I remember my first orgasm well. I was 18-years-old and had recently started seeing and sleeping with the person who was to become my first long-term boyfriend. After years of underwhelming, and at times unpleasant sex with near-strangers, having respectful, passionate sex with someone I liked was a novelty. One which introduced me anew to the real meaning of intimacy.
The day he went down on me was the day I experienced my first orgasm and learned what it feels like to have your whole body pulsate with pleasure.
I had never masturbated before since I’d grown up thinking masturbation was shameful, dirty… weird. Sex education at school had reinforced two messages: sex leads to pregnancy and sex leads to STIs. That sex and, god forbid, self-pleasure, could also be joyful, a core pillar of your overall well-being, was not on the agenda.
And so, until that fateful day aged 18, lying in a messy student room in Manchester, I had no idea what could make me come - oral sex, as I then discovered - or even whether I could come. I’m not convinced I even knew what an orgasm was outside of the infamous diner seen in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ - I certainly wanted what she was having.
When eventually the relationship began to break down, so too did our sex-life and orgasming grew for me increasingly difficult, the sex evermore disconnected. I placed all my focus on my partner’s pleasure because it felt to me the only way I could tangibly measure sex ‘working’ for us. The more sexually alienated from my own body I felt, the more reassuring it became to at least be able to make him come.
Eventually, we broke up and for the first time in some four or so years, I started sleeping with different people, relishing in a resurgence of that lustful sort of sexual desire that the demise of my relationship had temporarily extinguished. But, outside of masturbation (I had by now invested in a vibrator and never looked back), I could no longer orgasm in partnered sex.
No matter the position, the person, the setup, however, I was feeling that day… I just couldn’t come.
Years passed with many a sexual partner slipping between my sheets and still nothing. As a result, sex felt to me as it had done pre-long-term-loving-relationship - perfunctory, performative, and wholly orientated around the other person’s pleasure. I told friends I just wasn’t a sexual person and resigned myself to a fate of mediocre, sporadic sex interspersed with mediocre, sporadic orgasms prompted solely by my vibrator.
Having spent the majority of my adolescence battering my body - I’d been severely anorexic as a teenager, which was followed by years of bulimia, over-exercise, extreme fad diets, excessive drinking, and eventually over-working - I’d long grown used to the idea that my body was a source of pain rather than pleasure, a battlefield across which I waged a constant war - me against myself. Experiencing little to no sexual pleasure thus fit rather neatly into the narrative I had around how to experience and inhabit my body, so while frustrating at first - everyone else seemed to enjoy sex… - I didn’t really think of it as something to overcome.
That was until I found myself one day recounting all my sexual woes (in rather unusual detail )to a new friend who sat across from me looking aghast. “You know you can do something about this,?” she said.
“But I’m… broken,” I responded. “It’s been so long, I feel like I can’t be fixed.”
Somehow she convinced me to try her sex therapist - an Australian-based woman called Aleks who runs ‘The Pleasure Centre’.
Things could be different my new friend promised (she was a newly converted evangelical to the benefits of sex therapy, having had her sex life transformed by Aleks only a few months earlier).
As it turns out, I had what is called situational anorgasmia - that is, when you’re only able to have an orgasm in certain circumstances, such as during oral sex or masturbation, or only with a certain partner.
According to sex therapist Dr. Karen Gurney, it’s the most common manifestation of what are termed ‘orgasmic disorders’, and which can also occur in three other ways: lifelong anorgasmia, when you've never had an orgasm; acquired anorgasmia, when you used to have orgasms, but now have difficulty reaching climax and generalized anorgasmia, when you aren't able to have an orgasm in any situation or with any partner.
“The most frequent reason we see anorgasmia in women,” Dr. Gurney tells me, “is either not knowing enough about how to give themselves pleasure (and we often see this in people who start masturbating later on in life), or not being able to communicate the types of pleasure that work best with a partner, or being too distracted during sex, by thoughts that are going through their mind about how close they are to orgasm, or what the other person is thinking. Hence, they are not present in their body.”
Alienated from my body, ill-equipped with the vocabulary with which to verbalize what I wanted sexually (in part because I really didn’t know) and subsequently distracted during sex by my anxiety around not being able to come - Gurney’s description of the factors contributing to anorgasmia had described me perfectly.
What I quickly learned doing sex therapy was that I was far from alone in finding difficulty reaching orgasm, and feeling ‘broken’ as a result.
In fact, anorgasmia affects an estimated 10-15% of women, while roughly 43% of women experience some type of sexual dysfunction. (It’s worth noting however that the research here is somewhat lacking and since the terminology and classification systems around sexual dysfunction in women are confusing and complicated, the process of clinical diagnosis is pretty difficult.)
For me, I didn’t need a clinical diagnosis so much as someone to reassure me that no I wasn’t broken and yes there was something I could do about my feeling of sexual disconnect. It started with keeping a pleasure journal, where I wrote down five (non-sexual) things each day that gave me pleasure. In order to build a happier relationship to sex, my sex therapist informed me, I had to begin building a more positive and connected relationship with my body.
“We don't know for sure whether anorgasmia can always be overcome”, says Dr Gurney, “but we do know that there are various things which help people along the road. And certainly, in practice, we see a change in people's ability to orgasm when they practice these things.”
“It can be a really good idea to do some work on your relationship with sex and your relationship with your body, as you say, and you can do that through sex therapy as you did, but also through guided reading, or the use of apps specifically designed for this, like Ferly.
“To begin with,” she continues, “it’s important to learn what you like in non-pressurized solo sex, by exploring your body through masturbation and the use of sex toys, and doing that without the goal of orgasm. You want to look at ways of being more in the moment and less distracted during sex, which the application of mindfulness techniques can really help with.”
Helpfully, Dr Gurney has a whole host of online workshops on her website designed to help with exactly this, like one titled “train your brain for better sex.”
Fortunately for me, I have been able to overcome my situational anorgasmia with the help of sex therapy and a shaky determination to be more communicative during sex. But it’s not so much the bodily joy of being able to orgasm during partnered sex that has felt so important to me here as much as it’s been the realization that I am a sexual person and that sexual pleasure is a really key component to making me feel connected to my body. I spent so many years trying to escape my body, seeking to shed it of every inch of fat I saw as bearing testimony to my own inadequacy, that even as I recovered from my eating disorder, I struggled to understand how to fully inhabit my body without looking for distraction in pain or fatigue or disconnect.
As it turns out, preserving time to focus my mental energy on sexual pleasure (both partnered and solo) has proven a very meditative and calming way of learning to sit in my body with a little more stillness and a little less hate.