Under pressure: on pleasure, orgasm and stress…

“It’s like one day I just decided that it was all bullshit. Who are they to tell me I’m not amazing exactly as I am?”

― Emily Nagoski, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life

Have you ever read something that was so exactly what you needed to hear that it made you sob and sob and sob? It doesn’t often happen to me but, wow, did I need to read Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are this month.

When looked at as a whole, 2020 has easily been the most stressful year of my life. I perhaps should’ve seen that coming – we’ve moved house, we have a brilliant-but-demanding toddler, I’m finding my way in a new field of my career and learning new and unfamiliar skills…oh yeah, and we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis with leadership that does little to inspire confidence – but I have still been surprised by quite how stressed I’ve been and by the physical impact of that stress. I can feel it coursing through my body and wearing me down. I’m exhausted. I cry at the drop of a hat. I really don’t feel like myself.

And, again unsurprisingly, I’m really not feeling like having sex at the moment. I wrote about my libido earlier this year, blaming early motherhood for my lack of sex drive, and it really hasn’t got any better. Which, of course, was making me feel broken. I have felt like a shell of the person I once was, a fraud of a sex blogger, and a bad partner. It didn’t seem to matter how much I wanted to want more sex, my body just wouldn’t listen. Which, of course, made me feel more stressed and more broken…

An image to evoke a feeling of stress - me, naked and sat in a corner with the light behind me to create a shadow. For my post on orgasm, pleasure and stress

Come As You Are was published in 2015 and I should have read it years ago. It really is as good as everyone says it is so if you haven’t read it, I’d strongly recommend it. Nagoski does acknowledge that her advice is for people with vulvas who have been socialised as women so is mainly written for cis women, but her way of thinking and talking about desire and arousal in general really resonated with me and I think has wider appeal.

In a very brief summary (honestly, read her book!), she writes that whatever you are and however you feel, you are normal. We all have the same parts, arranged differently, and how we experience sexual desire is determined by a balance between accelerators (factors that increase our desire) and brakes (which do the reverse). Some people have intrinsically sensitive brakes and some have sensitive accelerators, but how we experience their effect is really dependent on context. When feeling comfortable and safe, the brakes come off and our accelerators dominate, so desire comes easily; when feeling scared or distracted or uncomfortable or unattractive or overwhelmed, these brakes slow us down and our desire plummets. And, for a lot of people (me), stress just piles on the brakes! Every stressor acts as another brake and can very quickly overwhelm our accelerators, no matter how sensitive and responsive they may normally be, and swamp our desire.

And, fuck, I am sobbing.

Because this means that I’m not broken; I haven’t ‘lost’ my sexual desire or used it up. I’m not changed forever. I am still that same sexual person – I’m just Really. Fucking. Stressed. And I can fix that. More easily than I can just suddenly magic up sexual desire! Honestly, I feel better already simply because I know that I’m not broken.

But that’s not what I really wanted to write about today. Learning all this has quietened down the anxious voices in my mind and allowed my curiosity to speak up again, which is useful because I was absolutely fascinated by what else Nagoski has to say. Particularly about how managing our context can improve how we experience pleasure and orgasm, and how these might not be the same thing. 

Orgasms don’t guarantee pleasure. Having an orgasm isn’t the same as experiencing pleasure. Orgasms don’t have to be pleasurable.

And my mind is blown.

I cannot explain why this was such a revelation to me because I have long understood that sex can be pleasurable without orgasm. Why was it such a surprise that the reverse could also be true? That orgasms could exist without pleasure?

Through the ways she writes about pleasure, Nagoski made me realise that most of my orgasms are better described as mechanical and aren’t that pleasurable. They’re a Pavlovian reaction to something that my body has learned over a lifetime of wanking.

I have always considered myself to be lucky because I can orgasm relatively easily, but it’s because I have a trick; a set of fantasies that make me come every single time. I’m not going to share what they are, both because I’m a little embarrassed and because I don’t want them to stop working, but safe to say that they are not sexual. In any way. It is a trick rather than a pleasure.

