We are chronically misinformed when it comes to female pleasure — where it happens, why it happens and how. At times, even the scientific and research communities are stumped on the evolutionary purpose behind the female orgasm: while some studies point at a procreating advantage prior to ovulating periods for women who orgasm, no firm claim can yet be made. Female orgasms, especially in contrast to male orgasms, are so often mystified that it becomes a rarity, or a surprise, when they do happen.
As Linda Geddes wrote in a 2015 BBC article “The Mystery of the Female Orgasm,” “Pressed or caressed the right way, a woman can be transported to such ecstasy, that for a few seconds, the rest of the world ceases to exist. But get it wrong and pain, frustration, or dull nothingness can ensue. It’s a stark contrast to a man’s experience; so long as they can get an erection, a few minutes of vigorous stimulation generally results in ejaculation.”
Let’s break it down even further. Merriam Webster offers it plainly — the female orgasm is “the rapid pleasurable release of neuromuscular tensions at the height of sexual arousal that is usually accompanied by the ejaculation of semen in the male and by vaginal contractions in the female”. But do we require this for sexual satisfaction? I wish Merriam Webster could also answer this.
There is research that hints at more relational ideas behind women’s orgasms and their purpose in 21st-century relationships. American psychologist Diana Fleischman stated in her 2016 report “An Evolutionary Behaviorist Perspective on Orgasm” that, “We (humans) have evolved to use orgasm and sexual arousal to shape one another’s behavior, and orgasm serves as a signal to another person of devotion, vulnerability, and malleability, which is, in itself, reinforcing.”
Devotion? Archetypal college sex is anything but devoted. But Fleischmann is onto something when she describes orgasm as an enforcer of “adaptive behavioral ends.”We are, after all, encouraged to bookend hookups with orgasm. But is that really the point? Is it actually enjoyable? Who’s to say?
On any given campus, sexual experimentation runs rampant — it’s part of the college brand, à la “Animal House,” “Superbad” or “Neighbors“: out-of-control parties, drunk destruction, sloppy sex. As a freshman, this was something you had to experience in order to feel like you were “doing it right.”
My freshman year at the University of Michigan, I took a seminar called Sociology of the Family. We covered everything from dating to divorce, parenthood to unpaid labor, gender roles to domestic work. One of our assigned readings was Lisa Wade’s “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus.” The book dives into a history of sexuality, higher education and the risks and rewards of hookup culture — offering pointed insights as to where we’re headed. I’ll admit that I had initially figured this book to be another out-of-touch, flimsy report on how heartlessly our generation has come to regard sex and relationships. But it was surprisingly exact.Because Wade recruited actual college students to give detailed and relatively anonymous reports of their sex lives, the book thrums with truth.
Of the scarily accurate descriptions Wade offers, she elaborates on the party experience most precisely. Chapter 1 begins with a lurid description of two women getting ready in their dorm room: “The goal is to look ‘fuckable,’ Miranda said, her voice buzzing with excitement. She and her roommate Ruby were tearing through their tiny closets, collecting a pile of ‘provocative’ items to consider wearing to that night’s party. The theme was ‘burlesque,’ so they were going for a classy stripper vibe … Miranda plumped her breasts and contemplated her outfit, a black crop top and a cherry red skirt with a zipper running down the front. She unzipped it a bit from the bottom and, then, a bit more.”
Throughout the rest of the book, Wade covers everything from the history of hookups to fraternity culture to attractiveness hierarchies to sexual assault to relationship woes to female and male orgasms. Wade noted of orgasms, “In masturbation, orgasms come easily and quickly to both sexes; on average, each requires just four efficient minutes to reach climax. Even women who never have orgasms with male partners often do regularly when they’re alone.”
She continued, “If hookup culture has an orgasm gap—and it does—then the question isn’t what might be wrong with women’s bodies, but the extent to which the female orgasm is made a priority.”
It is through hookup culture that sex becomes relatively lawless — and by lawless, I mean socially lawless. Gone are the rules that require a least a few dates first, gone are the rules that you even have to know them before you step into the club, the bar, the party. Sex is readily available and easily accessible to most. For those who seek convenience, it is distinctly possible to download any number of apps in the morning, and by nighttime, have sex. Sex has, in this way, become cheap.
