Let’s talk about sex: A conversation on sexuality, relationships and “Orgasm Culture”

Featuring therapist Gail Guttman with intro and questions by Kirsten Chen and Samuel Long

When I first reached out to Gail Guttman, a renowned Couples Relationship and Certified Sex Therapist, I sent her a list of sample questions to help provide an idea of the conversation we wanted to have for this issue. Every question was directly related to the female orgasm. After all, this issue is about HERS, and in a society that very often prizes a man’s pleasure while shaming a woman’s, we wanted to balance the playing field. We wanted to demystify the conversation – celebrate it even. So my initial questions focused on the female orgasm itself, the different ways to achieve it, and the scientific research involved.

But Gail pushed back. She didn’t feel she was the right specialist, for one, but more importantly she noted something interesting: people are so driven toward orgasm, and maybe we should talk about that. Once she said this, it seemed so obvious. Women enjoy and often need more foreplay; but here I was, a woman myself, losing the forest for the trees. Could “orgasm culture” be a thing? We’d be doing better justice to women (and men!) everywhere by exploring and promoting not only the orgasm, but the importance of pleasure, sexuality and healthy relationships in general. And so, in broadening the scope of our conversation, we hope to do just that.

 

Kirsten: In dealing with various couples, what are some common points of contention? We want readers to know they’re not alone; that what they’re dealing with may be pretty normal.

Gail: Honestly, I can’t think of anything I don’t think is normal. Everyone has sexuality glitches and I don’t know what would make us think that, especially in long-term relationships that people won’t have something go wrong in their sex-life. And if it’s always gone well, I can tell you 100% that changes as they age. There are the physical issues; lack of orgasms, lack of desire, coming too quickly or taking too long. But the other piece of the puzzle for many people is just that it gets boring! People do the same things over and over again and think it’ll be fine. So it becomes: how do you bring in new things and keep it playful versus about performance?

Sam: So do you run into people who are trying for open relationships to spice things up? What’s the track record there?

Gail: There’s a big culture surrounding opening up relationships in many different ways. I’ve worked with therapists who have it as their main population, and it can work if certain guidelines are dealt with; for instance, no secret keeping. In a polyamorous relationship there’s often an assumption that’s there’s one primary relationship, so that has to be taken care of. The challenges surround jealousy and boundaries and coming to an agreement on those boundaries. I think people are able to successfully do it. What shows up in my practice oftentimes though is couples who want an open relationship after an affair has already happened; and that doesn’t work so much as the betrayal already exists.

Kirsten: Now, the female orgasm is generally portrayed as very male-driven; as in, all you need is penetration to get it done. But isn’t a vaginal penetration-only orgasm actually pretty rare?

Gail: First of all, the clitoris, which has nerve fibers that run through the entire pelvic floor, contains 8,000 neurofibers in it; a woman’s entire pelvic floor has about 15,000 nerve endings. What they’ve found is that the least amount of nerve endings that women has are in the inner 2/3 of the vagina; that’s the least sensitive part of a woman’s entire vulva. So yes, penetration orgasms are a male-driven concept and they don’t work physiologically for women; it is true that the majority of women can’t have orgasm through intercourse only since they don’t get enough stimulation on their clitoris to have one. It’s *really* important for women to not feel that intercourse-alone is the only way for an orgasm to happen. We’ve had women who come to us and once they realize that, they are so much happier because then they’re enabled to figure out what they want.

Kirsten: Even the word “vagina” is interesting to add to this conversation as it only refers to the opening but is used in society to refer to the whole thing; also male-driven.

Gail: Yes, the vulva is everything; and the lower area of the vagina actually has more nerve endings in it; as well as the front wall, about 1/3 of the way in which can help facilitate an orgasm and may be able to stimulate female ejaculation. But everyone is different.

Sam: Since this is the HERS issue, how would you define “orgasm culture”?

Gail: Well that’s actually a term Kirsten used.

Kirsten: When I used it, I was thinking of when you said “where the focus of sexuality isn’t pleasure or play or even connection but performance.”

Gail: Exactly. That’s what I was thinking. By the original questions you sent, all of them were around the goal of orgasming and I think the goal is really about pleasure and connection and play. This is an interesting story I tell. Originally I lived in St. Louis when I finished school and on the other side of the river there was this “river road” that led to this amazing bakery. In the fall if you drove down river road the trees were beautiful, and in the spring if you drove down the road the Mississippi River was bustling and everything was budding and I often thought of it like, that’s what sex is like. Sexually, you can take the drive to get to the bakery and pay no attention to the drive; or you can pay attention and realize how beautiful it is in different seasons. To me, that’s the difference; trying to help people be present for the drive and the journey. The reality is that an orgasm is over in about 6 seconds for men and 12 seconds for women. We get so focused on something that’s over so quickly instead of enjoying the journey.

Kirsten: Being present and paying attention – I think that parlays into another question well. I recently watched Don Juan, the movie about a porn-addicted guy who enjoyed porn more than real sex.

Gail:  The pornography question is so big; people have such strong feelings about it and what it means. There’s a lot of dissention in the sexuality field if there really is such a thing as porn addiction. What I will say is I do think that porn can be a really good option for people; it does actually help people get more present as it gives them images in their brain that take them out of focusing on performance. Most people have no desire to do what they see in porn or think of as pornography, it’s just a form of system stimulation. Where it’s problematic is when it interferes with the relationship in some way. For instance, if you’re partnered with someone who can only be stimulated by having sex like they do in porn; alternatively, if you’re partnered with someone who thinks porn is really bad and they feel threatened by it. We live in a culture that too quickly labels porn addiction; but there’s porn that is helpful and can stimulate desire. But it’s such a big topic.

Sam: I’m loving you confirming some of my theories.

Gail: I wanted to tell you something else I thought of. The physiological response to an orgasm is no different via vaginal or clitoris; what’s different is different things trigger the response.  We have to move away from a vaginal or clitoral orgasm to an orgasm stimulated by either.  

Sam: Earlier you mentioned you noticed open relationships as a trend. Are there any other cutting edge trends you’ve seen?

Gail: That’s a really broad question; it’s hard to think of one thing. Certainly, though, in the sexuality industry, there’s the idea of positive sexuality and healthy sex with the understanding that sexuality is very, very complex. I think knowing that is very important.

**A version of this article appeared in print in Honeysuckle Magazine’s HERS issue, summer 2017 edition.

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