Is it still sex if no one has an orgasm?

It's a common question, particularly as people age and their bodies respond differently to stimulation. But by focusing on orgasms, we forget that be intimate with a partner is to share sexual and sensuous moments. Let's think about expanding the ways you can experience pleasure, alone or with a partner. And let’s look at the norm that says “sex” must include a climax - or two - to be considered satisfying...

We come together for pleasure, right? So let’s expand our definition of sex. Let’s drop the idea that intercourse is the gold standard for sex. Maybe instead of using that word, we use the word "intimacy." It’s a word that hints at the possibility of more than plain ol’ intercourse.

After all, what would you rather have? Three to seven minutes of penetrative sex where you probably won’t have an orgasm if you’re a woman or an hour of erotic touch, kissing and genital stimulation?

It’s a no brainer to me, but sadly most of the time when someone is talking "sex," they are referring to penetrative sex. Typically, intercourse is initiated and led by the man, who expects to climax - and normally does. Women have a significantly smaller chance of having an orgasm during intercourse. Given the physiological response of the male body and the physical exertion required to reach climax, most men are exhausted or depleted, and therefore less likely to be interested in any further sexual interaction.

Why It's Important to Change How You Think about Sex

I recently gave a talk entitled "Sex After 50? Yes, Yes, Yes!" It focused on redefining sex and our approach to intimacy with a partner. Why is this so important? Why would I even dare to suggest that there are other avenues to pleasure than traditional heterosexual intercourse?

  • Menopausal changes can make vaginal penetration uncomfortable or painful.
  • Some chronic conditions can make it difficult for people with penises to get and sustain an erection as they age.
  • Because a penis can ejaculate even if it’s not hard enough for penetration. Pleasure can be given or received from manual stimulation or oral sex.
  • Because when we just focus on traditional intercourse, we are limiting so many possibilities, regardless of age or physical limitations.

Plus, when two people come together for intimacy without expectations, without the pressure to perform one way or another, the whole act of sex changes. The goal is not to perform; it is to give and receive pleasure. There is less pressure. No time limits. As we get older, that lack of pressure allows everyone to simply enjoy what’s going. Actually, that works for people of all ages.

How the Pressure to Perform Affects Us as We Age

If a man worries about erectile dysfunction, he’s paying attention to the hardness of his erection and hoping it will last long enough. But long enough for what? For him to ejaculate? For him to provide her additional pleasure so that she can orgasm? Can a guy successfully worry about his erection and stimulate a woman’s clitoris all at the same time? Not to mention the female point of view and the pressure women face around performance (i.e. having an orgasm).

The whole idea of “performance” when talking about sex and intimacy feels wrong. Yet, it’s what we do.

Women who worry about pleasing their guy by having orgasms are thinking about making him feel successful, a great performer, doing his job, instead of thinking about their own needs and desires. When we do this we’re acting out old patterns, reinforcing the idea that men are in charge of our sexual experience.

So imagine a different scenario. Two people begin to touch and kiss and explore. They undress and leisurely move to some degree of nakedness. There is no set agenda. Instead, it is more spontaneous and less predicted. There isn’t “fore” play or “after” play. There’s just play. Maybe there’s penetration. Maybe they use both fingers and mouths to stimulate their partners. Maybe one partner uses a sex toy on the other, or on themselves. And that might be an orgasm today, but not the next time. The key is that whatever form your intimacy takes, both of you come out feeling satisfied.

The Key to Successful Experiences Is How We Think about Sex

The key to finding pleasure regardless our physical abilities or limitations is to change our thinking about what constitutes sex and what gives us pleasure. As humans, we crave touch and most of us don’t get enough. When age, illness, or something else restricts our ability to do one thing, we find a work-around. We find a way to adapt and modify - we do it in various areas of our lives. So why aren’t we doing it with sex? Too often older adults, when faced with physiological problems, ED or vaginal discomfort, simply give up all sexual contact. When I hear an individual talk about that loss, about giving up because they haven’t or won’t consider other alternatives, I am reminded of the ways our traditional definition of sex deprives us of the richness of physical contact.

What should we start calling this thing we do? Sexual intimacy? Sex? Play? Whatever you call it is up to you, but if you want to assure that pleasure and intimate touch happens as long as possible then you’re going to need to rethink what sex means to you. And talk about it with a partner. Talk about longing and touch and affection and the bonds that develop between two people during intimacy. Isn’t that part of what we seek as humans? What a delight to think that sex, partnered or solo, is possible in so many ways - and for as long as we’re breathing and desirous.