I am a 39-year-old woman, and I have never, to my knowledge, had an orgasm. I include the caveat because I’m often asked—by the men I’ve slept with, by my closest friends, even by my gynecologist—if I am sure. The question can feel vaguely patronizing, but it also fills me, and others like me (studies tend to put the share of nonorgasmic women at 5 to 10 percent), with a creeping sense of self-doubt.
“Do you think we actually have and just don’t know it?” my friend Lizzie—not her real name—wondered aloud the other day. “Like maybe orgasms simply aren’t that great?”
I thought for a moment. I love sex, and I’m probably on the kinky side—there’s very little that I haven’t tried. But no matter how much I am enjoying myself, there inevitably comes a time, both on my own and with a partner, when the physical pleasure, having built and built, either fades to nothing or becomes a sensation too uncomfortable to bear, and provides neither the rapture nor release I have imagined and sometimes even conjure in my dreams. “I don’t think that could be it,” I said to Lizzie. “I mean, we’re not idiots.”
The nonorgasmic thing wasn’t really a problem when I was in my teens and early 20s. For years I relished the novelty of touching and being touched by someone separate from myself, not to mention the discovery—I must have been about 11—that I could slide my pelvis beneath the bathtub faucet and elicit that delicious-and-then-unbearable sensation I described above. Even in college and beyond, when physical intimacy became more commonplace, I remember being fairly phlegmatic about the whole thing. “These boys, they don’t know what they’re doing,” said the pediatrician I still saw as an adult when I asked her about it, and she was largely right, of course, not just of the boys who had never once thought to ask if I had also come, but also of those for whom my gratification became a kind of virility contest, and one at which I may as well have been a spectator. (I can only speak to the experience of being a straight, cisgender woman, but it’s revealing to note that 86 percent of lesbian women report that they usually or always orgasm during sexual encounters, in contrast to only 65 percent of heterosexual women.)
Yet there were other men who knew exactly what they were doing, among them my future ex-husband, whom I met when I was 25 and who, from our very first night together, stunned me with his seemingly preternatural understanding of my clitoris. Paradoxically, it was the sheer intensity of our sexual attraction, the dawning hope that maybe one day he could make me climax, that not only triggered my frustration but also inspired me to act. In the early days of our relationship, I made—at a cost of $250—an appointment with a sex therapist, therein getting a glimpse of the growing and highly lucrative female-orgasm industry. A plump, elderly woman with an office full of gray tones advised me to eat more dark chocolate, stop taking birth control, and sign up for what she called “orgasm camp,” an immersive experience somewhere in the American Southwest that would have me masturbating all day long. She also sent me home with some female-centric 1980s porn, a list of recommended herbs and vitamins, and a prescription for Viagra that the pharmacist, alarmed by my gender, initially refused to fill.
For months I dutifully followed her advice, masturbating daily, popping Viagra on date nights, enduring improbable narratives about sensitive plumbers with frosted tips and acid-washed jeans, and even going off the pill. (Orgasm camp was too expensive.) But although my sex life continued to thrill—to reiterate: Pleasure and climax are not synonymous for women like Lizzie and me—I still failed to come. Eventually, exhausted and even a little bit bored by the effort, I once again resigned myself to my anorgasmic fate.
From the time that Aristotle first argued, more than 2,000 years ago, that only women “of a feminine type” ejaculate, the female orgasm has been the subject of a massive misinformation campaign. The Greek physician Galen, convinced that a woman’s reproductive organs were the exact inverse of a man’s, maintained that the female orgasm was necessary for procreation, a belief that lasted into the 18th century. (Galen also believed that women were immune to postcoital tristesse, clearly never having hung out by my bedside. “Every animal is sad after coitus,” he opined, “except the human female and the rooster.”) The ostensible correlation between pregnancy and female pleasure materializes again and again over the centuries, popping up in everything from a 13th-century British legal treatise to a guidebook for Renaissance midwives. But while you might think that this misconception would be to the medieval woman’s advantage, compelling her brutish husband to finally pay attention to her needs, it also offered a convenient defense for rape apologists, who seized upon the link between propagation and womanly lust to argue that nonconsensual sex could not possibly result in childbirth. (Or, as Republican Congressman Todd Akin so memorably put it in 2012, during his failed bid for Senate, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”)
Not until 1730 was it finally proven that the female orgasm was not, in fact, a requisite for reproduction; only then did anatomists begin to develop a relatively accurate conception of female anatomy. Even so, it took at least another century for the German anatomist Georg Ludwig Kobelt to produce one of the earliest detailed diagrams of the clitoris, the only human organ built for pleasure alone, and one that, with more than 8,000 nerve endings, is decidedly not the inverse of the penis. You’d think, once again, that women might be the beneficiaries of such progress, but no: Coupled with the relegation of the female orgasm was the relegation of female desire, with the result that many Victorian doctors believed that women were actually incapable of climax. As the British gynecologist William Acton wrote in 1857, echoing the prevailing wisdom of his colleagues, “The majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind.”
