Ask a Doctor: Filling the Pleasure Gap
We’re back with sex therapist Casey Tanner answering reader questions about the orgasm and pleasure gap.
Are some people with vulvas not capable of having an orgasm from penetrative sex?
One of the more pervasive narratives that we’re taught about sexuality and sex is that penetrative sex is the coup de grâce or peak experience of sexual acts. Therefore, because of its supposed eroticism, the myth pervades that this sexual act is the one most likely to create an orgasm for all partners involved, regardless of gender or genitals.
In actuality, most people with vulvas do not orgasm from penetration alone. There have been several studies within the past ten years that, although limited in scope to cisgender women with male partners, illuminate that 75-80% of participants with vulvas did not orgasm through penetrative sex with their partners.
Penetrative sex does not usually stimulate the clitoris. The clitoris, for many people with vulvas, is the pleasure center and the erogenous zone that, when stimulated, is most likely to create an orgasm.
There are many ways to stimulate the clitoris. Some of the ways we know focus on clitoral stimulation include oral sex, manual sex, or sex using a toy that is designed to stimulate the clitoris.
If you are a person with a vulva and have found that you cannot orgasm from penetrative sex alone, introducing these other sexual acts will likely both increase pleasure during sex as well as the possibility of reaching orgasm.
What are some myths about orgasms for people with vulvas?
A myth that contributes to the pleasure gap is the idea that vulvas are somehow “mysterious.” There is a narrative in our culture where we think about penises as being simple and easy to please.
By contrast, we think about vulvas as being a lot more complicated. However, the vulva does not have to be complicated.
Likely, it feels complicated for many people because our cultural education around pleasure, and specifically around pleasing people with vulvas, is so lacking. Fortunately, there is a lot of great information out there about pleasure for people with vulvas if someone is seeking that out.
Another myth I’ve come across is that if you as an individual do not get turned on right away, then you’re not easy to please sexually. This is also not true. There are many people out there, especially people with vulvas, who need a little bit of a warm up to get to a place where they are turned on and excited.
That warm up process can look different for everyone, whether it may be a mental, emotional, or physical warm up. Folks that need to engage in this way are capable of experiencing just as much pleasure as anyone else. If you are a person who takes a little bit to warm up, that does not make you mysterious, difficult, or complicated.
We additionally make more assumptions about women’s sexuality based on what their body looks like. We either oversexualize or desexualize bodies, different age groups, different socioeconomic statuses, and also different races and ethnicities. In reality, there’s no correlation between body type and ability to experience pleasure.
Finally, because folks with vulvas are more likely to have experienced trauma, there exists a myth that once trauma is experienced it’s impossible to get back the desire to have sex and the ability to experience pleasure. However, research shows how healing from trauma is a viable option and very possible for folks who are survivors.
Additionally, more and more therapists are out there with trauma-informed lenses to be able to work with populations who have experienced trauma. If you are a person who has past experiences of trauma, it is totally possible for you to regain your desire for sex and pleasure if that’s something you want to do.
Do you have any advice for non-binary folks to feel gender-euphoric during orgasms?
Many of us were taught that there are two types of orgasms: male orgasms and female orgasms. We were similarly taught that those types of orgasms correspond to either gender or genitals. This is not actually the case. It is much more nuanced and elastic than that.
Orgasms, like almost anything else, exist in a way that is nonbinary and fluid. It doesn’t matter what your genitals are or what your gender identity is; you get to decide what your orgasm means to you. It doesn’t mean that if you have a particular type of genitals that you only have access to one particular type of orgasm.
People are much more complex than that. You get to define what your orgasm means to you and do it in the way that feels most euphoric.
Why does the pleasure gap exist?
Not only is there a pleasure gap between cisgender men and cisgender women, there is also a pleasure gap between people with vulvas when they masturbate and when they have sex with a partner.
