The Big O Doesn't Have to Be the Big Goal
It's perfect love-making advice, whether you go with the original quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson dating back to 1844 or the update from tennis star Arthur Ashe in 1992 when he described his battle with HIV infection: "Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome."
If that didn't grab you, how about this: "Orgasm doesn't have to be the main goal of sex. You can just have fun."
When Maeve Wiley (played by actor Emma Mackey) said these words in the third season of Netflix's "Sex Education," it blew people's minds. Sure, you can have sex without getting there, but for most people, it probably wasn't by choice and may have left them feeling like a failure. The idea of having sex for any reason other than to orgasm leaves a lot of people wondering, "What's the point?"
'Exploration, connection and pleasure'
The expectation to orgasm can cause more stress than pleasure. In fact, stressing over "finishing" can make it even harder to orgasm. Plus, fixating on orgasm can prevent us from enjoying all the other parts of intimacy that bring us closer to our partners, and make sex feel more like a competition. When we view orgasm as "nice to have" or even intentionally have sex without it, sex can feel safer and more satisfying than doing it simply to reach the end.
"The goal of sex is exploration, connection and pleasure. Period," said Rachel Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as licensed psychotherapist and sex educator practicing in New York City. "Not everyone can orgasm, and the folks that can all orgasm differently."
Propping up orgasms as the gold standard for sex presents other problems, too, especially when you consider the many heteronormative implications. Making orgasm the ultimate indicator of good sex excludes many people in the LGBTQIA+ community, "othering" them and creating a narrow view of sex, Wright said. If we remove orgasm as the goal of sex, we can open the conversation further and learn to create fulfilling sexual experiences for everyone who wants them.
Who set the sex standard?
Heterosexual men orgasm most often during sex, at 95 percent of the time, while heterosexual women climax least often, at 65 percent of the time, reported a 2017 study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior. Looking at the frequency of orgasm for bisexual women (66 percent), lesbian women (86 percent), bisexual men (88 percent), and gay men (89 percent), it's easy to see that the common view of orgasm as the pinnacle of pleasure favors straight men.
"I think there is a lot of pressure on people with penises, particularly cis men, to orgasm, as it sort of signifies sex is 'complete,' while people without are often neglected from that equation," said Elliott, a 23-year-old transgender man from Michigan who requested his full name not be used. "There is an expectation that orgasm means you are finished, and if you don't orgasm, well, you aren't done yet. When I was having sex with cis men, I was never really expected to orgasm, or even try to, but sex would be done when they were finished, so I would stick it out even if I found it uncomfortable."
If we remove orgasm as the goal of sex, we can open the conversation further and learn to create fulfilling sexual experiences for everyone who wants them.
Looking at orgasm and sex synonymously provides a rigid definition of what sex is when sex isn't supposed to be rigid at all. This definition paints orgasm as a finish line when there are more important factors in sex, such as consent and the energy levels of everyone involved. It also feeds into tired ideas about the quality of sex and who has sex.
"We're taught that 'good sex' ends in orgasm, and on top of that, we're taught sex is a penis entering a vagina," Wright said. "My definition of sex is a meaningful experience of pleasure. Does that say anything about orgasm? No. Gender? No. Sexual orientation? No. When the goal of sex is orgasm, it puts pressure on something to have a destination versus enjoying every moment of navigating each other's bodies and feeling pleasure."
Giving sex a new purpose
In another scene from "Sex Education," Dex Thompson (played by actor Lino Facioli) is so afraid his penis size is the reason his girlfriend hasn't climaxed with him that he ends up embarrassing himself by measuring his penis at school. As Maeve explained, it's more likely she just needs other kinds of stimulation.
This goes beyond cisgender women, too—foreplay and other sensual activities play a central role in orgasm. Learning the techniques and approaches that work best relies on communication, and perhaps counterintuitively, deprioritizing orgasm can open those channels even further.
"I think the open communication helps us to be closer, as we better understand each other," Elliott said, referring to his experience having intentionally orgasmless sex with his partner. "It's harder to feel inadequate in bed when your partner is telling you that this is what they want."
If you want to try sex without orgasm, set the expectation before sex and tell your partner (or partners) what kind of sex you want in advance. Then, continue to communicate your needs and desires as you go along. It's OK to change your mind and put the rules that society has constructed in the trash—except for consent! Always keep that one.
"If we had better, more comprehensive sex education that included the fact that sex is a meaningful experience of pleasure, virginity is a construct and orgasm isn't the goal, we'd have a much healthier and inclusive view of what sex is," Wright said.
Keeping this in mind, you can avoid trapping yourself or your partners into rigid definitions of sex and start exploring what sex means to you. You might find that the climax isn't orgasm after all.