Swellness is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.
Ever since losing her virginity to her high-school boyfriend at 17, a now-30-year-old woman has been trying — and failing — to orgasm (both during sex and while masturbating). Today, as an attorney in New York City with a supportive fiancé, she’s still seeing doctors who might help her. Here, she talks with the Cut about the difficult conversations she’s had with partners, the treatments she’s tried, and how her friends, and even her mom, reacted when she told them what was going on — and why she’s not giving up.
Right before I turned 17, I had sex for the first time. It took my boyfriend and I a while to figure out how to actually do it because we were both virgins. I hadn’t even masturbated before. I bought into this myth that it was something women didn’t do. When I had sex, I would feel like I was getting close to an orgasm, but then I would suddenly feel uncomfortable and have to stop. It felt like things were building and building — muscles throughout my body would keep getting tense but then wouldn’t release, so I would have muscular aching, like cramps in my lower abs, from when my body would tense up.
My boyfriend at the time took it really personally that I wasn’t orgasming. I felt a lot of shame because, even though he wasn’t trying to make me feel bad, I internalized some of his frustration. I felt like there was something wrong with me.
At the time, I thought maybe we just needed to find the right trick. After my boyfriend and I broke up, I had a few other relationships — no change. I was consulting Cosmopolitan and Google and trying every position I read about. It’s so funny; looking back, I kept trying to find “the G-spot.”
At 18, I consulted an OB-GYN. I had been taking medication — an anticonvulsant called carbamazepine — for seizures for five years, and the doctor told me I may not be able to orgasm as a side effect of the medicine. She said that, because I’d been on this medicine for five years and it was in my system, I had to face up to the fact that I might never orgasm — something that other doctors have since told me is scientifically bogus. I went off the medication for an extended period of time anyway, but nothing changed.
In college, before having sex with someone, I would say, “Listen, I want you to know that I can’t orgasm.” Some guys thought they would be the one to change that, and then they felt let down. That was really lonely because it seemed like they weren’t listening to me. At first, talking about it was tough because I could get in my head about the situation. After I had given the spiel a bunch of times, the embarrassment wore off — it was actually kind of a relief because it meant I didn’t have to navigate the topic during sex.
Many of them told me, “You just don’t know how to do it.” But some of them responded in a really kind way by being like, “Wow, that really sucks. I’m so sorry.” That made me feel good. I also consulted with an Ayurvedic practitioner. He gave me some herbs he said could help with pleasure, but it didn’t help. Finally, I started seeing a girl, and she was like, “Why aren’t you masturbating?” That led me to experiment some more on myself — but still no orgasm.
After I graduated college, I got health insurance through my job and made an appointment with a gynecologist. She examined me and told me the same thing I’d heard before: that I should experiment with different sex positions. Then she was like, “You should try oral sex and even anal,” and winked at me. I burst out crying; I was so disappointed. My doctor was so confused by my reaction; she didn’t really know what to do. I was a wreck. Her office was near my parents’ apartment, so I went home and told my mom about it for the first time. We never talked about sex in our household, but she was really good about it. She just listened to me. We were able to laugh about the situation, like, What a stupid doctor. Her advice was so stupid. I still talk to her about not being able to orgasm but in terms of my physical discomfort and pain rather than sexual pleasure.
My therapist told me I have sexual trauma from some previous sexual encounters; I thought that might be why I wasn’t able to orgasm. But the discomfort I experience when I come close to orgasm is physical pain, not a mental block. I described the sensation to her, and she helped me put a label on it. That was a big breakthrough for me because all of a sudden I could label what I was feeling as physical pain. I thought, Now I can get treatment.
At 20, I started actively seeking treatment with OB/GYNs and talking about it with my friends. A lot of them had pretty kind reactions. Most people are either curious about the treatments I’ve tried — like seeing the Ayurvedic doctor or experimenting with different sex positions— or they just feel sorry this is happening to me.
Eventually, I found a different gynecologist who specializes in vaginal pain. She was the first person who took me seriously. She ended up prescribing me some pelvic-floor physical therapy and some medication that was designed to relax the muscles around my vagina. That helped — I didn’t have as much muscle pain, but I still haven’t orgasmed.
I’m 30 now and have a great partner; we’re actually engaged. He’s never taken the fact that I can’t orgasm personally. It’s not like he’s indifferent to the issue, but from the beginning, he always asked what he could do to support me as I’m figuring this out. We’re having plenty of sex, and he wants me to feel pleasure during it — which I do, and I enjoy it — but he understands I will not orgasm. We don’t fight about it because he understands this isn’t something for him to fix. He’s also sympathetic when I tell him about all the things doctors or other partners have said to me. It’s something we can talk about.
Three years ago, I decided to go to another OB/GYN to see if she might be able to help. She told me I have something called pudendal neuralgia. The pudendal nerve is a big nerve that runs down both thighs and goes to the clitoris. Mine is basically on the fritz and overreacting. I got a nerve-block injection in both inner thighs. Afterward, I realized that a lot of things were way more comfortable, like standing and walking. Sex didn’t change all that much for me, but I was hopeful it would as I continued treatment — six shots spaced apart by two weeks. But then, when I went back to school, I lost the health insurance I had through my previous employer, and the doctor doesn’t take my current insurance. The cost of the shots ranges from $250 to $4,325 per thigh, so that could be over $8,000 without insurance. I’ve been discussing a few less expensive treatment options with the doctor — one is taking a nerve-block medication that could be longer lasting. But I haven’t tried it yet.
I’m not convinced this is going to work out. I’ve been trying to “give up” on the idea that I’m going to orgasm just to take the pressure off. More than wanting to orgasm, I just don’t want to feel pain when I’m trying to have one. I want to feel some kind of release. I think I have a good sex life, and I don’t think that I’m broken or that something is wrong with me anymore, but I want to experience it because I’ve heard and read so much about it. I want to experience it because my partner does. I’m walking this line of having hope but not getting my hopes up.
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