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Why Sex Needs To Be About More Than Orgasms

Changing what "counts" as pleasurable sex is the first step to closing the orgasm gap between genders.

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From sex toys to “sex dust” supplements, self-help books to cannabis lube, companies are promising—and marketing—big, mind-blowing orgasms. And much like sex, orgasms are big business. In 2020 alone, the global sex toy industry was valued at $33.64 billion and is expected to rise annually. Often, the selling point for these products is achieving the “female orgasm”—something that as a culture we’re taught is elusive, mysterious, and a tacked-on bonus to good sex. Many companies, in a mix of marketable feminism and store-bought empowerment, promise to close the “orgasm gap”.

Professor and sex therapist Laurie Mintz has dedicated much of her career to studying the orgasm gap,  a term describing the disparity of orgasms between heterosexual, cisgender men and women. Her book Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — And How to Get It, addresses the orgasm gap and the wider failure of sex education and cultural depictions of sex. Becoming Cliterate had a huge cultural impact on the way we talk about sex between men and women, and was touted as the next step of the sexual revolution.

Mintz’s findings were alarming. One study conducted by the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) found that 91 percent of men reported orgasming during their last sexual encounter, compared with 64 percent of women. This gap between orgasming isn’t just about the physical, it’s also about the perception of climax: 85 percent of men reported that their partner orgasmed, which directly disputes the low percentage of self-reported orgasm by women.

So, obviously, the orgasm gap is real. But does it matter? The orgasm gap certainly tells us something critical about the way heterosexual women are sidelined during sex, especially compared to other demographics (lesbian women report orgasm 88 percent of the time). But focusing on orgasming as the pinnacle of sexual satisfaction is a bait and switch. It feels like closing the gap should be empowering, but stops just short of meaningful change. The orgasm gap is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. Instead of challenging societal notions of sex, what “counts” as sex, and what kinds of people get to be the focus of meaningful erotic exchanges, we hyper fixate on the quantitative frequency of a single bodily function.

Folks have sex for all sorts of reasons. Sex can demonstrate commitment or express love and attraction. Sex can be for agency, fun, self-expression, or simple stress relief. In fact, many people with rich sex lives are unable or unwilling to access orgasm at all, due to trauma, gender dysphoria, purity culture, nerve damage, or other disabilities.

“The orgasm-achievement model focuses on getting to a goal, and not focusing on the experience that actually brought you there,” says Cassandra Corrado, a trauma and LGBTQ- informed sex educator. “Meanwhile, pleasure-centered sex means removing the hierarchy of sex acts. Instead, think about all of the options that are on the table [rather than just penetration, for example]. Any experience that sexually engages your body—even if it doesn’t involve genitals—can count as sex, as long as you have the intent to cultivate pleasure.”

Whereas pleasure-centered sex offers a more holistic approach to sexuality, the orgasm-achievement model is rooted in patriarchal notions of what “counts” as sex. Our cultural understanding of sex often begins and ends with heterosexuality: a cis man is aroused, he initiates P-in-V penetration, and sex ends with his climax. Adding a cis woman’s orgasm into the mix doesn’t change the equation; sex still hinges on heteronormative sex acts and the supremacy of a narrow kind of cis male pleasure.

But it’s not just cis women who are bored and shut out of pleasure during this kind of sex. Men are often confined by this sex, too. Performance anxiety, “achievement”, “climax,” and “finishing” make sex sound more like a toxic competition than a natural, connective part of being human.

Indeed, the mystique of the “female orgasm” puts undue pressure on cis men and women, but that’s only part of the issue. Orgasms, like pleasure, are not genital or gender-specific. Vulva and penis owners occupy every slot on the gender spectrum, and their pleasure is expansive. There is much to learn about the erotic imagination of queer and trans folks, BDSM, leather, and kink communities. One 2017 study,  A “Different Economy of Bodies and Pleasures”?: Differentiating and Evaluating Sex and Sexual BDSM Experiences, found that BDSM participants constructed sexual fulfillment as more emotional, mental, and interpersonal rather than just physcial.

But getting off the sexcalator isn’t always easy. The sexcalator is a term that describes orgasm-centered sex. “Sex on the sexclator is about moving quickly from A to B—very linear, very passive, and rooted in cisheteronormativity,” writes sex and pleasure educator Che Che Luna. “It is solely focused on ‘getting off at the top’ and makes us feel like we failed if the destination isn’t reached.”

If you’re someone who tends to fixate on goal achievement in sex, Corrado recommends setting a timer for a few minutes and doing things that make you feel good. “Don’t try to reach orgasm, just focus on prolonging the feeling of pleasure. Just pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you. If during this experience, your body leads you to orgasm, that’s okay! The point of pleasure-centered sex isn’t to eschew orgasm entirely. Rather, it’s to bring greater focus on what feels good moment to moment, rather than fixating on a specific end goal,” Corrado says.

Shifting your mindset away from an achievement-based, linear sexual practice takes time. But pleasure-centered sex is patient. Adaptive. Fluid. Pleasure-centered sex will not gatekeep, judge, or rank your body. The pleasure is in the discovery of what you enjoy and appreciate as an erotic being, not in chasing the dragon of an orgasm.

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