10/17/2010 at 1:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments
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[Dear internet, we have a guest poster today! This is a post by pro-BDSM activist Clarisse Thorn, who blogs at Pro-Sex Outreach, Open-Minded Feminism.]

I’ve been working on a long article about my experiences with sexual dysfunction. It’s a project that’s been in the making for quite a while, but now that I don’t have so many distractions I’m ramping it up.

This is a complicated and difficult subject for me. I have a satisfying sex life now — I’ve gotten pretty good at communicating with partners, setting boundaries, seeking what I want, and masturbating to orgasm. It took me a long, long time to get here, though, and I had to get through a ton of confused feelings. Not just about coming into my S&M identity, though that was certainly a factor, but also dealing with feelings around the orgasmic dysfunction itself — for example, feelings about how my apparent inability to have orgasms meant that I was broken. (I had and still have some vaginal pain, too. Not every time, not even most times, and nothing overwhelming — but enough that I’ve developed coping mechanisms.)

In order to write this article, I’ve been going through a lot of years-old journal entries. One quotation particularly struck me:

[My boyfriend] comforted me the other night when I broke down and cried. I wept and wept and he said it was okay, you’re not broken, there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay, he said, not to want sex. But I do want sex, I’m just sickened and terrified and disgusted by it, and I don’t want to be anymore. I want to be able to watch sex scenes and not be enraged and disgusted, to read sensitive ones and not collapse in tears.

I wasn’t entirely sickened and terrified and disgusted by sex, of course: I often liked it. Loved it, really. Sex usually felt good even before I could have orgasms, even before I’d found S&M, even before I’d parsed out my feelings and learned more about sexual media such as porn. And I’ve talked a lot about how awesome and sex-positive my sex education was.

But I knew I was missing something, something crucial and integral to my sexuality. And I hated the way society seemed to always be informing me how to sexually act: I felt crushed into approaches that obviously weren’t working, weren’t meant for someone like me. It was hard to walk the line between craving sex and being unable to stand it.

Here’s another excerpt from my journal, around the same time:

I really hate reading explicit sex scenes. I didn’t used to hate it as much as I do now, and since I broke down in tears during the last one, I guess it’s pretty obvious why. Jealousy and hurt and hatred of the ideals I feel like they’re trying to forge into me, [one ideal being] that love and sex and particularly orgasm are all irrevocably intertwined, and that by missing out on orgasm I’m missing out on not only an aspect of sex but of love.

But mostly I guess the discomfort does come from not wanting to read the intimate details of another’s sex life … and the jealousy for the orgasm, still there, too deep to banish. Christ, it’s fucking ridiculous. I shouldn’t be this miserable about this. It’s so fucking unimportant in the grand scheme of things. — but the tears that startled me in my eyes as I typed tell me just how unimportant it really is to me, I guess.

I started reading some sort of book on having orgasms and wept all through the first chapter because it was so miserably true. And because it was so miserably true I feel as though I ought to read the rest of the book, just give it a chance and go with it, and maybe make it that way, but it hurt so much and I’m so scared that it won’t work, and then I’ll be really unhappy. (A reaction the book even outlined, by the way. Yes, it’s about as true as it gets — the only thing I’ve ever found seems to understand how I really feel about this.)

The book that struck me so much is the monumental For Yourself, by Lonnie Barbach. It’s a famous book. I searched it out at the San Francisco library recently, and spent an afternoon sitting around the Mission branch, trying to locate the passages that once touched me so much. A few quotations:

Do you sometimes feel that you would be happier if sex were eliminated from your intimate relationships altogether? If so, possibly you feel abnormal in this regard, or like a misfit or not whole as a woman. Or, perhaps you just feel that you are missing something everyone else has enjoyed, a part of life that you’d like to have be a part of yours, too. You probably feel as if you are one of only a few women who have this problem. But the truth is that you are far from alone. (page xiii)

A real fear that can keep some women from doing anything to solve their sexual problems is the fear of failure. When Harriet joined the group, she didn’t believe she could become orgasmic. She said, “If I tried, I’d only fail, and then I’d be really miserable.” … Harriet eventually did defy her fears, as did all the other women mentioned. It takes time and effort to counteract these fears. It means saying “I’m afraid” and yet pushing beyond. (page 14)

Is it because you’re embarrassed to ask for what you want at a particular time; afraid your partner will refuse, get angry, or feel emasculated? (page 15)

Empathetic and accurate so far. (As it happens, the only lover I ever directly asked for help during this orgasm-discovery process refused and got angry, which just goes to show that being afraid he might react that way was not all in my head.) Merely confronting so much understanding was hard to face.

But, although I read it a long time ago, I think I’ve figured out what it was that made me unable to read further: the way Chapter 1 ends is a bit much. The last page of For Yourself‘s first chapter contains this:

You have to assume responsibility and be somewhat assertive. Our culture has taught us that a woman should depend on a man to take care of her, which means she can blame him for any mistakes. It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.

Well, okay. Except that how do you assume responsibility for something if you have no idea where to even begin? If you know something’s missing but you’re not sure what it is? If you’re sure your partner will be frustrated and resentful when you ask for help?

