Sunday, March 4, 2012

A follow up: Sex Advice Columns, and the Altar of the Orgasm

I was completely taken aback by the amount of attention my post on Susie and Aretha Bright's sex column got. Some of the responses were interesting, some were provocative, and some were just plain uncalled for. But I'm going to be addressing some of them head on, both responses to my entry, and responses to Susie's link to my entry. Responses that essentially agree with me-- well, they agree with me, there's not much point in addressing them!

"I thought I'd point out that the Bright women didn't find this woman's story on a blog or run into someone on the street and give her their advice, un-asked-for. She wrote in to a sex advice column."

Right. And... my issue with the column wasn't that it gave advice, but the way the advice was given, and what advice was given. I think it was pretty clear from my post that I knew I was talking about a sex advice column.

"Sounds like sour grapes to me. Once you've had one then you recognize that sex without orgasms may be pleasurable, but it's all foreplay to me."
"You have to wonder if Amanda turns off movies before they are over. Or skips the last chapter or two of the books she reads. Hmmmm. Does she herself purposefully avoid orgasm?
A-ha! There's the question! Those women who have no difficulty achieving orgasm, do you ever stop just before an orgasm? Saying to yourself or your partner, "No, that's fine. I think I'll pass on orgasm this time around."
A show of hands?"

Speculations about the sex life of someone you don't know, awesome! For the record, I'm not going to discuss my sex life. What i discuss here is based on women I know(which may or may not include things that affect me), trends I see in culture, and things I've learned in classes or independent research. I was completely taken aback that not one, but two individuals felt it was appropriate to speculate on my sex life in a public forum that I did initially not have access to. My own experiences are irrelevant to the greater point, I think. Besides, I respect the privacy of my boyfriend, and plan to not horrify my parents or give future employers too much information. Plus, the second part of the second quote misses the point-- the woman who wrote in to Susie had difficulty reaching orgasm-- the experiences of a woman who has difficulty reaching orgasm are likely to be inherently different than that of a woman who has no difficulty.

"The only times I've been satisfied with sex without orgasm is when I have had an orgasm earlier in the day. I typically have trouble getting to another one.
Certainly, I am male and there are differences, but I think that there would be a level frustration building in anyone who had orgasm-less sex for two years or more.
A female friend of mine says this, "I feel that an orgasm isn't always necessary. But it would be disappointing to go that way repeatedly.""

This quote explains a matter of personal preference, and is an example of what I think is harmful in this discussion-- assuming that anyone who does not experience sex in the way you do must, by default, become frustrated with it. In answers like this, I see a lack of empathy for the people involved, and a side order of intolerance. There are plenty of people out there willing to talk about their pleasurable history of, and lack of frustration with, anorgasmic sex. If you, personally, need an orgasm to enjoy sex-- by all means, have your orgasm! But don't insist that other people need the same result to feel good.

To everyone who said anything about faking orgasms: I'm a big fan of honesty, and would never recommend someone fake an orgasm. I do think that the fact the writer had been faking for two years is a problem, a BIG one in that relationship. But I do think that, given an understanding enough partner, that hurdle could be overcome, and they could have a dialogue on how to have an honest sex life that fulfills them both, without her feeling the need to fake something she doesn't even care about.

"In the specific case at hand, if the woman had been ok with the situation, she wouldn't have written the letter. Something or other in the situation bothers her. It's not theoretical, it's individual. ((I wonder how Dan Savage would have replied.))"

Well, yeah. Something WAS bothering her. She wanted to talk to her guy about the faking. That's pretty clear. From what I can tell, the lack of orgasms wasn't bothering her, which is why I took issue with the focus on it.

"Actually, I like them there orgasms, and I'm curious as to why someone wouldn't WANT one. Can anyone enlighten, me? Ok maybe it's hard for her to get to that point, but then shouldn't the important thing be trying to get her to that point... not hiding it from someone or faking it to make your partner/yourself feel better? There's so little reliable having-sex-for-pleasure info out there, no wonder there's this compensatory "no-rgasm is ok" attitude. Look, I'm not saying there's something desperately wrong with you if you haven't had one. I'm just saying "What have you tried?!"
Because I don't understand why anyone would avoid one... If you haven't had one, I understand it's a touchy *snicker* subject, but wouldn't you at least be curious?! I'm assuming you've heard good things about the mysterious and legendary orgasm. (I haven't heard any bad things.) Go seek it out! And when you find one, a good one, and you can tell me "meh" then fine.
Worshipping at the orgasm altar? You betcha!"

There are multiple reasons someone might not want one. The most common explanation I've heard is that the activities that get the individual too orgasm are too time consuming, annoying, or boring for them to want to do on a regular basis. They might enjoy sex itself a lot, but sex isn't the right kind of stimulation to get them to come-- and the stimulation that does get them to come might detract from the enjoyment of sex. The orgasm itself may be pleasurable, but that pleasure might not be enough to make it worthwhile to go through all the steps to get there. I don't think the important thing should be getting to orgasm-- I think the important thing should be that both partners have a great time. And if sex without orgasm is more pleasurable than going through the motions to get to the orgasm, then I'm going to advocate that couples have sex for their mutual pleasure.

"Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo -- H. G. Wells
The ranter overlooking a very wide practice in hetrosexuality:
Women who provide and never get orgasms (or pleasure in general) unless they speak up/demand it.
That's like being the f-ing designated driver at every party, even though you enjoy drinking too -- or helping someone paint their house while they watch tv.
Men manage to have their orgasm every time. Women can too, and should, every chance they can ... and stop lying and faking."

