Lisa, 21, met and fell in love with her husband when she was just 16 and he was 19. The Arkansas native thought their early sex life "was the greatest thing." Having someone desire her and touch her was new and thrilling, and Lisa assumed she was having orgasms, so she moaned appreciatively in the way she thought an orgasmic woman would.
“It was like, ‘I'm happy -- I think -- so I guess this is what everyone’s talking about,’” said Lisa, who chose to use a pseudonym. “I thought, ‘Yeah, sure, I guess I’m having orgasms.’”
Five years, a wedding and one child later, Lisa knows she was not. (She was among several women who candidly discussed with The Huffington Post their experiences in committed, sexually active, but orgasm-less relationships.)
Lisa's realization came three years ago, while the couple was having sex crammed together in the front seat of a car. “It just all of a sudden flushed over me. My fingers got numb, my toes ... it was like the best thing I’d ever felt in my life,” Lisa said. “I was like, ‘Wow! This is what I’ve been missing!’”
Since then, however, orgasms have continued to elude Lisa when she's intimate with her husband. She's had no more than four in the ensuing years, though they have sex three to five days a week. They've tried oral sex with limited success, even as Lisa coached her husband on how and where to touch her. They’ve used a vibrator together, but he complained it made him ejaculate too fast and then told her he didn’t think sex toys were a good idea anymore. Now, Lisa simply fakes orgasms with her husband and masturbates in private, several times a week -- climaxing every time, she said.
Sometimes, Lisa wonders if her inability to orgasm with her husband will erode or eventually destroy their relationship.
More often, however, she envisions a long future that, year after year, holds more of the same.
“It still really bums me out, whenever I think about the fact that I can’t have that with him,” Lisa said. “But honestly, I could probably live the rest of my life the way I am now, just orgasming by myself and acting like it with him.”
In recent decades, sex therapists and researchers have begun to better understand what makes women tick sexually, how often they get off (or don’t) and how that matters to them. The famed Kinsey Institute's website, for example, refers visitors looking for more information on orgasm to a study from the 1990s that found women are far more likely to always or almost always orgasm when they masturbate than when they have sex with a partner. Other research suggests that the most satisfying sexual encounters for many women may depend more on the emotional and physical closeness they feel with a partner than whether they climax.
But whether women in long-term, committed relationships who are physiologically capable of orgasming, but who rarely do so with their partners, are happy about their sex lives is another question altogether. Like just about everything having to do with sex and love, experts say it comes down to individual preferences and expectations, not a broader cultural assumption that sex is only satisfying if it ends with an orgasm.
“If the only bother is that [a woman] has told a friend and the friend gasped and said, ‘What are you saying?!’ ... that friend is misguided,” said Stephanie Buehler, a psychologist and sex therapist who runs the Buehler Institute in California.
“If someone is having a wonderful time with their partner even though they don’t have an orgasm with them when they’re with them," she continued, "then that sounds like good sex to me.”
Roughly 10 percent of women may be anorgasmic, or unable to orgasm under any circumstances. In some cases, this is caused by illness, gynecological conditions or medications. But women who are physiologically capable of orgasming yet do not with their partners may be dealing with psychological roadblocks.
“There’s still a lot of messages in our culture about good girls/bad girls, so a lot of women still feel shameful about having orgasms and allowing somebody to witness that, even somebody they’re partnered with and you think they’d trust and feel safe with,” said sex therapist Kimberly Resnick Anderson.
Many women whom Anderson has seen in her clinical work report that they find it emotionally challenging to let go with a partner; to be vulnerable, playful and creative; and to feel comfortable with how their body looks from the many angles women move in and out of during sex -- all of which can be essential to having an orgasm, she said.
“It’s not reliably easy to achieve orgasm from intercourse alone. Up to 80 percent of women need some sort of alternative or supplemental stimulation to achieve orgasm, whether that be manual or oral or whatever,” Anderson said.
Women may find that their partners are simply unable to give them the extra stimulation they need, the way they need it in order to get off -- and some find it difficult to speak up and provide clear instructions.
“Open communication, comfort around talking about their fantasies and needs, playfulness and creativity ... these all have a protective force,” Anderson said.
When women don’t orgasm with their partners, especially after months or years of trying, some -- like Lisa -- turn to faking them.
