Why Sex Shouldn’t Always Focus On Orgasm, According To Experts

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle

Spend a couple of minutes on sex positive feminist Instagram, and you'll see post after post extolling the virtues of female orgasm. We talk extensively about the orgasm gap, share memes about "orgasm achieved," and rock shirts that say "Feminists Against Faking It." But could this intense focus on orgasm be leaving out some major parts of the sexual experience?

In her 2019 book Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal, veteran sexuality writer Lux Alptraum describes the influence of another book, She Comes First by Ian Kerner, on the sexual environment in which Alptraum came of age. When She Comes First was published in 2004, the book was celebrated as a much-needed correction for men’s selfish behavior in the bedroom. Kerner focused on cunnilingus as the sex act that brought all women to orgasm. Packed with tips for clueless straight men, Kerner made it clear that — as the title says — their female partners were always to come first.

In Faking It, Alptraum writes, however, that while the intent of the author may have been “noble” — more orgasms for the ladies! heterosexual men being more attentive in bed! — the actual effect of She Comes First was to create “a brand-new paradigm for what sexual experiences ‘should’ look like.”

Alptraum writes that "[w]omen who — for whatever reason — don’t want their orgasm prioritized during sex, or don’t want to, or can’t, orgasm at all" are ultimately erased from the vision of the world set up by She Comes First. (And it's important to note that people who don't have penis-in-vagina sex aren't included in this paradigm at all.) But that doesn't mean they don't exist.

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Those women left out of that narrative are familiar to Emily Sauer, the founder of Ohnut, set of customizable rings that is worn on the penis to control depth of penetration during penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. Sauer designed Ohnut after realizing that her own experience with painful intercourse was a depressingly common one for people with vaginas who have PIV sex. For her clients, orgasm is usually not the goal of sex — or at least not the first one. First, they just want to stop hurting.

“They’re not looking for the traditional experience of physical pleasure, in the way that we assume we’re supposed to be,” Sauer tells Bustle. “We receive thank you notes from people in tears. We actually just received one from a person who hadn’t had [PIV] sex for two years. She bought Ohnut, had penetrative sex for the first time — and the next day bought a wedding dress. She was just so appreciative that she could have penetrative sex with the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.”

Ohnut’s clients' experiences illuminate just how limiting a sole focus on orgasm can be. Sauer believes that this narrow view of sex leads to people missing out on a huge range of sexual experiences and feelings.

“It’s upsetting that the way that we talk about pleasure is very much isolated to the physical experience,” Sauer says. “And we don’t talk about pleasure as it’s related to our bodies combined with our emotions and mental health.”

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In Faking It, Alptraum points out there’s an idea that “there is one specific way that anyone is ‘supposed’ to have sex.” But, she argues, there just isn’t. All people are different; all bodies are different; and no pairing of two (or more) people will be exactly like the pairing of two (or more) other people.

While Sauer and Alptraum are coming at the issue of pressure around orgasm from two very different perspectives — one, the creator of a consumer sex product; the other, a feminist critic — they’re focusing on the same problem. Neither is saying that orgasm should be ignored or that focusing on the orgasms of people with vaginas is a bad thing. But they are both saying that this singular focus leads to a world in which sexual expression is limited, and people who don’t fit the mold understand themselves to be “broken.” And that leads to a very particular kind of performance anxiety in people with vaginas, which centers around the pressure to orgasm.

Alptraum argues that the focus on orgasm is not only potentially detrimental to the individual, but a sign of a bigger societal issue. Again referring to She Comes First, Alptraum writes, “[Kerner's] tract claiming to offer women a path to greater happiness ultimately positioned female orgasm — and orgasm unleashed through cunnilingus, at that — as a badge of honor and proof of a man’s virility, rendering women’s actual needs, desires, and authentic pleasure subordinate to the appeasement of the heterosexual male ego.”

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So what is sex if you take out the goal-oriented aspect? What would focusing on pleasure in a more holistic way look like? Sauer suggests taking the focus off of penetrative sex altogether and exploring other parts of the body “that you wouldn’t think to explore.”

“When you’re not moving towards a goal, how do you become more present?” Sauer says. “We forget that making out is really fun. We forget that it’s really nice when someone touches the palm of our hand.”

Rachel Hoffman, a licensed clinical social worker and PhD candidate in human sexuality tells Bustle that those types of interactions fall under the category of sensate therapy.”

“Sensate therapy entails focusing on your senses during the sexual experience to help you feel more present and less anxious about the climax or outcome,” Hoffman tells Bustle. “Some examples include: lighting a candle and breathing in the scent in the room; playing arousing music and listening to the melody; focusing on your partners body and noticing what parts of them are attractive to you and how your touch is making them feel. The outcome of an orgasm can be the cherry on top, but the success is really in the experience of the arousal.”

Sauer also recommends picking a sexual activity and putting a time limit on how long you and your partner are going to do it. She suggests asking your partner what the one thing they would like done to them for 12 minutes is — and then doing that thing for 12 minutes. Once those 12 minutes are up, you can move on to a new thing. Playing in this way can remove the expectation that sex should be a linear progression of events leading up to and ending with orgasm.

Ultimately, all three experts recommend expanding the idea of sex beyond penis-goes-into-vagina-and-an-orgasm-comes-out to a more expansive and inclusive exploration of bodies, minds, and sensations. And that’s the kind of recommendation I think anyone — not just people who have difficulty with penetrative vaginal sex — could benefit from.