As a sex and relationships writer for women's publications, one topic I often write — and consequently read — about is the female orgasm. And when I read other articles about it, one particular word comes up with surprising frequency: "elusive." This isn't just becoming a cliché work choice — it also has troubling implications for people with vaginas.
If you flip through sex articles, it's actually comical how much this term comes up. "The ancient evolutionary origin of the elusive female orgasm," one headline reads. Another's simply titled, "The Elusive Female Orgasm."
In one rare usage of the term that actually makes sense, Rebecca Traister writes of hookup culture in New York Magazine, "male climax remains the accepted finish of hetero encounters; a woman’s orgasm is still the elusive, optional bonus round." Traister isn't herself arguing that female orgasms are elusive — she's demonstrating the consequences of viewing them that way. When straight men don't expect to give women as much pleasure as they're receiving, they end up forgiving themselves for failing to do so. And women end up resigning themselves to sex lives devoid of orgasms.
Here's another informative use of "elusive": "I had read tales of the elusive female orgasm, and I assumed that this new challenge was just part of my body changing as I got older," Margaret Carmel writes in Narratively. Even though she didn't have any problems with orgasms before going on SSRIs, a popular antidepressant, she didn't realize the issue could be due to the medication, since it was considered normal.
Like Carmel, I started to experience difficulty orgasming when I went on SSRIs, and yet it took me years to attribute that problem to them. At age 25, I broke a seven-year streak of not being able to orgasm with a partner. I've written about how believing in myself and giving myself permission to take up time helped me — and it did, but there was also a painfully obvious explanation I overlooked: The first partner I orgasmed with was my first since I went off the medication.
"Elusive" is by nature a subjective term. If something eludes you, it may not elude somebody else.
Medical professionals didn't help me arrive at this conclusion. A nurse told me this was an issue for a lot of women, even though it wasn't one for me before, and I should try a vibrator. Female orgasms were just elusive, after all, right?
Not really. "Elusive" is by nature a subjective term. If something eludes you, it may not elude somebody else. In the case of female orgasms, this applies. Most women don't have trouble orgasming during masturbation, for example: On average, it takes them only four minutes — the same as men, according to Kinsey's research.
But cis women's orgasms are more likely to seem elusive to their partners — particularly male partners. Straight women say they orgasm about 61.6 percent of the time with their partners, lesbians do 74.7 percent of the time, and bi women do 58 percent of the time. (For what it's worth, men aren't getting off all the time either: The same Journal of Sexual Medicine study found their rates were 77.6-85.5 percent.). So, the issue may not be with our bodies themselves but with what other people are doing with them.
A case in point: Orgasms are also more likely to seem elusive if you're not doing the things that typically bring them out — i.e., stimulating the clitoris. One possible reason straight women have the fewest orgasms is that they may be spending more time on vaginal penetration, which does not typically lead to orgasm. General ignorance about the female body and the widespread belief that our pleasure is optional also contribute.
Talking about how women get off less than men is worthwhile, but calling female orgasms elusive only contributes to the problem. When we do this, we're unnecessarily blaming ourselves — and deflecting the blame from where it really belongs. Instead of calling female orgasms "elusive," we should be asking, why does our pleasure seem elusive?
There are a number of answers, but many of them have one thing in common: They point toward cultural inequalities in the way we view sex. Orgasm inequality exists due to lack of knowledge of female anatomy, lack of concern for female pleasure, and stereotypes about women being less sexual. These issues need to be addressed on a societal level.
Dismissing a group of people's sexual pleasure as naturally "elusive" doesn't sympathize with them, encourage them and their partners to figure out what works, or solve anything.
Then, some causes of anorgasmia, like medications, anxiety, and poor body image, are more personal, and they deserve attention, too. Viewing lack of sexual satisfaction as normal can lead us to overlook major medical and psychological problems.
Whatever the cause is, dismissing a group of people's sexual pleasure as naturally "elusive" doesn't sympathize with them, encourage them and their partners to figure out what works, or solve anything. So can we please just cut the word "elusive" and everything it stands for out of our discussions of sex? Selfishly, I'm tired of hearing it.