Is Orgasm Equality as Simple as Tit for Tat?

With Nicki Minaj and Amy Schumer calling for climax parity, our sex columnist asks the experts if this fight is really as feminist as it sounds.

Recently, both Nicki Minaj and Amy Schumer have come out swinging for “orgasm equality”—namely, that when a woman has sex, especially with a man, she is entitled to an orgasm. Minaj declared in Cosmopolitan’s July issue, “I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that.” Schumer told Glamour in the August 2015 issue, “Don’t not have an orgasm. Make sure he knows that you’re entitled to an orgasm.”

But is equality in the bedroom as simple as tallying up his and hers (or hers and hers, or other gender pairings) matching orgasms? Not exactly. As someone who’s had both male and female lovers tell me they felt like failures because I didn’t have an orgasm, in turn making me feel like I had failed them, I can tell you that this can be quite a vicious circle, and can make those for whom orgasm come slowly, if at all, feel anything but equal, or happy.

In situations like this, it’s as if, rather than demanding orgasms, they are being demanded of us. Or, as author Jenny Block puts it in her forthcoming book O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm, we’ve made orgasm less of a joyful endeavor and more of a power play, a symbol of achievement first and foremost. She writes, “I can make you come’ has become a badge of honor, and it puts pressure on the woman to come and pressure on the person that woman is with to make her come. The only power should lie with the woman having the orgasm.”

According to Aida Manduley, a queer Latina sexuality educator, the way Minaj’s comments were framed, particularly since they were prefaced on the Cosmopolitan website with the header “On being high-maintenance in bed,” shows that “the idea of women putting their pleasure at the forefront and on equal footing to men's is seen as ‘too much.’” Manduley says, “I believe that Nicki Minaj is speaking from a place of seeing societal orgasm inequity and trying to resolve it in her own life, then, at its core, giving advice to others to not put up with inconsiderate men who demand orgasm but do not reciprocate.” She says that while orgasm can be a worthwhile goal, it’s not the only motivation for getting it on. Explains Manduley, “I believe in sex where the goals are negotiated among its participants. Is the goal overall pleasure? Is the goal orgasm specifically? Is the goal stress-reduction before a big event, building intimacy, making a baby, making money, something else? Whatever it is, it can't just be unilaterally decided.”

Here’s the thing: While you shouldn’t feel like your orgasm is some extra add-on to the main attraction of intercourse, or an optional part of sex on the part of your partner who always gets to come, there isn’t one single path to orgasm for women. Some women have a surefire method that does indeed work every time, while for others, orgasms may be elusive, occasional, time consuming, or tricky, which means that while you may be “entitled” to one, there are various reasons why it may not happen in any given sex session. Janet Hardy, co-author of The Ethical Slut, says that not every woman is like Minaj and Schumer in the first place—they may prefer their orgasm tomorrow, or next week, rather than today. “It could be that someone doesn't want an orgasm—they may not wish to be that vulnerable in front of someone else, or they may be slow to orgasm and simply not feel like taking the time.”

Orgasm may just not be in the cards at a given time. Writer and sex educator JoEllen Notte, like many I consulted, says that for the most part, she’s opposed to goal-oriented sex, especially when that goal is climax. “For people dealing with medical or psychological conditions that make orgasm difficult or even impossible, the idea that women (or really, anyone) ‘should’ have an orgasm adds an unnecessary layer of stress and tells those people that there's nothing for them to enjoy because no orgasm equals a bad experience, which is so not true.”

It’s easy to rally behind the feminist-sounding idea of merging orgasm (yay!) with equality (awesome!). But again, this may not be as cut and dried as it at first appears. According to Dr. TaMara, clinical sexologist and sex therapist, in an article at Madame Noire warning readers “Don’t Let Nicki Minaj’s Advice Mess Up Your Sex Life,” the star’s well intentioned words may “set people up for disappointment.” I asked her to elaborate on that idea. “If you have this expectation that this is the end result of sex, this is how sex should happen every time, that your partner is responsible for giving you this orgasm, when it doesn’t happen, you’re going to be terribly disappointed and that’s going to cause more issues in the relationship. We all would like to have an orgasm, but when we just focus on that, we forget about the touch, the closeness, and the intimacy that we experience when we are in the midst of sex play. We [have to] start by teaching people to appreciate the whole journey, not the destination. When we’re focused on getting to the end, we miss so much in between.”

She also makes an important point: that you may be having an orgasm, but it might not look or feel like what you’ve been taught an orgasm is. “There are different types of orgasms,” says Dr. TaMara. “You may in fact be having an orgasm but because it’s not the end all, be all big bang that you see in porn or on television, you think you’re not having an orgasm.”