Rachel Maines, a historian of technology, has argued—speciously, some scholars say; more about that in a moment—that around this same time, pelvic massage became a profitable enterprise for doctors seeking to cure their female patients of “hysteria,” the symptoms of which were said to include anxiety, sexual desire, loss of sexual desire, and a general predilection for troublemaking. The history of this nebulous “disease” (the American Psychiatric Association wouldn’t abandon the diagnosis until 1980) stretches way back, as does the practice of massaging women to better health—good old Galen tells the story of an afflicted widow who was advised to rub her “female parts” with “customary remedies,” thus eliciting the “pain and pleasure” that traditionally accompany intercourse. By the mid-1800s, Maines writes, hydriatic massage (of the sort my 11-year-old self would later discover) was developed, and some European spas had high-pressure jets specifically designed for treating “female disorders.” And yet, because it was understood by then that women were unequipped for sexual excitement, the results of such treatments were known not as orgasms but as hysterical paroxysms.
Listen to Katharine Smyth discuss this piece on The Experiment podcast.
Maines also suggests that we have this history to thank for the creation of the vibrator, which was patented in the 1880s in England—well before the vacuum cleaner—as a labor-saving device for doctors who had been complaining of chronic hand fatigue. Other historians have disputed Maines’s claims, citing myriad discrepancies between her source material and her conclusions, and they lament that her work—which has made its way into countless books, films, scholarly articles, and even a Broadway play—has gained such widespread acceptance. Indeed, as I discovered while researching this essay, Maines has so completely shaped the discourse around sex and technology that it’s difficult to discern where the truth of physician-assisted paroxysm actually lies. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that home use of the vibrator took off quickly, with advertisements for “The Little Home Doctor” and “Aids That Every Woman Appreciates” appearing in such mainstream publications as Popular Mechanics, Woman’s Home Companion, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog. (While vibrators would eventually lose the imprimatur of social acceptability, they gained traction again on the heels of the women’s movement, not to mention the Rabbit’s cameo on Sex and the City. By 2009, some 53 percent of American women admitted to having used a vibrator at least once in their life.)
With the 1953 publication of Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering research, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which included the revelation that 62 percent of American women had masturbated, the Western world finally embarked upon a period of relative sexual enlightenment—what Jonathan Margolis, the author of O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, calls “the unsteady Western path from Victorian hangover to cautious advance.” Since then, much of the discussion around the female orgasm has centered on the evolutionary mystery of why it exists in the first place. Indeed, the male and female sexual organs would appear to be very poor complements: as a surprisingly large number of men and even women seem not to realize, the physical location of the clitoris means that only about one-fourth of women, according to some estimates, are able to achieve orgasm from penetration alone.
Which raises the question of why, evolutionarily speaking, women climax at all. Or, as Stephen Jay Gould wondered in 1987, “How can sexual pleasure be so separated from its functional significance in the Darwinian game of life?” Perhaps the most widely accepted theory of the female orgasm belongs to Desmond Morris, the author of The Naked Ape, who hypothesized in 1967 that the relative difficulty men face in bringing a woman to climax is the very point—or, as Margolis explains it, that the kind of man who devotes the necessary care to pleasing his partner is the same kind of man who will stick around to help her raise their children. Other views abound, however, including the controversial “upsuck theory,” in which the cervix in orgasm draws sperm toward the uterus, and the American anthropologist Donald Symons’s nonadaptive argument, put forward in 1979 and later embraced by Gould, that the female orgasm—much like the male nipple—is simply a vestige of the sexes’ parallel embryonic development. A 2019 study involving rabbits and Prozac gave new credence to yet another theory, one suggesting that the female orgasm dates back to some prehistoric era in which ovulation was triggered by sexual intercourse. (In bunnies, it still is.)
The truth is that no one knows for sure why women come, and our descendants may well look back on such theories with as much derision as we do on the treatment of hysteria or the tie between climax and pregnancy. The female orgasm is a kind of Rorschach test—an abstraction upon which each new generation of doctors and scientists can project its worldview, almost always to the benefit of men and their assumptions about normally functioning female sexuality. But if you think the debate over why women have orgasms is complicated, try solving the mystery of why some women don’t have them.
