How to Do It

I’m About Ready to Give Up on Ever Having an Orgasm

The question this column gets more than any other.

GIF: A woman stares off into the distance with a worried expression as neon fireworks pop off in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

How to Do It is Slates sex advice column. Send your questions for Stoya and Rich to howtodoit@slate.comNothings too small (or big).

Dear How to Do It,

I’m a 24-year-old woman who has been masturbating and having sex since age 16 and have never had an orgasm. Despite trying different methods and vibrators, multiple sexual partners over the years, experimenting with women when I felt I might be attracted to them, and checking with a gynecologist and my doctor to make sure there was no physical cause, I have still not orgasmed. I brought this up with a therapist a couple years ago, and we talked about it for about six months before I quit because I felt it wasn’t helping. I have a strong sense that the cause is biological/physical rather than mental, because I’m a very sexually open person who has no past sexual trauma and wasn’t raised to feel shame about sex. The internet is full of advice for women who can’t orgasm with their partners, but there’s very little for women who can’t orgasm at all. I’m terrified that this is the rest of my life and I will never be able to have a relationship in which I’m truly satisfied.

I don’t really like having sex or masturbating anymore because it doesn’t take me to the finish. I get turned on, I get wet, and the physical sensation feels OK, but it’s not great and I don’t come. I’ve become less and less sexual over the past three years, in particular. I’ve pretty much lost hope, and I don’t know how to keep dating in light of this—you can imagine the reactions I get from dudes when I tell them (mostly just confusion, or the aggravating claim that there must be something I haven’t tried yet). But mostly I want to be able to give myself an orgasm, dammit.

—Unfinished

Dear Unfinished,

I remember reading books as a teen, specifically the homegrown feminist variety, that imparted a feeling of “If you only think you’ve had an orgasm, you haven’t,” or “When you’ve had your first orgasm, you’ll know.” This, combined with TV, movie, and romance novel depictions—the poetic license of mainstream culture—can leave the impression that an orgasm is always a momentous thing.

It isn’t. And focusing sex on orgasm often means disappointment. Deb Yeager, a sex therapist and friend of the column, has pointed out in these very pages that many of us expect fireworks and earth-shattering convulsions, and that just isn’t the reality for a lot of people. Even for those of us who orgasm easily and prolifically, explosions aren’t always in the cards. Orgasms aren’t always a fantastic wave of pleasure for people with penises, either. I’ve seen more than one ejaculate without feeling like he’s come, or describe a specific orgasm as a disappointment. You describe no orgasms at all, but know that for a lot of people it’s not a “finish line” they cross triumphantly, especially not all the time.

In any case, you are far from alone. Roughly 10 percent of women report in some studies that they’ve never had an orgasm. I get more questions about this than any other subject—more even than spouses upset they don’t have enough sex. It’s very common.

It’s OK to feel “meh” about sex. It’s OK to feel however you feel about that. It’s OK to be frustrated by your body. I wish I had a solution for you, but I don’t. You’ve already done everything I could suggest (other than perhaps trying a sex therapist who has worked on this issue with patients directly). All I have for you is a lot of empathy and the hope that something might change as you get older. I think it’s worth checking back every year or two to see if anything has changed.

In the meantime, I hope you don’t let this keep you from exploring sex as intimacy. There are people out there who see orgasm as a fun bonus, and others who aren’t interested in sex often or at all. This doesn’t need to mean you never have a partner if you want one.

Dear How to Do It,

I (female) had an impromptu threesome with my boyfriend and one of his (male) friends last night. It was awesome, and I’m looking forward to a repeat. I’m hoping to gather some tips on how to improve things further for everyone involved. For reference, my boyfriend is mid-40s, and his friend and I are both mid-30s. While I think we were all a little nervous, we also all seemed to be on the same page in terms of excitement and willingness. There was a fair amount of performance anxiety for the guys, though, and the friend eventually called it quits because he was having a hard time concentrating enough to maintain his erection. There were some half-serious jokes made between the two of them about scoring some Viagra. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I wonder if there are non-pharmaceutical bits of advice for us first. For the record, I love dicks in all their shapes and forms and am not put off in the least by performance issues as long as everyone is enjoying themselves. The guys seemed frustrated though, and I admit that my fantasy of being double penetrated is kind of dependent on a certain level of hardness. Thoughts?

