One of the most frequently asked questions I get from women who come to see me for counseling (AKA sex therapy) is about their ability (or inability) to orgasm. In many cases, women who struggle with having orgasms believe that the issue is theirs and theirs alone, and that there is something fundamentally wrong with them if they don’t orgasm during partnered sex, especially heterosexual intercourse… Click image for story.
When sex makes headlines, it’s usually for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. Do a Google News search (see images below) for sex and you will see endless examples of sex gone bad; shame making articles, heinous violations, articles espousing bigger-better-faster-stronger, or a celebrity sex tape that begins to circulate and the accompanying moral outcry is proof of society’s demise. Rarely, if ever, is the complex nature of sexuality discussed, nor is it encouraged. Black and white assertions are made to serve as click bait- not as education. The trouble with this is while such fear and danger based stories dominate our public discussions about sex, we have little incentive nor examples to reimagine what healthy eroticism can look like. While such a delicate area of the human condition remains so heavily legislated and socially manipulated, it’s no wonder so many of us feel powerless and afraid to stand our ground to make meaningful sexuality a part of daily conversations. But by learning to engage with sex from a place within that extends beyond knee-jerk responses to social conditioning, we have the opportunity to create something genuinely meaningful and empowering – on our own terms.
Atrocious sexual violations need to be discussed in public and at length. These are cultural issues that intersect deeply with the core of my work. Much of the work that I do is repairing the damage caused not only by sexual violations, but also the way sex is dealt with culturally. The aforementioned Google search highlights how mainstream media focuses almost exclusively on negative depictions of sex that perpetuate fear, shame and stigma. What I would like to see in addition to these narratives (not instead of), are more examples that celebrate and empower people whose relationships with sexuality inform their identity, their wellbeing and their relationships. It’s rare for us to read stories of genuine sexual freedom and empowerment. It’s even rarer to read about sex that leads to greater understanding of the nature of sexuality. In the same way we celebrate fitness and cooking on TV – why don’t we also celebrate sex? What is it about sex that means it remains a vital component of wellbeing that must be silenced, shamed or less valuable than any of our other ‘achievements’?
Too often the moral and politically correct panic about sex derails important conversations about what sex can actually mean for us. The ways that sex can fulfil us as part of overall self-acceptance and give us the confidence to be more present in the world, to overcome our fears and to affect change in more areas than just the bedroom. The truth is, sex is fundamental to our wellbeing. Sure, we can ignore it and many of us do (just like fitness and cooking), but from my own experience and my work as a sexuality coach and therapist, I see day-in and day-out the overwhelmingly positive impact that engaging with sexuality thoughtfully and respectfully has on our self esteem, relationships and productivity in life.
Prior to my discovery of the wonders of body-based sex education and erotic expression, I struggled with sex too. To many it would have looked more like issues of self esteem or shame management, with a focus around my value and sexuality. Call it what you will, but I felt disconnected from my body, deeply flawed, unattractive, frumpy, awkward and undesirable. I lived almost exclusively ‘in my head’ and was at the mercy of my powerful emotions. I had every reason to be like this. Women of my shape and colouring were not celebrated as ‘sexy’ (read: valuable) nor even ‘sexual’ in the community at large nor in the media. Everything around me was telling me I was NOT worthy of a relationship, even with myself, based on the idea that embodying more of who I was, was fundamentally at odds with what was expected of me. I even had friends tell me if I just ‘settled’ and learnt to compromise, I would eventually be as ‘happy’ as them!
The thing was, I knew what I wanted, and I knew what I needed. Yes I wanted to be happy, but I also knew I didn’t want to be like them. I didn’t want to water myself down to fit a cultural stereotype that said, as a woman, I could embrace certain aspects of my power, but not all of it. The trouble was, I lived in a culture that kept telling me that expressing my sexuality was not OK. On both the left and right sides of the sociopolitical spectrum was and still is the belief that sexuality for women is essentially dangerous at worst, or indulgent at best. Pleasure for its own sake was not a good enough reason. And that my desire for more meant I was either a victim of patriarchy and oppression or selfish. The possibility that I sat outside of this either / or perspective on sex, meant my personal freedom was classified as trivial.
