the elusive big "o"
By Kimberly Johnson
A sweet young woman walks into my office flashing a bright, straight smile. She sits down on the table across from me, leans ways in, gasps a quick inhale, and tells me the secret she’s been storing up to tell me for months, if not years, all in one breath. “I’veneverhadanorgasm.”
This furtive revelation is one of the most common I encounter in my conversations with women as a Sexological Bodyworker. Each woman who’s brave enough to come and see me and “confess,” imagines there is something wrong with her. She imagines she is the only one; all her girlfriends have orgasms, even vaginal ones! It looks easy to everyone else. What is the big problem? And it’s no wonder women feel this way.
Everywhere you look is more pressure to have orgasms. We already know Cosmo thinks we need to have them to make every man want us. Doctors are prescribing orgasms for all of their health benefits- from a stronger heart to a supple pelvic floor to depression even. And even Tantra and sex educators jump on the bandwagon touting spiritual realization with the development of sexual mastery, gymnastics, and you guessed it… Orgasms.
Turns out the more we narrow our focus, the more we stare at the Holy Grail of orgasm, the more we TRY TRY TRY, the less likely it is that we will have the experience we are searching for.
Roll with me here.
When I was 19, without any prior experience, I jumped off a proverbial cliff and went to a 10-day silent meditation retreat. During this experience of 14 hours a day of sitting absolutely still, and then not talking or looking at anyone, I became convinced that my mind would never obey and quiet down. I became so distraught by my unruly monkey mind, which one day played “my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hon” on repeat for every sitting session, that I requested to talk to one of the teachers. (You were allowed to talk at a given time of day to ask a life or meditation question to the teacher.) It appeared that everyone else was sitting very still with no problem at all. Why was it so hard for ME?
I explained to the Indian-version of George Clooney, my teacher who later died of brain cancer without even knowing he was sick due to his acute focus on sensation rather than labeling, that I was hopeless. My mind simply would not be quiet.
George Clooney: “How long have you been meditating?”
Me: “6 months.”
GC: Insert internal chuckle. “When you plant a seed, do you stare at the ground every day all day until the plant grows?”
Me, serious, this feels like life and death, or insanity: “no.”
GC: “Well sometimes you have to just plant the seeds and trust that they will grow. You choose the soil well. You give the plant the water and sunlight it needs. But you cannot control how the plant grows. You leave it.”
What this proverb has to do with orgasm is that if we are in relentless pursuit of a given feeling or outcome, in my case the freedom I imagined would come with a calm mind, and in the case of many women I work with, the imagined joy or pleasure or freedom that would come with an orgasm, we miss the experience itself. All of the curiosity is erased by a fixed driving mindset toward the destiny a predetermined experience. We miss the journey.
Our ability to experience what IS happening is eclipsed by what is NOT happening.
I am not undermining the frustration that many women feel about wanting so badly to feel something they imagine is so easy for everyone else. Or the desire to experience the kind of letting go or ‘little death’ (as the French call “orgasm”) that intimates a certain flavor of reckless abandon and freedom. And we all are certainly entitled to want what we want. I just don’t think vision boards or bucket list are the chosen approach here.
I am suggesting that if we train our minds to focus on what IS happening in the moment if we train our bodies to track what we DO like, what DOES feel good, without biting for something out in front of us, it is much more likely to happen. And when you have taken your focus to a place where touch feels exquisite, where a smell is intoxicating, where the sound of a voice sends an undulation through your spine, your body begins to trust you. And when you take your eye off the prize, something else starts to happen. You learn to follow the thread of the present moment, to be truly present in yourself and your own experience. That present moment experience is not always pleasant and shiny, but neither is an orgasm. Orgasm is as wide as the horizon. We give it names, like “clitoral” orgasm or “vaginal orgasm” (btw, the clitoris extends deep into the vagina). Well every little millimeter of the clit, external and internal, is climactic and orgasmic.
When we learn to ride the present moment, we open up the possibility for a repertoire of experience beyond what we could fit into the label of the word “orgasm.” Orgasm is not one thing. It cannot be defined by one part of the body. Every single cell of our body has orgasmic potential. It may not, probably won’t look like how we have seen it portrayed.
And when women come to me because they want to have an orgasm already, I usually find that they also want more connected sex, more varied sex, more spiritual sex. I believe the spontaneous creative connection is what they are looking for, and orgasm is often an outcome.
THE ELUSIVE BIG “O”- PART 2
Ok, great, so now you’re on board. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the journey. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the present moment. BUT I STILL WANT TO HAVE AN ORGASM.
First, let’s get a few things straight. We all need a sex re-education. Imagine what it would feel like to live in a world without gravity. It’s pretty hard too since we are not astronauts. That’s what it’s like to imagine a world without sexual shame. Shame is the shroud and overlay of most of our sexual “education” in this culture. So please don’t feel bad if you never knew any of what I am about to share. And if you feel angry, you’re not alone. We should be taught these things- all of us, of all genders. The good thing is that once you know, you can share the knowledge. Your sex life has the potential to open in new directions, and as your self-understanding grows that will extend to your friends, partners and eventually children!
Climax versus orgasm
When most people talk about orgasm, they are referring to climax. In the sex world, a climax is referred to as a “genital sneeze.” A climax is what happens when you use a vibrator for 30 seconds to 5 minutes and hit a sharp peak and drop. A climax is usually local to the genitals. Orgasm is life force energy that free flows and surges throughout your entire body. We could refer to entering into an orgasmic state where the feeling of warm golden energy runs through the meridians and continues to even outside of sexual interaction. Orgasm can happen with or without climax.
How Female Arousal Works
What is portrayed to us in films and movies is a male arousal trajectory. Even if you watch porn of women masturbating, they are imitating a male arousal pattern. This pattern looks like starting slow, and then accelerating, and going faster and faster until there is a peak and a scream and then a sharp drop-off. Both men and women see this imagery and then our behavior is affected by it. We think that being “good at sex” or “hot sex” means to be able to give it or take it hard and fast. Really, that kind of sex is just one flavor of many different possible flavors. It’s cock-centered and focused on endorphin release and performance. I’m not saying it’s a bad flavor, just that it’s the dominant one and it robs us of having a rich, varied and mutually pleasurable intimate life, where orgasm can happen effortlessly. Female arousal is wavelike, with ebbs and flows, as it climbs and builds.
How long it takes for us to get aroused is also different from men to women. Typical male arousal, which is defined by full engorgement of genital erectile tissue (soft to hard) can take anywhere from 30 seconds to 1 ½ minutes, and of course much longer or not at all. As women, we have just as much erectile tissue as men do! Yet for women, full arousal (engorgement of all the erectile tissue) takes 35 to 45 MINUTES. Yes! You read that right. Many women I work with haven’t experienced penetration with full arousal. Sex educators like Sheri Winston, the author of Women’s Anatomy of Arousal suggest that a woman should never be penetrated until she is fully aroused and lubricated and begging to be entered. That’s definitely not the common path we see followed in television and film! It also explains why so many women find orgasm elusive when the sex we are taught is not based on how our biology and physiology work.
Two Words We Could Do Without: Foreplay and Finishing
Many women sheepishly confess to me that the love “foreplay.” They are embarrassed because it seems like something extra that they shouldn’t need. They should be able to just get right to it. I want to say, “of COURSE you like foreplay.” Again in this scenario, male pleasure and male anatomy patterns are viewed as the norm. I don’t like the word “foreplay” because it means before, and intimates that everything leading up to the BIG EVENT is somehow less important than the part that really matters- all-hallowed penetration. So-called foreplay is every bit as important as every other part of being intimate with yourself or someone else.
I have never heard a woman say, “he doesn’t wait until I finish.” But I hear women say all the time, “I lay there while he finishes.” I want to say, “WHAT is he FINISHING?”
To deepen connection, and experience heightened states of connection, and yes, orgasm, we need to take climax off the table for both men and women. I know that sounds like a contradiction. But we need to retrain ourselves that every interaction isn’t a race to the finish line of getting one another off. Every interaction is another chance at deeper attunement, self-discovery, and access to our unconscious. From that place, we can start to experience sensations, emotions, and altered states that were previously inaccessible. We can’t get there when we are in the common tally-taking script: “you go down on me, I go down on you, you come, I come.”
The fast and furious orgasms we are used to seeing portray a lot of activation and revving up. To experience orgasm, we also have to be able to relax, to let go, and to allow charge dissipate through our bodies. If we only focus on the revving up, we will either experience a sharp drop or a numbing of sensation rather than a deepening and broadening one.
Our nervous systems are complex. In a simplified way, you can think of our nervous system as having two branches - an accelerator, the sympathetic nervous system, and a brake, the parasympathetic nervous system. These branches of our nervous system are coordinating all the time so that we can live our lives and have cycles of activity and rest. We become habituated in certain ways that they work. Because modern life demands high performance, our sympathetic nervous systems are often in overdrive (adrenal fatigue, burnout, anxiety). Self-care has become such a popular concept because especially as women, we need to be able to downregulate to truly rest. If our nervous system does not know how to rest, orgasm becomes more elusive. And that’s why TRYING harder, or DOING more, or RUBBING faster won’t work. What will work is incorporating practices like savasana, meditation, or even daily rest in cycles- like laying down or going for a walk 5-10 minutes of every 90-minute activity/work cycle.
The more disconnected and mind-driven we are in the rest of our lives, the more difficult it is to shift into sexy time or intimate space. The more connected we stay to our “felt sense” and our “intuition” throughout the day, the smoother transition into sexual space, and the closer we are at all times to an orgasmic state.
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