After a long look, Clarisse Thorn finally finds her sexual identity.
This is the final post in a four-part series from Clarisse Thorn that we’ll be posting over the next two weeks. It’s divided up into eight sections, and we’ll be posting two at a time. You can check out Clarisse’s original post, in its entirety, at her personal site.
VII. Figuring It Out
In retrospect, I recognize that I went through a brief period where I had orgasms sometimes — weak ones. But the orgasms were hard to hang on to because they happened during sex with my boyfriend. This would be the same boyfriend I described at the beginning of this piece, when I wrote: now I have the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. but just like every other one, he can’t get me off. big dick? oral sex? tons of foreplay? kink? it’s all there.
Now I see, in retrospect, that not everything was there: neither of us had questioned our sexual assumptions, our societally-determined sexual scripts. And one of the biggest sexual scripts is that sex ends with the man’s orgasm. That the man’s orgasm is the goal.
It’s very hard to think around these scripts. It’s very hard to even be aware of them. So, since my paramount goal during sex was obviously “satisfying my man”, I often pushed my orgasm away due to my focus on him. I knew that if I came then I’d feel tired and less interested in sex (at least for a while). And obviously, if he were to have his all-important manly orgasm, I couldn’t go falling asleep on him could I? I couldn’t even pause to mentally process my sensations if he seemed to be enjoying himself, now could I? Plus, once he’d come, I certainly couldn’t expect him to stimulate me any more than he already had, because he was tired; he’d just had an orgasm!
(These days, one of my #1 judgments of whether a new partner could be good for me is this: if I didn’t come before he did, then does he take a moment to catch his breath, and then turn to me and smile and offer to do what it takes?)
In the end, figuring it out was almost anticlimactic.
I saw an online video from sex educator Betty Dodson called “Did I Orgasm?” … and I realized that I’d been occasionally having weak orgasms already. I was also experimenting more and more with BDSM; simultaneously, I put more and more power into the hands of my fantasy men; and once I had compelling private fantasies to feed on, I couldn’t help masturbating. Here was the key: initially, I’d felt that masturbating in itself involved having too much control over the situation. And that’s not how my sexuality worked.
Oh yes, in practice I take responsibility for my pleasure; and now I’m pretty good at clearly discussing what kind of role my partners will take ahead of time, describing what they’ll do with me. These days, I sometimes take the dominant role, too. But even now, it’s hard for me to come if I feel like I’m in control.
On some level, even if it’s the most tissue-thin fantasy, I usually have to convince my emotional-sexual self that I’m not in charge. It helps if I have an emotional connection with whoever I’m fantasizing about, too. If I don’t have an emotionally involved romantic partner, I seem to automatically create BDSM-themed fantasy worlds with hilariously ornate storylines. Years ago, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t reach orgasm because my internal characters weren’t compelling or my plotlines weren’t dramatic enough … but sometimes it’s true!
In my case, I believe that BDSM is the key to my sexuality. It is as close to the core of my sexual identity as I can get; close enough that, like some other BDSMers, I occasionally call it my “orientation”. But I don’t think BDSM is like that for everyone, and I don’t even think that’s the whole story with me — because during the whole time, this self-discovery process, I was doing things like eating more regularly, keeping a healthier diet, putting some weight on my previously stick-thin frame, and exercising more. Health plays a big role in any kind of sex, and it’s important to think about. Still, even now I can’t come without some thread of dominance and submission, even if it’s an entirely internal fantasy that I imprint on whatever is happening.
When women ask me for advice on how to have orgasms, I feel helpless because there is no “one true way”. I don’t want to fall back on the old “let go” and “keep trying” that I received — it’s decent advice, but it’s so vague. Perhaps something more useful would be this: first, it really helps to have an idea of what you want. I know this can be hard in a society that soaks us with sexual images designed for stereotypical men, rather than images for women (and especially not for non-normative women like myself). And I feel so aware of how patronizing and useless the “you aren’t in touch with your sexuality, that’s why you can’t come” argument can be. Remember, I had that argument used against me by my lesbian friend. But it was, in fact, kinda true for me — just in a different way: I need BDSM.
If you’re not sure what you want, don’t panic. Just keep your eyes and ears open, and try to monitor your reactions. It may surprise you. If it does, don’t worry — just research it! No matter how unusual your sexuality, there is probably information on the Internet about it. (And even if your sexuality is unusual, odds are it’s not nearly as unusual as you think it is.)
