The Secret About


Last weekend I rode the subway towards two indulgent firsts: I spent half of my latest paycheck in a swanky, mirror-lined restaurant with a coat check, and then I walked across the street and spent the other half on a vibrator. Both felt good. One feels better. 

Like everyone in this world and out of it, I have a relentlessly complicated relationship with sex. Sex is my back-rubbing, silky-voiced soulmate who sometimes—more frequently than once a full moon—goes werewolf on my physical, psychological, and emotional makeup. Sex is my self-love and my self-hate. Sex is my pride and my shame. Sex and I go way back, but we need to be re-introduced every time we run into each other. Sex feels right and wrong; it is gentle and rough and meek and overpowering and safe and dangerous and vanilla and deviant, and all of those are good and bad and everything in between. I’ve launched into A Tale of Two Sexes to establish two things: both that my contradiction-laden sex-life is utterly inseparable from my life-life, and that, aside from that very fundamental connection (and contrary to all evidence thus far), sex has very little to do what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is orgasm. Or, more specifically, elusive orgasm.

Until very recently, I had no experience with orgasm besides observation, frustration, and failure. Any concrete reasons for that last one, failure, were—and still are—pretty murky; a gynecologist helped me rule out physical inability as an explanation, although it was easier for me to insinuate to my partners (and for them to believe) that something was vaguely broken down there. As for the psychological factors at play: of course there were many, all equally dark and present, all as real as my body itself and the dense history it has traveled through. So in order to continue having and enjoying sex, I accepted some widespread wisdom: that sex wasn’t all about the climax. It wasn’t all about the climax, I was quick to tell myself, so it didn’t really matter that the climax had failed to show up. And, of course, it rationally followed that if it wasn’t all about the climax, it could be not at all about the climax. I clung to that fast-moving train of logic, even as it became increasingly difficult to for me to hang on as sex continued to culminate with me in a state of agitated confusion and with someone else, crashed against me, assuring me that “it had been great.”

Sometimes, it had been great. But always, stretching out alongside us like another naked body, was the non-event. I knew, in pretty non-negotiable terms, what orgasm was supposed to look and sound like; When Harry Met Sally taught me the basics of that vernacular long before anything more pornographic entered the equation. The telltale orgasm signs, that crescendo of gasping and thrashing, informed nothing about my own physical experiences, however. Like Sally, I could fake it in bed or over a turkey sandwich. I had the culmination memorized, but none of the process.

I’m the progeny of two English teachers, so my go-to analytical tool, for better or for worse, is the close-read. It is telling, I think, that the two words I tended to associate most with my anti-climax were “stupid” and “failure.” Let’s start with the first. Orgasm was a concept my body seemed too stupid to grasp. It refused to learn, or was incapable of learning. I imagined myself, as in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips,” a frozen and “stupid pupil”—an open, unseeing eye; a blank-faced student—taking everything in but feeling nothing. The distance between not coming and coming felt cognitive: I wanted to master my body like I wanted to master a language or a narrative device. If I practiced sex enough, surely I should be smart enough to learn how to feel and speak its tongue.

I’ve already half-consciously dropped the second word into this piece a couple of times. Considering myself an orgasm failure has become almost second-nature at this point. My inability to come felt like just that: a lack where there should have been a presence; a block of ice where there should have been a thaw. With that word, “failure,” the theory that sex wasn’t about the climax had already come unravelled. If it wasn’t about the climax, how could I be so consistently failing to perform? My stupidity was causing my failure; my failure to realize this stupid feeling was stupid.

“Stupid” and “failure” took on an oppositional set of meanings, too, which was paradoxically meant to push orgasm into the realm of irrelevance and frivolity. In the back of my mind, there seemed to be something inexplicably weak and absurd about that mysterious moment of climax. Coming implied a letting go that felt ludicrous and shameful. It seemed to be a relinquishing of bodily control—the very opposite of that mastery I so craved. Orgasms were careless, dangerous moments of surrender, and I wanted to be in control, damnit! On some level, I needed the bizarre agency that faking gave me. I wanted to be the brazen Sally-over-a-sandwich, knowing that I could scream and feel nothing and have everything feel like my choice. I never fundamentally questioned that about myself. I never fucked anyone who asked me to question that.