Often, this is because the way people with vulvas masturbate looks really different from the way they have sex with partners. Much of the time when partners have sex they are having penetrative sex. What’s getting missed in that penetrative sex is clitoral stimulation.
But when people are masturbating, they’re typically focusing on clitoral stimulation with either a hand or a vibrator. Then we wonder why orgasming is happening more when we’re alone than with a partner. Well, it’s because we’re focusing on two different parts of the genitals. We can fill the pleasure gap by filling the knowledge gap around people with vulvas.
I can orgasm when I masturbate but it’s difficult when I have sex with a partner. Why?!
One of the other major differences that occurs when someone is alone than when they’re with their partners is performance anxiety. A lot of the time when we’re masturbating we’re not thinking about what our body looks like or whether we’re pleasing someone else.
Those factors are more likely to be introduced when one or more people are at play. If you experience problems with performance anxiety, a solution is really allowing yourself permission to communicate this to your partner or partners.
For example, you could say, “Hey, I’m finding that when we’re having sex I am so focused on what you’re thinking about my body, I’m having trouble feeling good – is there a way you could provide verbal or physical reassurance so I can focus less on that?” By doing so, you’re fact checking the anxious thoughts you’re telling yourself by actually learning what your partner is thinking about you when you’re having sex.
Sexual mindfulness is another great way to cope with performance anxiety that can come up during sex. You can practice this by detaching yourself from those anxious thoughts; looking at the thoughts from a distance instead of believing them as facts can be one way to just give yourself enough space away from that anxiety to really be in your body and experience pleasure.
Additionally, when we’re having sex with a partner or partners, we’re typically allowing them to pleasure us versus relying on ourselves for pleasure. We generally know our body and what makes us orgasm much more intuitively than a partner might.
One way that you can bridge the gap between sex with yourself and sex with a partner is actually showing your partner what you’re doing to yourself that is allowing you to experience an orgasm. This might look like actually showing them what you do with your hand, or a toy, or by showing them what position you like to be in when you’re alone. In doing so, you’re translating the skills you have and have learned to your partner or partners who you’re sleeping with.
I feel like I can only cum when I use my vibrator. Is it possible to change this?
If you’re able to orgasm with a vibrator but having trouble orgasming with a partner or with your hands alone, it could be because your body has gotten used to this particular way of experiencing orgasm. Vibrators do not desensitize you to the ability to have orgasm. However, what they can do with enough repeated use is teach your body through the mind-body connection that using the vibrator is when orgasm happens. What you might have to do is expand your sexual repertoire so that you can teach your brain that there are different ways that you can experience orgasm.
Set that vibrator aside for a little while and use your hands to pleasure yourself (for as long as you can tolerate it without experiencing too much anxiety). The first several times you do this, you may not experience orgasm.
Hopefully, it still feels good to touch yourself even without an orgasm. Over time, you will likely be able to teach your brain that you can experience pleasure without a vibrator, and through the neuroplasticity of your brain it may become more adaptable and able to experience orgasm through using your hands.
The more you use your hands, the more you will also learn what types of hand motions are good for you, whether you like a little more stimulation or a little less stimulation, and when your body naturally lubricates or needs a little bit of added lube. All of these are additional perks to setting aside the vibrator for a little while and getting to know your body in that way!
The self-exploration may also make it a little easier to translate what feels good when you’re solo into sex with a partner or partners. This is how you translate what you know about yourself to having sex with a partner.
My partner who has a vulva can’t orgasm from oral sex. Any tips for giving better oral?
So often when orgasm isn’t happening the way we want it to, we immediately think: what am I doing wrong? What is my partner doing wrong?
In my experience, nine out of ten times no one is doing anything wrong, there might just be some misinformation and some added information needed to make the difference. In this case, it’s likely that no one is doing anything wrong. There are times that even the most skilled person at oral sex isn’t able to help their partner reach orgasm because that’s not how their partner’s body likes to experience orgasm.
