Apologies for the late newsletter this month. As many of you will be aware, the UK government inadvertently outlawed sex outside of cohabitation last week (on which more below). As a result I got an unexpected assignment which threw my schedule out. But I’m here now!
That’s not the only thing that’s left me feeling conflicted about my subject matter this month. I planned to write about faking orgasms a while back but things have changed. I’m sure many of you will have been following, and maybe even attending, the Black Lives Matter protests. In the face of so much pain, it feels faintly ridiculous to be banging on about orgasms. I’ve decided to crack on with it anyway because I believe that no matter what else is going on in the world, sex is never not important.
But I have been reflecting on what I can do in the context of my work on sex and relationships and I’ve included some more thoughts below. As ever, I look forward to hearing what you think.
In the meantime, if this subject matter feels too frivolous for you right now, I understand. Maybe skip this one. Or come back to it later when you’re in the mood. That’s the nice thing about a newsletter, it can just sit in your inbox and you can read it when you feel ready.
I faked orgasms for a decade
Do you remember your first orgasm? I do. I was about twelve, I think. Possibly thirteen. I’d known for a while that it felt good to touch the area between my legs, to put pressure on it, to rub, to stroke it. And then one day I felt something else, something more. It was as though I’d somehow turned the volume up. Or maybe it was more like adjusting the focus on a camera. The sensation, at first warm and comforting, suddenly had edges. I kept going, feeling it build inside me, until suddenly it couldn’t go any further. Before I knew it it had dissolved in hot, molten pleasure.
Over the years, I’ve had good orgasms and I’ve had mind-blowing orgasms. I’ve had orgasms that happened before I was ready and ones that took so long I almost gave up on them. I’ve had slow, languorous journeys to orgasm, edging and dawdling up that final ascent, and I’ve had quickie orgasms rubbed out at the speed of light so I could crack on with my day. And while there was definitely a degree of practicing and perfecting in those early years, I can’t say I’ve noticed a particular progression. Fact is: I’ve always been pretty darn good at getting myself off.
When it comes to having someone else doing it, the story is rather different. The partnered sex I had in my teens and early twenties was not what I would describe as great. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed some of it. But I never came. Not once. I’m not ashamed of that, particularly. Learning to please yourself and learning how you like to be pleased are two very different endeavours. But I am ashamed of how I handled it. Because instead of being honest, I faked it.
And not just once or twice. I faked orgasms for ten years. From the age of 16 to 26, not a single sexual experience I had with another person involved an orgasm for me. Which, if you’re reading this as a person I hooked up with back then, may come as a startling revelation. Or then again it may not. I can’t be sure how convincing I was, after all. But let’s just say there were never any follow-up questions.
As someone who has previously written about how orgasm is not my favourite part of sex, it might seem strange that I’m getting wound up about this. But, as I discussed back in April, while orgasm doesn’t have to be the goal of sex (and if we took the pressure off achieving it, we might find we all have a much nicer time), it is almost always something I want out of sex.
When I read articles about faking it, the advice so often centres around telling us we need to get to know our bodies and learn what we like. But I’ve never had a problem figuring out what I liked. So why was I faking it with partners?
I dropped psychosexual and relationship therapist Aoife Drury an email to ask her opinion. While she did say that a lack of confidence about what you want can be a big factor, there are a variety of other reasons why someone might fake an orgasm.
“Someone may want the sexual experience to end without having to express it,” she suggested. “Or it might be about not wanting to let their partner down or wanting to boost their partner’s sexual self-esteem. Often it’s communication difficulties, followed closely by the fear of upsetting a partner.”
Many of these ring true. But I think if I’m brutally honest with myself, the overarching reason I’ve faked orgasms is because I haven’t wanted to burden my partners with the “chore” of making me come. The narrative growing up, received through media but mostly through hearsay, through jokes and urban myths that circulated in school peer groups, was that when it came to sex, men were simple, fun-loving creatures while women were complex, tedious, and possibly hostile.
While boys could get themselves off simply by sitting in the right seat on the school bus, I was given to understand that my genitals were complicated and that my arousal was capricious and elusive. [As an aside, the message that penises are easier to operate than vulvas does a disservice to penis-owners too. There are a great many different ways that people like their dicks to be played with and the idea that one-handjob-fits-all is wildly unfair.]
