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Women Who Can't Orgasm Reveal What Their Sex Lives Are Really Like

For the month of September, Bustle’s Sex TBH package is talking about sex, honestly. We’re delving into how women approach the things they’re taught to be shy or embarrassed about in the bedroom — and, in doing so, we're liberating people to live their best (sex) lives. Let’s do it.

Even though she's a sexually active woman in her 30s who has had a healthy, fun sex life with multiple partners, Nancy, 30, has never had an orgasm. Ever. And it's not that she hasn't tried. In fact, she's tried everything.

"Growing up, I never had any interest in sex, and I didn't really understand what people were talking about when they spoke about being attracted to someone," Nancy tells Bustle. "I felt like there was something wrong with me, and eventually I tried masturbating, watching porn, etc. to try to make myself aroused. Nothing worked."

She approached a doctor who was convinced it was a mental block — despite Nancy's assurances that she felt it wasn't. Still, she followed the doctor's advice and saw a sex therapist, but found no change. For many people who can't orgasm, societal pressure pushes them to try masturbating, porn, vibrators, and other techniques in order to get them there. But for some women, it still just doesn't happen — boredom kicks in before anything close to an orgasm does. And it's more common than you might expect.

In fact, Dr. Sherry A Ross, a Los Angeles-based gynecologist with 25 years experience and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period., says that between 10 and 20 percent of women haven't experienced an orgasm. This is echoed by a sexual dysfunction study published in National Center for Biotechnology Information, which found that  10 to 15 percent of women experience anorgasmia, or an inability to orgasm. As Dr. Piper Grant, licensed clinical psychologist, sex therapist, and founder of Numi Psychology, tells Bustle, anorgasmia can sometimes be circumstantial and only occur in certain situations or just with certain people. Or, like in Nancy's case, it can happen all the time.

While some people feel fine about their lack of orgasms, others are less comfortable with it. In a society that views orgasms as the goal of sex, and the male orgasm as the defining event of intercourse, there is the dual problem of not enough attention being paid to the female orgasm during straight sex and women feeling like they're dysfunctional if they can't come. And while it makes sense that the climax would be emphasized during sex, orgasm-centricity can be damaging to those who don't experience them.

"Society has set up this idea that orgasms are the most pleasurable part of sex, and if you aren't orgasming then you're missing out on something and possibly something is wrong with you," Dr. Grant says. "Especially with porn, and the sexualized culture we live in, there is almost the expectation on self and by partner that a woman should orgasm. Additionally, women might feel as though if they don't orgasm their partner will be disappointed or think poorly about them."

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Anorgasmia can make women feel frustrated, and their partners feel incompetent — and it's because we don't give enough thought to the idea that you can have a fulfilling sex life without orgasm. But it's time to break the stigma.

"I identify as asexual — I don't feel sexual attraction on a physical level the way that the average person does," Nancy says. "I very rarely feel physically aroused, and on the occasion I do (maybe once every few months), it's fleeting — I can't hold onto it for more than a minute at most, no matter what I do. I've never had an orgasm, with a partner or alone." Though Nancy identifies as asexual, there are plenty of other women who haven't had an orgasm that do not.

"I lost my virginity when I was 18 to my first serious boyfriend, whom I dated for a little over two years, right after my freshman year of college until the beginning of my senior year," Sarah, 25, tells Bustle. "My ex wasn't the most affectionate person in bed — he was never big on foreplay or kissing and I can count on one hand the number of times he went down on me during our relationship. At the time, I had no frame of reference of what was 'normal' for sex since he was my first, so I just assumed this was the status quo."

But even when Sarah's partner did try to help her reach orgasm, it didn't happen. "It really bothered him that I could not orgasm during sex," she says. "We had several fights about it. For example, one time, I could tell he was trying very hard to make it happen — he bought special lube and wanted to try all these different positions that would supposedly make it easier for me to finish. The whole time he kept asking me if I was close — each time I shook my head and I could tell that he was very frustrated. He ended up giving up in the middle of us having sex and I silently cried to myself afterwards."

But the thing is, everyone's sexuality is unique, and complex — and it's time to start talking about that.

As Nancy got older, she started having sex in order to feel "normal." "Honestly, all my experiences were fine," she says. "Sex wasn't disgusting or upsetting or painful to me; it was pretty neutral. I just didn't crave it physically at all, and during sex I felt like I was missing some key part of the experience. There were elements of the experience I liked though — I liked feeling desired; I liked making my partner feel good; I liked the silliness of flopping around naked with someone. Eventually I fell in love with someone and also came to deeply appreciate and look forward to sex with him because of the intimacy and emotional connection it provided. Overall, I'd say that I enjoy sex for all the same reasons that other people do — with the one exception of the physical pleasure. Which isn't to say that sex doesn't feel good for me — it's vaguely nice — but I get the sense that it's not the type of thing that other people are feeling. But there are a lot of other reasons to love having sex."

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Nancy's situation is that she has kept her asexuality and inability to orgasm a secret from most, though not all, of her partners. "I have not told most of my partners about my asexuality," Nancy says. "Throughout both hookups and serious relationships, I have regularly faked sexual arousal — and orgasms. It hasn't bothered me much, and I don't often feel bad about it. I enjoy having sex, and I want my partners to understand that I'm enjoying what I'm doing with them — and I think that sometimes a bit of pretending can communicate that better than the straight truth would."

While faking orgasms is often looked down upon, Nancy's point is an important one. She fakes orgasms to communicate things that are 100 percent true — and it's something we don't really have another shorthand for. "It's not ideal, but the practical truth is that we live in a world where an orgasm communicates 'I like you and I'm attracted to you and I'm loving what you're doing right now and I'm completely in this moment with you' — and every time I've faked an orgasm, all of those things have been true," she says. "And unfortunately if I tell them that I'm not going to orgasm, they're going to think that those things aren't true. So in this case a white lie ultimately feels more honest than the truth."

It's easy to see why talking to a partner about anorgasmia would be difficult. It's a topic that is rarely discussed, which means it can feel like a significant issue to bring up before you have sex for the first time. And once you start faking orgasms with someone, it's a very difficult thing to stop because you would have to explain that you've been faking it all this time. "Some women wonder once they start the vicious cycle of faking [orgasms], how do they suddenly fess up?" Amy Levine, sex coach and founder of Ignite Your Pleasure, tells Bustle. "While it may be an awkward conversation, and your partner may be incredibly pissed, ask yourself, would I rather fake it indefinitely as I would rather keep up the charade? Or would it be better to be honest and have the potential to figure out what it takes to climax even if that means it may be with a new partner?"

But for Nancy, faking orgasms isn't her faking pleasure — and it's not standing in the way of a satisfying sex life. "I wish all those concepts weren't wrapped up in an orgasm — this outlook crams together a wide and complex range of mental, emotional, and physical experiences and reduces them down to a false yes/no dichotomy that is 'proven' by an unreliable biological function," she says. "That sucks. And I'm probably perpetuating the problem by playing along. But overall, I still find my sex life fulfilling."

Sometimes, unsupportive partners are the problem. In Sarah's case, her partner's lack of support wasn't just harmful to their sex life, but to their entire relationship, too. "It made me feel like I was somehow broken," she says. "He had been with a lot of girls before me (maybe two dozen) and always told me that it was never an issue before. The pressure to orgasm made me feel self-conscious in bed and in our relationship — feelings that I suppose were well-founded since he cheated on me towards the tail end of our relationship."

Unfortunately, stories like Sarah's are far too common. Partners may take it as a personal injustice, and instead of accepting it as a part of you, they lash out. "I find that a lot of women do not discuss their anorgasmia with a partner initially," Dr. Grant says. "Particularly if they have been able to orgasm before but cannot orgasm with that partner. In fact though, talking about it is important."

Luckily, Sarah had better luck with other partners — but still no orgasm. "Soon after our breakup I slept with a guy during study abroad while in Italy," she says. "He went down on me for what was probably close to 30 minutes but I never orgasmed. It's not that it didn't feel good — he definitely knew what he was doing — but it just didn't happen. Up until that point, I had always thought the issue was that my ex never spent enough time on foreplay, was so averse to going down on me, and was, in general, self-centered in bed. This was the point when I realized that having an orgasm during sex was probably not in the cards for me."

But Sarah has continued to have a healthy and happy sex life, with both serious partners and friends with benefits. It's not the lack of orgasm that bothers her, she says, so much as the stigma around it. "I enjoy sex very much — so much that I would have it multiple times a day if I could," she says. "I feel like for whatever reason it's hard for guys to understand that I can still be having a great time and be loving everything they're doing without having an orgasm. Now that I'm older it does not necessarily bother me that I can't orgasm during sex (apart from the occasional bouts of jealousy) — it moreso bothers me that there is this stigma attached to the female orgasm. I feel like guys especially attach way too much significance to it — sure it would be nice but at least to me, it is in no way indicative of whether the sex is good or bad. I feel like that even if I explain this to any guy I'm with that he will not understand and his ego will still be bruised. So I'd rather fake it than have a painfully awkward or unproductive conversation and make someone feel unnecessarily self-conscious."

For some who can't orgasm, the frustration over why is the hardest part. "I'm always trying to figure out why I don't orgasm," Laura, 29, tells Bustle. "I think that there's something natural in me that makes it hard, but also I believe my ability to orgasm is something which can be developed with the right method, I just don't know what it is. The story of my friend keeps me always believing in it. She didn't have an orgasm with her partner after trying for two years, but then was able to with a new partner."

Even though Laura has spoken to therapists and experimented, she's only had limited success. She says she's come to enjoy her sex life more, but orgasms still elude her. She keeps trying in hope she'll find a solution.

Sunny Rodgers, clinical sexologist and certified sex coach, has seen similar struggles with her clients. "The majority of the women I work with actually feel like they’re letting themselves down by not being able to reach orgasm, and that they’re missing out on a great pleasure that everyone else is enjoying and partaking in," Rodgers tells Bustle. "Most of them are actually putting more pressure on themselves than their partners or society does. These women feel like they are unable to live up to their own sexual expectations."

And Laura believes that an orgasm would heighten her sexual experience. "I still think that having an orgasm is one of the major purposes of having sex and, once you have it, the sex will be better," she says. "If you're always trying to have it, it becomes frustrating that you can't get there." The pressure to orgasm keeps her from living in the moment during sex.

If orgasms are the most important part of the sexual experience for one person, that's totally fine, but acting as though they are all entire purpose of a sexual experience, and that that experience fails without climax, adds added pressure and shame to those who can't get off. Pleasure means different things to different people. And for some, an orgasm isn't an option.

"The orgasm is not the end all of sex," Dr. Grant says. "Our bodies have so many erogenous zones. There is so much pleasure that can be derived from so many different parts of our bodies. Sex is fun, playful, and pleasurable in many different ways."