This is especially complicated by the fact that along with the typical advice of “Take responsibility!”, the other typical advice is “Let go of control!” Over at Lady Sex Q&A, Heather Corinna writes:

Orgasm involves us surrendering to what we’re feeling, and really rolling with it, even if and when it feels very emotionally precarious. It’s control we’re letting go of, really, and that’s harder for some folks than others.

I’ve been an off-and-on sex & gender geek throughout my life, so I already knew these things intellectually. I’d already absorbed these ideas: that I must both take responsibility for my sexuality, and lose control in order to enjoy it. I think even then I knew that both of these ideas are actually good advice. But the problem is that they’re often put in patronizing and less-than-helpful ways. For example, “It’s nice to be driven around in a car, but it’s also nice to be able to drive yourself so you can go where you want to, when you want to. But to do that, you’d have to assume some responsibility.” Condescending as hell! To me, those words implied that I was making myself into a helpless child. Pulling a wounded-bird act and forcing other people to take care of me. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was doing that!

I am frustrated by the insensitive guilt trips that often happen, even (especially?) in feminist and sex-positive circles, where people will sometimes act as if these things are simple, as if it is oh-so-easy to stand up and take on one’s own sexuality and Just Deal With It. Especially when you’re in a situation where you know for a fact that some men you have sex with will resent you if you’re honest about not having orgasms, and yet you don’t know how to have orgasms and aren’t sure how to start on the journey. What then?

Some women end up faking in those contexts (I didn’t very often, back in the day, but once or twice I did). Of course, some feminists and sex-positive writers are especially unhappy about this:

I’m sure I’ll offend some choice feminist who thinks that it’s unfair to criticize women who make the totally autonomous choice to flatter a man with a fake orgasm instead of working towards a real one, but I’m taking a stand on this one. It’s un-feminist to fake, ladies!

I don’t advocate faking orgasms, and I actually also don’t advocate dating a man who gets angry and resentful when a female partner asks him to pitch in. (Oh my God, sometimes I have nightmares that I’m back in that relationship, and it’s been years.) At the same time, the idea that screaming “It’s un-feminist to fake!” will fix the problem is ridiculous. It’s the kind of idea that will just make feminists (like, say, myself many years ago) feel even worse about trying to figure out our relationships while not having orgasms. I see, so now not only am I failing to be responsible, I’m also un-feminist? Awesome.

This is not easy. It’s actually really hard. I get that people have to want to work on their sexuality, in order to do it — obviously I get that. But telling people that they’re being weak or self-centered or un-feminist because they aren’t sure how to do it? Or are actively pressured out of it?

Not okay.


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  1. […] failure and a pre-orgasmic feministOctober 17th, 2010 @ 2:40 pm An exciting new guest post by myself over at Feminists with Female Sexual […]

  2. This is such a cool post, Clarisse! As you say it’s not that any of the (contradictory!) advice is untrue. It’s the context it comes in… the notion that it’s not just something that’s missing but something actually wrong with you!

    Combine that, of course, with the not-too-distant throwback assumption that orgasms aren’t supposed to have in the first place, that it’s something “mature” women should be able to have just from intercourse, and that if a woman should need “help” it’s a total affront to her partner’s adequacy, etc., and it’s just one big toxic mash to…

    …try and do something that a) takes most people 12-14 years to learn in the first place and b) generally requires a form of unselfconsciousness that’s almost impossible to create when you’re trying to perform, let alone trying to perform something you’re told is critical to your “success” in not just sex but love.

    Very cool!


    • Thanks Figleaf! I have obviously thought a lot about these things. I don’t want to dilute or hate on the sex-positive/feminist message but at the same time, people should distribute it responsibly!

  3. […] was originally posted recently at the blog Feminists with Female Sexual […]

  4. Okay, got around to reading this.

    Your experience is actually not that different then mine. At least in part. I’ve always been able to orgasm through vibratory clitoral stimulation.

    For quite a few years vaginal sex was pretty awful for me. Actually it was awful for both myself and my husband as we both were experiencing pain. For the most part our sex life consisted of mutual masturbation. (Neither of us get off through oral sex.)

    Then I read up on circumcision and the mechanical effects it has on intercourse(I had an interest in circumcision because of my involvement with various men’s causes). Light bulb time. My husband started repairing some of the damage and sex became 100% better. I went from having abrasive vaginal pain every time, to rarely to none. Plus no more yeast infections.

    After that I came to realize I was having vaginal orgasms, it was just the pain was masking them.

    In terms of vaginal orgasms vs. clitoral orgasms, I find, for myself, that, strangely, starting to focus on vaginal orgasms has tended to take the focus off having an orgasm entirely. I was finding that vibratory clitoral orgasms were getting less and less satisfying and requiring more single-minded effort which was tiresome. I also find clitoral orgasms are so intense and overstimulating that they basically end all interest in sex or touching for a few days or more.

    Whereas with vaginal orgasms, although less intense, make sex a continuous thing that threads throughout your whole day. There is no real end or beginning or pressure to have an end or beginning, you just keep picking up each time where you left off.

