“A diamond doesn’t start out polished and shining. It once was nothing...
“A woman’s orgasm is such a fragile thing, dependant as much upon her mind as on her clitoris.”
― Megan Hart
Ladies, have you ever had an orgasm?
I had a conversation over the weekend with a bunch of women in their mid thirties. Almost half of them had never had an orgasm.
Most of them weren’t bothered.
Either they had bought into the idea that women don’t really enjoy having sex, it’s just something that they do to keep their partners happy, or, they were too uncomfortable with their own bodies to want to focus on them for long enough to learn how.
In some cases both.
Some of them genuinely believed that other women who told them that they do have orgasms were lying due to societal pressure.
This has made me want to go around asking all the women I know, in fact all the women I meet, whether they’ve ever had an orgasm.
As this isn’t socially acceptable in real life I asked Twitter instead – #haveyouhadanorgasm?
The exchange that followed has inspired me to write a series of posts about women and sex to hopefully start a conversation about orgasms, and failing that at least I’ll have satisfied the overwhelming need that I feel to do something about this.
I’ve been thinking and reading about sex and sexuality a lot recently anyway – I’m going to review some of the best books I’ve come across so far – as I’ve been reconsidering a whole lot of things, trying to reestablish what I think and feel outside of the knots in my poorly brain. And it seems for many women that would be a pretty good place for them to start as well.
Not because they’re necessarily unwell but because they don’t know what they want to start with.
As teenagers we’re taught how to avoid pregnancy and sexual transmitted infections, if we’re lucky we might receive some education around what a respectful and healthy relationship looks like; but aside from that it’s quite easy to take away the impression that when it comes down to the action itself there isn’t much too it – just get on with it and everything will naturally happen as it should.
And if that isn’t particularly pleasurable then either that’s just the way it’s supposed to be or there’s something wrong with you.
But it doesn’t really work like that.
To have a healthy and satisfying sex life, just like any other aspect of a healthy lifestyle, you need knowledge – about yourself and your partner – effort, and practice.
But as your mother always used to tell you – if a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing well.
And sexual activity, either with yourself or with someone(s) else, that brings you pleasure is something definitely worth doing.
There seem to be a number of, sometimes conflicting, obstacles to this which I’ll look at in more detail over the next few weeks.
As we all know many women are uncomfortable with their bodies and the way that they look. This means that they don’t want to concentrate on them too much and they don’t want anyone else to either.
But unless someone does it’s nigh on impossible to work out the best way to bring you to orgasm.
It’s not the same for everybody, nor is it something that anyone else knows instinctively how to do for you.
Then on top of this we’re bombarded all over the place with contradictory messages about women’s sexuality.
With conservatives and traditionalists on the one had trying to teach us that sex isn’t something to be particularly enjoyed by anybody, especially not by women who are supposed to remain ‘pure’ and unsullied by thinking of such things. And possibly not all by anyone who isn’t a heterosexual.
And on the other we have the more liberal attitude that women should have sex with whoever they want, whenever they want, as this represents liberation and empowerment.
As well-meaning as it may be this message is also problematic as it sets up an opposing ideal that some women then feel pressured to live up to – as an independent modern woman I must be having lots of sex, ideally with lots of different partners. And once again there is no suggestion that women do this because it gives them pleasure.
Conversely, and this is the contradictory part, we also, as a culture, have a very goal oriented attitude towards sex. Particularly heterosexual sex. The goal of sex is orgasm, for two heterosexual partners the goal is specifically to achieve orgasm through penetrative sex. This usually works well enough for him, less often for her.
This very narrow definition of what constitutes ‘having sex’ unhelpfully leaves out most of the things which might result in reliable orgasms for women – as most women need direct clitoral stimulation to climax.
It also puts a lot of pressure on to this having of orgasms business. For women and for men as well. After all, if the point of having sex is to have an orgasm, and you ‘fail’ to have one, what does that say about you? And yet that expectation to ‘perform’ to a climax makes it less likely that either party will be able to, as to be able have an orgasm you first need to be able to switch off and relax.
On top of which none of it makes any sense. Especially the male-centric version.