Some nine years after my appointment with the sex therapist, newly single after my divorce, I found myself on the floor of a Williamsburg apartment, white headlights from the expressway every so often sweeping across my bare skin. It was my fifth date with Chris—I’ve changed the names of all friends and lovers in this essay—and we’d just had sex for the fourth time in 12 hours. I was already beginning to fantasize about our future together when he abruptly confessed that he was bothered.
“For me, sex is goal-oriented,” he explained. “I know I won’t be able to enjoy it if I can’t make you come, if we can’t share that next-level connection. If I had been your husband,” he added helpfully, “I would have had you seeing the best sex therapist out there.”
I felt suddenly enraged, as well as a little naive. I had freely shared my truth with him, as I had with all the men I’d dated; I think I’d even been proud of it, as if it were a mysterious twist that set me apart, a sexy secret, like tuberculosis, that he and I might grapple with together. “But can’t you see how unfair that is?” I said. “If I’m having fun, if it feels great to me, why can’t you just trust in that?”
He demurred. “I’m just not sexually compatible with someone who isn’t able to let go.” And then: “I think it’s probably insurmountable.”
That’s when I realized that my new role as a divorcée would force me to confront this issue all over again. Indeed, my ex-husband’s impressive self-regard may have spelled the end of our marriage, but it had also been delightful in the bedroom—here was a man, brimming with confidence, who had never once seen my predicament as a challenge to his masculinity, and who had always believed me when I told him, truthfully, just how much he turned me on. But for the men who followed, my condition was a turnoff, a defect that rendered me not only less of a woman but actually undateable.
With no one was this clearer than with Michael, a guy I nearly relocated for. One year after the collapse of our relationship—we were lying naked in his bed for old times’ sake—I asked him why he thought that things had not worked out for us. “If you had moved here,” he said, “we probably would have gotten married. And to be totally honest, if I were married to a woman who couldn’t come, I’d probably cheat on her.”
I was dumbfounded by his answer. It would have been one thing if he had said that he didn’t find me funny or attractive or intelligent, or that he’d sensed we wanted different things from life. But to drift away because I couldn’t orgasm, a fact that I’d accepted, and one that had nothing to do with my attraction to him? It seemed so horribly unjust.
“You have to understand how much I love to pleasure women,” he continued as I raved and ranted. “I think it’s the closest connection two people can share, and I think I’m really good at it—I’ve tried to turn it into an art; I’ve actually studied it.” (That I believe; the vigor he used to bring to his various sexual exertions had always reminded me of someone showing off a party trick.) “So the idea of marrying someone who will never have an orgasm,” he reasoned, “of never again being able to get a woman off, is really hard for me.” He paused. “I don’t know, maybe there’s a way in which I could see it as a challenge, like getting to a really high level in a video game. But it doesn’t feel like that.”
In David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men—one of the more incisive critiques of contemporary masculinity I’ve come across—interviewee No. 31 offers up a useful lens through which to consider our society’s current obsession with the female orgasm. Of course there are the “basic pigs,” he argues, the ones who “roll on and roll off” with absolutely no regard for their partner’s pleasure, but there’s also a second variety: the ones who believe they’re a “Great Lover,” putting a notch on their gun for every female climax they facilitate. “It’s real important to these fellows that they think of themselves as Great,” he explains. “This preoccupies a major block of their time, thinking they’re Great and they know how to please her.” I know such men—they keep coconut oil and vibrators in their bedside drawers; they could find your perineum while wearing a blindfold; they call the upper-left-hand quadrant of your clitoris the sweet spot. “But now don’t go thinking these fellows are really any better than your basic pigs are,” the interviewee cautions. “They think they’re generous in bed. No, but the catch is they’re selfish about being generous. They’re no better than the pig is, they’re just sneakier about it.”
In her 2018 book, Faking It, the sex educator Lux Alptraum denounces a culture in which, for many men, the female orgasm has become “the primary, if not entire, purpose for pursuing sex—a sentiment that suggests that anyone who isn’t able, or doesn’t want, to achieve orgasm is some kind of freak or failure.” Alptraum lays no small amount of blame for this on She Comes First, a wildly popular cunnilingus manual by the sex therapist Ian Kerner, which, when it was first published in 2004, was lauded by magazines such as Jane and Cosmopolitan for its promotion of female pleasure. (The Great Lover, Wallace’s interviewee notes, is always “running down to Barnes & Noble’s for all your latest female sexuality-type books so they can keep up on their knowledge.”) And yet for all its noble pretensions, Alptraum argues, Kerner’s book established a new paradigm in which the female orgasm, once seen as mythic, was recast as compulsory. Indeed, the trouble with She Comes First, Alptraum says, is that it positions the female climax “as a badge of honor and proof of a man’s virility, rendering women’s actual needs, desires, and authentic pleasure subordinate to the appeasement of the heterosexual male ego.”