    Also, if you’re feeling satisfaction from PIV intercourse, you might be having vaginal orgasms already. It’s a matter of changing what you’ve come to expect orgasms are. Clitoral orgasms are intense and powerful, but localized. Vaginal orgasms are subtler, more like a wave going over your whole body, they feel almost like I’ve heard taking E described; every molecule of your body feels good and touching anything feels fantastic. At least IME.

    • If that’s a vaginal orgasm, then I’ve definitely had them. I tend to find that sensation, the generally turned-on and excited and touching-anything-is-wonderful sensation, to be somewhat distracting and frustrating if I’m not actually having sex or hanging out in intimate space with a partner. One reason I like clitoral orgasms is that I can go release some of that energy if, say, I just came home from a really intense morning in bed with a partner, and I need to get work done.

  5. Oh yeah, you’ve clearly thought about it.

    I wouldn’t say you’re diluting the sex positive message so much as enriching it. Figuring out, working out, working on, working around issues like FDS and anorgasmia, plus getting that for some people (even some men) orgasms just aren’t going to happen during sex and it’s actually ok, are really, affirmatively, positive elements of sex. As opposed to “it’s all in your head, get over it” or “well, just grit your teeth, dearie, he’ll be done in a minute.”

    In fact now you mention it I think I need to write another post about false sex positivity. Maybe a couple.

    • Let me know when it’s done! I’m not awesome at keeping up with my feedreader nowadays.

  6. I’m not sure how to say it exactly, but I’m glad you posted this. It’s hard to explain why, but something about it resonates with me, even though my sexual experiences have been very different. Like… not so much in regards to orgasms, I didn’t have a problem with learning how to have them. But I’ve had really similar feelings about the whole… “enthusiastic consent” thing, how it’s been written about in various feminist/sex-positive blogs. That there is some wonderful aspect to everyone else’s sex life that mine is just missing, and that I’d probably still feel was missing even if I could have PIV intercourse at this point in time. I know part of it did have to do with my belief that my vaginal pain was a subconscious rejection of sex, my body saying I wasn’t ready for sex, and I went along for several years believing that other people had some mysterious maturity that I didn’t have. And the heteronormativity was a factor, too, which was part of why I wrote my guest post about it– the feeling that I had to find a male partner, not a female one, because I could only have really meaningful and fulfilling sex if it was with a man; that was part of the image of sex society pushed at me. And starting to deconstruct that in my mind helped, too.

    But there’s something else to it, I think. I don’t break down in tears any more when I read people talking about how they just had sex with their new partner for the first time and how amazing it was, but I still don’t like the feelings those kinds of discussions– the thought that someone else is so free, so open, that they can express that kind of enthusiasm for sex to a partner, and really mean it, not just act it out– tend to provoke in me. I didn’t agree with the people criticizing Jaclyn Friedman for her writing about her “sluthood,” but I didn’t get too far into the discussions either, because of how they made me feel. I know that, due to various physical and neurological disabilities, I will most likely never be able to hook up with a random person on Craigslist for sex, much less have it be great. I’ve accepted that. That’s not what I want. But there’s something else, some intangible attitude it’s hard for me to put my finger on.

    One of the reasons I’ve been interested in finding out more about BDSM is because I have a lot of trouble giving “enthusiastic consent,” even when I am interested, and it’s… actually easier for me, at this point in my life, to imagine an agreed-on scenario in which I pretend not to want sex, even though my partner knows I really do. I used to think it was because I was sexually abused in childhood, and emotionally abused/shamed about a lot of things including sexuality, but the more I read about it, the less I’m sure. As you’ve no doubt noticed, society also likes to push the concept that the only reason for a person to be interested in BDSM is because of something in their background, some kind of abuse or neglect driving them to it. But I’ve met people who were abused more severely than I was, who had (comparatively) much less of a problem doing the “enthusiastic consent” thing with completely vanilla sex. And, by comparison, also people with backgrounds like the one you described– who had open-minded families, access to great sex education, but were still drawn to BDSM. So while it might be a factor, I’m no longer convinced that’s 100% the reason why I have so much trouble with showing sexual enthusiasm in a “standard” way– it might also just be part of the way I am. I know that as a child I had thoughts about what I guess I’d now consider kinky sorts of things, and was fascinated by them but also very embarassed, even when they didn’t involve anything actually sexual– just certain kinds of power dynamics. I don’t know where this will lead me in the future, either in terms of my relationships or my theories on why I have problems with the things I do, but… it’s something to think about, anyway.

  7. […] reminder: I am looking for Guest Posters. Did you see the guest post by Clarisse this […]

  8. interested and can identify not all but generally

  9. How actually did you learn to become orgasmic in the end? it is one area of my life i feel alienated about, because I never naturally began to masturbate at the time i was discovering my body a lot of stress and sickness was rife in my family and home. I always enjoyed mutual masturbation, to the point where my own masturbation doesn’t compare. I both aspect i do get a feeling of ‘too much’ or else i get too over-sensitive, sometimes bored or sore and give up trying to ‘get there’ or simply continue the stimulation. I’m aware of the problem now.. but where do i go from here?

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