I’m not moralizing here, or at least not intentionally — but as I type this, Steve Lacy’s “N Side” seeps from my speakers and I’m wondering what the point of sex is. Is it to prove we are wanted, even if briefly? Is it, as Charles Bukowski might put it, “flesh searching for more than flesh?” Is it love? I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will. And I should probably stop reading Charles Bukowksi.
Add on Prozac, or Zoloft, or Xanax, or Lexapro or any of the other hundreds of drugs prescribed each year to American women aimed at combating depression and anxiety, and the female orgasm becomes that much trickier to untangle. Among the primary side effects of antidepressants is its impact on sexual function — one Harvard Health Publishing article summarized that these aforementioned drugs can “make it difficult to become aroused, sustain arousal, and reach orgasm.”
It is these articles and their statistics that swim around my head when I make the trek to CVS to pick up my Prozac refill. At the counter, I give my name, birthdate, repeat my last name and its spelling, sign my name, shake my head no when asked if I have any questions about the medication, marvel at the sheer length of the pharmacist’s nails as she hammers this information into the keyboard. I pay the $4 copay, she staples the standard-issue, five-page leaflet of warnings and potential side effects to my little brown bag, and I’m off.
The literature of these advisory leaflets has always been absurdly entertaining: Remember that this drug has been prescribed to you because your doctor has judged that the benefit to you is greater than the risk of side effects. Curiously enough, all that is mentioned of side effects involving sex is: sexual problems. I suppose it’s all-encompassing!
There’s an article in The Cut titled “Treating My Anxiety Made My Sex Life Worse”. In it, author Rae Nudson explained that of the reactions of her Lexapro prescription, “‘sexual side effects’ can refer to a wide variety of issues. It can mean low libido, or it can mean problems with erections and lubrication, experiencing less pleasure, or taking longer to orgasm than it used to. Sometimes it means that you still have the desire to have sex, but you don’t have the ability to orgasm at all.”
So then, how does sex change for women (and men) who can’t climax on their respective medication? What is sex without climax? What is climax? Merriam-Webster saves me yet again: English Language Learners Definition of climax (Entry 1 of 2) :
“the most intense point of sexual pleasure: ORGASM.”
The most intense point of sexual pleasure. So maybe orgasm doesn’t have to translate exactly to a “rapid pleasurable release of neuromuscular tensions at the height of sexual arousal that is usually accompanied by the ejaculation of semen in the male and by vaginal contractions in the female. Perhaps orgasm can be restructured to mean the very moment you are kissed, or the very moment you are kissed at that very place. The perfect position. I don’t know if I actually believe this, or if it’s just another thought experiment told to play — but that’s why I employ the word perhaps.
Restructuring our idea of sex so that there is less pressure put on climaxing can make sex more enjoyable, and for everyone. Enjoyable sex, most often, is sex with someone you are comfortable with, someone you care for. Hooking up, by contrast, is enjoyable in the way that a roller coaster ride is enjoyable — however thrilling, you will probably never go on that ride again, and you will also probably never again feel the exact thrill of riding it the first time. And it’s usually over in less than a few minutes.
Enjoyable sex is sex that understands that needs differ. Enjoyable sex is, to put it tritely, electrifying. Your nerves fray. You feel that you can look into their eyes. There is, surely, pleasure.
And pleasure, well pleasure is a good deal easier to achieve by virtue of its ambiguity. Pleasure can last for more than 30, or 40, seconds. Pleasure can live in you as long as you can remember it. Pleasure is tracing your fingers on the soft outline of somebody’s lips, especially if they are red from the cold of walking over to your house. Pleasure is meeting somebody’s line of sight and having the rare confidence to hold it. Pleasure is touching your pool-pruned hands to somebody’s shoulders or raking through their brown-when-wet hair in the shower. Pleasure is kissing somebody’s ear because you know they love it when you do that. Pleasure is kissing somebody’s ear because you love to do that. Pleasure is bottles and tubes clanging over on the bathroom countertop because they were in the way. Pleasure is not finishing the movie. Pleasure is lifting up a pale violet dress, but just above the hips and just after everyone has gone to bed. Pleasure is the reliably warm nape of your neck, that perfect blue shirt.
Pleasure is touch but it is also what comes before touch. Pleasure is patient. If you are a woman, or someone on antidepressants, and you find it difficult to enjoy what we are so often told we should be enjoying — I encourage you to think less about climaxing and more about pleasure.
Statement Columnist Taylor Schott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.