How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have the Orgasms I Deserve

A woman in a blue bathing suit lying on a colorful beach towel while the sun pokes through

Today is National Orgasm Day. I know, I can feel the "clickbait" complaint forming in your brain, but stay with me.

National "Insert Essentially Whatever You Want Here" Days are designed to remind people of things they like, but may have forgotten about. They're a free commercial, passed along as people share realizations like: "Oh, that's right! I totally love yo-yos and plum pudding! I can't believe I haven't thought about either in so long." (Yes, those both have their own days.)

It's unconscionable that we've fostered a culture so predicated on sex as either a shameful or solely procreative act that people need reminding about unapologetically appreciating physical release. It's true that National Orgasm Day may be a "holiday" on par with Ice Cream Sandwich Day and Stay Home Because You're Well Day in both greeting card sales and observance, but I'm here to validate its existence: The orgasm needing a day of its own basically excuses me for having timidly approached physical pleasure for most of my life.

My first on-purpose orgasm didn't happen until I was the long past due age of 31. Despite leaving religion behind and aggressively ditching my virginity at 23 — thus launching my lengthy transformation into the outspoken feminist I am now — I spent almost another decade excruciatingly uncomfortable with the pleasure my body had to offer me. And I wasn't alone.

It's hard to have orgasms when you're taught that sex is shameful and you're paranoid something awful might happen thanks to the fear instilled in us by purity culture — that is, the pervasive myth that sex belongs only to a straight married couple attempting to produce children.

No matter your background, avoiding purity culture and its out of whack priorities is impossible in this country. When author Dianna E. Anderson started the hashtag #PurityCultureTaughtMe on Twitter, she wasn't speaking only to or providing a space for people with ideologically restrictive religious upbringings. My parents, for example, were hardly fundamentalists; during my childhood my mom was a middle-of-the-road Methodist and my dad hadn't been to Mass since moving out of his parents' house. I still had the "white dress on my wedding day" value system imprinted on my brain, however, through sex ed, movies, music, the specific church I attended in high school and "the talk" my mom gave me.

"Now," she said, "if you absolutely just cannot wait to have sex, come to me and we'll make sure you do that safely."

Golly. I can't imagine why I got the impression that conversation and the ensuing experience would have been at all uncomfortable or shaming.

Her (and therefore my) ob-gyn had to be arm-twisted into prescribing me birth control at 21 to help manage my migraines, because he didn't "give it to unmarried women" in the year 2000. Everything I heard from authority figures and experts as I was developing reinforced the myth that the moment I kissed my virginity goodbye would be scary, embarrassing and life-altering in unimaginably awful ways.

The seeds that created my discomfort with sexual pleasure were sown so deeply in my psyche that I didn't realize they were there for a very, very long time. Once I unlearned many of the underlying factors that caused it, I was relieved to find out I was off the hook for not realizing I was experiencing it.

The orgasm gap: Sociologist Lisa Wade recently published an essay in Shira Tarrant's new book Gender, Sex, and Politics: In the Streets and Between the Sheets in the 21st Century with the title: "Are Women Bad At Orgasms? Understanding the Gender Gap." (Allow me to spoil it for you: No, we're not.)

Cis women who have sex with cis men have one orgasm to every three achieved by a partner, Wade says — a trend called the "orgasm gap." We tell ourselves all sorts of things to explain this away, thus perpetuating all the myths that center straight, cis, able-bodied male sexual needs.

"[T]he female orgasm is portrayed as elusive," Wade writes. "If women don't have orgasms, the narrative about women's bodies suggests that it's because the clitoris is hard to find and complicated to operate; it's shy and persnickety ... And perhaps it doesn't matter anyway, the myth continues, because we're not sure that women are as interested in orgasm as men. They're physiologically different, we tell ourselves. Nah, women just don't need orgasm as much; they're really in it for the eye contact and the cuddling."

Listen. I love eye contact and cuddling as much as anybody, but this "men want the sex, women want the love" trope has gotta go. If gay and bisexual cis women can achieve orgasm when having sex with a female partner at the same rate as dudes do with any partner, and women only need an average of four minutes to handle their business themselves, it isn't about biology.