My personal favorite sex education website in the entire world is Scarleteen.com, a grassroots feminist effort with an amazingly comprehensive perspective. Scarleteen has an incredible impact on many, many lives. Sometimes I read it just for fun!
Secondly: it may help 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.
Thirdly, although it’s possible for a person to explore sexuality on her own, relationships can make or break the process. We all make some compromises for romance. But when we compromise, we should know what we’re compromising, and we should think about whether the compromise is worth it.
For me, sexual exploration and satisfaction are incredibly important — but it took ages to develop the courage to put my foot down about them. After my boyfriend shouted at me that he didn’t care about my sexual satisfaction, it took me an embarrassingly long time to end things with him; I really was in love, and we’d been together for years. But my sexuality wasn’t even close to a priority for him, and breaking up with him was one of the best decisions I ever made.
After ending that relationship, I was able to build my self-confidence and self-esteem with new boyfriends surprisingly fast — and my boyfriends helped me more than they probably know. I owe countless small debts to men who accepted my inability to orgasm, took my anxieties about it into account, and sometimes gently pushed me to try new things.
One particular guy comes to mind: I told him I couldn’t come, but that I wanted to experiment with S&M, so we arranged to buy rope and some painful equipment. During our conversation, he gently drew me out on my history, and then he said, “You know what I think we need to go along with this rope? A vibrator.”
I blinked and said hesitantly, “I don’t know, I’ve never really liked vibrators.” But I was willing to try it again, and that’s when I learned that vibrators are awesome. That’s when I learned that what I really need is to convince myself I’m not in charge — that once the correct fantasy is in place, vibrators make everything easy.
Even today, few things make me happier than a man who grasps the tension I still sometimes feel about “being demanding” or “asking for too much”. I communicate with straightforwardness that amazes most partners, but it’s crucial for them to understand that I still have hesitations. That even I, sometimes, need a moment to articulate what I want — or need to be asked whether there’s anything he can do.
Lastly, and most importantly: don’t let go of your boundaries unless you’re sure you’re ready. If you really don’t want to do something, you don’t have to make yourself do it. I’m writing this because when I was growing up, all the sex-positive work I read encouraged exploration at the cost of boundaries, and I think that’s wrong. There were times when that attitude hurt me — for example, I did things I didn’t like because people claimed I hadn’t yet gotten over my sexual “issues”, like my lesbian friend in college. And I know that attitude has hurt other women, too.
I don’t like seeing sex-positive feminism equated with making oneself freely sexually available. Exploring sexuality does not mean you have to ignore your warning bells.
Sexuality is so complicated. Sex cannot be reduced to bodies, or hormones, or psychological stereotypes. Sex cannot be reduced to certainties, to shoulds and shouldn’ts. If I could destroy every force in our lives that drives home ideas of sexual “normality”, I would. Which leads to my final piece of advice: don’t let me tell you what to do. This is just my experience, just my ideas. As with everything, I want you to do whatever feels right for you — as long as it’s among consenting adults.
Here are some things that might be interesting to reflect on:
1) What questions do you have about your orgasm?
1a) Where have you researched the answers to those questions?
1b) Have you ever discussed those questions with your partners?
2) What questions do you have about your partners’ orgasms?
2a) Have you ever asked your partners about their orgasms?
3) What’s one thing you wish you’d said in bed to a partner?
3a) What would have made it easier to say it?
4) What are your favorite sexual acts? Are there other ways you could perform them?
5) What’s the best sexual experience you remember? What made it great?
6) What’s the hottest thing you’ve seen or read? What made it great and are there ways you could participate?
7) Does anything from this article resonate with you? What?
There was a mild comment fracas. Eventually, in response to that guy, I wrote:
I worked really hard on this article to try and note both:
A) how men’s perspective might make this difficult for them, but simultaneously
B) why men’s insecurities aren’t actually an excuse for men to treat women badly.
In my experience women are actually extremely aware of men’s insecurities.Women frequently silence themselves and put up with a lot of crap because we are afraid of “emasculating” our man, as I specifically noted in the article.
Given that this was an article about:
1) a woman’s experience,
2) and what it’s like to be a woman,
3) and why this issue is difficult to take on as a woman,
4) and why women shouldn’t allow men’s insecurities to shut us up …
… can you see why I would avoid putting a lot of text towards describing men’s insecurities in loving detail?
For more on why I got so angry about it, you can read this set of comments over at Alas, A Blog.
Now. With that having been said ….