Oral sex is wonderful but for some people it can provide either too much stimulation or too little. One thing you can do is combine oral stimulation with another kind of stimulation. Some options include using a vibrator along with oral stimulation, manually stimulating through fingering, or putting a vibrator inside your partner while orally stimulating them.
That combination might be enough to get them there, but even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong! Likely it just means they need a different type of clitoral stimulation to get to orgasm. That exploration process is a huge part of the fun!
Why can’t I relax during sex?
I get this question a lot. It can be very challenging to ask ourselves to get through busy hectic days full of anxiety and then, suddenly, the moment we start having sex we just expect that anxiety and stress to disappear. Often, it doesn’t. Sometimes, the stress gets even more intense when we’re having sex. One exercise that I really love for coping with anxiety during sex is thought diffusion.
Thought diffusion is essentially a mindfulness practice where you put a little distance between yourself and the anxious thoughts that come up during sex. I’ll give an example.
Let’s use the thought, “I didn’t shave today and I’m nervous about it,” (that’s a common one for people with vulvas if shaving is a part of their routine). Instead of thinking to yourself, “I didn’t shave today, I must be a terrible lover… my partner is not going to enjoy this… I should just stop while I’m ahead,” try saying, “I notice I’m having the thought that I didn’t shave; however, my partner is here and they’re not complaining about me not having shaved. I’m just going to put that thought on the shelf and come back to it later.”
Thought diffusion is not ignoring the thoughts or fighting the thoughts, saying, “You’re a terrible thought! Go away, I need my mind to be blank!” Instead, it is allowing those thoughts to pass over you. It is saying, “Okay, I’m noticing this thought is coming to me, but I’m not going to let it have power over me the way it used to have power over me.”
Another example of this is performance anxiety over whether or not your partner is enjoying sex. You might be having the thought, “I’m doing a terrible job at pleasuring my partner.” Instead of holding that as a fact, or as something that’s true about you, look at the evidence a little bit.
Would your partner continue to be your lover if they didn’t enjoy having sex with you? Probably not. Create distance between yourself and the thought. This may look like saying to yourself: “I notice the thought that they might not be enjoying themselves right now. I don’t know if it’s true or not but I’m going to put a pin on that thought for later and come back to my body.”
So many people think their mind needs to be totally blank in order to enjoy sex and that’s not at all the case. For most people, that’s not even totally possible. Instead of going for a total blank meditative space, instead go for a space where these thoughts have a little less power.
Are there vibrators that are more hands free?
Absolutely, there exist a few options! The trick to finding these vibrators is that they’re often marketed to couples. However, there are a bunch that are also totally great for solo sex. One of the vibrators I love for this is TIANI 3.
I love the TIANI 3, and hands off vibrators in general, because when you don’t have to hold the vibrator in place with your hands, you can do all sorts of things! You can use your hands to touch the other erogenous zones of your body. You can relax a little bit more as well because you’re not trying to hold the vibrator over your genitals.
I also love how accessible these remote control toys can be because once you have it inserted, you don’t have to hold a certain position for a long period of time in order to enjoy yourself. I definitely recommend these options for anyone that is looking to change the way they use vibrators.
Squirting. Is it normal? Is it something to be ashamed of?
Squirting is a very normal and common type of orgasm for people with vulvas, yet those who squirt experience so much internalized shame around it. What is this about? I find that when it comes to squirting, there are really two camps. The first camp is people who think squirting is the holy grail of sexual experience and want to know how to squirt more. The second camp is made up of people who squirt and who want to stop, usually because they are feeling some shame or embarrassment around it.
By contrast, I tend to not see a lot of people who are squirt-neutral. However, the reality is that squirting is mostly neutral. Squirting happens when the Skene’s gland (a gland located around the urethra) gets stimulated to the point where it releases fluid. Contrary to what some people think, it’s neither urine nor the same fluid that lubricates your vagina. The gland releases fluid upon orgasm or sometimes not simultaneously with orgasm.
