As a sex therapist, I'm interested in how we use language to describe our experiences. That's because how we talk about what experience defines that experience. It defines our thoughts, what we expect and how we behave. So if there's a phrase that better describes an experience, we should use that phrase instead.
For example, take the phrase "multiple orgasms." This isn't actually a thing. We use this phrase to describe how women experience many orgasms in one sexual encounter compared to men who generally don't. What we're actually talking about in sexual health terms is something called a refractory period - which describes the amount of time our sexual organs are at rest before they can be stimulated again to reach orgasm.
Generally speaking, women's refractory periods are shorter than men's, which explains why they experience orgasm more frequently than men do in a single sexual encounter. So if you think about it this way, it makes sense why we've come to describe this as "multiple orgasms," when we're talking about women.
There's a sneaky little problem with this phrase, though: It's secretly sexist.
Our culture has always tended to define sex in very heteronormative ways, which is just a fancy way of saying that we're not very inclusive about sex. Just think about every magazine aisle you've ever seen. Popular publications are always geared toward women who have sex with men. And if we're being really honest, historically, sex has really just been about men's pleasure.
So when we say that women can have "multiple orgasms" during sex, what we mean is that women can orgasm more than once before a man ejaculates - which is when sex ends.
When we use the phrase "multiple orgasms," we're basically agreeing with an arcane societal standard says that once men are done with sex, women are also. This is a problem. What if the roles were reversed? What if women's refractory periods were the same length they were for men? Meaning, what if women came first and then sex ended?
What if sex ended before men ejaculated?
Or better yet, what if sex never got started because women's lack of interest just wouldn't let them have an orgasm at all, and thus, men never had sex? I'm pretty sure men would be rioting in the streets. We'd have pharmaceutical companies inventing all kinds of ways to shorten women's refractory periods. Our medical professionals would specialize in therapy dedicated to helping women recover more quickly.
I know that sounds pessimistic, but if you need evidence, just compare insurance coverage rates for medicines like Viagra or Cialis compared to common birth control.
Why does it matter?
When I was sharing this post idea with my wife, she asked me why it was important enough to write about. It was a good question, one I hadn't clearly thought through myself. When I did think about it, I realized that the problem with this phrase is that as long as we use it, we're basically agreeing with a sexual expectation that sex ends when men ejaculate.
Using the language of "multiple orgasms," if a woman doesn't have an orgasm before a man does, then it's possible that she just won't have one at all. I can't count the number of times during sex therapy with heterosexual couples that sex has been described like this. If he ejaculates before she has an orgasm, then he's "premature." At this point, sex just usually ends in disappointment.
She keeps her disappointment to herself to avoid messing with his ego, making her own pleasure secondary to his. The idea that oral sex could extend beyond orgasm doesn't even occur because...you guessed it. Sex was over.
The rules aren't the same for women. If a woman has an orgasm, then she can have two.
If she can't have two and he hasn't ejaculated, then she should continue intercourse until he does. If, during intercourse, she starts to become sore or tired - which is a common experience for women following orgasm - then it's generally expected that she'll engage in some kind of sexual act to make sure he does have an orgasm. The idea that men could have sex without an orgasm doesn't exist in the way it does for women. This is a hard truth to confront, but we've collectively decided that women's pleasure doesn't matter as much.
I've rarely heard women describe the number of orgasms they experience during masturbation as "multiple." If they have more than one, they just count them. We only use the phrase "multiple" to describe partnered sex with men.
This language has to change.
Orgasm is an exciting part of sex. Our bodies are designed or have evolved this way - however you want to look at it. But when the focus of sex is orgasm, then we're just going to end up counting or judging the whole sexual experience based on a 5-10 second moment. We're going to end up waiting for an orgasm that may not come because we aren't telling our partners what we enjoy.
The truth is that almost everyone can experience multiple orgasms if you extend the timeline out long enough. But knowing that you experience multiple orgasms tells me nothing about what sex means to you, how you like to be touched, how you want to feel or what you want to hear during sex.
This phrase is a distraction that puts pressure on both women and men to meet an impossible standard. It's bad for heterosexual women because it presumes a timeline that women must follow, and therefore, make their own sexual pleasure less important. It's bad for heterosexual men because it creates a pressure to perform so well that your partner orgasms multiple times - as if your partner's pleasure was your responsibility.
Instead, let's get rid of language that ties orgasm to acheivement of any kind. Ironically, I've found that when couples can care more about the experience and less about the outcome, they have more orgasms anyway.