Free the Female Orgasm
By Elizabeth F. Olson
My first orgasm took me by surprise. It happened relatively late in life, at 18, the summer after my freshman year of college on a pull-out couch in my friend’s living room.
My boyfriend, Sean, and I had met at college and were both living at home for the summer. I took a week off of work in July to go visit him in Massachusetts and pretend to be celibate in front of his parents. They set us up in separate bedrooms—he slept in the basement and I took his bedroom upstairs—so naturally, we got caught. I don’t know if they ever truly believed we were abstinent, but they definitely threw that idea out the window after I strode down the stairs behind him for breakfast, fresh from his bedroom, wearing his boxers and T-shirt. His parents weren’t religious, and they didn’t believe that sex was something only married people could partake in, but I think they preferred not to think of their son as a sexual person. My parents were the same way. I’ve always been close with my mother, and for the most part I told her all of my secrets growing up—but we never addressed sex or sexuality. The only time I’d even broached the subject was when I told her I’d lost my virginity, which was really just a conversational tool to get her to suggest I go on birth control.
Sex at eighteen was rhythmic and polished, with little to no foreplay. We started in missionary and finished doggy-style* almost every time. I didn’t enjoy the physical part. Kissing didn’t interest me much, and penises kind of grossed me out. (I’d understand why a few years later). Still, I adored sex because I adored sexual attention. I was teased for my weight in elementary school, at the age when kids are starting to comprehend the stirrings they have when they look at other kids. When the girls in my class talked about wanting to kiss Zac Efron, I kept quiet—fat girls weren’t allowed to have crushes. You can ask anyone who was bullied as a kid: the actual bullying might cease as you get older, but the mentality sticks with you forever. So at eighteen, after years of believing that I was unfuckable, I relished my newly found sexual attention. Being told I had a tight pussy and perfect tits was enough of a high to compensate for the lack of physical pleasure. But then, I didn’t even know what I was missing. I barely knew what my clitoris was, let alone the potential it held. If, by chance, we changed pace and turned the focus to me, Sean did this thing where he would mash my clitoris with his index finger, flicking it back and forth. It hurt, but if I thought hard enough I could transform the pain into pleasure, and when you’re an impressionable young woman, you think that everything good has to come with some kind of sacrifice (beauty is pain). At some point the pain would become so sharp, so intense, that I could no longer bear it, and I would twitch and moan in a way that would indicate to him I had climaxed. I truly thought that I had.
On this one particular night, we were visiting his friend, Alexis, in her hometown, a sleepy whitewashed beach town south of Boston. We spent the day wandering around at low tide with our pinky fingers locked together, listening to the crunch of sand dollars beneath our boots. I was still dating my high school boyfriend when Sean and I first met, and when we finally got together after months of “accidentally” grazing the other’s thigh while reaching for the video game controller, it felt like a triumph of will. I had conjured this boy into existence, let him watch me from inside a cage, and he had fallen under my spell.
Her parents wouldn’t be home for a few days, so Alexis let us crash in the living room on the pull-out couch. She said goodnight and started up the stairs, then took two steps backwards and yelled, shaking her finger at us, “AND DON’T HAVE SEX ON THIS BED!” Giggling, we promised we wouldn’t as she stomped back up the stairs. Within minutes we were both naked, pawing at each other like kittens. I laid back and waited for the pain, but it didn’t come—instead, out of nowhere I felt something inside of me open up, and the ocean rushed over me. I knew immediately what had just happened. I felt ashamed because I had been fooled over and over and over again. All this time I thought I was finding gold, it was only bits of tin foil. The second I came, I abandoned my body and forfeited all control of the situation, which was terrifying and shameful in its own way. Every nerve in my body was electrified in the presence of another person. I was both ecstatic and distraught, and I couldn’t stop myself from gasping. I looked at him, completely aghast and trying to hide it, and muttered something like “I just wasn’t expecting that to happen so quickly.”
I knew sex wasn’t strictly about procreation, it was supposed to be about pleasure; why had I pushed mine aside for so long? Why had no one given me the tools to explore it on my own? Female bodies are hypersexualized and exploited from the time we reach puberty, and yet we’re denied access to our own pleasure—the status quo dictates that heterosexual sex ends when the man orgasms. People say the female orgasm is like a unicorn because it’s hard to find, and when you’re lucky enough to track it down, it’s too hard to capture. So instead of capturing it, straight men are taught to forgo the pursuit altogether. A woman’s orgasm is frivolous. Sex may be transactional, but women always end up with the short end of the stick.
I had fruitless sex for two years before I had an orgasm. I did this because I simply didn’t know any better. Coaxing an orgasm out of a man was my pathway to womanhood, and that was enough. Keeping a man sexually fulfilled was enough. This is a common experience among women. Some of my straight friends have never experienced an orgasm during sex with a man. My mother never taught me about how important it was to ask for what I needed in bed, not because she’s a bad parent, but because the outlet to openly discuss female sexual pleasure and masturbation with your child/your peers/your teachers does not exist. For most of my life I thought masturbation was something only teenage boys and greasy adult men who couldn’t get laid did. I only tried it after I had my first orgasm at 18. Some kids discover masturbation in early childhood, but for those of us who don’t, where are the resources to teach us how to do it?
When I had my first orgasm, I was ashamed that in all these (two) years of being sexually active, I hadn’t dug deeper and put myself first. But in a heteronormative society that actively discourages female masturbation and discredits female sexuality and pleasure, who can blame an 18-year-old girl for failing to question it?
*I’m starting a petition to erase “doggy-style” from our adult human being vocabulary, because I lose a few brain cells every time I say it out loud (and on paper).