De-Centering Orgasm and Talking About Erotic Pleasure

I had an interesting conversation recently with an older cis male friend about orgasms and difficulty achieving orgasm. I was explaining how my difficulties with goal-oriented partner sex have changed the way I think about sex—placing a lot of value, for example, on finding erotic pleasure through kink or non-genital sensation or other experiences. I also explained that though I’ve had these paradigm shifts around orgasm, I still find physical limitations frustrating when it comes to negotiating with a new partner or trying to have a fulfilling sexual experience. In turn, my friend told me a little about some of the difficulties he’s been experiencing with orgasm, and I realized that I had made a fundamentally flawed assumption—namely, that a cis male sexual partner would necessarily expect orgasm to be involved, or expect certain types of sexual touch, and that an encounter without these involved would be less satisfying for him.
Though in the case of my friend, there was a factor that might mediate that assumption (age), even in the case of a younger man my assumption wouldn’t necessarily be true. Yet I find that no matter how much we talk in sex-positive communities about revolutionary sex and untangling sexual scripts, it’s still easy to make the assumption that everyone else (or in this case, cis men, a particular subset of “everyone else”) is “normal” and we are “abnormal.” This can be a difficult lesson to absorb when we’re feeling shy about discussing our experiences, ashamed of our body’s performance, guilty that we’re not willing to perform certain sexual acts with a partner, etc. And in the kinky context, I think we sometimes lump “sex” into a particular box—while we may be willing to negotiate other practices with few assumptions, asking questions about what a particular partner likes and to what degree and in what context, sex is a bit different. We might be more likely jump to apologetic language when talking about sexual boundaries, as if that category of things is something that we’re expected to like as a unit, rather than being just as nuanced as any other set of activities. Of course, this comes from expectations that carry over from mainstream society. Everyone is supposed to like sex, and so there can be a lot of internalized shame around not liking it, or not finding certain acts erotic or something to aspire to, or finding other acts more erotic than those categorized as “sex.”
I’m thinking now about the language of pleasure and eroticism, and how those of us who might have particularly high walls around acts categorized generally as “sex” can negotiate erotic encounters using that language rather than the language of sexuality. For example, “pain is erotic for me, more so than genital touch.” Or “I find that the connection and energy exchange in a scene brings me a lot of pleasure, and I’d like to experience that with you—a lot of kissing and firm sensation will really get me there.” It’s still a good idea to mention sexual limits, as it is any limit, but a good exercise for those who’ve experienced these issues might be to practice using this kind of neutral language to describe them.  “I feel most comfortable if we both keep our [clothes/underwear/pants] on, and I’d like to experience a cathartic release through pain if we can get there. That’s not erotic for me, but more about the flow of energy and letting out some of the stress I’m experiencing. How does that sound for you?”  Or: “I’m thinking that I’d really like to get some erotic energy out giving you a massage tonight. Massage can be really erotic for me, more so than playing with my genitals. I’ll need to be physically close to you afterwards, and I’m comfortable helping you get off if that’s something that you want. Would you be comfortable with that?”
This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.