In search of an expert male perspective on this debate, I went to see Ian Kerner himself. His tasteful office in Manhattan’s West Village was full of Danish modern furniture I would have chosen for myself. Over espresso, he rejected the idea that She Comes First had cast the looming cultural shadow Alptraum proposes, as well as the notion that a majority of men treat the female orgasm narcissistically as sport. If anything, he said, men who fixate on their partner’s anorgasmia are likely grappling with feelings of inadequacy, adding that no one in his practice had ever left a woman because she couldn’t come. “It can be an issue for a male who feels hurt or wounded—it’s not so much his ego, as much as a feeling like, Sex isn’t fun for this partner.” But Kerner also conceded that his thinking has evolved in the years since She Comes First, thanks in part to women like Alptraum and their appeal for a more inclusive view of female sexuality. These days, he said, he works with plenty of couples “who are very motivated and incentivized to have sex without orgasm. Part of my work—which is in contrast to She Comes First—can be really enjoying all the parts of sex.”
After listening to my story, Kerner hypothesized that my particular problem was an inability to quiet the restive, self-conscious parts of my brain. “To what degree are you staying in an observational place in your own experience,” he asked, “as opposed to being able to drop down into an experience of arousal?” He told me about a 2006 study by the Dutch neuroscientist Gert Holstege in which 12 women reclined with their heads in a PET scanner while their partners brought them to orgasm; much to Holstege’s surprise, the scans showed a dramatic drop in activity in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, parts of the brain associated with anxiety and inhibition. “So the conclusion of Dr. Holstege,” Kerner explained, was that “for a woman’s brain to get turned on sexually, another part of the brain has to turn off.” If I were Kerner’s patient, he said, he would champion a psychogenic approach, trying to sink down into an arousal state rooted in fantasy and touch. “It’s allowing your mind to get really turned on,” he said, “and maybe there’s a sort of tipping point where all that anxiety is vacated.” Yet he also admitted that this—willfully disabling one’s amygdala—is easier said than done.
I do understand that there’s a sense in which I’m being disingenuous, insisting on how absolutely and completely I love sex when it is also true that I am frustrated, that I do wish—desperately at times—that it were not always for me an anticlimax. If Kerner is to be believed, moreover, there may be some validity to the critique that I’m unable to let go—I think it was Chris who said he had the sense that I was watching him during sex, trying to gauge whether he was enjoying himself rather than being transported myself. And finally I understand, too, having recently dated a man who himself struggled to come, why that can feel unsatisfying and humiliating to one’s partner; much of the thrill of sex is not pleasing the other person but being able to please the other person.
And yet it still makes me angry when I think of those exchanges with Chris and Michael, of their paternalism and hypocrisy. They are not hideous men, and my guess is that they see themselves as feminists, or at the very least enlightened, devoted above all to the satisfaction of their female partners. But their refusal to accept my own account of my experience—their insistence that, no matter what I said or did, I was not enjoying myself, or not enjoying myself enough—belies this narrative, makes it clear that their preoccupation with the female orgasm had very little to do with my pleasure and almost everything to do with their own. That’s why I still prefer the more overtly selfish men—the “basic pigs,” if you will—the ones who don’t particularly care if it was good for me, and who would never seek to mask their insecurity and egotism as a desire for human connection or concern about their partner’s happiness. At least they’re being honest about it.
Which is something I stopped being. In the weeks and months after that conversation with Michael, still traumatized by his rejection, I finally embraced the obvious solution: I started faking it. Perhaps you are dismayed by this confession; certainly it made my friends uneasy. They worried about my endgame, about the surrender of my sexual agency, about the fact that all my future relationships would now be built on a lie. “Forget those clowns,” they said of Chris and Michael and others like them. “You need to find a man who accepts you for who you really are.” Sex therapists dislike it too; they think that faking it breeds guilt and resentment, and that fixating on performance instead of pleasure makes sex even less enjoyable. (They also recognize how common it is, a fact that many men don’t seem to grasp. When Chris, who had slept with well over 100 women, swore to me that I was the first he couldn’t bring to orgasm, I laughed out loud.)
But the truth is that, for me, faking it was instantly empowering, even revelatory. Overnight, the emphasis shifted from what I lacked to what I offered (everything from a genuine zeal for blow jobs to an extensive toy collection). Sex was suddenly more fun, less fraught, and I came to luxuriate in the kinds of responses I imagine most orgasmic women had been receiving all along. Far from hiding who I really was, then, faking it threw into relief my sexuality; for the first time since my divorce, maybe for the first time ever, men began to see me as I saw myself, and as I knew myself to be, which is to say, no less carnal than the next person, and perhaps even more so. Sure, there were some ethical and practical issues at play—it pained me to think of a man I loved learning that I had deceived him; what was my endgame?—but I also couldn’t help feeling that it was finally my turn to be selfish.
But the sexual excitement sparked by this discovery sparked sexual frustration too. One weekend at my mother’s house, I realized that the guy I was seeing had forgotten to take his boxer briefs home after visiting; I spent the next morning wearing them around my bedroom, staging erotic photo shoots as sext fodder, and turning myself on so much that in desperation I finally grabbed an immersion blender from the kitchen, praying that its whirring handle might function either like the man who’d left behind his underwear or like the vibrator I had left behind in Brooklyn. It didn’t—its spinning blades were far too close for comfort—and I can remember almost crying with vexation; it’s hard to convey the impotence I felt at being unable to do anything with all this pent-up carnal energy, at being 37 years old and still having failed to master my own body. And so I resolved to continue on the journey I had started with the sex therapist all those years before, first googling orgasm camp to no avail and next setting up an appointment with Dr. M, a sensual-touch therapist whom I had read about in New York magazine. (Optional donations appreciated.)
A few weeks later, I met Dr. M—“Not a real doctor,” he admitted needlessly—at a Starbucks near his apartment. An average-looking man in his 40s, he had a pleasant energy and a wry sense of humor; we made small talk as he escorted me through the service entrance of his building and into his small, anodyne bachelor pad. (You know the type: brown-leather couch, black IKEA bookshelves, navy bedspread, oversize poster of the Brooklyn Bridge.) After a brief consultation on my sexual history—we had already spoken of it on the phone—I disrobed in the bathroom, wrapped myself in a towel, and lay down on his massage table. An oil diffuser morphed soothingly from green to purple, releasing a fine eucalyptus mist, and ambient music droned softly in the background. As he rubbed my neck and arms, I strained to read the titles on his bookshelf; I thought that I could just make out The Case for Israel.
Eventually he poured warm oil onto my back and, still rubbing, slowly began to pull apart my legs. It was exciting for sure—I couldn’t tell you what exactly he was doing, but it felt melty and cadenced and new. “Good girl,” he said encouragingly whenever I squirmed. He had cautioned me earlier against being too goal-oriented, and I tried hard to empty my mind of any thought of orgasms. I don’t think I actually expected one, but it was nearly impossible not to latch on to each new sensation—Will it be now? Will it be now?—in a way that surely made the prospect far less likely. (“Try not to think of a polar bear,” Dostoyevsky said, “and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”)
“Okay,” Dr. M said at last. “We could keep going, or else we could finish up with a little Magic Wand action.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“This bad boy here,” he said, unfurling something that looked an awful lot like my mother’s blender.
A few minutes later, the towel had fallen to the floor and I was writhing naked on the table, at once enthralled and repelled by the Magic Wand’s pulsating tip and casting about desperately for something to grab hold of. “Is it okay if I touch you?” I asked, already seizing his free arm with both hands.
“Of course,” he said kindly. It was less than an hour since we had first shaken hands at Starbucks.
As I later told my friends of the experience, it was probably the best that any man’s fingers had ever felt; if I were a woman who orgasmed, I said, I would have had at least three of them. But as I could have predicted, and as Dr. M himself noted—I was beginning to feel as if he were a real doctor, so dedicated was he to my cause—something appeared to be holding me back, some inability to get over the hump. (“It seemed that you came oh-so-close,” he later wrote me in an email.)
I dressed as he described his varied clientele—the nonorgasmic, yes, but also single women craving intimate touch, adventurous women tackling their bucket list, married women seeking sexual pleasure without cheating. (Without cheating? I thought. Hmmm …)
“So you’re off to your date?” he asked as he opened the door. On our walk, I had told him about the retired merchant marine officer I was meeting for dinner.
“I am,” I said. “But I have some time to recover.”
“Okay, then,” he said, laughing. And then, holding out his arms like someone’s dad: “Big hug?”
If, like me, you can’t resist the urge at cocktail parties to recount your sexual adventures—the allure of a good story trumping any concerns you may have about puncturing your own sexual mystique—you will soon find yourself inundated by a flood of orgasm-related advice. One friend, a therapist, thought hypnosis was the next logical step, while Michael—yes, that Michael—suggested I get involved with OneTaste, a now-defunct “orgasmic meditation” company selling classes in which men wearing lubricated plastic gloves fondle a woman’s clitoris for 15 minutes straight ($499 for a weekend course; $60,000 for a year-long membership). Another friend had enjoyed the late sex educator Betty Dodson’s Bodysex workshop, a 10-hour female-masturbation class in which you sit naked in a circle, play with weighted dildos, and examine the vaginas of your fellow workshoppers in a “Genital Show and Tell” ($1,200 by check or $1,000 by cash; complimentary vaginal barbell included).