And I’ve realised that I’ve spent most of my life training my body to orgasm this way. People often talk about how they started masturbating as a child and I didn’t think I had. I don’t remember touching myself sexually until I was a teenager, but I do remember squeezing my thighs together when I was six or seven to enhance the flutterings in my belly when I noticed what would become my trick. And I remember when I was fifteen, trying not to wank as I still thought good girls didn’t do that (thank you Patriarchy!) and instead pulling my knickers hard against my vulva while I imagined this trick and coming without ever touching myself.

It’s Pavlovian. It’s learned behaviour. It is not pleasure.

I’m writing about this in a post about stress and sex because I’ve realised that this trick has stopped me seeing how badly stress was affecting my sexuality and sexual enjoyment. It can’t be that bad, I thought, because I was still coming, wasn’t I?

But thinking about these orgasms as mechanical has made me realise that using them to measure my pleasure had protected me from a truth that I didn’t want to hear – that I actually wasn’t enjoying sex as much as I used to and I’m not the same easy-orgasming sex kitten that I used to be. Being so stressed and having so many stressors pushing down on my brakes hasn’t only affected my desire – it has also made it harder to orgasm and has blunted my ability to feel pleasure. Sex has become mechanical, not pleasurable.

I think it’s quite telling that I’ve essentially given up wanking. I’d sort of written this off as a symptom of my broken libido and would occasionally force myself to wank in the hope that, as I wrote before, sex would act like a muscle and the more I used it, the stronger my libido would become. But in reality, it backfired – even with the crazy power of the Zumio, it was taking so long to come that I was getting bored. It was taking effort and sometimes I just couldn’t be bothered to finish. Too often, I found myself lying still, mind oddly blank as I jumped between fantasies, trying to find one that would get me over the edge, and waiting for the power of the toy to trick my body into coming.

This was the moment of revelation when reading Nagoski’s book. I’ve always been a lazy wanker, seeking out powerful sex toys because I just wanted to come NOW and Nagoski made me realise that this has separated my orgasms from pleasure. Which is how I’ve always masturbated – I just wanted the orgasm and didn’t care about how I got there. I’ve even described the bits before orgasm as being actively unpleasant in some cases, especially with the Satisfyer. But when my orgasm threshold was lower, this didn’t matter so much as it was all so quick that I barely noticed how little I enjoyed the process, valuing instead the release of tension.

Nagoski writes that, in her opinion, it’s impossible to become addicted to vibrators – they don’t ‘break’ our bodies so we can’t come without them – but it is definitely possible for a powerful toy to push past all of the barriers to pleasure that we build up in our minds, all the stresses sitting on our brakes, so we can still come even when we’re not in a place where we could without that extra stimulation. We can still come when we’re not really feeling like it; still come even if it isn’t actually that pleasurable. 

And this is important to me because, when the mechanical process of orgasm takes too long and is separated from pleasure, it is inevitably going to affect how I experience partnered sex.

When EA and I have sex, the opposite is obviously true from how I masturbate – all those bits before the orgasm that I want to rush through when wanking feel amazing with EA. But because I thought it was important that I still had lots of easy orgasms, I was taking my focus away from simply enjoying sex so that I could try and come as quickly as I always used to before. I didn’t want EA to think I didn’t want him as much or (ironically) that I wasn’t enjoying sex as much so I wouldn’t stay present, wouldn’t feel the sensations I was actually experiencing, and instead would take my mind away to focus on my trick to orgasm. I would force a mechanical orgasm, rather than enjoy the orgasmless pleasure of just being with EA.

When I write it down like this, it sounds pretty stupid. Why insist on having an orgasm when I know it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t?

Well, because it used to be so easy and it made me feel broken to admit it wasn’t anymore. Sex, desire, orgasm, pleasure; it used to be effortless and now it wasn’t and I didn’t want to accept that. I didn’t want to admit that I had changed or that I was struggling and wasn’t OK. Because denial is easy and change is hard.