Actually, there is no discernible difference in how reliably people are able to reach orgasm. Writing in her recent book (which I have quoted from before), Mind The Gap, Dr Karen Gurney says: “Despite what we’ve been led to believe, women’s bodies are not ‘trickier’ than men’s. Women and men can orgasm at roughly the same rate from masturbation.”
But, Drury explains, “historical discrepancies and narratives around women's pleasure have contributed to some of the issues. When the vast majority of women need clitoral stimulation to climax you would expect this to be explained. But female sexual pleasure is rarely discussed in sex education.”
Indeed, I believed for a long time that I ought to be able to come through penetration. And since that was invariably what was on offer in my early sexual encounters, I was forced to confront the fact that I didn’t, or couldn’t. I even tried to teach myself. I lay on my bed with a dildo, jabbing away, trying to feel something and feeling wretched when I couldn’t make it happen. After forty minutes of awkward fucking, switching hands when my wrists seized up, my forearms burning with the effort, I’d give up and go back to my clit where, more often than not, I’d finish the job in two minutes flat.
And so I held in my head these two conflicting ideas: the knowledge that my body was highly responsive, easily aroused and I could experience orgasms readily and the belief that no partner could ever be expected to figure out how to make me come. The cognitive dissonance felt insurmountable. Trying to explain it was out of the question. So I faked it.
Of course, faking orgasms is not always necessarily A Bad Thing. Drury points out that in some cases faking an orgasm might be the safest way out of a sexual situation that has become painful or threatening. And wanting sex to end isn’t always a traumatic event, either. These days I rarely fake it but… I can’t in all honesty say I never do. Sometimes I’m just tired or bored or I’ve had enough and am ready to put my pants back on and order Deliveroo. Sometimes the simple fact of being a sex writer and feeling the pressure to be confident and “game” has me tumbling into resentment and self-doubt. And while I know I should communicate and be honest, sometimes, truth be told, I just can’t be arsed. I’m not proud of that but I’m working on it.
It would be cool to be able to just say “I’m done, thanks” without hurting anyone’s feelings, but the reality is, most of us get pretty invested in our ability to give and receive pleasure. Unpicking that takes time and sensitivity. Until then I shall endeavour not to fake my orgasms but if I do, you’ll understand why.
What do you think? Have you faked orgasms? If so why, and do you think it matters? If you have thoughts on the subject, feel free to hit reply on this email or comment directly below this post.
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What's on my mind this month…
Black lives matter… but what about black sex lives? While there are fantastic black writers, activists and influencers doing awesome work around sex and relationships, the fact remains that the mainstream sexual wellness space is extremely white. Furthermore, newcomers are often expected to mine their personal and cultural trauma to get a foot in the door. I’d like to help change this and would like to put out there that I am happy to talk to black writers who want advice on pitching stories about sex and relationships. Even if you’re already quite established, I’m always up for bouncing ideas around, helping develop pitches and suggesting editors and publications. And please feel free to pass on my details to anyone who might be interested in chatting.
It’s also important to remember as well that race and sexuality are not separate issues. Experiences of sex, race, culture, identity, sexual orientation and gender all intersect and there are many nuanced ways in which racism feeds into the narratives around them. I’m never going to be the best person to speak to those but what I can do is work harder to make sure I’m not talking about sex and relationships in a way that centres white experiences.
As I said, I’m still in the process of figuring out how my skills and energy would be best directed, and while it’s definitely not anybody else’s job to educate me, I always welcome feedback, thoughts, and ideas. In the meantime, I strongly recommend people start following and listening to and reading work by black sex educators, writers, sexual health professionals and activists. Here are some to get you started...
Nadia Deen is the founder of AM Appointment and co-founder of the Intimology Institute.
Sex Positive Families is an absolutely brilliant resource that I recommend to all parents and parents-to-be, founded by Melissa Pintor Carnagey.
Ericka Hart is a sex educator and non-binary activist
Dr Annabel Sowemino is the founder of Decolonise Contraception
Nathaniel Cole is a sex educator and speaker on masculinity, mental heath and sex.
Jannette Davies is the co-founder of Sonder and Beam, a sex positive community for women and non-binary people.
