The author (right) and her girlfriend, Kelsey, walking together in Greenville, North Carolina. (Photo: Mady Noel Photo)
I never understood why people screamed out someone’s name during sex — but now I do.
It didn’t, forgive me, come easily.
I remember being intertwined with my girlfriend after an afternoon of fooling around when I proudly declared that I had had “so many orgasms.”
The silence was palpable until my girlfriend came right out and said it: She could tell I was enjoying myself and was more than happy to give me as much pleasure as I wanted, but she wondered if I actually was having orgasms. She knew that whatever little flutters I felt were fun but they weren’t, according to her, orgasms. From what she could tell, I wasn’t experiencing the muscle tension, release and surrender that her former partners or she had experienced when coming.
At first, I was indignant. There are different flavors of orgasm and maybe mine were just different from hers. How dare she claim to know what my body was doing? The tingles and the increased heart rate that I’d always heard were associated with orgasm were certainly there. She and I were connected in a give and take of pleasure that was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.
And yet the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if she was right. At 30 years old, I actually had no idea what an orgasm felt like and at that point, I was too afraid to ask. Sometimes I really did believe I’d been having orgasms, but I often took on the “fake it till you make it approach” so completely that I had convinced every one of my past partners, including my ex-husband, that I came. And I wasn’t alone. When it comes to faking it, a reported 59% of women have also pretended to have an orgasm.
I told myself that I’d been having orgasms because it was better than the alternative: that something was wrong with me. This secret shame ran deep, even after I came out of the closet.
As a late-blooming lesbian, I had only been with men before my girlfriend. My male partners’ orgasms were always more important. A recent study confirms that both men and women view men as being “more entitled to orgasms” than women. No one told me explicitly that I shouldn’t expect an orgasm, but no one had ever prioritized mine.
During my first-time having strap-on sex, my girlfriend asked me something no one had ever asked me during penetrative sex: Does it feel good? For someone who was socialized to prioritize a partner’s pleasure, often at the expense of my own, this was liberating and revolutionary. But it shouldn’t have been.
You might have a similar experience if your only exposure to sex education was abstinence-only STI prevention that consisted of watching videos of traumatic births and slideshows of infected genitalia. Or maybe you’re a lesbian but haven’t had your awakening yet (it’s never too late — you’re right on time for your own life). Or you might have grown up steeped in a piping hot cup of purity culture that taught you that sex was dirty until you were married, and then it was supposed to magically transition from disgusting to beautiful. Or maybe it’s as simple as no one ever showed you how. These are all valid experiences that may interfere with a person’s ability to orgasm.
I know now that I wasn’t alone in this. One study found nearly 12 percent of women have not had an orgasm ― or are unsure whether they’ve had one ― by age 28. As the director of a women’s center on a college campus, I suspect this number is even higher based on the stories and questions that my students often ask me in hushed, ashamed voices.
I started a book club for them based on sex educator Dr. Emily Nagoski’s ”Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.” I expected the book to empower my students but as the facilitator, my deep dive into this book changed my own life. One passage shifted my mindset from a lifetime of faking it to a curiosity to learn.
Nagoski describes orgasming like riding a bicycle: “it comes more naturally to some people than others, and if you’re not motivated enough to keep trying until you figure it out, you’ll never learn.” Even though orgasming came more naturally to others than to me, it didn’t mean that I was doomed. As much as my girlfriend’s assessment that I hadn’t experienced a true orgasm stung in the moment, it was the catalyst for discovery and dialogue.
The author (right) and Kelsey with their three rescue dogs Bu, Romeo, and Ruthie, in Greenville, North Carolina. (Photo: Courtesy of Mady Noel Photo)
Once I shifted my mindset to see orgasming as a learned practice instead of an inevitable biological response, my girlfriend and I engaged in the sexiest thing possible: honest, vulnerable conversations.
We snuggled on the couch and openly discussed exciters and inhibitors (if we use the bicycle analogy, it’s what causes you to pedal faster versus what causes you to put on your brakes) and what we’d be willing to explore together. I learned that great sex lives are made both inside and outside of the bedroom. It’s obviously about what you do but it’s also about what you say and being able to discuss shame in order to vanquish it. It’s not always easy ― I was terribly shy at first and I still am sometimes ― but the more you practice it, the easier it gets.
I learned that orgasming, for me, requires not just practice and a willingness to learn, but specific contexts as well. The right romantic context might be my most powerful exciter. I crave being cherished ― feeling safe, warm, amidst sparkly romance lighting, with soft sheets, and hearing verbal affirmation.
So my girlfriend and I kept practicing. We applied various romantic contexts, and I felt myself get closer and closer. Each time we were intimate, I could handle more pleasure and I pedaled just a little harder for a little longer.
When it finally happened, I felt familiar arousal transform into a budding tension throughout my thighs, calves and curled toes. The pressure was almost too much.
“Do you want me to stop?” my girlfriend asked. “No, just a break,” I replied.
