Paths to pleasure: The crucial conversation around stigmatized orgasms

Hands clenching bed sheets
Emily Bi/Staff

The orgasm: elusive, taboo, the forbidden fruit of the purveyor’s experience — but what exactly defines it, and how should we define our understanding of it?

Scientifically speaking, an orgasm is simply a neuronal response to stimulation. Following arousal, the genitals send electrical impulses through the spinal cord in a signal pathway that relays pleasure signals to the brain. Despite this seemingly simple definition, much stigma surrounds the orgasm when it manifests in certain individuals. For women, it is not spoken of, thought of as taboo and occasionally dismissed as fiction. For transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals, orgasms are often dismissed or condemned, replaced with cisgender-centric conceptions. Stigma around the orgasm is only one part of the conversation around sexual freedom — and it is one that needs to be had.

The female orgasm

Understood as experienced by woman-identifying individuals with female reproductive organs, the female orgasm has historically garnered an influx of theories and myths, most of which are slowly being debunked.

“Traditionally, how we learn about pleasure has been focused on heterosexual men,” said Madeleine Fraix, a facilitator of the popular sexual health DeCal GenSex, formerly known as FemSex. “Vaginas are very much stigmatized in our media and stigmatized as we grow up.”

For most of history, the dominant literature about female anatomy and women’s health was written by male scientists and medical professionals, further feeding the myth that the majority of female orgasms are vaginal orgasms — despite the fact that only eight percent of women can orgasm from vaginal penetration alone.

There have been several failed theories on how to induce the female orgasm, from penetration alone to the fabled G-spot. But achieving climax is not a “one size fits all” endeavor. According to modern scientific literature, there is no magical G-spot, A-spot, or U-spot; instead, one path to orgasm seems to be through stimulation of the clitoris.

Far from the nondescript bulb it appears to be, the clitoris branches out several inches around the vagina in an extensive array of nerve endings. In fact, both the clitoris and the penis develop from the same type of tissue and both function as comparable erogenous zones. The exact location of the clitoris can also vary slightly from one person to the next, and thus the route to achieving an orgasm is different for every individual.

For women, (the orgasm) is not spoken of, thought of as taboo and occasionally dismissed as fiction. 

The notorious “father of psychology” himself helped to cement the fallacies of the female orgasm in modern discourse. In his “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality,” Sigmund Freud wrote that during puberty, the location of female sexual arousal shifts from the clitoris to the vagina, a statement that is patently, scientifically false. According to Freud, “proper sex” was only experienced through vaginal intercourse, and any woman who preferred clitoral over vaginal stimulation or indulged in any other means of achieving sexual pleasure — including masturbation — ought to be diagnosed as psychotic.

To “cure” women of such neuroses, Freud suggested doctor-stimulated orgasms or clitorechtemies to curb behaviors deemed as sexually promiscuous. Thus, masked by the guise of scientific and medical inquiry, Freud’s essays became a means to control the discourse of female sexuality, transforming pleasure into a form of privilege rooted in identity.

These sorts of theorizations, for all their inaccuracies, have contributed to a silent suppression of speech around sexual pleasure, sex science, personal health and masturbation.

Campus sophomore Media Sina, who is a performer in “Our Monologues” — an annual student-organized play which seeks to validate conversations surrounding sex — shared her story of discovering herself through masturbation and the stigma she faced because of it. Coming from a Middle Eastern family where sex was simply not discussed, Sina had to reconcile her culture with her own sexual exploration. Like many individuals, Sina discovered masturbation before she knew what it actually was.

“My culture tells me to be like this, and I’m not,’” said Sina. “I was four when I had my first orgasm … It happened and I was like ‘oh that’s nice.’ And then it kept happening. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I would do it in broad daylight, and around my family.”

Destigmatization of all pleasure

Sina’s story is not uncommon. Humans are sexual beings. We crave the release of the pleasure signals that come with orgasm, and many of us discover the secret of sexual pleasure as children before we are taught to suppress the pleasure, to stigmatize it.

At a young age, discovering one’s genitals and erogenous zones is merely self-exploration, an innocent act that only becomes “obscene” once we are taught to view sexual pleasure through that lens.

“I wanted to share my story because if I had someone tell me that they were masturbating since they were four, then I would have realized that I’m normal … I want people to know that this happens,” said Sina.

“Our Monologues” as an artistic production is not only attempting to reclaim control over the discourse of female sexuality but also broaden the general conversation surrounding orgasm.

This year, “Our Monologues” moved away from its previous title, “Vagina Monologues,” to promote inclusivity, and bring to the stage the voices of transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals as they explore their relationships to gender and sexuality. It’s only one part of the conversation around sexual freedom — transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming individuals for instance, also experience severe stigma and uncertainty, since hegemonic and scientific discourse has defined orgasm and sexual pleasure in relation to one’s genitals.

The heteronormative notion of sexual pleasure, as defined by a neuronal response due to the stimulation of one’s genitalia, is considered by many to be an outdated definition of the orgasm that merely serves to reinforce the repressive discourse of sex.

