Chelo Alonso (1950s)
Orgasms are not a slam dunk for everyone, and their many mysteries can baffle even the most sex-positive person. How do you have one? How do you have multiple? What’s the difference between a clitoral, vaginal, and blended orgasm? Are nipple orgasms even possible? (Yes, but that’s a topic for another article.) One of the most baffling conundrums that some women face when it comes to the big O is why they can have them easily by themselves and not with a partner. Sharing orgasmic pleasure with a partner can be a wildly erotic experience, and while orgasms are not the end-all-be-all of sex, it can be puzzling and frustrating if they only appear for an audience of you, yourself, and … you. A deeper dive into the psyche can reveal several reasons a woman may struggle to achieve an orgasm with a partner, but have no problem when she is loving herself, by herself.
It is not always easy to trust people, even when you might want to. It takes time to get to know someone, and trust takes time to develop. Consistency lends itself toward safety, and if you are unsure of where you stand with a partner or do not have enough information about them to know if their walk matches their talk, it may make it difficult to lean in. Rightfully so. If you’ve been hurt, betrayed, or deceived in the past, old wounds may interrupt your ability to trust with reckless abandon. Introducing another person into your sexual pleasure zone is a risk, physically, sexually, and emotionally, and when trust is in question, your body may not be able to fully relax and let down its guard.
For some women, intimacy is easy. They revel in it, are open to it, and seek it out. But for others, it can feel engulfing, suffocating, too vulnerable, or leave them feeling out of control. Sharing any aspect of yourself is no easy feat. Allowing themselves to be fully seen (literally and metaphorically) can feel too overwhelming for some women, thwarting their ability to climax. Someone who is holding back remains in a state of self-protection, and that is often an impediment to orgasmic levels of excitement.
When a woman struggles with control, what she is really wrestling with is a difficulty in surrendering. Now, perhaps she has felt powerless in the past or has felt marginalized in some way. Growing up in an environment where control meant survival, and surrender meant danger or hurt, can ingrain a fear of surrendering that makes it impossible to let go with a partner. In order to have an orgasm, one must be willing to surrender to the contractions, to the emotions, to the pleasure. It may be easy to do when you’re by yourself, because with the presence of another person, it is easy to feel in control. You know yourself, you know how you move, what you like, etc. Add another person into the mix, and there are many unknown variables, and that can light up an internal need to stay alert and in control. In essence, this state of hypervigilance is a reminder to nurture deeper feelings of trust (and safety), so you can let go and receive pleasure.
Lacking Knowledge About Sexual Skills
If either partner lacks sufficient knowledge of sexual skills, the sexual response system, or what they like, it can be very difficult to get there. Sexual naivete is nothing to be ashamed of; no one is born a sex-pert. If you feel unsure about what you like, or have a partner who is not as clear about the ins and outs of your sexual road map, this is an easy fix and a can be a fun and hot mission of sexploration together. Every single body is different, and unfortunately, accurate sex education is not always available. Sometimes people get rigid ideas in their mind about what is supposed to feel good with a partner, and then stop exploring what actually works for them. So if you’re not sure, ask. And if they’re not sure, educate.
Unless humiliation is your thing (and if it is, there is nothing wrong with that), shame is lethal to the hope of an orgasm. Sex is nothing to be ashamed about. Everyone has a relationship to sexuality, and are born from it. Nonetheless, many people, women especially, receive messages throughout their lives that sex is shameful, or looking sexy is shameful, or wanting sex is shameful. These messages can make it very difficult for women to connect with their sexuality in a healthy way, for fear of being bad or dirty, as they are often made to feel. Slut shaming and victim blaming sully women’s sexuality in a very public way, and often shame can become ingrained in a woman’s sexual identity. When this is the case, it may be challenging for her to achieve orgasm alone, and shame about sex can become exaggerated when there is another person in the equation. One more set of eyes can feel like a thousand when someone is in a shame borough, and it can set off a fight, flight, or freeze response that negates the likelihood of an orgasm.
Spoiler alert: being adequately turned on is a key element of reaching an orgasm. In this case, being aroused might mean an elaborate fantasy scenario or just being able to hold in your mind the reality of you and your partner’s sexiness in the present moment. If you’re running through your to-do list, just showing up to please your partner, substituting sex for your cardio that day, or dissociating, it may be really challenging for you to reach orgasmic pleasure. Sex that is perfunctory or mechanical is not hot and can leave you feeling without enough vitality to lubricate, let alone orgasm.
As a culture, there has been far too much importance placed on penetrative sex and orgasms. Orgasms are great, no doubt, but over time there has been too much meaning placed on them—about someone’s worth both in the bedroom and as a person. Sexual prowess has been co-opted by mainstream culture to be an indication of whether or not someone is good enough. As such, men and women have placed an inordinate amount of pressure on women to come, as if their partner’s whole identity depends on it. Now, this is not always an explicit conversation, but it seeps into our collective psyche and has led many women to perfect their performance of orgasmic ecstasy. Male partners feel great and the orgasm gap between men and women widens. When a woman has a history of performative sex and does not get real with her partners about what she wants or needs to come, she is teaching them to ignore her, because she is ignoring or subjugating herself. This can lead to a longstanding pattern of shutting down and not expecting pleasure, which can make having an orgasm with a partner next to impossible.
When a woman is unable or unwilling to communicate with a partner about their needs, it is very challenging to set the stage for an orgasm. Sure, sometimes it can feel awkward to talk about sex. You may not want to hurt your partner’s feelings. That is kind, but it will not help you light the fire you need to get over the orgasm hump. Each person shares responsibility for their own orgasm, and talking about it is sometimes the best way to bring you closer to having an orgasm, and to each other.
When someone has experienced trauma, the aftereffects can be brief or long-lasting. Unaddressed trauma can result in some of the other concerns already discussed above, like difficulties with vulnerability, trust, surrender, and intimacy, especially if the trauma was sexual, relational, or related to betrayal. Unresolved trauma can lead to interpersonal dissociation, fear, and low self-esteem, all of which can impede an orgasm. Many women with a history of trauma find themselves disconnected from their bodies, which can also make it very difficult to fully experience the pleasure they feel during sex. Intense sensations (even those that are pleasurable) can lead to further disembodiment and disconnection from orgasmic potential.
A poor self-image or body image can get in the way of any woman’s sexual experience with a partner. Concerns about how she looks, whether the flaws are real or perceived, can be loud inside the mind of a woman when she is in the presence of another person. Flying solo, negative thoughts or inner critiques may not be as big of a distraction, making it easier for her to relax and surrender into the pleasure.
If it’s been a challenge for you to orgasm with a partner, you are not alone. There are many ways to get in touch with your sexuality in a different way. Working with a sex therapist or sexual health coach can be a great start to helping you understand the intricacies of your mind and body connection, to help provide you with tools that let your orgasmic potential flow, with and without a partner.
Poosh Edit: Best of Bedroom Essentials
Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, certified sex addiction therapist, PACT therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy, a group practice in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago. Listen to her podcast, Modern Intimacy, and follow her on IG @drkatebalestrieri.
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