Nevertheless, when we reinforce the notion that, as Wade puts it, "women's bodies are less primed for physical pleasure and ... women likely care less about it anyway," we build up and thoroughly entrench the justifications for the myth that women just aren't that into orgasms.

We need National Orgasm Day not just because centering the cis straight male sexual experience is inherently misogynistic, but because a whole lot of us don't realize we're following what Wade calls the "sexual script" that comes with it. When pleasure is left out of sex ed to keep youngsters from engaging in activity their parents are overly paranoid about, those kids grow up to become myth-perpetuating adults, willingly or not.

When pleasure is left out of sex ed to keep youngsters from engaging in activity their parents are overly paranoid about, those kids grow up to become myth-perpetuating adults.

It's not just our scare tactic-style sex ed and Puritanical roots holding up progress on pleasure, either. Even our euphemisms leave a lot to be desired. Take "getting laid." Every time I have ever heard this (including when I've heard myself say it), I picture a woman on her back relatively motionless ("laid") and a man driving the action, "getting" what he presumably wants. The phrase may be used in a more gender-neutral fashion in 2015, but it's rooted in prioritizing the man's experience.

Rewriting the sexual script: My path to finding self-acceptance had several stages, one of the most important of which started with a drunken hookup intended to make someone jealous. The complete lack of guilt I felt about having gone home with a new partner I couldn't have cared less about seeing again opened me up to the idea that sex was a worthwhile endeavor for its own sake.

Unfortunately, more sex doesn't always mean more orgasms. Even as an active participant in a prolific hookup culture within Chicago's bartending and serving industry in my late 20s and early 30s, I realize now that I wasn't pursuing my own pleasure so much as engaging in a social activity. The habit of going out after a shift, drinking with other industry people and doing the flirtation/seduction dance was a part of the social structure — one I excelled at and definitely enjoyed.

But enjoying the dance isn't the same thing as centering your own physical pleasure. I never asked for what I wanted or really had the space to explore what the hell that was, exactly, until I was 31. I'd accidentally developed a polyamorous-esque web of three long-term, nonexclusive partners who each cared whether both of us were satisfied. I wasn't just asked what I wanted; all three of my partners wanted to talk about sex — gasp! — when we weren't having it, both as a flirtation device and to better understand me through my needs and limits.

In a transformation that seemed to happen overnight, I was able to relax and not be so focused on whether or not I was going to be able to achieve an orgasm (as though I was there by myself or had some performance standard to live up to). I had a partner there with me, and because I knew my pleasure mattered to them, I knew an orgasm was probably on the way at some point. Even if it wasn't that day, there would be another day.

My experience is common; it turns out, Wade writes, that when women engage in sexual activity with the same person a few times (thus learning about that person, who is ideally also learning about them) and one or all parties bother to involve the organ on a woman's body that causes the orgasms, the orgasm gap vanishes.

I can definitely enjoy sex without an orgasm; it's not the be-all, end-all moment. But having partners who considered my pleasure to be as important as theirs was life-changing. So, just like that — and completely by accident — my entire worldview shifted, and I was able to engage with the relationship side of myself on honest terms. I stopped evaluating situations based on what had been ingrained in me without my permission and started doing so based on what I wanted and needed. I began unlearning the heteronormative and monogamous conveyor belt of life checklists (dating, moving in together, marriage, children) and spent time figuring out what I wanted.

Discovering I am capable of and can have guilt-free enjoyment of physical pleasure was a revelation I didn't know I was looking for.

We all deserve to orgasm. Wade closes her essay with an unapologetic, optimistic note: Ending the orgasm gender gap and normalizing physical pleasure as a right for all those who want and need it is literally in our hands.

"It's high time we stop pretending that women are bad at orgasms," writes Wade. "The orgasm gap is a social artifact and it can be changed at will."

I couldn't agree more. Today, your unapologetic orgasm is not just a healthy, stress-relieving, pleasurable, personal moment — it's a courageous cultural act. So get on it.