Now, in hindsight, they were pretty powerful reasons to stay in my box. Such limited narratives and alarmist responses can be enough to destroy even the strongest spirit, but the call I felt within me to leap from fear and restriction became too great. I sensed I had no choice but to push on through. It was almost as if sexuality chose me. On some level I think it did. And what I chose was to learn how to engage with sex differently. I learned to engage with sexuality in ways that were totally outside the square and contrasted with limiting assumptions about what women did, said and wanted from life. Sex for me was no longer about toeing the line. It was about being real and raw and being seen, even if at times it made me unpopular with those who thought they knew better . It was bold and scary but has yielded the richest rewards of my lifetime. And I wouldn’t change a thing!
The Inner Conflict Around Sexual Expression
The struggle for sexual acceptance is not only felt by women. Anyone who has experienced some kind of internal conflict around their sexual desires or lack of, versus the collective moral compass, has had a taste of what I am describing. The very same system that shames women for enjoying sex in any way at all, ( although coquettish submission is usually ok), reduces men to neanderthal – like thugs with absolutely no self control and an inability to distinguish between their very own body parts. Add to this mix misinformation and stigma around unconventional gender expression, non-intercourse based sexual relations, or interest in kinky sex practices, and you have a society that sees ‘acceptable’ sexuality as about as interesting and alluring as boiled cabbage.
Even though the manifestations of sexual shame are different depending upon your gender, identity or preferred sexual sub-culture, what is consistent is the sense of unworthiness and trivialisation surrounding sex and pleasure. That wanting to experience meaningful sexuality is somehow perverted or deranged. None of us are immune to the Google News eye of scrutiny and social judgement.
Change The Conversation from Fear to Freedom
Sex is such a vital part of our existence. It’s the source of so much that is good in our lives. Along with food and shelter, Maslow declared it a fundamental human need! But unlike all of Maslow’s other needs, sex for many women is way down on the list, and for a lot of men is something they would like to connect with but genuinely have no idea how. The trans and gender diverse communities are currently defining and redefining what sex even is and how it extends beyond genitals and sex acts. No one is exempt from the challenge of finding the best fit for sex in our lives.
Making time to prioritise sex does not involve having to have a partner, having the perfect body or endless Tantra classes (although a bit of the latter will most definitely help IMHO). Prioritising sex doesn’t even have to involve another person. By just acknowledging within ourselves that sex is something we would like to know more about, we are on the way to making the fundamental changes that hold us back from being the abundant and erotically confident people we fantasise about being. By acknowledging this within ourselves we are also more able to understand and accept this in other people. The thing is, the process of self discovery in sexuality needn’t be a scary one. It’s exciting, inspiring and so worthwhile, leading you back to your own potent source. It’s like you’re finally coming home!
If you are one of the millions on the planet who feel that something is missing- you’re probably right. It is missing. I urge you to look within and heed the call. Any investment you make into erotic self-inquiry can only ever lead you closer to the freedom and peace of mind you crave ( not to mention more fulfilling sex). And I‘ll meet you there, in the heart of pleasure town. (I’ll be the one with a margarita in one hand and a vibrator in the other!) First round is on me!
Images from Google News search for Sex Dec 2nd. 2014
Absence of orgasm doesn’t need to be called ‘dysfunction’. The language we use to shame people around sexuality must stop! What’s dysfunctional is our inability to understand the requirements of sex that bring meaning to all of us, not just those who fit a medical definition (made up by clinicians, not sensual pioneers.) – Cyndi Darnell
One of the most frequently asked questions I get from women who come to see me for counselling (a.k.a sex therapy) is about their ability to orgasm.
Orgasm, it seems, is the main outcome or goal so many of us focus on when discussing sex. Linguistically and culturally it’s THE thing we (all of us, not just women) use to determine whether or not sex has been not only satisfactory, but more accurately, worthy of our efforts.
For most of us, we never stop to even consider what good sex is, means, or even feels like. Especially if we’ve never had it. As a result we have little to no frame of reference, so understandably we latch onto a framework provided to us, by – of all people – clinicians in lab coats to decide what ‘good sex’ looks like. In the history of human consciousness, what was once in the realm of mighty cosmic superpowers like Eros, Aphrodite and Pan, has now been superseded by the high priests of the universities whose life blood is determined by the likes of pharmaceutical companies, whose primary function is to tell you whether on not your sex life is normal and worthy. The trouble is that neither entity, divine or clinical is either capable of, nor responsible for, knowing something so fundamentally idiosyncratic as the nature of your own orgasm.