In October, I met a Dear Sugar column that grabbed me by the face, looked into my eyes, and told me in no uncertain terms to question that. It was Sugar’s interview with Lidia Yuknavitch, a conversation in which those two bold women first deconstruct, and then discuss the “hottest sex” they’ve ever had. Now, my moments of “epiphany” tend to happen as gradual, quiet processes. They’re as un-sudden and unromantic as a fine, beneficent dust gathering in certain corners of my brain. But upon reading Yuknavitch’s “hottest sex” story, moments of religious epiphany—moments that are said to shake and rattle the core and blow all the dust from the tiniest thought-crevices and clap an entirely new lens over all of existence—began to make some sense to me. Because suddenly I knew several profoundly unsettling things at once. One of those was that I needed to leave a relationship with a person that, so many months later, I’m still in love with. The somehow more urgent and terrifying revelation, though, was that I had to learn to love myself like this:

“The hottest sex I’ve ever had was not with anyone. Or it was with myself. Or it was with water. What I mean is, I was in a hot spring by myself. I was twelve. I was at some kind of summer camp. There must have been counselors or other pubescents nearby, maybe they were roasting marshmallows or singing kum-ba-ya or something nearby, but in my memory at least, I was alone in water. The water was heat and stillness like it is in natural hot springs. The night sky wore her black hair nestled with stars. I put my fingers between my legs and played with everything about myself, the inside cave of myself and the outside skin and lips and folds of flesh. I opened my eyes I closed my eyes I laughed my throat got tight. It was the first time I’d discovered my actual clit — the beautiful small roundness of her rising and waiting. I’d already masturbated in my life, but it involved a lot of rubbing against things or rubbing things against myself in sort of not very gentle ways. A lot of panting and grunting and teeth clenching. In this warm water I found the site of sexual pleasure on my own. And it was just. Mine.

I peed when I came. Everything water.

All thought blasted into the night sky.

I’ve never shivered and convulsed as hard in my life.

And that’s saying something.”

Just those words awakened longings and sensations that were blissfully beyond my realm of control. Just those words fucked me more powerfully and completely than anyone else’s body could. I wanted that pleasure, and I wanted it to be just. Mine. The wants were new, or they had been there all along and they were finally opening themselves to me. Whatever the case, I apologize to Yuknavitch for stealing her sexual reverie, and I thank her deeply for putting it out there for the taking.

Entering that warmwater exploration loosened everything inside of me because of the pure love and ownership that its author—and her younger self—took of her body. The moment wasn’t just a sexy discovery of the clit: it was a hyper-awareness of the throat tightening, the skin hot and cold against the water, the body belonging completely to itself. My body had never experienced such ownership, such belief and delight in its selfhood. Or if it had, I couldn’t remember the occasion. My memories are all cluttered with the nearby counselors and pubescents, roasting marshmallows. I had never torn myself away from all of them to locate something of my own. I had never been profoundly alone, and profoundly mine. Reading and rereading Yuknavitch’s words, I shivered and convulsed. I needed to break away from the bonfire and head for the water.

Sportswriter Bill Simmons once asked Isiah Thomas to share with him the “secret” of basketball. Thomas responded, “The secret about basketball is that it’s not about basketball.” Fuck yes, Isiah Thomas. Because isn’t that that always the secret? The secret about sex is it’s not really about sex. The secret about orgasms is they’re not really about orgasms. The thing itself is important, but what it’s about and what’s about it—what surrounds it and sustains it and makes it worth the search—is always secretly more important.

I do a lot of reading about women and our navigation of the whorls of body and mind. Often, I get a thrill from reading pieces that celebrate and claim female sexuality, exalting pleasure and shouting orgasm from the rooftops. Similarly, I find strength and solidarity in the writers who so bravely share their experiences living through some combination of sexual pain, trauma, and self-doubt. But rarely am I able to find stories that speak to both sides of this divide, which—in my case—critically inform each other. Rarely do I read about those of us presently engaged in the search to locate our bodies in the midst of sexual contradiction and cacophony.

The vibrator is small and white with clean lines a nubby tip. In all its sleek simplicity, it looks like an Apple product, except that its only application is to my clit. I appreciate that there is nothing remotely phallic about it. I appreciate that the box explains, as if it’s a watch or a pair of boots, that it’s waterproof. But the secret about the vibrator is, it’s not about the vibrator. It’s about finding myself in the middle of a lake, looking up at a start-sprent sky, and asking me to be mine.