It may also be the case that a woman wants to tell her partner how to make her come, but she’s not sure exactly what to tell them. According to sex and relationship coach Charlie Glickman, Ph.D., “Some women have very idiosyncratic sexual responses, and if someone doesn’t know what works for her, simply demanding an orgasm from her partner isn’t going to work.” He added that women who think they “should” orgasm every time they have sex may even avoid sex if they think they won’t measure up to that milestone. His advice is to be as specific as possible when discussing what you want with your partner. “Experiment until you discover what works for your body so you can put it into words. Saying ‘I want to use my vibrator while we have intercourse tonight’ will be far more effective than saying ‘Let’s do that thing we did that time. Remember? It was when we were at that bed and breakfast?’”

Then again, sometimes a partner might think that they know best, even when you ask very specifically for what you need in bed. While lovers of any gender could fall prey to the idea that they know the one true path to orgasm, I’d venture that men who sleep with women are particularly vulnerable to thinking they know the magic button to press (or, ahem, lick), and that can be problematic. Says kink presenter Eve Minax, “Women who make an effort to declare that they require their partner to understand their orgasms are not necessarily saying, I want you to magically know how to make me come.” It’s not about mind reading, but about being open to what their real live female partners think, rather than their preconceived ideas.

Case in point: Once, Minax had a boyfriend who was going down on her, but his tongue wasn’t doing it for her. “I tried to get into it, but it just wasn’t happening.” To encourage him, she told him, “A little more to the left, please,” but did he listen? Not at all. Instead, “He lifted his head from between my legs and promptly said, ‘No, I’m going to do it my way,’ and resumed his action. I lay there for all of 10 more seconds before I went off. How dare he supposedly be pleasuring me on his own terms? It was neither logical nor effective.”

A version of this has happened to Notte as well, proving that even if you think you are doing the right thing in bed by trying to “give” your lover an orgasm, the greatest thing you can do for them is actually listen to what they are saying about their own body. “Direct clitoral stimulation is actually painful for me,” she says. “I have had several partners who actually listen to the things they hear and read so they go in thinking, Women need clitoral stimulation. All of them. Fact.” They’re unable to fathom that for her, that’s not the case. “I have repeatedly had to say things along the lines of ‘I'm not being shy or embarrassed, you are actually inflicting pain on me and if you don't stop I will be unable to continue this sexual experience.’” In other words, “equality” isn’t about doing the exact same thing with every woman you bed, but getting to know the individual woman’s body, moods, and desires.

One woman cheering very loudly for women’s orgasms, and their clits, is Block, who says “Women are entitled to orgasms. It’s our inalienable right. And if we’re not having them and our partners are, it’s time to talk.” While Block agrees with many of the other women I spoke to that “No one can ‘make’ a woman come. Every individual is responsible for his or her own orgasm,” she does believe there’s a fairness issue that’s not being addressed. “The real issue with female orgasm is that too many men and women think that women ‘should’ come from vaginal penetration. Truth is, very few women come from vaginal penetration alone. The blended orgasm is where it’s at—clitoral stimulation with vaginal penetration, and a little back door play if she’s game. The clit has 8,000 nerve endings. The vagina has virtually none, so few that you can operate on the vagina without anesthesia. Women come from having their clits well stimulated. Period. And the majority of women can orgasm. They are the rule—not the exception. We have to stop acting like the opposite is true.”

Block’s words of advice to those stuck with lackluster lovers seem to be ones that Minaj and Schumer would agree with, especially when she says, “No woman should partner with someone who is not as interested in her pleasure is he is in his own. If a guy thinks touching or licking a woman’s pussy is just about getting her ‘revved up’ for the main event, dump him.”

As someone who likes orgasms when I have them, but hates feeling like my orgasm is being held up as a sign of my sexual satisfaction, I especially related to what Notte had to say: “Should women who know they are capable of orgasms enjoy them and want them advocated for them? Yes. Should we shout from the rooftops that sex without a female orgasm (or male orgasm, for that matter) is failed sex? No. For some people sex doesn't include orgasm and it's still outstanding; we don't need to diminish that to encourage others.” Indeed.

 

Rachel Kramer Bussel (rachelkramerbussel.com) writes widely about sex, dating, books, and pop culture. She’s edited over 50 anthologies, including The Big Book of Orgasms, Cheeky Spanking Stories, Women in Lust, Fast Girls, Best Sex Writing 2013, and others, and teaches erotic writing workshops. Follow her @raquelita on Twitter and on her blog, Lusty Lady (lustylady.blogspot.com).