Ian Kerner recommended that I check out the New Society for Wellness, an elite New York City–based sex club for Millennials ($1,690 a year for unlimited access to cannabis-friendly sex parties featuring fire performers and domination by professionals), as well as the Body Electric School’s clothes-off retreats ($495), offering a sanctuary in which to “become more aware of spiritual dimensions in your erotic explorations.” He also mentioned OMGYes, a series of instructional videos that break down taboos about women’s sexual pleasure ($59 for one season or $118 for two), and Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts, which sells a curriculum for “sister goddesses” by the best-selling author of Pussy: A Reclamation that can be yours for upwards of $5,000.
Meanwhile, Dr. M suggested two additional resources: an online “Finishing School” by the sex therapist Vanessa Marin, whom BuzzFeed christened the “orgasm whisperer” ($999), and a New York–based wellness clinic called Maze Women’s Sexual Health. In a free, 10-minute phone consultation with the latter, I spoke with a lovely woman named Jen. As she described it to me, my involvement with Maze would entail a 90-minute initial visit with a therapist and a gynecologist ($530 before insurance; bloodwork included), and then an indeterminate number of follow-up visits ($380 for the second visit and $250 for each appointment after that, before insurance; additional testing not included) designed to target my particular issue, most likely with some combination of the following: an assortment of creams designed to increase clitoral sensitivity; access to no less than 20 different kinds of vibrators; a collection of ethical, female-generated pornography; testosterone-replacement therapy; a prescription for Wellbutrin; and the O-Shot, a new treatment in which blood taken from my arm would be centrifuged, its platelet-rich plasma separated out, and then injected into my vagina.
This deluge did not spark joy; on the contrary, it left me confused, even despairing. Where to start? And how to pay for it? I might have simply given up as I had a decade earlier; certainly I approached each opportunity with skepticism, doubtful that any of them would actually work. But one by one, their websites—sophisticated, knowledgeable, seemingly so sympathetic to my plight—began to lure me in; I felt guilty at the prospect of inaction, as if failing to part with a huge chunk of my savings, not to mention all my leisure time, were somehow an abrogation of my responsibilities as a woman. Which was of course the point: For all my excitement and curiosity about vaginal barbells and the O-Shot, I was still sane enough to recognize that, regardless of their good intentions, these outlets were to some extent a mirror of the very men who’d sent me on this wild-goose chase in the first place, the ones who’d cloaked their own self-interest in ostensible concern about my satisfaction. Vanessa Marin had worked with innumerable women who feared their partners would dump them because they couldn’t come, a reality she clearly found heartbreaking and validating to her life’s work as an orgasm whisperer. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that in her effort to empower these women, she had also inadvertently perpetuated the very notion that had been ingrained in them by the men who threatened to leave: that they were somehow inadequate, that their pleasure wasn’t enough.
Nor was I alone in the guilt and anxiety I felt at confronting this glut of self-improvement options. There’s no end of means by which women, even orgasmic women, are conditioned to doubt their own normally functioning sexuality, as well as pressured, at considerable cost, to take steps toward “fixing” it. Perhaps most pernicious is Big Pharma’s pursuit of a female equivalent to Viagra and concomitant financing of programs to spread awareness of female sexual dysfunction and hypoactive sexual desire disorder, which paved the way for products such as Addyi, the controversial “little pink pill” that gained FDA approval in 2015. Addyi’s labeling describes HSDD as being marked by “low sexual desire that causes marked distress or interpersonal difficulty,” a phrase that, as Georgetown University Medical Center’s Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman observes, speaks volumes about the drug’s true beneficiary: “So a woman upset by a belittling spouse who wants sex more often than she does,” she asks, “is eligible for a prescription drug?”
Fugh-Berman has written at length about HSDD’s history, arguing that “there is no scientifically established norm for sexual activity, feelings or desire, and there is no evidence that hypoactive sexual desire disorder is a medical condition.” Rather, she maintains, HSDD is an illustration of “a condition that was sponsored by industry to prepare the market for a specific treatment.” Which in turn would mean that untold numbers of healthy women are risking side effects such as nausea, dizziness, and low blood pressure so as to cure a subset of female sexual dysfunction that doesn’t exist in the first place. (Sprout Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Addyi, has said that HSDD is a real condition, noting that the FDA has recognized female sexual dysfunction as “an important unmet medical need.”)
“There are dozens of medications in the pipeline that want to give women a version of desire that’s really a media-concocted version of desire,” Kerner told me. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, if you’re not experiencing desire in this forthright way, you might be a little broken, and here’s a pill.’ But it’s sort of a straw-man argument because you’re creating a problem to then fix.”
One of the most incisive observers of the female-orgasm industry is Jen Gunter, an ob-gyn who is renowned for tearing down insidious myths about female sexuality—Goop’s jade eggs and vaginal steaming, certainly, but also the O-Shot, which is “so many layers of horrific,” she writes in her book The Vagina Bible, “it’s hard to know where to begin.” When we spoke by phone, Gunter had me in stitches at her description of our fetishized portrayal of female desire.
“The whole sex industry,” she said, “it’s all about the female orgasm, in the sense that it’s not about the pleasure that gets you there. Patriarchal society wants women to be horny for men when the men are ready; it’s like, ‘Of course, oh mighty sword bearer, you should be able to just twist a nipple and stick it in, and in three seconds I’m going to arch my back and act like the most pleasurable thing in the world is happening to me.’” She said her two teenage sons have started walking out whenever there’s a sex scene in a movie or an episode of Game of Thrones because they’re so sick of her counting down the seconds from penetration to climax (“Oh my God, stop it, Mom!”). But she argues that the consequences of such messaging can seriously affect women and weigh on them, and she sees a lot of patients whose partners have broken up with them because of their sex life. “There are countless different ways that women’s sexuality can be weaponized against them,” she told me. “Pick a way, and it exists.”
In the end, I made an appointment with a tantric healer ($600 for two hours, not including travel time) recommended by my friend Imogen, another woman in her 30s with climaxing issues.
“You need to see this guy,” she texted me one afternoon. “I had the lobster-claw full-body orgasm experience. It was so insane.” And then, when I asked if the healer had actually touched her—I knew nothing about tantra, but I had visions of hands trying to manipulate the energy half an inch above my skin, which clearly wouldn’t cut it—she responded with a simple “Yup.”
The next thing I knew, I was opening my door to Justin, a tanned, muscular man about my age wearing combat boots and maroon-and-yellow ikat balloon pants. We sat in my living room discussing the lengthy intake form I’d sent him—“Do you love your genitals? Please describe”—and arguing good-naturedly about whether my having survived a near-fatal car accident a few years back meant that I had been put on this planet for a purpose. (He said yes; I said no.) He struck me as intelligent and oddly down-to-earth, given his wacky spiritual bent; I felt as safe and comfortable with him as I had with Dr. M. Then he asked me to take off my clothes, don a sarong, and make a list of intentions to tuck beneath the mattress as he prepared the bedroom for our session.
“Let’s see what you came up with,” he said when he emerged.
“You’re going to read them?” I asked. “I thought they would be private!”
“Listen, you’ll be doing a lot of private things today,” he said, “but you’ll be doing them with me.” We were sitting at my dining table now, him fully clothed and me essentially naked, the semi-transparent sarong wrapped around me like a towel. Every so often he took a break from reading my intentions to offer pearls of wisdom: Get rid of your vibrator. Make masturbation a weekly ritual. Study your vagina in the mirror (“Like Charlotte in Sex and the City!” I exclaimed to his chagrin). Most important, stop faking it. “How will you ever find something authentic if you’re inauthentic from the start?” he asked. “And if a guy does bolt for that reason, that’s an excellent way of weeding out the assholes.”
“Let’s talk about boundaries,” he finally said.
“I don’t think I really have any?”
“Okay then,” he said. “Would you be all right with unprotected penetrative sex?”
“Oh!” Chastened, I added: “No, I guess not.”
“See, that’s a boundary,” he said, and offered up a long list of other erotic possibilities. It was beginning to dawn on me that tantric healing was a little more, um, hands-on than I had realized; aroused, I said yes to it all. Then he disappeared into the bedroom. When he opened the door, he was wearing only yellow silk shorts and his many amulet necklaces. The blinds were lowered, the bed strewn with rayon rose petals; incense smoldered on the dresser, and dozens of electric candles did their simulacra of flickering.
“Enter, Goddess,” he said solemnly.
We sat cross-legged on the bed, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes; he told me to breathe deeply in through my nose and out through my mouth. Then I lay on my stomach as he pulled off the sarong and massaged my back and legs; when he later straddled me, running his forearm horizontally up and down my spine, I realized with a jolt that he also was naked. If I kept my eyes closed, I could almost ignore the question of whether I had inadvertently hired a prostitute.
“You are strong,” he whispered, every so often nibbling my earlobe. “Beautiful. Sexy. Worthy. Loving. Lovable.” He rubbed his hands with lavender oil and told me to inhale. “Imagine the farm where this lavender was grown,” he said, “and the factory where it was turned into oil. Imagine the farmer who picked it; imagine his life, his preoccupations and joys and anxieties. The world is performing for you,” he said. “Think of everything it’s doing behind the scenes to support you, and you don’t even realize it.” Then he stuck his finger in a place that I’ll keep classified.
