What is the relationship between orgasm and emotion?
When my dad died, 22 years ago, I felt emotionally blocked. I was upset, but I couldn’t cry.
I’d recently split up with my girlfriend, but because she was a very kind and generous person, when she heard about my loss she wanted to comfort me. And as we were having sex, I remained aware of my emotional disconnection, but vividly remember that when I reached orgasm, a wave of grief, like electricity, jolted through me, and I cried out, then started sobbing.
That’s often how people think – if at all – about the connection between orgasm and our emotions. Orgasm disinhibits us, so emotion can come flooding out. But – so the view goes – emotion doesn’t have any impact on whether we orgasm or not: that’s a matter of arousal, which is physical and energetic, not emotional.
But I wonder if we have it precisely wrong.
When I work with people who have issues with orgasm, what’s most apparent is their focus on orgasm as the goal of sexual pleasure. And the tragic consequence of this is that they often experience neither. So my focus when I work with them is to take them out of this self defeating future orientation, and start feeling more what’s actually going on in their body. In this way they can relax into pleasurable experience, and within that experience, they can find arousal and orgasm. I don’t ask them to have a particular focus on what they’re feeling emotionally, although that’s part of it. I’m equally interested in what they’re experiencing imaginatively, or somatically.
Before I do the bodywork part of a session, I discuss with the client how they are feeling and what they would like from the session, and afterwards they will say what they experienced and noticed, but often, the prior talking part can be quite brief.
I recently met with a client who wanted to talk quite a lot before we started, and I fretted I wouldn’t be able to give her a long enough bodywork session. To my surprise however – and her greater surprise – quite soon into the bodywork, she had an orgasm.
When we reflected on it afterwards, we agreed that the difference between that and prior sessions was that this time, in our talking, for the first time, she’d been freely emotional, and felt completely accepted by me in her emotionality, in all its ebbs and flows, its sometimes abrupt changes and transformations. And because I accepted that, she could accept it too.
And I wondered if that was a more general issue: we repress, censor or modify our emotions because we think they’re not welcome. And that’s because they weren’t. But the effect of that is to suppress our aliveness, which has a major effect on our capacity to orgasm.
Let me use an example from my own life: my mum is a naturally optimistic, outgoing person. I’m not; I’m quite moody and sensitive. When I was like that as a child, it was obvious that my mum would have preferred me, understandably, to be happy, so I came to view my own nature as problematic, and suppressed it. But, of course, you can never be someone else, you can only be a more cramped version of yourself.
It took me a long time to understand that my sensitivity, far from being something to be sidestepped or covered over, was an essential part of who I am.
I think a lot of us have known something similar. Our emotions go from something natural to something that we need to monitor, adjust and modify, and that has a double effect. The first, which is clear from psychotherapy, is that we become distanced from our emotions. The second – and less noticed – is that we become distanced from our body, because our experience is all of a piece: if there is a something in my experience, I will experience it in thought, in imagination, in feeling and in my body, and all these are different aspects of the one experience.
And that explains something that has always puzzled me: people who are freely emotional don’t seem to have an issue with not being able to orgasm.
And in turn, that suggests a way of working with the emotions. We don’t regard them as irrelevant to whether we can orgasm or not, we regard them as central, because the repression of any one part of us is a repression of the spontaneous functioning of all the other parts too. And just as we would have learned, when little, that certain emotions were not ok by a signal from [usually] a parent, and so they then became not ok to us, we can reverse the process: in your session with me, I can welcome your emotions, whatever they are, and, gradually you can welcome them too, and then something in you can become relaxed, yet enlivened at the same time.