As pê Alves De Magalhaes Feijó, a campus graduate student in the department of rhetoric who has written on queer theory, explained, the erasure of transgender, nonbinary and gender conforming people has to do with the fact that we think of sexual pleasure in terms of genitalia — we think that if we stimulate one sex organ in such a way, we can induce orgasms. While scientifically this is correct — stimulating the clitoris can often lead to orgasm — it is a narrow definition that does not encompass all of the means by which to achieve sexual pleasure. In fact, it reduces the notion of sexuality and pleasure to simply one’s genitalia.

An innocent act … only becomes “obscene” once we are taught to view sexual pleasure through that lens.

“To question the modes in which one is supposed to have pleasure is to question the idea that sex organs means genitals. One has sex with the entire body and beyond it. You can take pleasure from the touch of you neck, of your ear… there are so many things from which you can take pleasure and get pleasure from,” said Feijó.

To mandate that pleasure is taken solely from genitals or even one type of genitals, Feijó added, excludes and negates individuals who do not subscribe to “the essentialist tradition” — the notion that there are only two genders defined by biological sex.

Normative science

In today’s society, unapologetic access to sexual pleasure is still not universal. A study of American singles at Indiana University recently discovered exactly who has access to the Freudian privilege of pleasure. The report, titled “Variation in Orgasm Occurrence by Sexual Orientation in a Sample of U.S. Singles” found that men, regardless of sexual orientation, experience orgasms 85 percent of the time while heterosexual women reported experiencing orgasms 62 percent of the time. The report attributes this disparity in experienced pleasure to the evolution of reproductive biology. It explains that the evolved separation of the clitoris (a sexual organ) from the vagina (a reproductive organ) is a sign that female orgasms were not reproductively necessary — and therefore not prioritized by society, despite its significance.

While the study confirms the presence of undeserved stigma around female orgasms, it does not survey any transgender, nonbinary or gender nonconforming individuals. It is one part of a vast genre of scientific literature that, by basing their methodology on physical and biological characteristics, becomes inadvertently exclusionary to wider facets of sexual experience.

To mandate that pleasure is taken solely from genitals or even one type of genitals, Feijó added, excludes and negates individuals who do not subscribe to “the essentialist tradition.”

Part of broadening the conversation around sex stems from redefining our notions of sexual pleasure. Yes, stimulation of the genitals can lead to orgasm. But that is only one path to pleasure — a path that can be exclusionary to people who don’t identify within the gender binary. Though scientific knowledge of the mechanisms of orgasm rely heavily on genitalia, they only tell one side of the story. As Feijó put it, sexual pleasure does not always stem from the genitalia alone.

“Explore what pleasure you get from the touch, from listening, from flavors. (Explore) the ways of having pleasure that do not fit into the old heteronormative production of pleasure … within the reproductive mode or new normative relation of masturbation that is still focused around genitalia and still plays into the binary sex division,” said Feijó.

Sexual liberation activists advocate a regaining of power over one’s own body through an act even more historically taboo than the end goal itself — masturbation. While men are historically encouraged from a young age to examine the world of sexual pleasure through self-exploration, this is not a universal experience. Some problematic narratives perpetuate the myth that only the promiscuous and the sexually deviant engage in masturbation.

But it is human nature to enjoy orgasms. Masturbation, redefined as discovering your own body, desires and self, can be the key to that pleasure. As Feijó specifies, bodily exploration does not have to solely encompass the self-touching of genitals in a “normative relation of masturbation.” Self-discovery may include genital stimulation or it may manifest itself through other bodily sensations and pleasures.

“Have an orgasm tonight if you can. Explore yourself. Your body is a wonderful place. Talk about it with your friends. Ask questions. We need to stop being scared of what our bodies can do to help us, to pleasure us and to heal us,” said Sina.

Simply put, orgasms stem from an understanding of our own bodies and a broadening of the conversation around sex, breaking down the barriers that make the topic taboo.

Berkeley’s role

At UC Berkeley, a site of the 1960s “Free Love Movement” that encouraged transparency around notions of pleasure, there are a variety of ways to start the path of sexual self-discovery.

One resource, along with “Our Monologues” and its affiliate the Gender and Equity Resource Center, is the GenSex DeCal offered on campus.

“Your body is a wonderful place. Talk about it with your friends. Ask questions.” — Media Sina

GenSex facilitates conversations that disrupt the stigma surrounding sexual pleasure, enabling students to delve into the intersection of gender, sexuality and identity as well as discover themselves in the context of sexual relations. According to Madeleine Fraix, another facilitator for the DeCal, one section is focused specifically on destigmatizing pleasure among different identities.

“There’s actually a lot of different ways you can experience (orgasm). Putting that (information) out there opens the doors to people realizing that they can experience sexual pleasure in many different ways,” said Fraix. “Understanding orgasm cycles and pleasure gives you a vessel to feel more empowered and to pursue your sexuality.”

The path to sexual pleasure and self-exploration is not straightforward and is different for every person. We must expand the conversation and ensure that discussions are inclusive of all individuals. As the saying goes, come one, come all.

Contact Arianna Moss at [email protected]