While I feel that this is a natural response to certain types of stimulation and therefore shouldn’t be a point of shame for anyone, you have options to create an orgasm where squirting is more or less likely. The most important point to consider is that you get to decide the way that you want to interact with your body.
Whether you feel it is the most amazing thing in the world or it is something you don’t enjoy as part of your sexual experience, it is up to you. If you want to have more control over squirting, one of the first things you can do is start by noticing how much pressure is getting put on your g spot during certain sexual positions or acts.
There is some research that shows putting more pressure on the g spot increases the likelihood of squirting. The g spot is about two knuckles deep into the vagina, located on the side that is towards the belly button. If you or your partner is feeling it with your fingers, you’ll find that it is a slightly spongiform tissue. The g spot is the internal part of the clitoris that can be stimulated.
For sexual penetrative acts, doggy style will be more likely to stimulate the g spot than some other positions. However, fingering is more likely to stimulate the g spot than penetrative sex with a penis or strap on. That’s because a penis or strap on is usually relatively straight whereas, with manual stimulation, a person is able to curve their fingers towards the g spot and put more pressure on it. These are some options to increase the likelihood of squirting. To avoid squirting, you may find it useful to avoid those positions.
I feel like orgasms are more mental for me. Is this normal?
It is 100% normal for you to feel your pleasure, orgasms, and sexuality in general are more mental than physical. Part of this may be due to a type of sexual desire called responsive desire.
Folks that experience responsive desire often feel that their desire to have sex doesn’t just pop out of nowhere in their bodies in a way that is purely physical. For them, desire actually comes from creating an environment, a headspace, and/or a situation that makes them desire sex more. That headspace could be a fantasy world, a felt connection between you and your partner, or you and yourself and you finding yourself to be really sexy.
When you’re having sex with yourself or with someone else, it’s actually less about what’s going on in your body and more about what’s going on in gour head. That’s amazing and 100% normal.
I’m having trouble letting go of my need to fake an orgasm when I’m with my partner(s) and it’s stressing me out.
Most of us know that faking orgasms isn’t ideal, but some people still have a hard time not faking. So, what is this about?
Unfortunately, due to the heavy influence of cis-heteronormative culture, orgasms have become the way we’ve defined if sex is successful or not. In reality, most people find that sex is way more about pleasure and about connection than it is about reaching an orgasm.
When we define orgasm as the component that makes sex successful, then the pressure to orgasm only increases. For many, the pressure makes orgasm much more difficult to achieve.
The other part of this that is unfortunate is that our egos can be wrapped up in whether or not we orgasm and whether or not our partner orgasms when having sex with us. Because we’ve defined orgasm as the thing that makes sex a success, we use it to communicate about pleasure.
Often, when we’re faking an orgasm, we’re trying to communicate to our partner, “you’ve done a good job.” Really, it’s not about that. But it’s hard to remember that in the moment when we’ve been conditioned to believe that orgasms define whether the sex was good at all. And then of course, once you start faking orgasms with the same partner, it’s hard to stop because your partner might start to think, “They used to orgasm from this and are no longer, so what am I doing wrong now?”
What I recommend, as hard as it may be, is having a conversation with your partner in a really straightforward manner about what is going on for you. You can say, “I’ve put pressure on myself to fake this, it’s the pressure society has put on me to do this, and I’m sorry that this is the way I’ve learned to cope with the pressure. I want more for me, I want more for us, so can we regroup around this and can we find out what actually makes me orgasm?”
You can share with them your belief that the sex has in most cases been good, but you may need to find a different way to show that you are feeling pleasure than by faking an orgasm.
I am a queer-identified therapist and consultant who combines evidence-based research and systemic business coaching to cultivate powerful relationships – with your clients, your relationships, and yourself. Specializing in gender and sexual diversity, I partner with individuals, relationships, and institutions to expand limited mindsets, foster courageous behavior, and empower meaningful change around gender and sexuality.