—Two Guys and a Girl

Dear Two Guys and a Girl,

Straight men can sometimes have this idea in their heads that a rock-hard erection is the measure of their worth or manhood. Even if they don’t really believe that, the idea is still floating around, waiting to rear its ugly head at the first sign of performance anxiety. From there, it’s easy to get all up in their heads, stress out, and struggle to stay hard. Once that becomes the case, it can be very difficult to break the stress spiral.

So be as clear with your boyfriend and y’all’s third as you’ve been with me about what you value in a sexual interaction. Underline the fact that you adore their penises when they’re hard, soft, and in-between.

Something to know about Viagra is that it—and other similar medications—can only help with physical issues and will not prevent psychological impediments on the road to Boner Town. So if the disconnect is in the brain, Viagra isn’t the magic fix you might think it is (though sometimes it can mean a confidence boost). Another Viagra fact to keep in mind is that it can cause priapism, or prolonged erections, and possibly do damage to the blood vessels in the penis, preventing full erections later on. Your guys should keep an eye on side effects and ask their doctors questions.

A radical alternative move would be to take penetration off the table next time—you’re going to do all the sex things that can be done without inserting a penis into a vagina or butt—and see how that goes for the phalluses in the room. As a precaution, I’d leave talk of double penetration till after y’all have had a few experiences together and worked out the performance-anxiety issues. You’re correct: Erections are pretty crucial for double penetration, and that kind of pressure seems likely to backfire right now.

When you do finally get to that sweet, sweet DP, remember to take it slow and enjoy every inch. It’s a beautiful thing to experience when everyone involved is happy to be there.

Dear How to Do It,

I recently made a friend in my new neighborhood through platonic channels. For the past couple months, we’ve hung out once or twice a week, and I’ve made friends with several of his friends as well. These hangouts tend to be boozy (or involve other substances) and conversation tends to turn to sex, since we’re both young-ish gay guys and tend to have a fair amount of it. I got the vibe he might be interested in crossing that line with me, but I’ve had bad experiences in the past and prefer to keep friends and sex separate.

Well, one night he made a move on me, and I said I didn’t go there with friends. As the night went on, we partook in more of those substances, he tried again, and this time I went with it. It was consensual, but I do wish he had respected the boundary I set, and I wish I had remained firm. The next time we hung out, he gave me a knowing touch in front of other friends, and I subtly shut it down. A week or so later, he was moping and eventually said something like, “I think we should have sex one more time so I can get you out of my system and think of you only as a friend.” I don’t have a huge objection to this—he’s within the wheelhouse of my type, and sex is sex—but I feel a little uneasy about the slope that’s brought me here. Is this a bad idea? At the very least, I’m skeptical this will result in anything other than the end of our friendship, if it’s not over already.

—Guy Next Door

Dear Guy Next Door,

Your “friend” coerced you into having sex with him while under the influence of alcohol and other substances. That doesn’t seem very friendly to me and definitely isn’t the kind of respect for boundaries one hopes to see in such relationships. If you’re asking me—which you are—the friendship was never really there.

You say you tend to get a lot of sex, and then you list “sex is sex” as one of the pros for having sex with this guy again. I think reconciling those two statements will help you figure out what you want to do here. Is volume of partners more valuable to you than respectful, boundary-aware hookups? You have to make that choice. Is the potential drama involved in this interaction worth a decent lay? These are actual questions that only you hold the answers to.

I do believe that drama lies down this road. This guy strikes me as at least somewhat manipulative. He reminds me of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie—if you give a man a hookup, he will want a second to get you out of his system. If you give him a second round, he will want to hold your hand in public, etc. So yes, it is probably a bad idea to participate in this second round of sex. Am I going to judge you if you go through with it anyway in pursuit of hot, sweaty banging with a taut body? Nope. But I do think you might want to consider just how dramatic this could get before you bite off more than you want to chew.

