. Or the way I didn’t feel like I could decide not to have sex with my boyfriends; not because I didn’t think my boyfriend would listen if I said no, but because his potentially hurt feelings seemed so much more important than my bodily preferences.

So many things about the way I was having sex seemed to have nothing to do with me. And if sex had nothing to do with me … then why was I doing it? I guess I wanted to reassure myself that I could take control of at least one thing: saying no.

Eventually, I got a better handle on my sexual preferences and began to learn how to talk about them. It was a long process, and my sexual journey is far from over (yay!). There were people who showed me what it meant to have a low-pressure sexual relationship; there were people who made it easy for me to talk about sex; and there were other people who made it easy for me to turn them down, sexually, which was just as important.

But one interesting thing during the beginning of my learning process … especially given that I now really emphasize and encourage talking directly about sex … was that I felt like a couple of my boyfriends really, really didn’t want to talk about sex. And while sometimes this was clearly terrible and toxic, sometimes it felt good. It felt safe. I wanted to be sexual, but I also felt so much pressure to be sexual that it sometimes felt like a huge relief to just … “not worry about it.”

In retrospect, though, I think that the “safety” I felt when I didn’t talk about sex with certain partners was a mirage. It was a false safety, sustained by a carefully crafted mutual fiction of the relationship. When we ended up talking about sex later, “giving up that safety” just made the conversation unnecessarily scary and weird. And the independent illusions we each had about our sexual relationship flourished and grew strong within our silence. Those illusions were so much harder to release after months of self-reinforcement than they would have been if we’d dragged them into the light from the beginning!

Occasionally, I wonder how it would have felt if I’d taken that deliberate year of chastity. I wonder which of my early experiences would have changed; I wonder whether a year of chastity would have made me feel more comfortable with my sexuality sooner. I’m very happy with how I feel sexually now. I sometimes feel confused or overwhelmed, but I think I’m okay at handling that and even talking about it. Yet I do wonder how it would have felt to draw such a strong boundary; to say such a strong “No” to the world and its messed-up sexual expectations.

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This piece is included in my awesome collection, The S&M Feminist: Best Of Clarisse Thorn. You can buy The S&M Feminist for Amazon Kindle here or other ebook formats here or in paperback here.

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