There’s a previous version of myself that might not have asked for the break I needed, but talking about sex outside of the bedroom made it easier to talk about it inside the bedroom. I am even more vocal now than I was then, especially as I’ve learned what I like and just how amazing it feels to ask for what you want and receive it.
I inhaled after our short break and felt us climb again and again. I finally completely, totally surrendered to the pleasure, the context, the trust and the love between us. I realized that my orgasm was like the build of going up a steep hill where you feel the power of your legs and the increase of your heart rate, but you just know it will be worth it when you get to the top and coast down in a release with wind in your hair and wild in your heart.
We biked right over the hill and the descent was ecstasy.
People tend to say “when you know, you know” about soulmates and orgasms. I know about both these days, and I think it’s more accurate to say: When you know, you know ― at least sometimes or some days.
I’ve come to deeply enjoy our bike rides (ahem) and the wide variety of paths where we can ride our bikes. Queer sex is magically liberating and, for me, it was a much needed detour from heteronormative, penetrative sex with male ejaculation as the primary goal.
It’s well established that vaginal penetration alone isn’t enough for many women to orgasm. The orgasm gap, a term coined to describe the difference in how often women and men achieve orgasm, has long held that homosexual women have orgasms more frequently than straight women. One of the many reasons is that queer women typically don’t rely heavily (or especially solely) on penetration to orgasm and many do not view sex as something with a defined end point (hello, multiple orgasms).
A person doesn’t have to be queer to learn from queer people about sex. A good place to start is understanding that there’s more to sex than penetration ― and that there are many ways and places to penetrate beyond inserting a penis inside of a vagina. Instead, consider how liberating and exciting it is to explore every way and context that can bring pleasure. Learning about which other parts of the body can bring pleasure is also crucial. The clitoris has over 8,000 nerves and is the only part of the body that is only dedicated to providing pleasure. Nipples and ear lobes and many other spots also can be highly sensitive and ecstasy-inducing. And, while I am speaking from my experience as a woman, these tips apply to men and non-binary people, who may also find greater avenues to pleasure when they don’t concentrate solely on penetration.
Having a partner that is so devoted to my pleasure ― who I trusted and could ask for what I wanted ― was a game changer for me.
Furthermore, practice really does make pleasure and communicating with your partner or partners can be the key to achieving your unique orgasm. Research shows that women in a relationship of six or more months are more than six times as likely to orgasm during sex than those having a first encounter with a partner. Having a partner that is so devoted to my pleasure ― who I trusted and could ask for what I wanted ― was a game changer for me. I knew that if I needed something like a break, more time or words of affirmation, she was more than happy to deliver.
For example, I take a little longer than her to get on the bicycle. Instead of letting a shame spiral take over, I often find myself laughing when she playfully jokes that she’s an “endurance athlete ― no worries” with a wink. There’s never any pressure from her. She never asks if I’ve finished. She reassures me that it takes as long as it takes and I should just relax and enjoy the ride. May we all be prioritized by our partners in this way.
Months after my first true orgasm, I felt unexpectedly empowered while wearing a crumply paper dress on a cold exam chair in my OBGYN’s office and I declared that the “low libido” issue I’d been having for years was solved. I had convinced myself I was having orgasms and was just less interested in sex but deep down, I desperately wanted to feel more. It turns out that sex is a lot more appealing when you aren’t dealing with anorgasmia ― the medical term for inability or difficulty to orgasm ― which I had been totally unaware was the root of the issue in the first place.
My doctor congratulated me on my progress with my sexuality and shared that he was delighted to hear that my libido wasn’t low, but instead unsatisfied due to anorgasmia. He thought I was likely one of many women who weren’t permanently anorgasmic, but actually pre-orgasmic, and I didn’t even know it.
Pre-orgasmic people have the capability to orgasm but haven’t done the internal work or explored the contexts and methods they need to make orgasms happen.
For some people, being anorgasmic or pre-orgasmic is caused by medication, lifestyle factors and gender socialization which leads to things like the orgasm gap. It’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor if you’re experiencing anorgasmia or a change in your sexual experience that concerns you.
For me, talking with my doctor was important but not enough. I had to explore and learn more to unlock my sexuality. I believe it was a combination of gender socialization, closeted sexuality, and a limited definition of sex and pleasure that caused my difficulty to achieve orgasm. I’m still breaking free and I’m still learning new pleasure pathways with my girlfriend to find even more ways to orgasm.
The truth is it takes as long as it takes. But with enough patience, practice, openness and a partner you trust and enjoy being intimate with, it can happen. It can also happen when you’re all by yourself. However you choose to try and get there, explore. Investigate. Enjoy your beautiful, magnificent body and all that it can do.
Ashley Harzog is an educator, writer, and feminist speaker living in North Carolina. You can read her work on HuffPost, Supermajority, and Medium. She is currently working on an LGBTQ romance novel and lives with her girlfriend, three rescue dogs, and an endless rotation of foster dogs. Find her on Instagram at @ashleyharzog or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.