Nice quote, but it doesn't apply here. Neither do the analogies. This isn't about women who want an orgasm being deprived of it, its about women getting what they want, and not being judged for it simply because what they want is unconventional. Yes, I ignored women who don't get pleasure unless the speak up-- that's because I was specifically addressing women who get pleasure without an orgasm, and are perfectly happy with their lack of orgasm. To fix the analogy, instead of being the DD at the party, they skipped the party entirely, and went out for a steak dinner and luscious cocktails, taking a cab home. Different kind of evening, different kind of pleasure, but you can't really argue that one is better than the other.
Oh, and as to men? Not all men have orgasms every time. Its certainly easier for them to have orgasms than women, due to how things are set up, but men don't always come-- and some men even fake it. (easily done if they're using a condom) Though faking, of course, isn't good for either party to do.

"it's one thing if a woman sometimes does not have an orgasm but has otherwise fulfilling sex, but if a woman is mostly non-orgasmic, i think it IS a problem. and to dismiss it as a matter of lifestyle choice appears to be denial to me."

But whose problem is it? It isn't a problem to the woman who is having an enjoyable fulfilling sex life-- so is it a problem to you? If so, why? And what is it denial of? Is it better for a woman to feel frustrated and broken, as if something is wrong with her, because she can only occasionally achieve orgasm, and then after much effort that reduces the pleasure of sex? Is it better for a woman to have a lower sex drive because she doesn't want to have sex only to discover that she has "failed" again? Is it better for a woman to think she is defective because she enjoys sex, but can't get off? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if someone is enjoying sex, then that's good. Regardless of whether or not their sex practices fit into the norm.

this one is from Susie herself: "I have tried to think what the hard consequences would be of indifference to orgasm over the long haul. It seems to me it would be difficult in a long term relationship... after years and years, the interest in pleasing the other all the time would wane, and if affection sufficed, you wouldn't even want to put on a show. I'd think it be hard to find a match. "

It taps into what I think one of the issues of misunderstanding is: the idea that a woman who doesn't orgasm is just focused on pleasing the other person all the time, and not pleasing herself. An anorgasmic woman can put just as much focus on pleasing herself as she does her partner, if not more, and simply because she does not have an orgasm does not mean she is not being fulfilled.

"This sort of critique would make more sense in a world where there wasn't strong pressure on women to "perform" sex for men in a way that made it unpleasurable for women, mostly because we're too busy checking to make sure our ass is attractive to ask, "What feels good?" God forbid that we have equality in the bedroom! I just don't buy this mentality. Sex that's all about the man's pleasure is so limited. /rant"

I guess one of the other issues is that I came into my post with the presumption that men and women are equal in the bedroom, and that women aren't performing sex for the men, but that they are instead intent on pleasure-- for both parties. Maybe this is a generational issue-- regardless of ability to orgasm, none of the chicks I know have sex that is all about the man's pleasure. The girls I know are all about getting whatever enjoyment they want out of sex.

"I think that for some of us, the ability to have an orgasm is directly linked to how much trust & intimacy we feel with our partners.
Sex without orgasm can, indeed be very pleasurable...but sex with the level of trust & intimacy required to allow an orgasm is astonishing - and it's the kind of thing that, once experienced, most people will seek out again and again.
It seems clear to me that someone who has been lying to their partner for years about orgasm does not have very much trust or intimacy in their relationship. And maybe they have never been in a relationship that has that, and so believes that's just the way the world is.
I can see, with this set of circumstances, how someone would want to normalize the view of orgasmless sex as a lifestyle, but I think that they are hiding some deeper issues from themselves, and that this wish for normalization is just a part of that."

I think this response just displays a lack of understanding and empathy for people with other outlooks. Orgasms do not magically come from trust an intimacy. If they did, a lot more anorgasmic women would be having them, as well as a lot more orgasmic women not having them. Trust and intimacy play into it, sure, but so do physical sensation and biology. There's actually a genetic influence on orgasmic experience-- thanks, London researchers (Dunn, Kate M., Cherkas, Lynn F., and Spector, Tim D.)! From the abstract to their study: "A significant genetic influence was seen with an estimated heritability for difficulty reaching orgasm during intercourse of 34% (95% confidence interval 27–40%) and 45% (95% confidence interval 38–52%) for orgasm during masturbation." So, its not all in the mood, or the moment, or the trust. There is some biological basis here too.

And finally, there were a number of comments implying that if she had been lying about orgasms to her partner, then she was probably lying about her ability to orgasm to the Brights/herself, or didn't really know what an orgasm was. She said she orgasms. She probably knows what an orgasm is. She also has no motive to lie to the Brights about it-- she's coming clean about her past lying, trying to lay everything out, what possible motivation would she have to keep one lie in place? I'm inclined to believe her on that point-- and also inclined to believe that she does know what an orgasm is, and can tell when she is and is not having one.

I hate, hate, hate when people go on about privilege, but-- well-- I'm about to be one of them. Take your orgasm privilege and shove it. Having orgasms doesn't mean your sex is better.

My original entry is here, The Brights' original column is here, and the majority of the response comments are from this thread of facebook.

1 comment:

Susie Bright said...

Amanda, I don't know if you are licensing the reprint, but your post is reprinted word for word, here:

just FYI