Dear How to Do It,

I’ve been with my boyfriend for about three years. As is typical, in the beginning, we were on each other all the time. We’d do it before bed, then again when we woke up, and sometimes again in the shower. Sometimes even cooking together would devolve into sex or very heavy petting. That pace isn’t sustainable for most people in the long term, and we still have very satisfying sex, with one problem: We’re only doing it about once a month.

I know you get versions of this question all the time, but there’s a slight twist on this in our situation: I know the causes of his lowered libido—depression, some significant family troubles taking up brain space—and we communicate really well. I can tell him, “Hey, we haven’t had sex in a while,” and it doesn’t make him defensive. We have productive, reassuring conversations, and usually do it within a few days afterward. It’s natural and passionate after those talks. But as soon as we’re done, I can’t help but mentally start the clock and wonder if it’s going to be another month before we’re intimate again.

I didn’t realize how important sex was to me until I entered this relationship, having been mostly uninterested in sex with previous partners. He awoke something in me, or maybe I’m just entering my sexual peak in my 30s—whatever it is, I desperately crave sex with him. We still have the odd weekend every few months where we’re beasts who can’t get enough of each other, but ideally, I’d like to be having sex once a week on average. We’ll make out on the couch regularly, and I’ll straddle him or put his hands under my shirt, but then it goes nowhere.

I like kissing for kissing’s sake sometimes, of course (he’s a great kisser!), but it really prevents me from being in the moment when I’m thinking to myself, “OK, this is our fourth make-out session since the last time we had sex. Will this be the one that leads to something? No? OK, guess I’ll just masturbate before bed.” I know I need to be patient as he’s dealing with his life stuff, and it’s natural for libidos to be imbalanced sometimes, but how do I stop counting the days between when we do it and re-adjust my expectations?

—All Talk

Dear All Talk,

Is there something specific you do during these conversations about you wanting more sex? Something that might be making your partner feel loved and cared for? It’s worth thinking back to see if there might be some behavior or sentiment you’re expressing that’s helping your partner feel sexual toward you. Sex is usually more than just the physical interaction, especially in committed relationships. There’s a psychological component to arousal. It’s possible that these productive, reassuring conversations are an aphrodisiac. You might just need to seize whatever’s working and find a way to make it more everyday.

Of course, it’s also possible that you just have mismatched libidos. There’s always opening up the relationship, but your arousal seems pretty focused on your partner, and—given how thorough you were in your letter—I’m inclined to assume you’ve already considered that option.

In the meantime, you can re-frame sex as something that happens once a month. Get it down in your head that any extra sex is a bonus, a windfall, a joyous occurrence that should be savored and celebrated. There’s no trick to this re-frame. You just have to do it. When you say “I’ll just masturbate,” it seems like you might think of self-pleasure as somehow lesser than partnered sex. I think you’d do well to work on that, also. Re-approach solo sex as something you’re doing for yourself. Make it a nice time, whatever that looks like for you—bubble baths, a special vibrator, a nice lubricant—and find enjoyment in it. That might help ease you through this period.

—Stoya

More How to Do It

Recently, I went on a date with a woman I met on a dating app. It was pretty normal—we saw an exhibit and had a couple drinks. As we were leaving, I leaned to kiss her. She pulled away and was visibly distressed. I apologized and said I misread the situation, and she quickly made an excuse to leave. It was embarrassing and a little deflating, but it happens. I figured that was that. I didn’t hear from her for a few days, when she suddenly texted me a long and detailed message saying, among other things, that I had nearly assaulted her and it was never OK to go in for a kiss without asking first. She requested a phone conversation to talk through what happened, and I agreed. It was fine; she basically repeated what she had texted and I apologized and told her that I meant no disrespect. She said I should look hard at my understanding of consent. I was tempted to tell her she was being over the top, but she was upset so I rode it out. Am I right to think she was being over the top? We were not drunk, and I was not aggressive—I literally leaned in to kiss her, she pulled away, and that was it. It’s fine if she wants men to ask her before they kiss her, but I do not think that is standard practice. Is it?