One of the guys in the Clarisse Thorn Manliness Brain Trust ™ emailed me with some thoughts in the wake of this article. Once again, I want to emphasize that I don’t want anyone to feel that they “ought to” give a crappy partner “another chance” if that partner is treating them badly. I spent years giving a terrible boyfriend millions of second chances because I kept telling myself that he was just “insecure”. Walking away from that oh-so-”insecure” man was one of the best choices I ever made. Nonetheless, I think that the following comment from my Manliness Brain Trust ™ friend might be useful for some people:
When I first saw this post, my first thought was that I have to pass it on to a couple of the people I’m involved with, who have difficulty reaching orgasm because it’s an awesome, awesome article. My second thought was that it seemed like Clarisse didn’t really grok the guy’s side of this exchange.
Somewhere among 5th, 7th and 9th thoughts, was the notion that I’d be a jerk to raise that point in the comments. This article is a great reference for women working through difficult climax issues and there’s no need to drag the conversation off to the guy side of the experience … So I sent Clarisse an email about it instead. Because the thing with Unification theories is that they’re never all the way done. And things could have been so much easier for Clarisse if her boyfriends didn’t suck. Maybe some insight into why they sucked would help with the ongoing development of the model, or at least provide some eased management strategies.
The thing is, I don’t feel attacked or diminished or anything else by this article. Despite the fact that I’m a guy, I have insecurities and I can in some places see a stupid, obnoxious mirror of myself in Clarisse’s dumb ex boyfriends — that isn’t at all why I thought I should talk about the topic more with the author. It just seemed to me like Clarisse hadn’t quite got her head around what the guys were going through with their side of this interaction. Where their insecurities came into play.
In my head, I see a young woman, working through her own issues with orgasms reading this, and seeing her young boyfriend reflected in Clarisse’s past relationships. And the take away from Clarisse’s experience at the moment seems to be that if your boyfriend is insecure and stupid, maybe he’s not the right person to work through this with you. And I’m not sure that’s doing anyone any favors. I mean shit, maybe that is what you should take away from reading this — that the guy you’re with isn’t the right person for you right now if you’re struggling with difficulty achieving orgasm. But maybe there are other stories going on as well. Maybe he’s insecure about his role and his failings (or his body or whatever) and maybe he could be the right guy to work through this with you, if you’re the right person to work through his insecurities with him?
And please, please don’t take that to mean let things slide because you don’t want to emasculate him. I’m not for a moment advocating putting up with nonsense because he’s a guy with a precious male ego. But lots of guys, certainly including myself, have personal insecurities, about masculinity and about sexuality, and attached to the perceptions of masculinity in sexual situations. As a guy, we’re all taught that real men don’t give head — or at least that it’s a private thing that we don’t admit too — which is so fucking stupid, but is still really out there in heteronormative western male culture. We’re all taught that getting a woman off is our job, and to be a good man, and a good lover, we have to get our partner off before we get off. I don’t know a single sexually active guy who has never felt humiliated because he came too early, and too early is largely defined as before our partner gets off. And we’re all taught that real men get their partners off with nothing but the awesomeness of our cocks. Hand jobs/digital penetration are fine for highschool or fore play — but our image of a good man, and a desirable lover doesn’t integrate with those things. We’re coached by pop culture and porn to believe that the guy every woman wants is the one who sticks his cock in and makes her explode with joy from the very first thrust. And any time that doesn’t happen, the guy is at fault.
And again, to stress my position here, I think all of those things are stupid, illogical nonsense. But those are the pressures that are on guys. And maybe, if the guy that you’re with is struggling to work through your orgasm issues, maybe it’s because he’s so far under the weight of his own insecurities that he doesn’t know how to cope with his own issues, and be a supportive partner to work through yours. But the thing about a good relationship, is that together you’re stronger than the sum of your individualities. Maybe as a couple, you can work through his insecurities and your orgasm difficulties at the same time. Nobody’s problems exist in a vacuum, and sometimes finding the support you need is easier if you just fix the support you already have.
That comment was originally posted over here, and there was some discussion afterwards — including some guys saying that they never got any memo about cunnilingus being “not manly”.
Here’s my wrap-up: sympathy is good. Trying to build a better relationship is good. And I understand that some people may have serious, important reasons that they can’t or don’t want to walk away from their romantic partner. (That’s one of the things feminism has always worked towards: giving people many sources of support and safety nets, so people can leave abusive partners if necessary.) But. Seriously, if your partner sucks? Walking away is an option — it’s even an option, sometimes, when you think it’s not an option. Just remember that.
—Photo Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr