In my early 20s, I had a friend with benefits. One night, we were fooling around but I wasn’t getting anywhere near an orgasm. Part of the problem was that he was thrusting his fingers in and out of me internally, which was nice, but I’d never orgasmed that way in my life. I thought about telling him to do what I did to get myself off—touch my clitoris—but I froze, the thought of correcting him triggering a wave of anxiety. Truthfully, I didn’t even know if that would work, I rationalized—nobody else had ever actually made me orgasm. The pressure was too much.
When I started masturbating, orgasming on my own wasn't a problem. But during college, when I started having partnered sex, the orgasms that used to (pardon the pun) come readily were suddenly nowhere to be found. At the time, I largely blamed it on the fact that I’d just started taking antidepressants called SSRIs, which are notorious for this side effect. But after I went off them at age 24 and partnered orgasms were still not happening, I realized there was something else getting in the way of me fully letting go the way I could when I was alone. I started to believe I'd never orgasm during sex.
It became a thing. Every time I had sex with a partner, I was so worried about whether I'd orgasm, I couldn't feel enough pleasure to actually do it. I, like so many women, was afraid to ask partners for what I needed—clitoral stimulation—because I worried I'd just be adding to the pressure.
When I was 25, I started dating a new guy, and I was determined to make it work (orgasm-wise) with him—so determined that I took an online course on how to orgasm. It covered different ways to touch a vulva as well as common psychological blockages to orgasm, like body image issues and fear of losing control.
I left with one intimidating takeaway: I had to be more proactive about getting what I needed, whether that was specific kinds of touch, more time, or a little more fantasy. I needed to ask for what I wanted from my partners, a thought that gave me serious anxiety.
The next time my new partner and I were fooling around, he started rubbing my clitoris. Instead of transitioning to intercourse to take the attention off myself and start pleasing him like I was accustomed to, I let it go on, spreading my legs and getting comfortable. I felt self-conscious about taking up the time. I’d had enough guys gloss over my pleasure (including one memorable college hookup who gave my genitals approximately five licks when I finally worked up the courage to ask him to go down on me) to think of manual or oral sex as either mere warm-ups for intercourse or gifts for guys to grace me with when they were feeling generous.
Taking the time and space I need to orgasm felt somehow selfish, like I was sexually high-maintenance.
Caught in a weird twilight zone of feeling increasingly turned on and feeling painfully self-aware, I told myself over and over again that he seemed to like giving me pleasure. That enjoying this wasn’t selfish.
It took a stunning feat of mental hustle but it worked—I willed myself to silence the anxiety I had about not orgasming long enough to actually do it.
As I got more comfortable with my partner, I got more comfortable speaking up about what I liked, demonstrating how I touched myself, and being vocal when something wasn’t working for me. During intercourse, I worked up the courage to touch myself or brought in a vibrator—it actually turned him on. I fantasized when I needed to, but I also learned to get more in the moment by thinking sexy thoughts about what we were doing—and sharing them with my partner. By the end of our three-year relationship, orgasming with him was easy and I knew having an orgasm during sex was far from impossible. But when the relationship ended, all my old anxieties returned—what if there was something wrong with me and he was the only one who could have fixed it?
The thing was, even though I'd learned to orgasm with my boyfriend, there was still a little part of me that felt like tending to my pleasure—a little to the right, firmer, don't penetrate me yet—was a burden. Sure, my partner was happy to take it on—Isn't that the beauty of being in a relationship?—but I didn’t know who else would. Taking the time and space I need to orgasm felt somehow selfish, like I was sexually high-maintenance. I couldn’t shake the feeling that learning to orgasm with a new partner would be placing that burden on them.
Then, I started dating someone new. On our sixth date, we were in bed cuddling and making out when he reached between my legs. That familiar panic set in.
To calm myself, I told myself I didn't need to orgasm; just feeling pleasure was a good first step. The course I’d taken three years prior had taught me that, if you’re thinking about trying to get there, you miss out on the pleasure that actually leads to orgasm. I leaned back and closed my eyes, moaning to help myself get into it. I felt like I was getting close, but he wasn't hitting quite the right spot. This time, I decided not to wait months to ask the question: "Want me to show you how I do it?" Once I showed him, he got it right away.
I'm not the only woman to have internalized the belief that my orgasms are superfluous or too much work. But the truth is, we're not asking for anything more than what many men simply expect.
At the time, I was in a sexually exploratory phase—I had a friend with benefits, a threesome, a standing date at a sex party—and so I had plenty of opportunities to practice speaking up. I asked a hookup to play with my breasts, told another how to touch my clit, handed one my favorite vibrator to use on me, and finished myself off in front of another. I confided in one guy, whom I’d just given very specific fingering instructions, that I'd felt self-conscious about making so many demands. "No, it's good for me," he said. "Every woman's different, so how else will I know?"
Over and over again, as I've faced my fear of "burdening" partners with my orgasms, I've learned my body isn't as hopelessly difficult as I feared. Generally, I will orgasm with partners if I give myself the chance and advocate for what I need—and, so far, my partners have been happy to oblige. I used to be afraid they'd deem me high-maintenance if I needed certain things in bed, but after actually talking about it, I've realized they're too busy judging their own sexual skills to be critical of me.
I'm not the only woman to have internalized the belief that my orgasms are superfluous or too much work. But the truth is, we're not asking for anything more than what many men simply expect. Orgasming with a partner may take some effort at first, particularly if you're anxious about it to begin with, but any worthwhile partner will meet you where you're at and help you work through that—over time, I’ve found it gets much easier.
Plus, in my experience, there's a bonus: When you learn to ask for what you want, you get more than orgasms. You achieve a deeper level of connection with your partner, even if it's just a casual one, and that's just as rewarding.
Originally Appeared on Glamour