Sex is not just about having an orgasm

Tenderness and freedom

Who comes to sit on the sex therapist’s couch?

My clients are people who say that something is wrong because they do not want sex or, for example, in their opinion they come too quickly, or they would like to try anal sex, but they are afraid, so we help them understand where this fear comes from. Sometimes my clients tell me that, for example, they love sniffing panties and ask me if it’s okay. I am a person who calms them down, educates them, explains what is okay and what is crossing a boundary, because if these are the panties of a person who would not agree to them being smelled, it is not OK any more.

My clients are people with motor disabilities, the visually impaired, hearing impaired, non-heteronormative people or people experiencing violence. More and more often, and this makes me very happy, I hear from clients that they want to work on making their sex even better. My youngest client is six, the oldest is 86, so the age range on my couch is large.

We are at a similar age, in our thirties. So are many of your clients. We are a generation that has not heard much about the body, sex or menstruation at home or at school.

One of my clients told me how she came home after a date with her boyfriend. She was crying because they had had an argument. She lay down in the tub and her mother walked into the bathroom without knocking and peered between her legs without a word. Everything took place in total silence. This left a strong mark on her psyche. It affected her body perception. It only turned out later that the mother wanted to check if her daughter had been raped. Grandmothers and mothers did not talk to us about matters related to the body.

Today’s 20-year-olds have knowledge of the body, but that knowledge is different. The difference lies in the fact that much more is said about the body and for them everything that is connected with it is obvious. It is important for the development of their awareness. However, there is a ‘but’ that younger people see the body as something they can use as a product. 30-year-olds approach the body differently. It serves them to set limits, they want to decide about it, decide who will touch it. Body positivity gives 30-year-old women the opportunity to enjoy their bodies.

If our grandmothers and mothers said anything, what was it?

They warned us: when you start having sex, don’t come home with a large belly. They reminded me of what it looks like or does not look like. One of my clients who, as a teenager, wanted to leave the house with her hair loose, heard from her parents that she looked like a prostitute and that under no circumstances could she go out in such a hairstyle. It sounds like Gilead from “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Not showing too much body, undervaluing it, and paying attention to looking pretty at the same time.

I once heard from my aunt that pretty people have it easier.

I think this belief persists to this day. The transgenerational message casts a long shadow on the lives of successive generations of women – mothers, daughters and granddaughters.

When my friend was going to the lake with her boyfriend, she heard: “Just don’t come back with a third.” This sentence encapsulated all the sexual education she received at home from her parents.

Not talking about sex, not helping express the body, find identity, may result in the fact that sexuality begins to explode only at a certain stage of life, e.g., in your thirties. When women were younger, their sexuality was hidden. If you don’t talk about the body, it is as if this body does not exist. You do not pay attention to how your body functions or whether it functions well, what it gives you, you do not pay attention to the cyclical nature of the processes taking place inside the body. Everything is taboo.

Until recently, menstruation was such a topic. How did girls react to their first menstruation?

Differently, very differently. From handing out flowers to times when girls are ashamed to say they are on their periods. I know a story about a girl hiding that she was already menstruating for over two years and putting toilet paper in her panties so no one would notice. What girls have been and still are told most often is: “Now you are screwed, you will suffer every month.” This is very far from appreciating the female body.

How can the words: “Now you’re screwed” affect these girls’ adult lives?

First of all, these girls receive the message that they are worse. How much self-esteem can a person have if they hear every now and then that they are worse – they begin to believe it. Girls not only hide menstruation and pain, but also sanitary pads or tampons, e.g., in the school corridor, so no one notices. This creates a desire to be invisible, and it very much destroys self-esteem. Period poverty that affects many women only exacerbates this sense of inferiority.

I know the story of a girl who was blackmailed by her mother who did not give her money for sanitary pads.

This is classic violence – psychological and economic. This can give information that others have power over my body, over me. It will be very difficult for such a person to set boundaries. The mother, i.e., the person who should show her how to take care of herself, did not give her good role models, quite the contrary. And here we have a beautiful field for any sexual abuse, for sexual violence, for rape, but also for unconscious rape, because if someone wants to have sex with me, he has the right to do so.