Travis Alabanza is a gender non-conforming artist and performer.
Dalychia Saah and Rafaella Fiallo are the co-founders of Afrosexology.
Gabrielle Alexa is a journalist who writes about sex and LGBTQ sexuality.
Yasmin Benoit is a model and asexuality activist
Alicia aka Polyamorous Black Girl writes about polyamory as a black person.
For more polyamory stuff, check out the Mongomish podcast hosted by Jhen and Sham, which looks at ethical non-monogamy through a black Caribbean lens.
And finally, Ben Hunte is the BBC’s LGBTQ correspondent.
Why do straight women still get het up about dick size? Back in May this tweet was doing the rounds. “If you ever feel bad about your standards, may I remind you that I recently had sex with a man with a three-inch penis [...] and then a week later I had sex with him again,” it read. I find this kind of thing absolutely extraordinary. Revolting body-shaming attitude aside, I just don’t get why anyone cares. As we have already discussed in this very newsletter, around 80% of women don't come through penetrative sex anyway so I will never understand why so many are bothered about dick size. And, sure, many sensations are pleasurable for their own sake but I will take dexterous fingers over a dick of any size, any day of the week. To make matters worse, a follow-up tweet said: “he was extremely hot and went down on me for a long time on both occasions.” Girl, this is literally my dream date, STFU.
I had the opportunity to talk to US Surgeon General Dr Joycelyn Elders last month which was super exciting. Dr Elders has been ruffling feathers for a long time with her progressive views on sex. In 1994 she was asked to resign from her post as Surgeon General after she condoned the idea of teaching school children about masturbation. What a legend. Now 86 she’s still a total badass and it was a real honour getting to chat to her. I wrote it up for Forbes and you can read the piece here.
I also wrote about the government’s refusal to discuss when single people and those who don’t live with their partners might be able to have a sex life again. At the start of this newsletter, I described the drafting of a law which makes sex outside of cohabitation illegal as “inadvertent”. But was it? The lawyer who first spotted it, certainly thought so. I am more sceptical, not because I think there’s some big conspiracy to take us all back to 1950s standards of marriage and sex, but because I don’t think overlooking something that is such an important part of human life can be considered an entirely innocent mistake. If nothing else, it certainly speaks to an attitude and priorities. For those of you interested in reading what I wrote, the piece is here.
However, even as I write this, the law is changing! This afternoon, the PM announced that people in single-person households, and single-parent households, would be allowed to form “support bubbles” with one other household. This means that people living alone will be allowed to see their partners or, if they’re single, they’ll be allowed to pick a hookup buddy or perhaps a friend-with-benefits. Hooray! Unfortunately, it gets complicated when people live in flatshares or with family because only one person from the household is allowed to form a bubble and that bubble must be with a single person household. Confused? You won’t be alone. People in a multi-occupancy household will have to draw straws to see who gets to have a shag.
My broad feeling is that this is a positive step though and more crucially, it is completely unpoliceable. So while I’m not suggesting you make your own rules, my feeling is that people will and that how things get managed will be down to what the members of a household agree on and consent to.
A couple more things to (over)think about…
STI rates are down, experts say this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for sexual health.
This story about a sex education startup in Vietnam is interesting.
Matt Hancock says we won’t be able to hug new friends til there’s a vaccine. Pink News reckons now’s the time to text your ex.
Meanwhile people in The Netherlands are allowed to choose a “seksbuddy” to help them get through the pandemic.
These guys were left feeling cheated when it turned out they didn’t really enjoy anal sex after all.
Being able to get abortion pills in the post has been a game-changer for people finding themselves with unwanted pregnancies during lockdown.
Sales of sex dolls are up by over 50% since quarantine measure were announced.
Romania has dropped sex education from its school curriculum after pressure from the Orthodox church.
The pandemic is having a huge impact on supply chains of contraceptives and access to family planning, particularly in developing countries.
Fellow sex writer Stu Nugent was sent this hilarious and awful pitch from a sex tech startup. You have to see it to believe it.
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The Overthinkers Guide To Sex is written by freelance journalist Franki Cookney.
To read more of my work, or to get in touch with me go to frankicookney.com. You can also find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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