I lost my virginity at 19, but I didn’t experience an orgasm with a partner until after three more years of college, a cross-country children’s theatre tour during which I spent a lot of time drinking gin in a minivan, several temp jobs (one of which was at Court TV), at least four heartbreaks, and one sweet stint as a dog runner. Ten years. And as dismal as that looks on paper, I don’t think I’m an anomaly. I think most women have probably had a lot of bland, boring, let's-get-this-over-with-so-I-
Sex in my twenties was not about figuring out what felt good, the capabilities of my own body, or tapping into my fantasies. It was about the guy. Once the guy orgasmed, the sex was over, and I could roll over, confident in my knowledge that I was sexually desirable, and since sexual desirability is held at such a high premium in our society, I could feel confident in the fact that I was doing A-ok in the whole being-a-girl department. It never occurred to me to wonder whether or not the sex was good for me or not. The guy’s orgasm was the whole point.
In her book, Girls and Sex, Peggy Orenstein explores the idea of girls’ sexual pleasure, the role of hookups in sexual culture, and the importance of girls cultivating a sense of personal sensuality. In an interview with Terry Gross, Orenstein quoted a girl as saying the following about losing her virginity:
‘“You know what I think? I think a girl loses her virginity when she has her first orgasm with a partner." And it completely knocked me out. I thought, "Wow." I know we're not going to dismantle the idea of virginity, but what if we could broaden it to think that there's multiple virginities, and what if that was one of them? That would totally shift our ideas of how we thought about girls and boys and sex.”
As a grownup girl, and as the mother of a tiny toddler girl, I find this concept of redefining virginity revolutionary. I didn’t even consider attempting to orgasm with a partner until I was in my late twenties, and I think that’s because, for a woman to orgasm, she has to have a decent amount of self-awareness (what feels good, what works, what doesn’t), and she has to feel empowered to employ that knowledge. And for a woman to build that self-knowledge, she should grow up believing that her own sexual pleasure matters just as much as simply showing up does. What if girls didn’t look at sex as this thing they had to do to be considered worthwhile players in the dating world of young adulthood, but as a thing they did to feel good?
The other night, some friends and I reminisced about subpar hookups over trashy mags, a bottomless bottle of red wine, and a block of cheddar cheese. Nerf guns, the problem of anal sex sans lube, cringe-inducing first blowjob stories, and sleeping roommates in uncomfortably close proximity were all covered.
In Sophie’s words, “Obviously I was not on the lookout to orgasm with the majority of guys I slept with in my twenties.” Beth and I nodded in agreement. Obviously.
I had sex with a handful of people before my marriage at 29, and aside from a few serious boyfriends (and sometimes even then), the path to sex was always paved with alcohol or weed, not in a creepy, date-rapey way, but by choice. Once sex was on the table, I made sure to have access to some sort of mind-altering substance, and I honestly can’t remember a single thing about any of these nice, harmless boys’ sexual styles or even preferences. My only sexual preference was to be as numb as possible. As long as I was participating, as long as the guy wanted to have sex with me, I felt validated as a girl, as a sexual object. In a way, sex was how I measured my normalcy or attractiveness as dictated by societal standards.
I wasn’t troubled by my preference for numbness over sexual pleasure in my twenties, but I wonder if the boys I slept with were aware that I was too drunk or stoned to feel anything. And if they knew, did they care? Or was my passive body just a means to an end? Did they view my numbness as worrisome or did they view it as convenient?
Sex in my twenties was not about figuring out what felt good, the capabilities of my own body, or tapping into my fantasies. It was about the guy.
When I set out to write this essay, I was compelled forward only by a curiosity about the way my own sexual history has been informed by a lack of insistence (or even interest) in my own sexual pleasure. Feeling closer to another human being was not the point. Sensual pleasure was not the point. Self-knowledge was not the point. Participating in a sexual culture in which a man’s orgasm is viewed as the penultimate goal of sexual intercourse – participating in that culture so that I felt worthy (of sex? Love? I’m not sure) — that was the point.
In the wake of the Stanford rape case, in the aftermath of a father referring to rape as “action,” it’s obvious that girls are not the only ones who need to know that their sexual pleasure matters. Boys too, need to know that sex should feel good for girls. Boys need to know that their orgasms are not the whole point.
Orenstein cites cultural attitudes towards sex as being a big determining factor of a girl’s relationship with her own sense of sensuality. She cites many differences in sexual outcomes (positive and negative) between American and Dutch girls, and one of the biggest differences she sees between the two groups is the way in which they’re raised to think about sex: “The Dutch mothers talked about how to balance risk and responsibility and pleasure. And they talked very frankly about girls' entitlement to sexual pleasure and that made a huge difference in the outcomes.”
My mom is an outspoken, warm, inclusive woman, but the idea of sexual pleasure never came up during my girlhood. I think we probably had one very rudimentary “birds and bees” conversation, and that was adamantly it. And of course, I get it. I spent most of my adolescence trying to jump out of my own skin, and probably would’ve threatened a joint murder/suicide had my mother even uttered the phrase “sexual pleasure.”
I’ll never know if frank discussions about the fact that sex is supposed to feel good and you get to decide what “good” means might have made a difference for me or my sexual partners, but I certainly intend to do it like the Dutch mamas and horrify both my daughter and my son with as many mentions of orgasm, female pleasure, and sexual self-knowledge, as I can.
I want my son to know that his pleasure is just one storyline in a sexual episode — not the entire plot. I want my daughter to know that numb sex is not a means to exploring her own sensuality, and that she is entitled to that exploration, and that she’ll probably have much more interesting/fun/enjoyable sex if she puts some skin in the game.
Sara Petersen lives in Portsmouth, NH, where she writes about parenthood, feminism, the best bralettes, and other miscellany. Her work has been published in Neutrons Protons, Brain, Child, Entropy, Bustle, ScaryM
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