For many men and women, menstrual blood is a problem in bed.

This is a broader problem related to how we perceive the secretions of the human body. Today we use deodorants, intimate cleansers with a very strong odour. Recently I heard from one of my clients that a kiss in the morning before brushing my teeth is a dragon’s kiss. People are afraid of this because the other person will suddenly notice this bad smell from my mouth. Menstrual blood has long been considered something dirty, but I repeat, blood doesn’t stink.

Are body secretions a problem? From my perspective, no. This is a question of deeply ingrained cultural messages. But having sex during menstruation requires some preparation – you need to use a towel, an extra sheet, then you need to wash yourself. You can’t hide your period in bed.

Also, many people may not like it. Then what?

They may not like it, but we are still afraid to talk about certain things. We are afraid to ask the question: “Do you want sex?” And we are afraid to hear the answer: “No, today I don’t feel like it.” We don’t know what to do with such a refusal. And I am all for talking to each other as much as possible. The more we talk, the more comfortable we feel. This, however, requires some communication skills.

I often hear from my clients that they like sex, that they enjoy doing it, but on the other hand they feel pressured to have sex. We use our bodies, we are unable to set limits to ourselves and others, to say: “I don’t feel like having sex.” Because sex has to be frequent.

There is little talk about masturbation, and if anything is said, it is a sin in a negative context.

At the workshop, parents of people with penises can hear from me that when their children have nocturnal blemishes and masturbate, they should show them in advance where the clean sheets are, so that teenagers do not have to involve the whole house in changing bedding. Parents do not realise how humiliating it is to ask adults to change their sheets in such a situation.

That’s what it is when it comes to boys. As for girls, they are discovering masturbation more and more boldly. They openly talk about sex gadgets, they ask me which vibrators are the quietest. Older women have a bigger problem with that. They treat sex toys as mocking, as something that can be jokingly given at a hen party, and not just given, like flowers, as something to please. A pity.

Not talking about the body or talking about it in a restrictive way results in reluctance to touch, thinking: I am inferior, less valuable, so I will not touch myself because when I start, I will remember how imperfect my body is. Women believe that the sphere from the waist down is dirty, especially during menstruation, that it is an area that is not to be touched.

And when they touch, for example using a vibrator, do they feel guilty?

Women who are in a relationship believe that they cannot use a vibrator since they have a living man next to them who is to satisfy them, with whom they should have sex. I will explain it with the example of ice cream. If I want ice cream and my partner does not want it, I will not force them to eat it. I will eat it myself without feeling guilty. Why don’t we approach sex that way?! We have no right to force someone to have sex for our own satisfaction or emotional relaxation. This is one of the worst things we can treat ourselves and others with.

I know women who are not in a relationship and feel guilty about using a vibrator instead of having someone.

I know such women too, but fortunately it is slowly changing, not only in big cities. In smaller ones, there is also more and more openness to it. There are more and more women who have had the experience of being in a relationship but say they want to be alone now and while it would be nice to have someone to go to bed with, they have their own vibrator and they feel good about it, at the moment it is their best companion. They know what is best for them, they don’t have to explain anything to anyone, they give themselves pleasure.

Then let’s talk about orgasm now. Our grandmothers and mothers did their marital duty. We want to have an orgasm in bed.

More and more women are striving for orgasms. And that’s good. The problem is that often the idea of an orgasm is blown out of proportion, very detached from reality. We know from the literature that a woman should be thrown by a typhoon, that she should fly on the walls, etc. And then women come to my office and say: “Do something, I don’t get orgasms.” And when we start to talk, to drill down on the topic, it turns out that these women experience orgasms on a regular basis, but different from how they imagined them. Not all of them need to be “wow” right away, they can be quiet and that is ok too. On the other hand, an orgasm is not the most important thing, and we live under the belief that if we don’t give someone an orgasm, the sex was bad.

