Ask a Doctor: Filling the Pleasure Gap

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We’re back with sex therapist Casey Tanner answering reader questions about the orgasm and pleasure gap.

filling the pleasure gap

Are vulva-besotted people not capable of experiencing a sexy orgasm?

One of the more pervasive narratives that we’re taught about sexuality and sex is that penetrative sex is the coup de grâce or peak experience of sexual acts. This sexual act, due to its supposed eroticism is what makes it the most likely one to produce an orgasm in all of the involved.

Most people with vulvas don’t orgasm through penetration alone. In fact, 75 to 80% of vulva participants did not have sex through penetration with their partners in the past ten year-old studies.

Penetrative sex is not likely to stimulate the clitoris. For many with vulvas the clitoris is their pleasure center and erogenous zone. It is where they are most likely to have an orgasm.

There are many methods to stimulate the clitoris. There are many ways to stimulate your clitoris.

If you’re a person with a vaginal vulva, and have discovered that you can’t have sexual sex without penetrative sex only, then introducing other sexual acts into your sex will increase the pleasure of sex and make it more likely you will reach orgasm.

What myths surround orgasms with vulvas?

A myth that contributes to the pleasure gap is the idea that vulvas are somehow “mysterious.” There is a narrative in our culture where we think about penises as being simple and easy to please.

Vulvas, however, are more complex. The vulva doesn’t have to be complex.

Most people find it difficult because of the lackluster cultural education we have about pleasure and how to please people with vulvas. There is plenty of information available about pleasure for people living with vulvas.

Another myth I’ve come across is that if you as an individual do not get turned on right away, then you’re not easy to please sexually. This is also a myth. Many people, especially those with vulvas need some help to get excited and turn on.

Everybody’s warm up can look different. These people can enjoy just as much pleasure and enjoyment as others. You don’t have to be mysterious or difficult if you take a while to get warm. 

We additionally make more assumptions about women’s sexuality based on what their body looks like. We either desexualize or oversexualize different bodies depending on their age, socioeconomic status, race, and ethnicity. In reality, there’s no correlation between body type and ability to experience pleasure. 

Finally, because folks with vulvas are more likely to have experienced trauma, there exists a myth that once trauma is experienced it’s impossible to get back the desire to have sex and the ability to experience pleasure. Research shows that healing from trauma can be possible and is very possible for survivors.

To be able work with people who have suffered trauma, there are more trauma-informed therapists. If you are a person who has past experiences of trauma, it is totally possible for you to regain your desire for sex and pleasure if that’s something you want to do.

What advice do you have for non-binary individuals who desire to feel gender-euphoric in orgasms

Many of us were taught there were two types of orgasms. The types of orgasms we were taught corresponded to either gender, genitals. However, this is not true. It is more complex and elastic than that. 

Orgasms are like any other form of sexual activity. They can be fluid and non-binary. It doesn’t matter what your genitals are or what your gender identity is; you get to decide what your orgasm means to you. It doesn’t mean that if you have a particular type of genitals that you only have access to one particular type of orgasm.

Humans are more complicated than that. You can define your orgasm and make it as euphoric as you like. 

What is the purpose of the pleasure gap?

There is a pleasure difference between cisgender men, cisgender woman, and there is also a gap between people who masturbate and have sex together.

This is often because the way vulvas masturbate look very different to the way they sex with their partners. Partners are often having penetrative sexual sex when they have sex with each other. What’s getting missed in that penetrative sex is clitoral stimulation.

But when people are masturbating, they’re typically focusing on clitoral stimulation with either a hand or a vibrator. Then we wonder why orgasming is happening more when we’re alone than with a partner. Well, it’s because we’re focusing on two different parts of the genitals. By vulvas, we can fill the knowledge gap between people and fill the enjoyment gap.

I can orgasm when I masturbate but it’s difficult when I have sex with a partner. Why?!

One of the other major differences that occurs when someone is alone than when they’re with their partners is performance anxiety. A lot of the time when we’re masturbating we’re not thinking about what our body looks like or whether we’re pleasing someone else.

These factors are more likely when more than one person is involved. You can overcome performance anxiety by allowing yourself to talk to your partner.

For example, you could say, “Hey, I’m finding that when we’re having sex I am so focused on what you’re thinking about my body, I’m having trouble feeling good – is there a way you could provide verbal or physical reassurance so I can focus less on that?” By doing so you’re fact checking the anxious thoughts you’re telling yourself by actually learning what your partner is thinking about you when you’re having sex.

Another great way to deal with anxiety about performance is sexual mindfulness. This is achieved by taking your mind off of the anxious thoughts. Looking at them from a distance rather than believing them as facts can help you to let go of that anxiety and allow yourself to feel pleasure. 