When we conjure up images of clinicians, few (although some), may find this especially sexy. So unless you have an erotic bent toward clinical sex and its associations as a means of direct arousal, using a scale of satisfaction created by people who have no idea what you like, and whose economic well-being is determined by corporate interests, seems utterly ludicrous to me. Some would argue it’s a better model than that of our ancestors, but that is neither my point. My point is that whether you’re praying to Eros or Viagra, your focus isn’t on the place where you will find the information you’re looking for; the very machinations of what motivates your decision to have sex in the first place. When you know why you’re doing something, you’re in a much better position to be able to enjoy it (and maybe have an orgasm).
What is Good Sex?
Take a moment to allow yourself to think about GOOD SEX… Go on… really think about it…
Notice these things:
What part of you is most responsive to the thought of good sex?
STOP – take notice
What part of you comes alive when you think of good sex?
STOP – take notice
How about when I change my language and invite you to feel good sex? What happens then?
STOP – take notice
My guess is that at the very least you will need to slow down, and allow yourself to get out of thinking and into more feeling, something that neither Eros nor Viagra alone will be able to do for you.
Now, there certainly are techniques, tips and tricks I can share with you to help you get on your way to super-duper orgasm land, absolutely.
Motivation + awareness + technique = orgasm.
But what happens if you do EVERYTHING I say and you still don’t have an orgasm? Does that mean you are abnormal and unworthy? Does it mean you are defective? Or does that mean you don’t fit into The Big Cheese model of female sexuality, just like most women on the planet? According to a model of ‘sexual dysfunction’, then yes! But according to the dance of sexuality, your body is doing just fine.
Indeed there are endless blogs, articles and videos online these days dedicated to how to have bigger, longer, stronger, faster more explosive orgasms. But let’s stop and consider this; if many or any of them held absolute bona fide secrets that applied to all women all of the time – wouldn’t we then all be focussed on those very things that all women (allegedly) crave in order to achieve the greatest orgasm of all?
So what are they?
Because unlike in clinical manuals or new-age blogs describing (often noteworthy) sexual function, these erotic secrets don’t exist in isolation from the rest of your life.
The truth is, that just because we are women (whatever that even means), it does not mean we are all hardwired the same way for pleasure, sex and orgasm. Nor does it mean what we like in our twenties, we’re going to like in our 30s, 40s and beyond. Our genitals may look and operate similarly, but genitals alone do not good sex make. What distinguishes so-so sex from utterly mind blowing sex is exactly that; our capacity to distinguish, to truly be with the experience of our bodies, allowing our minds to be blown and not distracted by trying to do something that a text book or magazine article tells us we ought.
If you are a woman who struggles with orgasm, let me ask you this:
Why do YOU want to have an orgasm?
Just take a moment to think about that answer. Do not read any more until you have that answer.
One thing I do know for sure is that when I ask women who don’t have orgasms why they want to, they very, very rarely if ever say it’s because they want pleasure. This may come as a surprise to many of you. Remember, I am in the very privileged position of hearing people’s deepest, most intimate erotic secrets day in and day out. For many women, genuine pleasure is rarely even on their radar. More than anything, their reasons are because they want to feel normal or because they feel they are missing out, or because everyone else is having them (apparently), or their partner expects it of them – all of which are answers motivated by fear and shame rather than pleasure.
So if pleasure is not the motivation (which is actually perfectly OK), why then would you torture yourself with the pressure of achieving something exclusively associated with pleasure, when YOUR personal motivation is fear or shame or something more nebulous? It’s like eating gravel in order to satisfy hunger but wondering why you’re perpetually dissatisfied? After all, it’s heavy, mineral-rich and fills you up; on paper it should work, but it’s just not what your body wants.
