When Coming Isn't Going
By Petra Shotwell (she/they)
Illustrated by Yi Jong (she/they)
I love thinking about sex. I’ve always loved thinking about sex – or, at least, for as long as I remember knowing what sex was.
I love talking about sex, too. I’ve always lacked a filter in that department, feeling perfectly comfortable with the TMI parts of conversations with friends, always wanting to hear the details, always oversharing after a naughty dream.
But, turns out, thinking and talking about sex is quite different to the physical act. When you just think about it, you’re confident enough to say anything you want to say, you’re capable of doing anything you want to do, you can even be whoever you want to be. But when you’re back to reality and in that bed, no matter how genuinely,
passionately keen you are, there’s a bit more pressure. That added layer of vulnerability is a bit much for someone like me, the anxious little cucumber that I am.
I don’t even remember my first orgasm, due to the infamous and recurring ‘fake out’ before it ever actually happened for me. When you’re new to sex, you more than likely don’t yet understand it. No one tells us vagina-havers “hey, by the way, you probably won’t come for the first few times”, and instead of normalising not having an orgasm, society normalised faking it. What’s the deal with that? Why do we feel like we have to reach a climax? For penis- owners, particularly in cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) relationships, that climax symbolises the end of the sex – therefore a supposedly important factor. Vagina-havers, on the other hand... we can often keep going for a while (not to mention, again and again), meaning our big O isn’t seen as quite so definitive. Often, in a cishet relationship, that leads to the vagina-haver trying hard to come before it’s too late, before it’s over. The heteronormativity of society’s perspective on sex is a separate topic that deserves a lengthy unpacking of its own, so I’ll stop that before it gets a head (pun intended). What matters today is: why do we put that pressure on ourselves?
It’s that pressure, along with so many other complex factors, which creates that dreaded, yet-to-be-defeated orgasm anxiety.
It’s not just vagina-havers, and it’s not just for those in cishet sexual relationships - it’s all of us, so please de-gender your brain for a moment and read this without that binary on board. Not every single human being has orgasm anxiety, but every divine form and flavour of human is susceptible to it. It doesn’t matter what bits you’ve got filling whatever clothes you wear, the pressure is in your brain, and we’ve all got one of those. But like most things, anxiety affects us all in vastly diverse ways. No one can presume to know all, or any, of the causes or manifestations of another person's worries – even if they are prone to something similar. This is as true for orgasm anxiety as it is for any other anxieties.
My own orgasm anxiety is triggered by an ever-increasing number of gut-twisting elements: body insecurities – how I look, feel, smell, taste; worries about taking ‘too long’ or sounding strange in my pleasure; and the fear of pain caused by the oh-so-destructive endometriosis which coats my organs and often flares during and after sex. Usually when I have an orgasm, I simultaneously feel a tight, squeezing pain in my ovaries. I dread that pain, and as a result, I dread that orgasm. I want to crave that orgasm, but instead, I’m left thinking about all the reasons I don't want to have one. Then, as a result of those anxieties, I’m left unable to relax, unable to allow my body to feel . I can’t turn my brain off, no matter how many dirty things I might try to think about. Fear takes over.
My own list of triggers is somewhat extensive on its own – I could talk about it forever. But I guarantee, other people can probably do the same. So, I decided to take a leaf out of my own, teenage self’s book: talk to people about SEX. Friends who offered their tales and experiences (who will all remain anonymous), had the varied stories I anticipated. Many people validated my own thoughts, one simply stating “FEAR!!!”, and another who described how being “expected” to have an orgasm definitely worsens his existing anxiety. Several put it down to medication that completely prevents their orgasm, though one friend told me they can’t stop orgasming despite being on very heavy meds. Another friend, who recounts having “always felt a very grounded, steady, fiery connection to pleasure and orgasm”, says she started antidepressants late last year, and has since completely lost her libido. The antidepressants, infamous for their substantial effect on libido and orgasms, resulted in this person losing interest in both sex and masturbation (which she says is very unlike her). She also describes feeling a distinct change in her relationship with intimacy and physical touch in general. Suffering a drastic disconnect to her pleasure, this once ‘fiery’ sexual being was now left anxiously dwelling on the orgasms that she had only ever felt security in.
Several people I spoke to grew up in households where there was an intense stigma around sex, resulting in guilt associated with sexual pleasure later in life. For some this was due to the presence of religion in their family, for others it was simply a strong conservative perspective among their family. One person with this story also added that she has felt added pressure recently, which she thinks is caused by the ‘sex-positivity movement.’
Sex-positivity is the idea that we are each entitled to fundamentally healthy, shame-free, pleasure-filled, consensual (cause consent is fucking mandatory) sex in any way we like.
We’re all supposed to be empowered, with sexual confidence and the drive to seek the sex that we each enjoy. The person who mentioned this to me described how sex positivity makes her feel like it’s her own fault that they can’t “make it happen”, and that as an empowered person they are “letting themselves down by not being able to orgasm during sex”. If there’s anything I can guarantee about sex, it’s that if you truly feel like you’re ‘letting yourself (or anyone else) down’, you deserve to rethink your perspective. You don’t owe anyone anything, so how can you let them down? And if it’s yourself you’re letting down, what are your goals? What milestone are you trying to reach, and why? Release yourself from that pressure. Being less sexually confident and dominant compared to your friends doesn’t make you any less of the powerful feminist bitch that you are. It just means that sex means something different for you than it does for them. Sex positivity is a wonderful thing – heck yeah, normalise sexual pleasure and femmes getting on top – but, equally as important, normalise sex diversity.
Sex and pleasure look and feel different for everybody. Whether that’s because of the diverse mixture of body parts we choose to include, or the person attached to those body parts; whether you are happy taking control, or more comfortable when someone else leads the way; whether you are confident, vocal, loud and wriggly, or quiet, shy, and content with the participation award; whether you and your partner come at the same time, 20 minutes apart, or not at all. Sex is sex, baby, and if it feels good for both of you, you’re doing it right (just get that consent, and communicate with your partner/s, oh yeah ).
It’s clear, and reassuring, that I’m not alone with this bedroom anxiety. I certainly don’t have a solution for you – if I did, I’d be so busy getting funky I wouldn’t have the time to write about it. All I can offer are some words of attempted wisdom. Firstly, no matter what triggers your orgasm anxiety, bear in mind that (despite what society tells you) you don’t have to come. This doesn’t mean sex won't feel good, or isn’t worth having – take that climax off the top of your priority list, 'cause there are plenty of fun things you can do without it. Secondly, learn to love your beautiful body, and learn to accept others’ love of your body. Above all else, try to allow your body the relaxation it deserves. I’m not telling you to apply these things in a further attempt to have an orgasm – that's not the moral of this story. I only mean for you to apply these things in order to enjoy your sex for what it is and should be: pleasure, enjoyment, and a damn good time with whoever you’re doing it with.
Sure, coming is great a lot of the time, there’s a reason many people work so hard to make it happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s the be-all and end-all of all things sex. If you are able to work through that anxiety and climb over the edge, good for you! But sometimes, coming just isn’t going. And honey, that’s quite okay.