Additionally, when we’re having sex with a partner or partners, we’re typically allowing them to pleasure us versus relying on ourselves for pleasure. Our bodies and how we orgasm are often more intuitive than our partners.

One way that you can bridge the gap between sex with yourself and sex with a partner is actually showing your partner what you’re doing to yourself that is allowing you to experience an orgasm. This might look like actually showing them what you do with your hand, or a toy, or by showing them what position you like to be in when you’re alone. In doing so, you’re translating the skills you have and have learned to your partner or partners who you’re sleeping with. 

My vibrator is the only way I can cum. This is something I would like to be able to change.

If you’re able to orgasm with a vibrator but having trouble orgasming with a partner or with your hands alone, it could be because your body has gotten used to this particular way of experiencing orgasm. The vibrator does not make you less capable of having orgasm. You can however, with enough repetitions, teach your body via the mind-body connection that vibrators are when orgasm happens. You might need to expand your sexual repertoire in order to teach your brain more ways you can have orgasm. 

You can leave the vibrator on for a while and just use your hands to have fun (for as long you can handle it without feeling anxious). Orgasm may not occur the first time you do this.

It is possible to still feel pleasure from touching your body even without having an orgasm. Your brain will learn to experience pleasure without the use of a vibrator over time. Through neuroplasticity, your brain may be more flexible and able to feel orgasm with your hands.

You will learn more about your hand movements and what stimulation is best for you. These are just a few of the many perks to putting down the vibrator for a while and getting to understand your body.

The self-exploration may also make it a little easier to translate what feels good when you’re solo into sex with a partner or partners. This is how you can translate what you know about your self to having sex. 

My partner who has a vulva can’t orgasm from oral sex. Do you have any suggestions for giving an oral that is more effective?

So often when orgasm isn’t happening the way we want it to, we immediately think: what am I doing wrong? What’s my partner doing wrong with me?

According to my experience, 9/10 people are doing nothing wrong. There might be misinformation and additional information that could make the difference. In this case, it’s likely that no one is doing anything wrong. There are times that even the most skilled person at oral sex isn’t able to help their partner reach orgasm because that’s not how their partner’s body likes to experience orgasm.

Oral sex is wonderful, but it can sometimes provide too much or too little stimulation. You can combine oral stimulation with other types of stimulation. There are many options: you can either use an oral stimulator with vibrator, stimulate your partner through fingering or manually stimulate them by placing a vibrator inside their mouth.

That combination might be enough to get them there, but even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong! They may just need another type of clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm. Exploration is part of the fun!

Why can’t I relax during sex?

This question is often asked of me. It can be hard to believe that we can get through busy, hectic days without anxiety. But, when we have sex, our anxiety and stress disappears. Often, it doesn’t. Sometimes, the stress gets even more intense when we’re having sex. Thought diffusion is a great exercise for managing anxiety while sex.

Thought diffusion can be described as a mindfulness technique that helps you keep your mind clear of anxious thoughts during sex. I’ll give an example.

Let’s use the thought, “I didn’t shave today and I’m nervous about it,” (that’s a common one for people with vulvas if shaving is a part of their routine). Instead of thinking to yourself, “I didn’t shave today, I must be a terrible lover… my partner is not going to enjoy this… I should just stop while I’m ahead,” try saying, “I notice I’m having the thought that I didn’t shave; however, my partner is here and they’re not complaining about me not having shaved. I’m just going to put that thought on the shelf and come back to it later.”

Thought diffusion is not ignoring the thoughts or fighting the thoughts, saying, “You’re a terrible thought! Go away, I need my mind to be blank!” Instead, it is allowing those thoughts to pass over you. It is saying, “Okay, I’m noticing this thought is coming to me, but I’m not going to let it have power over me the way it used to have power over me.” 

Another example is performance anxiety, where you worry about whether your partner is having sex. You might be having the thought, “I’m doing a terrible job at pleasuring my partner.” Instead of holding that as a fact, or as something that’s true about you, look at the evidence a little bit.

Would your partner continue to be your lover if they didn’t enjoy having sex with you? It is unlikely. You can create distance between yourself, the thought, and your thoughts. This may look like saying to yourself: “I notice the thought that they might not be enjoying themselves right now. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I’m going to put a pin on that thought for later and come back to my body.”

So many people think their mind needs to be totally blank in order to enjoy sex and that’s not at all the case. For most people, that’s not even totally possible. Instead of focusing on a blank space for meditation, try to find a place where your thoughts are less powerful.

Is there a vibrator that is more hands-free?

