science of us

What I Learned From Interviewing All the Women I Know About Their Orgasms

Photo: AlekZotoff/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Before I ever had my first kiss, I went to second base.

Well, kind of. The tamest possible version of second base. I was 12 years old; pre–bat mitzvah but post–crossing the threshold of menstruation and leg shaving, and I was in a basement in New Jersey, watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A shaggy-haired boy from Hebrew school sat next to me, and halfway through the movie, under a blanket, he began to slowly feel me up over my black sports bra from Macy’s.

I can still remember how heightened it felt, even though he never actually touched my skin. In between each subtle movement, he would whisper, “Is this okay?” and I would nod. I was calm. I knew this person. It wasn’t moving too fast. It felt right.

He asked if he could kiss me. I said no. I wasn’t ready for that yet. Kissing seemed like it’d be more intimate and intense than someone touching a barely formed body part of mine through thick fabric, a body part I had almost no relationship with yet.

I emerged from the basement feeling confused about certain plot points in Rocky Horror and conflicted about my over-the-sports-bra experience. I thought I had liked what was happening. It was exciting and fun to be touched in this way. And yet, it felt fairly ordinary — like things had unfolded exactly as they were supposed to. But I had no emotional or physical reference point for sexual experiences. So while it was easy to feel good during it, I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel after it.

When my mom picked me up that night, my face was red. It was as if my whole body was broadcasting that someone had touched my boobs. Or “boobs.” All of a sudden, I went from feeling in control of my destiny to feeling really guilty and uncomfortable. I knew, even at 12, that women are made to feel unnecessarily ashamed about sexual behavior. And I’d just had my first taste of that shame.

That night was a turning point for me. I decided that, moving forward, I never, ever wanted to feel the slightest bit bad for wanting something so natural and normal. I wasn’t having sex yet. That was a while away. But even then, I knew that I had to leave breadcrumbs for my future self. If you felt bad at every checkpoint leading up to sex, wouldn’t you feel bad about sex itself?

But the older I  got, the more I came  to realize that I couldn’t live in a vacuum.  I was not at the center of some free-love, no-judgment, Samantha Jones–meets-a- hippie-commune-meets-a-porno-directed-by-a-woman fantasy world that I so desired. (Yes, I’ve heard of  Burning Man, but in my fantasy world, there’s access to a shower and you don’t have to bike in sand.) And I underestimated the real world.

Many, many years after the adolescent second-base experience served as a catalyst to begin examining my ideas about sex, I was having sex with someone for the first time. And it wasn’t going so well. The longer it went, the less turned-on I became. But in my rose-colored-glasses view of sex, I tried to roll with it.

And while I could’ve chalked this up to awkwardness or nerves or sexual incompatibility (all of which may’ve been factors), this time was different. Because when it was over, my partner told me I’d had an orgasm. He did not ask if I had, but confidently told me I had.

It was instant cognitive dissonance. I was being told something about myself that directly contradicted my reality. It’s like if someone were to say, “You just ate an ice-cream cone” after you’d brushed your teeth. You’d feel more than a little perplexed. I searched my mind for anything that could’ve been misinterpreted as an orgasm, but I couldn’t think of a single moment that I’d projected even the slightest hint of ecstasy. So I gently explained that I hadn’t come and gave some tips for things that might help in the future. I was optimistic.

But when the future arrived, weeks later, the sex was even worse. This time I was in such physical and emotional discomfort that I felt paralyzed. Like I didn’t know how to stop it. To my surprise, I was unsure of how to speak up for myself. I wanted it to be over, but my brain couldn’t send the message to my mouth. I realized that moans of pleasure, which I’d previously thought were a somewhat theatrical part of sex, were actually my involuntary reactions to feeling good. Because this time, I was completely silent.

And I felt like a vessel for someone else to use, rather than a person. It’s a sensation that still upsets me to this day. It’s something I never want to feel again.

I left in the morning with a smile on my face, but once I was alone, I broke down in tears on the subway. I was confused as to how two people could have such wildly different perceptions of a shared experience, and guilty for not being able to advocate for myself, even though I’d felt safe enough to do so the previous time. I felt sad that I’d let myself suffer through a sexual experience I didn’t want to be having. I kept asking myself why I couldn’t speak up, and the only reason I could come up with was that I was so worried about hurting someone else’s feelings that I severely neglected my own. I wanted to be polite. And that answer haunted me.

