With sex seeming like a big production, expectations can lead to a disappointing reality
By Pia Araneta
Content warning: The following contains descriptions of sexual violence and potentially triggering content.
I have never orgasmed from penetrative sex. When I first became sexually active, sex typically finished when my male counterpart ejaculated. I never vocalized that I, a woman, would have liked to experience the same euphoric sensation of climax that he was feeling. “It’s the tits,” my friend once told me after describing her first vaginal orgasm. With high anticipation, I faked my orgasms so many times that I started to believe that that’s what orgasming actually felt like—a build-up of arousal, a sprinkle of stimulation and the nothingness that followed.
I faked one orgasm to the next—little did I know my vagina had other tricks up its sleeve. It took me awhile to discover the tiny magic button called the clitoris for two reasons—I never watched porn and my sex-ed class was useless.
The progressive conservatives’ 20-year rollback on Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum will leave students learning more about the prevention of pregnancy over the possibilities of pleasure. According to Toronto-based sex educator Carlyle Jansen, Hollywood and porn can make women feel like an orgasm is only reached through penetration. “It’s all about ‘I have to have an orgasm during heterosexual sex, during penetration, at the same time as my partner and now, I also have to squirt.’” With sex seeming like a big production, expectations can lead to a disappointing reality. There can also be a lot of talk around the erection—how big is it? How long can he go for? Can he ejaculate on demand? Expectations around seduction, foreplay and finishing can also seem over the top and theatrical. “Talk about pressure and this whole performance side of sex. Where is the pleasure in that?”
In September, Kayla Zhu downloaded Tinder and had her first casual hook-up. She also had her first orgasm with a partner.
Zhu finds it easy to orgasm if she masturbates or has oral sex, but most of the guys she’s slept with are interested in penetrative sex. “I never feel like my needs are secondary to the guy I’m with,” the first-year Ryerson journalism student says, “but I never finish.”
Zhu’s reality is one shared with many in the bedroom. A 2017 survey, completed by a marketing company for the condom brand Durex, found only 24 per cent of women in Canada orgasm every time they have sex, in comparison to 61 per cent of men. Funnily enough, 83 per cent of women said that they were content with how often they orgasm.
Kat Kova, a sex therapist and psychotherapist in Toronto, says that the biggest thing we could do to close the gap is to teach the importance of the clitoris—where it’s located, how to stimulate it and what techniques could feel good. “A lot of people are what I call inclitorate—they just don’t know about their bodies and we need to teach them.”
But Kova says there are also psychological factors, including relationship difficulty, pregnancy fears, contracting a sexually transmitted infection and anxiety—the latter of which often contributes to experiences of erectile dysfunction or premature ejactulation. “The mind plays such a big role in orgasm,” says Kova.
“A lot of people are what I call inclitorate—they just don’t know about their bodies and we need to teach them”
Physical pain during sex is also a reality for some. Toronto-based freelance writer Amanda Schroeder has a condition called vaginismus. It causes involuntary spasms that tighten the vaginal muscles, making penetration and pap smears feel anywhere from mildly uncomfortable to excruciatingly painful. When Schroeder first tried using a tampon in her early adolescence, she felt like inserting a tampon was impossible—it was as if it kept hitting a wall. Because Schroeder was never taught about vaginismus, she thought the pain was normal.
After realizing that her pain wasn’t a shared experience for all women, Schroeder went to the doctor. “She said that I needed to relax,” said Schroeder. “She basically told me to go home, drink a glass of wine, and feel it out for myself again.” Schroeder was just 14. Over many years, Schroeder had to visit many doctors before getting one to put a name to her condition.
“There’s a gender bias in the medical community when it comes to sexual health,” says Schroeder. “They just aren’t taken seriously. Like when a man goes in and he has erectile dysfunction, there’s a blue pill—there’s an immediate solution. But when a woman not only can’t have sex but has pain, nobody has any idea what’s going on. It’s just unbelievable to me.”
Schroeder went to physical therapy for three months before she was able to use a tampon. Therapy had her inserting one finger at a time and pushing on the uterine wall to stretch her vagina. Now, if Schroeder doesn’t maintain her physical therapy or a regular sex life, her vagina constricts and becomes tighter.
Jansen accepted her inability to orgasm until a partner broke up with her over it. He told her that the performance pressure was too much for him. She moved on, but was motivated to find pleasure on her own. A friend of hers recommended using a vibrator. When Jansen was 28, she had her first orgasm using a back massager.
At first, Jansen felt the shame associated with using a tool—like something must have been wrong with her for needing it. But now Jansen embraces it. She founded Good for Her in 1997, a shop in Toronto that sells sex toys and has various workshops, including “Learning how to orgasm.” In the workshop, she teaches people about techniques that are right for their bodies.
“I see it like: You don’t know that you’re missing chocolate cake if you’ve never tasted chocolate cake,” says Jansen. “And the reality for lots of us is that we need some vibration. Some people need glasses to see, some people need a calculator to do math, some need a vibrator to orgasm, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Growing up in a conservative household, Jansen’s family never discussed sex and consequently, Jansen never understood pleasure. Suppressing one’s sexuality can also be another factor that results from conservative or religious guilt.
In her office on the second floor of Good for Her, Jansen showed me vibrators in her shop. I held a Hitachi Magic Wand. The 12-inch, industrial-looking vibrator had a powerful head that seemed like it would get the job done almost too instantly. At one of the “Giving Great Head” workshops, I sat in a silent room, except for the suckling sounds from our mouths on the dildos we were given to practice on. Midway through trying the “dolphin” technique, I realized there probably wasn’t a room of men showing the same kind of attention to silicone vaginas.
For Samantha Allen, a senior reporter at the Daily Beast based in Washington, learning how to orgasm was a process that took two years after her sex reassignment surgery in 2014. “A lot of people picture it as some kind of crude back alley operation kind of thing,” Allen says. This is just another transphobic assumption—along with the misconception that trans women can’t orgasm. “A lot of people assume that the surgery is barbaric. How could it possibly leave you anything but anorgasmic?”
Anorgasmia, also known as orgasmic dysfunction, was a word Allen took solace in during two frustrating years without orgasm; it was comforting to know that anorgasmia is something many experience—not just trans women.
Allen’s first orgasm after surgery came when she least expected it. Using a vibrator one day with no expectations, Allen reached climax and the rest was history.
“Take responsibility for your own orgasm,” says Kova. “Get involved, get your hand down there, get a toy, don’t be shy and if you are, address that with your partner.”
Women are told that sex will hurt the first time, that they’ll bleed and that if they’re not careful, they will end up teen moms. I carried this thought with me as I went into my first hook-up the week of my 18th birthday. Having sex for the first time in a bathroom didn’t quite equate to what all the songs and movies had prepped me up for. Thankfully, with some trials and many errors, orgasm slowly became more naturally to me.
Coming home from the “Giving Great Head” workshop, I rushed through the door to tell my boyfriend all the new blowjob moves I picked up. He read a couple terms from my worksheet like “corn on the cob” and “the harmonica,” and laughed. Feeling frisky, he took my clothes off and got under the sheets. “Wait,” I halted, launching myself halfway off the bed to fumble and reach for the vibrator underneath. “Okay, now I’m good,” I said. I joined him under the blanket.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated the writer attended the “Bigger, Better, Multiples” workshop at Good for Her. The writer attended the “Giving Great Head” workshop.