Reading Come As You Are brought home to me that all of this ignoring and pretending that I am OK was making it worse, and while accepting that I am not broken and not inadequate is hard because it does mean that I have to admit that I’m not OK, it is what I need to do. I need to remember that I’m not broken; I’ve simply changed. Accepting this means that I can be kinder to myself and kinder to my body. And, most importantly, it’s given me a prompt and a structure to explain why I’m struggling when I talk to EA about this. Rather than the previous hopeless existential crisis, we can talk about stress and we can make plans and I can explain why I can’t be the same sexual partner than I was in, say, 2016.

Because I’m going to stop having orgasms for a while, in the hope that they come back on their own. I need to teach my body a better, more holistic way to experience pleasure and let myself actually feel what I’m feeling – physically and emotionally – and not worry about whether this leads to an orgasm or not.

And I think it’s working. EA went down on me recently and I told him I probably wasn’t going to come. I know he didn’t need to hear it but I needed to say it so I could reassure myself that he definitely wasn’t getting bored and wishing he could stop. And it was pretty fucking incredible. Some of the best sex we’ve had in months!

This realisation hasn’t ‘fixed’ me. My stress level hasn’t changed and I can’t see how it will for a while – no amount of mindful thinking can affect a global pandemic after all – but I do have more of a strategy now. I am being kinder to myself. I’m listening to my body and giving it what it needs, be that sleep or exercise or all the mince pies in the world. And I’m focusing on rediscovering the pleasure of my body, which I’m hoping will be a lot of fun…

***

As a final side note, all of this self-reflection has made me realise that holding on to this blog and to The Other Livvy as who I really am is causing me as much stress as holding onto the idea that I am still that multi-orgasmic sex goddess. When I started this blog, I was looking for a lost part of me that I found in The Other Livvy and, for a long time, she was more real than who I was in real life.

But I’ve drifted away from her again and trying to pretend otherwise hasn’t been good for me. Bibulous One wrote recently about looking back at his years seeing sex workers and blogging about it, and wrote that ‘writing has kept those memories gleaming with their original lustre…there they lie: mint condition, original packaging; perfect, kinky little vignettes where the featured actor is always me.’ This really resonated with me but, while it is wonderful to look back and remember, it does make the comparison between who I was and who I am now much starker – just as looking at photos of the body I had doesn’t help me love the one I have now.

I’m not going to stop blogging because I do love it and I’m writing so little (outside of my movie blog) that you probably won’t even notice a difference, but I’m going to stop pretending that keeping up this blog is a priority for me at the moment. I’ll write when I want and, just as I am going to enjoy sex for the pleasure of doing it rather than the goal of an orgasm, I’m not going to force myself to write more or feel bad for writing less or try an implement a schedule that makes me feel like a failure when I inevitably don’t meet it.

Although I am sad to admit this, sad to let go of something that has meant so much, this isn’t a sad thing. It just means that I’m ready for what’s coming next, which is pretty exciting!

4 thoughts on “Under pressure: on pleasure, orgasm and stress…

  1. Beautifully written, Livvy.
    And as always, so useful.

    In the interests of sharing, I’d pretty much given up on my libido – being celibate makes it easier to just leave it behind as there isn’t the same sort of pressure or reminder as there is when sex/orgasms with your partner isn’t working.

    But it had retreated to the point where I couldn’t put myself into my own fantasies anymore.

    Recently though, I started taking a v good Vitamin B3, which has helped my stress, given me enormous peace of mind, calmed my work fears a good bit, allowed me some moments of significant peace and happiness, given me the first normal menstrual cycles I’ve had in years… and miraculously seems to have given me back my erotic imagination, which I thought was gone and dead.

    It seemed easier, but I’m grateful to have it back, a little, it feels more … normal, and colourful. So I would add in the idea of helping your body and brain get what they’re depleted in from stress and exhaustion, as well as working on it emotionally and psychologically.

  2. Most excellent post. Sadly, we have experienced this issue with libido. My wife has lost hers. She can have orgasms. When I gave her one, it wasn’t pleasure for her. She isn’t sad about the loss. I am. She provides me with release. That’s fun, but also guilt-provoking. I hope your libido returns. I enjoy your writing and the images you posted in the past.

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