Does it mean that if nobody has an orgasm that it isn’t sex? If a penis doesn’t ejaculate into a vagina it isn’t sex? So a cis-man has to be involved for it to count as ‘sex’? If orgasms and penetration are what make it ‘having sex’ what does that say about foreplay? That it’s dispensable? That it isn’t ‘real sex’? That it isn’t supposed to be enjoyed?
And is getting your rocks off all that ‘having sex’ is about? What about romance? Or intimacy? Or connection? Or just plain fun?
I think it’s worth considering why we do the things we do in a sexual context and what we mean when we talk about having sex.
Anyway, those are my initial thoughts on the subject, as I said at the beginning I’ll be elaborating on them over the next few weeks. So now it’s your turn. What do you think? Can you relate to any of this or do you have no idea what I’m talking about?
And most importantly, have you had an orgasm?
“But I knew it was pure masturbation, because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got tired of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I’d finally gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn’t feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detached.” ~ Hunter S. Thompson
So, I keep banging on about stability and how great it is; how it’s keeping my mental health problems in remission, or thereabouts. The thing is it’s a bit more complicated than I’ve probably been making it sound. It’s been a long, hard struggle to get here, and a bunch of things have had to align to support it.I should stress that these are things that have worked for me, I’m not suggesting that they would or should work for anybody else. What anyone else needs might differ depending on their personality, circumstances, and/or illness.
Natalie Portman and I moved into our own place last Christmas. And then into another one over summer as the landlord of the first place is a strange, strange, delusional man – a long but amusing story that I will tell you some other time.
So now we have a place that is spacious, and quiet, and right opposite the train station – I get the train to work, it takes seven minutes to get from my front door to my train platform, it’s ace. The property belongs to a nice, normal housing association. We are very, very lucky.
Having space to just sit, and, well….BE has been invaluable. Not feeling trapped or constantly worried about being a burden or imposition on anyone else.
Reducing worries has been key in most of these things I think, the less time and energy I’ve needed to devote to worrying about other things the more I’ve been able to use for working on my mental health. I’m drastically less tired since I’ve had my own space.
It’s not so much the job that helped as the going back to work.
I wasn’t really well enough to start working again but I had too anyway. So I took a job that paid the rent, that my fully functional self could do in her sleep, and that never requires that I bring work home with me. I needed to have plenty of mental energy and personal time left over to concentrate on becoming actually well enough to be in work again.
It’s been really, really hard, and I’ve wanted to give up several times – although financially that was never really an option – but nearly eighteen months later it seems to have paid off.
Having somewhere to be and specific things to do, having a routine and some structure in my life has done me so much…good seems like the wrong word for something that has at times been so harrowing…but nevertheless it has been incredibly valuable.
Having a more structured day has made it easier to incorporate a routine of looking after myself properly. There is a lunch break at work for having lunch, I get home from work at a sensible time for having dinner. I have to get up at a certain time in the morning to get ready and get to work on time, which points to a natural time for going to bed every night.
I’m over the guilt about finding these things difficult. Eating regularly and healthily, sleeping enough, cleaning up, these have been difficult routines to get into although once you get going they become easier to keep up. Your body eventually starts getting hungry, tired, or impatient with your surroundings at an approximately appropriate time.
Bizarrely the sertraline kick started me on this, when I first started taking it I completely lost my appetite and as this worsened as my dosage increased. I barely ate a thing besides my Christmas dinner over the whole of Christmas week last year.
Because I could now go for literally days without food without noticing I used the MyFitnessPal app to record what I ate and whether I was hitting my nutrition and calorie goals. It was helpful to have to pay so much attention to what I was eating, if I eat better I feel physically better, which is one less thing to be sapping energy away from managing my mental illness.
I also downloaded the Sleep as Android app to track the duration and quality of my sleep. I wasn’t getting nearly as much as I thought I was. Try it yourself, you might be surprised.
I’ve started showering in the evening after a lifetime of being a morning person because after a few days of having to shower in the evening after being drenched with rain I realised that it has made at least a 24% improvement to my quality of life.
And I now drink lots and lots and lots and lots of water.
As explained earlier, I’ve developed a much more realistic understanding of my condition, of what I can hope to achieve in terms of ‘recovery’, and how long I should expect progress to take.
I’ve stopped pushing myself to get better.
