‘What do you like?’ the sort-of stranger lying on top of me asked. ‘What do you want me to do to you?’
‘Ummmm,’ I stuttered, feeling the blood rush to my face as I blushed deeply, grateful for the darkness that hid my shame. I leaned in to kiss him, to fill the awkward silence that had so abruptly halted what I thought had been an award-winning performance of passion. I was well-versed in this script. But now, I was drawing a blank.
I was 26 years old and no one I had slept with previously had ever asked me what I wanted, what I enjoyed during sex. And thank God, because I had no idea. Suddenly confronted with not knowing the answer to this seemingly simple question, I felt so juvenile, so woefully inexperienced and unsure of myself. The veil had slipped to reveal that my naked body was as much a stranger to me as it was to this man.
And so that night, I played out the sexual script I’d learnt by heart and focused on making him come, on transferring attention away from my body and on to his. It was all I knew what to do in order to avoid explaining that, actually, I’m not able to orgasm, that my body doesn’t work as it is ‘meant to’. That I am broken.
‘I suppose I know what the problem is,’ I explained to my newly recruited sex therapist, Aleks, in our virtual therapy room. It was some three years later and I was sitting crossed-legged on my bed, staring at my computer screen as I recounted the history of my sexual experiences. Sitting in a pool of sunlight halfway across the world, Aleks was ensconced in a halo-like glow. Fitting, I thought, for the woman who was about to solve all my sexual woes and bring me back my orgasm.
I’ve always seen sex as being for a man’s pleasure rather than for my own. Outside the one long-term relationship I had in my early 20s, my sexual experiences have been underwhelming at best and non-consensual at worst. I never really thought things could, or should, be different. ‘For as long as I can remember,’ I explained to Aleks, ‘I’ve seen my body as a source of pain rather than pleasure.’
Growing up I had been severely anorexic, and then bulimic. By the age of 12 I had learnt to channel whatever worries or anxieties were plaguing my adolescent mind into punishing my adolescent body. I would under-eat, over exercise, drink too much, take laxatives — anything to punch and pummel the body I sought so doggedly to shrink. I relished in the perverse comfort of feeling as though I was in control of my own bodily pain.
That I’ve often found sex uncomfortable, sometimes painful, and never that enjoyable, is perfectly in fitting with the narrative I’ve long held about what my body deserves. When I was sexually assaulted at 17, I felt embarrassed and ashamed, but not indignant. Sex had always felt like something that was done to me, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. I learned to disconnect. To step outside of my body, which I’d leave to moan and move, hoping it would reassure the other person I was having a good time, and crawl into some distant space in my mind to wait until it was over.
‘Following the demise of that one long-term relationship,’ I explained to Aleks, ‘I just stopped being able to orgasm in partnered sex. Regardless of the person, the position, the penis (or the vagina), I just can’t come’. As it turns out, I had what is called ‘situational anorgasmia’ — when you’re only able to have an orgasm in certain circumstances, such as during masturbation (‘regrettably occasional,’ I informed Aleks).
And however alone I felt then in being ‘broken’ sexually, the stats suggest otherwise. Anorgasmia affects an estimated 10-15 per cent of women, while roughly 43 per cent of women experience some type of sexual dysfunction in their lives.
According to sex therapist Dr Karen Gurney, ‘The most frequent reasons we see anorgasmia in women is either not knowing enough about how to give themselves pleasure (and we often see this in people who start masturbating later on in life); or not being able to communicate the types of pleasure that work best with a partner; or being too distracted during sex by thoughts that are going through their mind about how close they are to orgasm; or what the other person is thinking. Hence, they are not present in their body.’
Disconnected from my body, ill-equipped with the vocabulary with which to explore what I might like sexually (sex education at school had consisted of two key learnings: don’t get pregnant, and don’t get an STI) and now convinced my body didn’t work, it was little wonder sex felt so joyless, Aleks noted.
A few months after starting sex therapy I had my first orgasm during partnered sex — as much a surprise for me as it was for the man on the one-night stand. He didn’t quite understand why I was in such dizzy euphoria as I bid him goodbye the following morning. ‘Am I that good in bed,’ he might have wondered? So-so.
But the effect of spending those few months focusing so intensely on my relationship to sex extended far beyond my ability to come. It made me realise, for the first time, how critical a component sexual well-being is for your overall happiness, health and sense of self.
For so long I’d cut off this part of myself, thinking it was something that was just fundamentally unavailable to me. Because while sex is everywhere — across advertising, films, porn, TV — there is still such a taboo around talking about it honestly, particularly when it comes to female pleasure. And the depiction of sex we’re so continually confronted with tends to be idealised, sanitised and frankly unrealistic.
Since the way I experienced sex didn’t match up to the way I’d seen it portrayed and heard it discussed, I thought I was alone and unfixable. I thought everyone around me was a sexual being and I simply was not.
Moreover, while countless friends wondered aloud how I could be in sex therapy given that I’m single — ‘you don’t have anyone to have sex with,’ they’d helpfully point out — I fast began to realise what perhaps should be obvious: that my relationship to sex started with my relationship to myself and to my body.
It’s something sex therapist and the host of The Sexual Wellness Sessions podcast, Kate Moyle, discusses frequently in her therapy room. ‘Building on and nurturing our sexual and sensual relationship with self is important,’ she tells me. ‘A bit like how we say that to experience love in relationships we need to learn to love ourselves first. We can get to know our bodies and build up familiarity and confidence about what feels good for us. This better enables us to communicate to partners when we’re in sexual situations with them.’
To enjoy sex, I realised, I had to end the long battle I’d waged against my body. I didn’t need to love it per se, but I had to accept it. To sit in it without the bubbling hate that had for so long stirred every time I looked down at my tummy. I also had to take self-pleasure seriously. I eat healthily and keep fit, so why wasn’t I nurturing this other core facet of my well-being?
What I regret is not focusing on my relationship to sex sooner. So many years spent not enjoying this most basic (and free!) source of pleasure? What a waste. This is why I started the event series Sex Talks, and why I’m now writing this column. I want to create more open and honest conversations around sex and break down the many taboos that still prevent so many of us from addressing our sexual issues and exploring our sexual pleasure.
So, in this column I plan on exploring topics ranging from closing the orgasm gap and overcoming sexual shame to what we can all learn from polyamory and how kink can be key to sexual healing. And as I draw on the insights and expertise from sex experts across the board, I also really want to hear from you. What sex question is on the tip of your tongue as you read this? What taboo do you want to see busted around this most universal of topics? Slide into my DMs and let me know.
So, to more sex and more pleasure. Consider this an ode to the orgasm.