You’re reading How To Get Off, our series celebrating bodies, pleasure and fantasy.
These are the two words rarely spoken during sex ed: female pleasure. From our school years, we’re taught how to avoid getting pregnant. We’re told about the male orgasm, but the female one, the one that has nothing to do with babies, is all but forgotten. And things don’t get much better as adults, with representations of female pleasure in TV, film and porn often world’s apart from reality. It’s no wonder so many women are struggling to get off.
For every sexual encounter, men orgasm on average 87% of the time, while women are left at 65%, according to research on the O-gap.
Heterosexual men orgasm most regularly, followed by gay men and bisexual men, then lesbians, bisexual women – and finally hetero women.
“Women are brought up to not voice their needs, to not be difficult or demanding, to not be a show-off and to not be sexual,” Lisa Williams, co-author of More Orgasms Please: Why Female Pleasure Matters, previously told HuffPost UK. “Then when we grow up and get to the bedroom, this is obviously going to have an impact.”
However, it’s never too late to discover the power of female pleasure – and there’s no correct way of doing it. To prove just that, five women share their very different “eureka” moments.
‘I kissed a girl in my 20s and it felt like fireworks’
Shilpa, originally from Delhi but now based in Leeds, dated men in her late teens and early 20s, but says she was never truly satisfied. “Even though it felt good, especially the kissing and cuddling, I never looked forward to it and even while we were having sex, I would want to get it over with,” the 25-year-old says. “But I kissed a girl at a club once when I was 24 and it felt like fireworks.”
That kiss – “like all the shit they show in movies” – was the start of Shilpa exploring her sexuality and last year, she met her girlfriend.
“I started looking forward to and even craving sex. I fucking love both getting and giving orgasms now,” she says.
“For me, physically having an orgasm feels like my insides all come together and then go around on a world tour. Emotionally, I feel like finally everything fits right, like everything makes sense in the universe.”
Shilpa says she felt her “main role” in hetero sex was “pleasing” her male partners, but in her same-sex relationship, things feel more equal.
“You still have to discover and figure out what your partner likes and gets turned on by,” she adds. “Even though you have the same organs, everyone gets to the point of orgasm differently.”
‘I met a man who made me feel safe naked’
Natasha, 44, who grew up in Hungary but now lives in London, says she discovered female pleasure when she was 18, with a boyfriend who was “very invested” in pleasing her.
“He was quite serious that he couldn’t imagine a man having vaginal sex without first giving orgasm, orally. He was also good at penetrative sex, in all sorts of positions, and I got quite used to getting pleasure. He made me feel safe naked and excited,” reflects Natasha.
“My body and femininity felt natural and sacred, something for me to enjoy with his help, not something to be ashamed of, or something that is a gift to a man. My body felt like a gift to me.”
The relationship ended because he “liked to spread the love around” and Natasha says it took until she was 30 for her to have great sex again. But that spell also ended in infidelity.
“In my 40s now, with two long-term relationships (and not-great sex) since, I am starting to wonder if it’s possible to find great sex and a great, loyal relationship in one,” she says.
“With other men, especially recently, it felt like they look at it as if I’m giving my body to them, which is the biggest turnoff. Because of that great experience when I was young, bad lovers put me off sex.”
‘I ditched the pill and found pleasure in my 30s’
Claire, 49, from Ayrshire, Scotland, had lacklustre sex during her marriage, which she describes as “aimed at his pleasure, mostly”. But when she got divorced at 29, then came off the pill, she says the combination of the two hugely improved her sex life into her 30s.
“My first real awareness [of pleasure] was after divorce. I came off the pill and then found out it was preventing my body from responding,” she explains.
“Discovering that getting aroused and wet was not the massive work load it had previously been took a lot of pressure off me, and made me relax and learn what I like and don’t like.”
Claire believes switching to a contraception injection eased her dryness – particularly because old problems persisted when she temporarily tried the pill again.
“I really noticed the sudden lack of body response, so realised what had been a source of pressure in our marriage was less us and more medicine,” she says – and her new partner also helped. “He was also a more considerate lover who incorporated a vibrator into sex,” she says. “I found sex really enjoyable and found my body did react and respond.”
‘Learning to make myself orgasm helped me communicate with partners’
Abigail Geiger, 28, who lives in Orlando, Florida, says until recently she’d orgasmed less than 10 times in 10 years of being sexually active. Last summer, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I’d been moping in my apartment after a particularly painful ghosting when I came across a video series promising to help any woman with her orgasm,” she explains. “I groaned at first. But something made me click the play button.”
The video, led by sex therapist Vanessa Marin, discussed all the potential reasons why a woman might struggle to orgasm and Abigail realised she’d spent a decade focusing on pleasing her partners, rather than herself.
“I started masturbating and I had an orgasm after the second try,” she says. “I felt total relief. And not just the normal post-orgasm relief. I also felt a sense of surprise: I was honestly surprised I was able to give myself the same euphoria after associating orgasms with partners my entire sex life.”
That moment strengthened her sense of self, she adds: “It made me feel powerful. Naturally, that spilled into sex with partners – after learning to make myself orgasm, I knew how to communicate that to someone else and make sex more of a two-way street.”
Starting to masturbate in her late 20s has taught her: “I am my most important partner”. “I no longer struggle with being able to orgasm by myself,” she says. “That’s a huge step for me. What I now struggle with is being confident enough to talk about it. That’s my new journey.”
‘I took control and my body felt like it had a huge release’
Reaching orgasm had never been a problem for Emma, 27, from Lincoln, when she’s flying solo. But she always struggled to climax through penetrative sex.
“It just doesn’t seem to work for me and focusing on having an orgasm was getting me down so I resigned myself to not having orgasms during sex with my boyfriend,” she explains. “We’ve been together about six months and recently, during foreplay, I was really enjoying it. Usually at this point when it gets good, we switch and start having sex – but I don’t come and he does. So this time, when he started putting a condom on, I told him not to stop and carry on with foreplay using his fingers and his mouth.”
The change in tack led to Emma’s first orgasm with her boyfriend and taught them both a lot about pleasure, she says. “It was like we had found something new to do together and we both loved it,” she says. “Physically, my body felt like it had a huge release and I wanted to collapse after, I lay on the sofa for ages feeling so great. It was empowering to get across to my boyfriend that I can have an amazing orgasm too if we try different things.”
The experience taught Emma that “women’s orgasms are just important”.
“You’ve got to take control sometimes,” she says. “Sex might not just be about sex. Sometimes foreplay can be the end goal. Try new things and don’t feel bad for your own needs.”
How To Get Off is our answer to Valentine’s Day, celebrating bodies, pleasure and fantasy – whatever your relationship status. We’ll be exploring what really gets us off in 2020, looking at sexual awakenings, toys and erotica, and real-life experience.