When it was all over—let’s just say that there was lots of attention lavished on my “sacred temple,” lots of sighing over what he called “the nectar of the gods”—Justin flipped me on my side and we began to spoon (so that our heart chakras were aligned, naturally). “You are a goddess,” he told me again, “and I acknowledge and honor you.” He was shocked to learn that I hadn’t come, given my seeming enjoyment, and he wondered aloud whether I actually had, whether there was some block between my body and my brain.
We turned to face each other, still lying naked and entwined. “You have the weirdest job,” I said. He laughed, but not because he agreed with me. “It’s a calling,” he said. “I truly believe that tantra will be the next big thing, like yoga or meditation.” He told me how revelatory his first tantric experience had been; how he had sold his fancy car and quit his finance job; how he had moved to Miami so he could focus on healing women like myself. He talked for so long that the afternoon shadows began to lengthen—I hadn’t hired a prostitute, I realized, but a boyfriend.
That evening, as instructed, I drank lots of water and set light to my intentions, which quickly curled into a scroll of velvety soot. I also texted Imogen: “I really want to discuss the intimacy of it. Afterward we lay in bed naked holding each other and talking for half an hour as if we were in love.”
“He held me at the end too like a baby,” she wrote, “but I was paralyzed at the time so maybe it didn’t feel romantic to me.”
Justin texted as well, to ask how I was doing, and whether I’d had any further revelations. I think my answer disappointed him, for he soon texted again: “There may be more lessons or teachings you have created for yourself in this experience than you are letting yourself see … Don’t sell yourself short on how much you accomplished … This is a journey and you are just at the beginning.”
Is that true, that my journey is only just beginning? Some days I think I’m finished searching for my orgasm; other days, feeling more hopeful, I consider asking my mother for a masturbation workshop for my birthday. Yet other days, I wonder whether I’ve actually been having orgasms all along, whether the occasional spasms I feel are the real thing. As Lux Alptraum points out, the female orgasm is often more difficult to pinpoint than its male equivalent, and underwhelming climaxes, oxymoronic as they may sound, are far more widespread than we think. In O, Jonathan Margolis describes a study in which the sex researchers William Hartman and Marilyn Fithian observed a group of women who believed themselves to be anorgasmic, but three-fourths of whom, as it turned out, had been demonstrating physiological reactions consistent with orgasm all the while. “It is as if the modern mythology and cult of orgasm,” Margolis writes, “has placed the sensation on such a pedestal—created such an aspirational ‘superbrand’ of it—that women perfectly capable of orgasm refuse to believe they are having a legitimate one.”
Vanessa Marin, the orgasm whisperer, recently endeared herself to me by releasing a free video series called The Female Orgasm Revolution that I’ve been watching and rewatching like a cultist. (Did you know it takes women an average of 20 minutes to come? Or that 85 percent of men thought their female partners had climaxed during their most recent sexual encounter, whereas only 64 percent of women said they actually had?) Vanessa thinks it’s bullshit that 10 percent of women are destined for anorgasmia, by the way, and so too the idea that orgasms require simply “letting go.” Orgasm is a skill like skiing, she says, and like skiing, it calls for time and practice. Last night in bed I attempted her celebrated four-step masturbation method, a combination of stroke, speed, pressure, and body techniques—it left me longing for the Magic Wand, but she would say that’s just my impatience talking. At least she’d be pleased to know that my days of faking it are over, if only because, driven by the same storytelling compulsion that motivates me at cocktail parties, I’m almost certainly blowing my cover.
But maybe it’s for the best. Granted, I surprised myself with the ire that bubbled up over the course of writing this essay; I hadn’t realized how much lingering resentment I had toward those men—and later, toward the female-orgasm industrial complex in which I saw the self-interest of such men reflected—who made me feel deficient and ashamed for a situation out of my control, and one that I had long ago made peace with. As grateful as I am to Dr. M and Justin for their support, moreover, for offering a safe space in which to further explore the frontier of my own body, I find myself wondering, when I think too hard about it, whether their professed “calling” is actually just more male selfishness in disguise. (“Do you work with men?” I asked Justin before he left. “No, only women,” he said. “I’m not trained in the lingam.” Shocking, I couldn’t help thinking.) Yet I refuse to believe that there aren’t at least a few men out there with the necessary confidence and generosity to want me regardless of whether or not I ever come, and Justin made a good point: How will I ever find something authentic if I am inauthentic from the start?
And I will leave you there, dear reader—with the frustration of yet another anticlimax.
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