We rely on Netflix’s algorithm to tell us what to watch next. We’d sooner check an app than open our curtains to know what the weather outside is looking like. We want sex, companionship and attention on tap. Thank you Tinder, thank you Grindr, thank you to the perfectly timed and tactfully worded Instagram DM. We are horses who want to be led to the water, and we’d prefer it if you’d spoon it into our mouths once we get there. We don’t want to have to search for the things in life that make us feel good. We’d like them right there, beneath our fingertips at all times.
We especially don’t want to have to wade through our trauma – to work our way slowly through it. We want to blow it up, and then bury every last piece of it.
As a sexual abuse survivor, I didn’t want to have to chase something that the movies would have me believe flows more freely than unsolicited dick pics I didn’t want to have to run a race I felt I’d been entered into against my will.
That something was the semi-mythical feat: the female orgasm.
My lone orgasm happened unexpectedly one day in my teen years. I’d spent years faking both my orgasms and my history with my first boyfriend – I thought my silence would starve my trauma to death.
As we settled into a lazy, spooned, Sunday sex session, I didn’t think much of the occasion.
And then his finger settled on me in just the right way, at the perfectly wrong moment.
Perfectly wrong because, while it was the moment my first orgasm erupted into reality, it happened with thoughts of my childhood abuse at the hands of my father peering out of an unhinged door at the back of my mind.
And I will tell you this: the orgasm was everything the articles and movies had told me it would be. It was fireworks and a waterfall and a million zinging and ringing sparks going off in my every cell.
It was the most delicious thing I’d ever felt, and it was utterly awful. Because of the unhinged door. Because of the face that came to the forefront of my mind as I came.
I haven’t cum since.
I remember being 13 years old and sitting with my four best friends under a Johannesburg tree. The kind that would spit liquid on your heads while you sat eating sandwiches and samosas. I asked them when they first started masturbating. Growing up in a home which was drenched in the inappropriate, with an abuser who masqueraded as a dad, I didn’t know how much was ‘too much’. I didn’t know that in other South African homes, these things were never discussed.
They didn’t answer me then, nor for the next ten years. At 23, I often still felt like that 13-year-old girl with butter lettuce in her braces, asking her friends against their will for confirmation that she’s not alone.
I had always assumed that my trauma was to blame for my lost orgasms, and I was desperate for someone to confirm or deny. Please sex therapist, please big sister, please Carrie Bradshaw.
And so, my years dedicated to manic masturbation began, somewhat begrudgingly, as I entered the workforce. I was an editorial intern at Cosmopolitan South Africa, who would later become, of all things, a sex writer. Vulva beneath fingertips, most times. Vulva beneath a gold vibrator shaped like a diamond, sometimes.
I called that vibrator, the gold one, Beyoncé. Because, of all the sex toys I’d been given to review while working as COSMO‘s sex writer, it was the most beautiful of all. It was all straight lines and sharp edges, and if a man or a wearer of Paco Rabanne Lady Million had to spy it on my bedside table, they’d mistake it for something else altogether.
As I walked along those grown-up hallways lined by framed magazine covers, I felt like a complete and utter fake – like the poster child of imposter syndrome. I wondered if they could tell I’d only ever had one orgasm before; that I didn’t know where my abuse ended and my genuine love of sex began. I am the sex writer who can’t cum, I’d think. I’d wonder if they could smell it on me.
Whether alone or with a partner, when the wave swells and begs to crash, and then when I reabsorb it into my belly.
When I am the sex writer who still can’t cum.
Is it just the trauma? Because here’s the thing about the female orgasm; for every woman who can graze her clitoris along her favourite pillow and achieve climax, there’s a woman next door, ankles raised to the heavens, trying some new method she read about and praying to Mother Nature that she’s not one of the ‘broken’ ones.
No one will tell me, and few people will talk. And so I devour podcasts and books and articles and audio porn and porn porn. I masturbate sitting up and lying down and if I could do it while standing on my head, it’s safe to assume that I would have by now. But my body just doesn’t balance that way.
And yes, now 26-years-old, I still ask my friends, ‘Are you cumming?’
I can’t be silenced by conservative homes and what they’ve taught these women for much longer.
They are doctors and project managers and teachers and writers, just like me.
‘Are you cumming?’ I ask them.
Half of them are, it turns out. Half of them aren’t.
The latter tell me this like they’ve been holding their breath, like they can finally breathe.
And so I begin to pull at a thread of the story I’ve been telling myself for years; that I am a broken thing.
I consider that I may be normal, whatever that means.
A normal result of a girl’s abnormal upbringing.
I consider that many women may be touched by a lingering hurt of some kind, in some way – a delicate splinter you don’t know is buried in the sole of your foot.
Maybe she ran and played in the mud as a child; maybe her father told her not to get dirty and behave.
Maybe she got caught one night, introducing herself to her body; maybe her mother told her that’s not how wives are made.
Maybe her friends were all told the same. Ladies who lunch on sandwiches and samosas and then as grown-ups, steaks and mimosas. Maybe there are many girls who grew into women who had never heard that lessons can be unlearned.
It took me years to realise that even the shiniest vibrator isn’t a substitute for honesty. And so I started over, at the beginning. I waded in by asking my sister if she remembered. I went in deeper, I became braver, I blew it up by speaking out. And instead of burying the pieces, I picked them up, turned them over in my fingers, and allowed myself to look at them. And my reeducation began.
Love, none of it was your fault.
Love, you don’t need to look sexy during self-love.
Love, it’s okay to sound more like a wounded animal than a porn star.
Love, it’s okay if you don’t make a peep.
Love, you never have to perform your pleasure again.
Love, it’s not the journey you asked for, but it’s yours to enjoy.