A small study of 20 women (12 of whom identified as heterosexual and eight of whom identified as bisexual or lesbian), published in the journal Culture, Health & Sexuality last June, found that 15 said they had faked an orgasm at one point, and nine did so regularly. Some used it as a way of ending a sexual encounter they felt was dragging on; others faked to suppress feelings of shame over their seeming inability to orgasm with a partner.
“I always hear how women have orgasms all the time during sex,” said one bisexual study participant, age 57. “I never seem to from intercourse alone, so I always have to fake it. I don’t want him to know that I’m one of those women who can’t get aroused from a penis inside her.”
Still others said they pretended to orgasm because they wanted to reinforce their partner’s sense of his or her sexual skills.
“Implicitly, the act of wanting to protect their partner’s feelings is a very loving thing,” said study researcher Breanne Fahs, an associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. “I don’t think women necessarily feel angry about the fact that they feel like they need to fake orgasms, so much as it can be very taxing for them.” She described it as a kind of emotional labor.
But coming clean to a partner after months or years of faking it presents its own set of challenges.
Alyssum, 26, has been with her boyfriend for three years and though she has no problems orgasming when she masturbates two or three times a week, she has never climaxed with him -- or with any of her five sexual partners past or present. Sex with her boyfriend has never been what she would call “bad,” Alyssum said, and there is "a ton" of chemistry between them. But when she finally came clean to him about faking orgasms last month -- steeled by a cocktail and tired of acting -- he did not take it well.
“I said, 'I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I just wanted you to know that this just doesn’t happen, because I don’t like lying to you,'” she said. “His initial reaction was shock, then rage.”
But then, she said, "He seems to have -- which is kind of upsetting to me -- just kind of let it go. He just kind of went, 'Well, okay, you seem fine, so I'm not going to try any harder.' And I just don't fake it anymore. I got really honest about, 'Okay, I'm enjoying it, but I'm not going to fake I'm having an orgasm when I'm not.'"
Anderson recently saw a patient in her 60s who confessed she had been faking orgasms with her husband for 44 years, beginning the night they lost their virginity together after they were married.
“I said to her, ‘You have to tell him,’ and she said, ‘Why would I tell him now? That is just cruel and mean! ... He’s going to be so angry,’” Anderson recalled. “What he did [when she told him] is he just sobbed. Because he felt so sad for her and for himself and for all those wasted years. If she had just been honest about it, where might they have gone together sexually? How might that have changed the dynamic?”
Sometimes, however, women say that having an orgasm with their partner is not only not a priority; it’s not what they want from sex at all.
Angela, 37, has been in a committed, exclusive relationship with a woman for more than a year. The Nebraska resident has orgasmed a handful of times with previous partners, but never with her current girlfriend.
“It’s not about orgasm for me at all,” she said. “I get super aroused touching women -- that’s just what I like to do.”
Angela and her girlfriend have sex several times a week, often for hours on end. Her girlfriend has orgasm after orgasm while Angela pleasures her; she has none. They use sex toys together, but have now reached a point in their relationship where Angela’s partner does not try to reciprocate oral sex or manual stimulation.
“It’s exactly what I want. I just really enjoy going down on her and touching her -- I could do it for hours, and I do,” said Angela. “It’s perfect for her, and it’s perfect for me.”
For some women, being sexually intimate and pleasuring their partners, without climaxing themselves, can absolutely equal true satisfaction, Anderson said.
“Overall, they would report that encounter as positive and loving and intimate. They feel closer to their partner. They’re happy to please their partner,” she said. “They don’t walk away necessarily feeling ‘gypped.’”
“If it doesn’t cause her distress [and] if it doesn’t cause the partner distress, then there’s no problem,” echoed Buehler.
But other women live in more of a gray area, where they repeatedly grapple with whether lack of orgasm with their partner is a problem, the answer changing from month to month or year to year.
Take Bethany, 25, who is unsure how exactly she feels about being married for four years to a man with whom she has never had an orgasm, during intercourse or oral sex.
“I think my sex life will always be this way, and I honestly cannot say that I mind or would ever mind,” said Bethany, who chose to use a pseudonym. “Even after countless times of sex with no orgasm, I still get turned on pre-intercourse -- every single time," she added. "I get wet knowing there will be no climax.”
“I enjoy my sex life as it is,” Bethany said. “I would love to orgasm with my husband, but I do not feel that having sex and faking it is a burden.”