I stopped pushing for everything to happen more quickly.
And eventually that made me feel better. It gave my poorly brain more space to heal in, without having to deal with the additional pressure of my beating it with a metaphorical stick and expecting that to make it recover more quickly.
I’ve also become better at asserting boundaries with other people. There are limits to what I can and can’t do, to what I can and can’t handle. I needed to be able to sit up before I could crawl, before I could walk, before I can run.
Again, pushing aside the weight of the unrealistic expectations of people around me created more space for concentrating on my brain.
Doing things, seeing people, going to places that weren’t my flat or the office. Not being on my own so much of the time. Building up gradually towards having a life again.
Reading and Learning
I have read a lot this year. And I mean really, I have read loads. I lost count somewhere around 160 books.
I started the year with a true crime binge then eventually decided I should probably move on as thinking about death and violence all the time might not be the healthiest thing for a major depressive like myself to be doing.
So I read about wellness, and mental health, and psychology. I decided reading about sex, sexuality, and gender might help me to find a new way of approaching the subject that wasn’t informed by trauma. I’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t the best informed person about feminism, so I decided to correct that. I’ve read every book about the subject that I can get my hands on.
I’ve read healing poetry, insightful memoirs, academic sociology, media commentary, and about history, geography, and the global economy.
I hoped if I could find out enough about everything that I might find me again. What I like, and think, and feel outside of the confines of my trauma, and mood swings, and craziness.
And I’ve learned so many things, come to so many realisations, it’s been far more helpful than I can explain in this post or than I’m even sure I can structure into words. And I’ve become so passionate about the things that I’m learning and that I want to study further that I’m applying to universities for masters/PhDs to start next year.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t think this is the only way, or that it would work for everybody; I’m very worried that someone might point to this as evidence that everyone should just go back to work when it really isn’t; but it is what has worked for me.
This is what I mean when I talk about remission and stability.
Recoverynoun: recovery; plural noun: recoveriesa return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
Remissionnoun: remissiona temporary diminution of the severity of disease or pain.~ OED
So, I mentioned the other day that I’m feeling better, and that unlike last time I told you I was better, when I was actually mistaking mania for genuine happiness, I think I can be more confident that it’s real this time. That’s because where before there was euphoria and a whirlwind of activity this time there’s only a decidely unexciting feeling of stability.
Unexciting is good. Unexciting is healthy, realistic. Regular people don’t go through life being overwhelmed with excitement every hour of the day and night. ‘Normal’ life is actually quite boring.
I think I’ve finally arrived at a realistic level of expectation of what this ‘getting better’ process involves and how much I can realistically expect to acheive. I know it’s taken me a while to get here but in my defence I’ve been somewhat handicapped by the fact that I didn’t really have much appreciation of what I was aiming at; having experienced no periods of ‘wellness’ in living memory, only being extremely high or more frequently extremely low.
For the longest time I thought the goal of ‘recovery’ was to hit the highs again, to go back to being filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm and running around like a crazy person. Even after I realised that state was just as unhealthy in its own way as the depression I still found it difficult to let go and accept that if I wanted to be healthy I needed not to feel that way again. I found the idea that mood/mental state is a spectrum pretty much like any other, and that all the healthy bits of this particular spectrum are in round about the middle, to be incredibly depressing in and of itself.
Having experienced manic ecstacy a humdrum, average stability didn’t seem like a sufficient reward for the Herculean effort of pulling myself out of the pit of my depression.
To move on from this I’ve had to learn a whole different way of looking at my mental illness. I’ve had to come to truly understand that my conditions are just not sick/well type of things. I’m not aiming to get better and then never have to worry about any of this ever again, I’m learning to manage my health, mental and physical, and my lifestyle in a way that keeps my depression, anxiety, trauma, and personality disorder in check; so that I’m able to carry on with the rest of my life alongside continuing to deal with them.
‘Recovery’ as I’ve always understood it to mean is not an option here. My mental health problems haven’t gone away, they’re just not getting in my way anymore. Continuing to keep them in check will be an ongoing process of monitoring and managing, learning and healing. And it would still be unrealistic to assume that they’re never going to overwhelm me again.
So, I think what I mean when I say that I’m feeling stable is that for the time being my illness is in remission.