I parted ways from this person and was left with a lot of questions. How can there be such an ocean of distance between sexual partners? How could someone be so sure of a woman’s orgasm with little effort to induce one and little evidence of its existence? Why does it sometimes feel like the hardest person to talk to about sex is the person you’re having sex with? My thoughts wandered as I tried to dissect how things had unfolded and why.

Every remotely negative sexual memory came to the forefront of my mind — moments I hadn’t thought about in years, details I had trained myself to be okay with. In an attempt to have a blanket positive outlook on sex, maybe I had avoided fully dealing with the moments when I was uncomfortable.

But it wasn’t just the upsetting memories that rose to the surface. The joyful, positive, sexy AF occasions came to mind as well. What did those experiences have in common? What could I learn from them?

I thought about the conversations I’d had with my female friends about the complications of sex. The times we’d assured our partners it was fine if we didn’t come. The times we didn’t want to give pointers to people we seriously liked, for fear of emasculating them, coming off as too aggressive, or screwing up the relationship. How even when we did feel comfortable providing instruction, we sometimes struggled to articulate exactly what we meant, particularly in the moment. How many times someone had used too much force (did someone start a misguided rumor that clits are made of steel?), ignoring our insistence that it just wasn’t going to happen that night. The people we dated who were happy to get blow jobs, but hardly ever went down on us. The relationships, both casual and long term, during which we never had orgasms. I knew the immense frustration and heartache this had caused not just my friends, but their partners as well.

I thought about the men who’d bragged to me about how quickly they’d made women come.

“But how did you know she came?” I would always inquire.

“Because she dug her fingernails into my back,” said one.

“Because her legs were shaking,” said another.

“Because she was moaning.”

“Because I just knew.”

Partners, I regret to inform you that fingernails in the back is not irrefutable evidence of an orgasm. Again, who is spreading these rumors? Let me also say, as a straightish person, that I don’t think the female-orgasm dilemma is an exclusively heterosexual problem at all, but I suspect there’s a higher instance of philosophical disconnect between men and women.

Which raises the question: How do men and women even learn about the female orgasm? We are raised in a culture that both shames and demands sexuality. If sex ed is even offered at our schools, it tends to be limited and unrealistic (and typically from a heterosexual-only point of view). We are most often learning about female orgasm from movies (where it’s fake), pornography (where it’s fake), and real life (where it can still be fake!).

So, I wanted to get to the truth. I wanted to create something where women got to share all the things they wanted to say about orgasm and sex and dating, but could not — the things that are difficult to articulate to a partner or even a trusted friend. I wanted to delve into the real experience of female orgasm and start a dialogue about how women achieve sexual pleasure, something that, even today, is often ignored, devalued, or misunderstood. I wanted to do this not only because female orgasm can sometimes be challenging to achieve and/or talk about, but also because I suspect that when we talk about female orgasm, something deeper is at play. When we misunderstand or ignore female orgasm, we are misunderstanding and ignoring women.

So I drafted an email asking women to anonymously contribute their experiences about orgasm. One possible prompt was to write an essay entitled “How to Make Me Come” and imagine that you could give it to a past, present, or future sexual partner. What would you want them to know, free of judgment or repercussion? But mostly, I just wanted people to talk about female orgasm and sex, in whatever way made sense to them.

I reached out to some friends. They reached out to some friends. They reached out to some friends … and I slowly began to build a collective of women who had something to say. People responded immediately, with intense affirmation and stories of their own. I basked in the rush I got from seeing people opening up. It confirmed that this is something a lot of women are itching to talk about.

And as people began to write pieces, and I had the privilege of being the first to read them, I could feel this expansion of self. Something catalyzed by a bad experience had grown into a celebration of women’s ideas and feelings.

On a basic level, I just want people to feel good. Everyone deserves to feel good. But it goes beyond that. All of our sex lives are shaped by culture and political views. You cannot talk about how women are perceived and treated by society without talking about how society perceives and treats female sexuality. To be a sexual person is to be a person.

I’m extolling the female orgasm, but I want to acknowledge that there is a great deal of difficulty and pressure tied up in orgasms, too. If you can’t come, whether it’s one time or every time, it’s completely okay. Really, an orgasm is less about that one moment and more about everything that leads up to it. This isn’t a directive that says every woman must come and every partner must make a woman come. It’s more like, hey, pay attention to female pleasure … Pay attention to women.

Edited excerpt from MOAN: Anonymous Essays on Female Orgasm. Compilation copyright © 2018 by Emma Koenig. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

I Interviewed All the Women I Know About Their Orgasms