Both men and women are stressed that they don’t come.

Exactly. They feel pressured by not reaching an orgasm in bed, and they want to work to change that. If erectile dysfunction occurs in a person with a penis once or twice, they fall into a spiral of fear and getting out of it becomes very difficult, the fear that it will fail again becomes enormous.

Are women ashamed of their bodies in bed?

Yes, but luckily this is already changing. Many women still think that their bodies are imperfect, that they will not be sexy in bed, that the other person will not like them, that the spell will break as soon as they see me without clothes. Under the cover of night, the body becomes shapeless. Again, I use the body, but I think badly about it, I don’t want to show it. I cut myself off from my body, and that makes it harder for me to receive pleasure, an orgasm. It is a self-propelled machine, a perpetual motion machine.

Is it harder for us to have an orgasm because of pulling our stomach in?

Oh yes! I often redirect my clients to Kamila Raczyńska from Dobre Ciało, who deals with pelvic floor training. Women are very tight. They pull their bellies in even during their periods, and then it is natural for the belly to be puffed up. It cannot be pulled in, because then the menstruation is even more painful. I hear from my clients: “But how come people tell me I’m pregnant when I’m not.” I tell them: so what?

I have hyperextension, I stick out the lumbar spine a lot. People think I am pregnant because when I stand, my stomach is pumped out strongly. I used to be terribly ashamed of it and did my best not to show it. Today, when someone gives me a seat on the bus because they think I’m pregnant, I don’t have the slightest problem with it, but it doesn’t come just like that, it requires work, because all our life we learn that we have to present ourselves nicely. This requires changing the existing patterns about what a woman should look like.

But going back to pulling the belly in in bed, when we tighten the abdomen, we also tighten the pelvic floor muscles, and when they are in constant contraction, then I hear from my clients that they reach a certain point and are unable to go further, i.e., achieve an orgasm, even though they feel they are close. An orgasm is when the muscles tighten and relax, and if they are tense all the time, yes, they can tense even more, but they have no way to relax, and having an orgasm is not possible.

There’s so much trouble with this orgasm that many women give up.

What a pity! We take care of our appearance, we rub creams on our faces and that’s great, but why do we give up part of our lives so easily, i.e., the sexual sphere. And it’s not just about sex, but who I relate to, how I do it, who I talk to, who and what interests me, what I want to look like. Sexuality does not end in bed, it is a form of expression that affects our entire functioning. A nourished body is an efficient body, and sex gives us a balance of hormones. If my brain can be flooded with dopamine or serotonin, why should I give it up?

And if we fail to have an orgasm, should we just let it go?

Of course. Very often I hear from my clients that they come to me because they want to have an orgasm. I ask them: what for? Why do you care so much about this? Why is muscle contraction an indicator of the feeling of pleasure? I will explain it using spaghetti as an example. If you enjoy eating spaghetti, then eat it. If instead of three basil leaves there will be two, will you feel less pleasure? No. And we approach orgasms in such a way that if they do not happen, we feel less pleasure from sex, then sex is already hopeless and less valuable.

It would be a pity to be limited to penetration and orgasm only, since pleasure can be found in sexual contact itself. I come into contact with a person, we want to have a good time together, we build a bond, even if it is one-time sex, we make sure that there is exultation, adrenaline. There are more determinants of good sex, but less is said about them. Orgasm is like the Holy Grail. People are convinced that they have to get it in order to have good sex, and that is not true.

Patrycja Wonatowska is a psychologist, sexologist, therapist, sex educator and lecturer. She co-founded the Instytut Pozytywnej Seksualności [Sex Positive Institute] and the podcast Seksozoficznie [Sexosophically]. She was nominated by the editors of “Wysokie Obcasy” to the group of Enthusiasts – a group of women distinguished for their commitment to building social awareness, enthusiasm, and effectiveness

Author: Anna Dobiegała

Illustration: Marta Frej

The text was published in on 17 July 2021