Busting Through The Bullshit
As far as I am concerned, it’s not women’s fault that such a cycle of thinking tends to dominate the minds of Western women. It a combination of a lack of understanding of, and respect for, the diversity of sex – not just by regular folks, but also those who decide what’s normal and abnormal. Shame and fear are very powerful motivators that keeps us in our place (and dependent upon clinicians for answers) but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Sad but true, the concept of sexual dysfunctions has been largely created in labs and universities and perpetuated by media across the world; not in bedrooms, beaches, hotel rooms or parks where much more sex generally occurs! Even the mere concept of function vs dysfunction implies a standard of performance rather than the very urges that drive sex in the first place, including pleasure, shame, guilt, fear, money, obligation, boredom and revenge. Unless you are a sex professional where you are paid to perform sex , why on Earth would we use a scale based solely in performance to measure satisfaction, when in actual fact it is satisfaction we seek? Our scales and our objectives are deeply misaligned.
When you’re motivated by anything other than pleasure (which is OK, remember?) and wondering why you’re struggling with orgasm, you may have found your answer right there. No pills or lab coats required. And this my readers, is where we are rather complex and nuanced creatures. Regardless of our gender, we are not necessarily all the same, but all of value regardless of difference. It’s fundamentally important that you understand your own motivations around sex in order to get the most out of it. When we learn to better understand ourselves through recognising our needs and emotions and how they motivate us, we’re in a better position to get and maintain the kind of sex we want, which may or may not involve abundant orgasms.
While we keep racing madly looking for a cure to the ‘sex problems’ women have, we are missing the answer that is so obviously in front of us.
 Meston. Cindy. Why Women Have Sex. St Martin’s Press. 2009. New York.
While recently in USA, I had the pleasure of being ‘had’ and interviewed by the delightful and quirky Sex Nerd Saaaandra ( you’ll get the joke when you tune in) of Nerdist.com. In this in depth and meaty interview, Sandra and I get real and raw about what makes for getting the sex you really want, navigating new sexual terrain, the difference between being a sex therapist and a sex educator and why I love both, but how they are such different skills. We also cover how gender roles are being redefined, how unnatural sex really is and well a whole lot more. Strap yourselves in for this one. It’s intense, it’s passionate and it’s online here.
Cyndi talks with Jenna Price from Daily Life about ways to tackle the orgasm gap found to be affecting Australian women. Click the Daily Life logo image or here to be taken directly to the story.
Too long the exclusive realm of men, women are successfully claiming the world of pornography as their own, and shaping it in a direction more suited to their desires. The rise of feminist pornography highlights the growing demand for explicit portrayals of sex by women, and for women.
Sex therapist Cyndi Darnell has devoted her life to the pursuit of pleasure, assisting countless women in realigning their sexual expectations. Award-winning feminist erotic filmmaker Anna Brownfield has changed the nature of sex on film for an entire generation of young Australian women. Gala Vanting is an erotic imagist, who retains ownership of her sexuality through photography and short films that challenge what it means to be a sexual being. CEO of the Eros Association, and the leader of the Australian Sex Party, Fiona Patten also joins the panel.
Together, these three women discuss feminist pornography as an expression of female sexuality. Honest, revealing and illuminating, this event gives conventional notions of pornography a firm and long overdue slap.
The more I see, read and experience through the lens of my work regarding feminism, sex and intimacy the more I am convinced it is crucial to the well being of everyone on the planet. Everyone is affected by feminism! (Whether they realise it or not.) Women reduced to gormless sex objects with little to no agency is still part of a mainstream sexual script. Men reduced to gormless sex predators incapable of distinguishing thought from feeling is still part of mainstream sexual script. Women whose eroticism is expected to be as infantile as that of new born babies matched with a male interpretation of sexuality that is brutish, cavalier and constricted. Anyone who sits outside this narrow mould is fucked over by it. And quite frankly, that’s everyone I’ve ever met! The sexual status quo serves no one in its current form. We all suffer under this current system. So yeah, we need feminism in the bedroom as much as anywhere else.
What is it about sex that is so terrifying? Why do we spend billions either pursuing it or prohibiting it? Sex is everywhere, or so it seems.
In an age where we have virtually unfettered access to any kind of sex we want, we are more riddled with social conservatism, isolation, depression and anxiety than ever. In an age where sex rules the web but not our prime-time discussions, it’s time we stepped up the cultural landscape and got a bit real with ourselves when it comes to the power, necessity and function of sex.
Cyndi Darnell − sex therapist and sex educator − tackles the elephant in the room. Filmed November 28, 2013.