Yes, there are several options. The trick to finding these vibrators is that they’re often marketed to couples. There are many that can be used solo. This vibrator is my favorite. TIANI 3.

I love the TIANI 3, and hands off vibrators in general, because when you don’t have to hold the vibrator in place with your hands, you can do all sorts of things! To touch the other erogenous regions of your body, you can use your hands. You can relax a little bit more as well because you’re not trying to hold the vibrator over your genitals.

Also, I love how easy these remote-control toys make it. You don’t have to hold a certain position for a long period of time in order to enjoy yourself.

Squirting. Does it seem normal? Are you ashamed?

Squirting, a common form of orgasm that people with vulvas engage in, is very common. Yet, those who squirt are often ashamed of their actions. What’s the deal? Two camps exist when it comes to squirting. The first is those who believe squirting to be the ultimate sexual experience. They want to learn more about how to squirt. The second is for people who squirt, but don’t want to stop. They do so because they feel shame or embarrassment about it. 

Contrarily, I don’t see many people who are squirt neutral. Squirting, in reality, is almost entirely neutral. Squirting happens when the Skene’s gland (a gland located around the urethra) gets stimulated to the point where it releases fluid. Contrary to what some people think, it’s neither urine nor the same fluid that lubricates your vagina. Orgasm can be accompanied by fluid release from the gland. 

While I feel that this is a natural response to certain types of stimulation and therefore shouldn’t be a point of shame for anyone, you have options to create an orgasm where squirting is more or less likely. It is important to remember that you have control over how your body interacts with you.

Whether you feel it is the most amazing thing in the world or it is something you don’t enjoy as part of your sexual experience, it is up to you.

You can take control of your squirting by noticing the pressure being placed on your g spot in certain sexual positions and acts.

Research shows that squirting is more likely when you put more pressure on your g spot. The g spot can be found on the side towards the belly button, about two knuckles into the vagina. If you or your partner is feeling it with your fingers, you’ll find that it is a slightly spongiform tissue. The clitoris’ internal portion, the g spot can be stimulated.

Doggy style will stimulate the g spot more than any other position for sexual penetrative acts. Penetrative sex using a penis or strap-on is more effective than fingering. That’s because a penis or strap on is usually relatively straight whereas, with manual stimulation, a person is able to curve their fingers towards the g spot and put more pressure on it. These are just a few ways to increase your chances of squirting. You may be able to avoid these positions and avoid squirting.

Orgasms seem more mental to me. This is normal?

You will feel pleasure, orgasms and sexuality 100% of the time. A type of sexual desire known as responsive desire may explain part of it.

Folks that experience responsive desire often feel that their desire to have sex doesn’t just pop out of nowhere in their bodies in a way that is purely physical. They believe that creating a space, a mindspace and/or an environment that encourages them to have sex is what makes them feel more passionate about it. The headspace could be fantasy land, a connection between you two, or you and your partner and you find yourself being really sexy.

When you’re having sex with yourself or with someone else, it’s actually less about what’s going on in your body and more about what’s going on in your head. That’s amazing and 100% normal.

I’m having trouble letting go of my need to fake an orgasm when I’m with my partner(s) and it’s stressing me out.

Most of us know that faking orgasms isn’t ideal, but some people still have a hard time not faking. What is all this about?

Unfortunately, due to the heavy influence of cis-heteronormative culture, orgasms have become the way we’ve defined if sex is successful or not. Many people believe that sex can be more about pleasure and connection than it is about having an actual orgasm.

Orgasm is the part that makes sex enjoyable. Many find it more difficult to have orgasm. 

Another problem with this is that we can get wrapped up in our egos about whether or not we orgasm or whether our partner orgasms while having sex. Because we’ve defined orgasm as the thing that makes sex a success, we use it to communicate about pleasure.

Often, when we’re faking an orgasm, we’re trying to communicate to our partner, “you’ve done a good job.” Really, it’s not about that. But it’s hard to remember that in the moment when we’ve been conditioned to believe that orgasms define whether the sex was good at all. And then of course, once you start faking orgasms with the same partner, it’s hard to stop because your partner might start to think, “They used to orgasm from this and are no longer, so what am I doing wrong now?”

It is important to have a straightforward conversation with your partner, no matter how difficult it may seem. You can say, “I’ve put pressure on myself to fake this, it’s the pressure society has put on me to do this, and I’m sorry that this is the way I’ve learned to cope with the pressure. I want more for me, I want more for us, so can we regroup around this and can we find out what actually makes me orgasm?”

While you can share your beliefs that sex is generally good, you might need to demonstrate that you feel pleasure by doing something other than faking orgasm. 

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