Anonymous guest post
At 25 years old, I have never had an orgasm, and not for want of trying. Masturbating alone without a vibrator, masturbating alone with a vibrator, penetrative sex both with and without clitoral stimulation, oral sex, kinky sex, outdoor sex… Through my experimentation I’ve found that I can experience deep sexual pleasure, but I am fairly certain that I have never experienced the Big O.
How is this possible? I’m probably not someone you would expect to have never experienced orgasm. It’s not like I’m closed off to sex as a topic – I did a sex-related dissertation and my bookshelf includes titles like The Ethical Slut (a sex-positive classic).
What I’m experiencing is known as ‘anorgasmia’, the medical term for when somebody is unable to orgasm (in spite of adequate sexual stimulation, and not due to being young/inexperienced) and experiences personal distress as a result.
You can have primary anorgasmia, which is where you’ve never orgasmed, like me, or secondary anorgasmia, where you’ve had orgasms in the past but have stopped being able to have them. Anorgasmia is not confined to one sex, but it is significantly more common in females than males.
Anorgasmia has a variety of different causes. It is classified as a mental disorder in the DSM, but it can be caused by physical factors, such as hormone levels, and it is a frequent, albeit under-discussed, side effect of SSRI antidepressants, commonly prescribed by GPs for depression and anxiety.
Although I’ve had more contact with the medical profession than the average woman of my age, I’ve only disclosed my problem once, during an appointment with a female GP at the on-campus surgery in my first year of university. I want to give her credit: in my memory of our interaction, she was attentive and sympathetic – a welcome departure from how I was used to being treated by medical professionals pre-university.
In general, I felt far more respected by the doctors at my university surgery, which was frequented by upper-middle class/wealthy students, than I did at my local surgery in the working-class area where I grew up. There, I doubt I would have ever had the confidence to bring up my anorgasmia. In any case, it’s so difficult to get an appointment there that it’d feel like a waste of everyone’s time.
The doctor was not judgmental when I gave her an overview of my colourful mental health history, and even consulted with a colleague before delivering her conclusion: my condition’s cause is probably psychological. As such, I was not offered any kind of physical examination or tests. I was advised to seek psychosexual therapy, but told that this was not offered by the local NHS trust (i.e. I would need to pay for it myself).
In essence, I had made myself vulnerable by sharing information about the most private aspects of my life with two different people and, while sympathetic, they had told me there was nothing they could do to help me!
Relegating orgasm-related conditions to the private healthcare sector implies that orgasms are a luxury, which pisses me off. I am, of course, aware that the NHS is underfunded and has many bigger fish to fry. But I can’t help but think that, if our society attached more value to female sexual pleasure, got rid of the mysticism around the ‘female orgasm’, and prioritised medical understanding of the female anatomy (campaigner Jessica Pin has written on how clitoral anatomy is neglected in medical textbooks), then women in my position would be offered more options.
When I look at my experience in relation to other encounters I’ve had with the medical profession, I’m frustrated, because I can see that the most intimate aspects of my sexuality have repeatedly been defined in negative terms. Doctors are much more interested in ascertaining that I am not pregnant, and do not become pregnant, than they are in finding out if I’m having affirming, consensual sexual experiences.
Having spent a lot of time around sex-positive feminists, I know this framing is underpinned by structural misogyny. Young women are taught that possessing a fertile female body is a risk to be managed, which reflects a wider set of cultural beliefs about sexuality. Remember the scene in Mean Girls where Coach Carter delivers sex ed to a gymnasium of teenagers? ‘Don’t have sex, or you will get pregnant, and die’ is one of the most quotable lines in the film. It’s funny because it’s ridiculous, but it’s also funny because it mocks the fearful attitudes that circulate about young women exerting their sexual agency. Only women and some trans AFAB people can get pregnant, so Carter’s statement is not a gender-neutral one!
To some degree, it’s understandable that doctors and other healthcare professionals are often focused on preventing STIs and pregnancy in their female patients, rather than ensuring we have fulfilling sexual lives. Both STIs and unwanted pregnancies are common, can be seriously harmful, and are reduced through practising safe sex. However, in contexts where sex is framed predominantly in terms of avoiding harm, and where pleasure and desire are not part of the conversation, it can be difficult to talk about things like anorgasmia without feeling self-indulgent.
This feeling is gendered: our society does not need to be convinced about the importance of men’s sexual pleasure. The logic of heterosexual male sexual entitlement runs deep in our culture. Of course, men can feel embarrassed about what they perceive to be their own sexual inadequacy. And we all know a man who won’t go to the doctor unless he’s basically dying. But when (straight, cis) men do seek help for sexual dysfunction, they can take comfort in the knowledge that medical researchers have done a lot more studies on male bodies than on female ones. Their bodies are the default, the norm. Everyone knows what Viagra is for; it’s so destigmatised that men can actually buy it over the counter!
With this cultural landscape around male sexuality in mind, I wonder how the doctor I saw would have responded to my anorgasmia if I was a 21-year-old cis man. Would a physical investigation be deemed unnecessary? Would I be advised to make room in my student budget for private therapy? I somehow doubt it. I think that doctors view adult female bodies as always already ‘ill’ in some way, so when we experience a sex-specific ailment, it’s sort of seen as coming with the territory. It’s our lot to suffer.
I’m going to be honest: my anorgasmia-related distress is less to do with a feeling that I, as an individual, am missing out than it is about being angry at a society that markets the myth of female sexual liberation for profit, while maintaining the ‘orgasm gap’ between men and women. I accept that I, personally, will probably never have an orgasm, and that’s OK. I have other priorities! I just wish that I didn’t live in a society that made giving up feel like the easiest option.