Multi-orgasm performance anxiety

I have long promised myself I’d never fake an orgasm. And yet over the past few months I’ve broken that promise. Since being cast in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, I’m faking the big-O regularly.

UBC’s V-Day team, the campus collective that puts on Ensler’s plays, cast me in two monologues for this year’s production. The first, “The Vagina Workshop,” where I play a woman who attends a (surprise, surprise) vagina workshop to learn how to give herself an orgasm through manual self-pleasure.

The second, as “the Moaner,” where the character is reprised and led to centre stage by a dominatrix sex worker, to perform a series of diverse (you guessed it) moans representing the worker’s diverse clientele.

I have felt fairly self-conscious about performing these roles. Though not for the more obvious reasons: that I will be feigning sexual pleasure in front of an audience of peers, parents, my partner and profs. All of whom are likely to end up sitting awkwardly close together in the small theatre, squirming in their seats.

But because of a fear that by performing orgasms I may perpetuate a myth about how a woman’s climax should look and sound.

Although Ensler’s work is committed to empowering women – audiences and performers, and she has based the monologues on interviews with hundreds of real women, I’m anxious that by performing an orgasm scene I might make audience members negatively view their own sexual performances.

My part in the play involves a lot of thrashing, squealing, panting, gyrating, wailing and collapsing. Yes, Ensler’s script includes some variations: a silent moan, an elegant moan, an infantile moan, a butch moan, etc., but it all hinges on a couple of large “quakes and eruptions” and a final “surprise, triple orgasm moan!” Of course, being comedy, it’s an exaggerated version of real life.

I was cast in the part for blowing my top – you could say – in the audition. Vocally that is. I did all the howling and heavy breathing the directors were hoping for. Meg Ryan would be proud.

But what do we really know about women’s orgasms, outside of the pleasure-less moaning we see in porn?

Ryan’s fake orgasm in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally, is one of the most iconic cultural images of a female orgasm that exists outside of the porn world. The performance set the bar for what an ordinary, everyday woman’s orgasms ought to look like.

Yet maintaining Hollywood’s expectations for sex can be inhibiting for some women.

In the documentary Orgasm Inc., director Liz Canner demonstrates how pervasive misconceptions about women’s orgasms are, and how dangerous they can be.

The film, which screened Thursday at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, exposes how some big pharma companies have created their own markets for “female Viagra” by shaming perfectly healthy women into believing they’re sexually inadequate when they’re not.

One of the women in the film, Charletta, a darling 60-something-year-old, refers to herself as a “freak” because she has never achieved orgasm during sex with her husband.

“Not only am I not normal, I’m diseased,” she says.

She is so distraught that she agrees to be a test subject for the “orgasmatron,” a questionable, and ultimately flawed, invention that involves installing a metal cord along her spine. When the device fails, we learn that Charletta has, in fact, always been able to achieve orgasms — just not through penile-vaginal intercourse.

Based on this, Canner explains to her that she is “normal,” since 70 per cent of women don’t reach orgasm during coitus. Charletta is stunned. “I’m normal! I’m normal!” she cheers while laughing and dancing.

In the same film, another woman bravely shares a live orgasm for Canner’s cameras. She lies on her back, clothed, alone in a room with a camera lens fixed only on her face as she masturbates.

We end up seeing a private moment that is blissful yet subtle and subdued. There is nothing big or loud about her climax at all.

Which brings me back to my concern that by performing loudly I’d be perpetuating a bigger-is-better orgasm myth.

“Orgasm Inc.” film poster, Liz Canner (2009).

“How women describe their orgasms differ greatly,” Dr. Lori Brotto tells me. I called her to chat about these real life and fictitious performances. As both a sex therapist and the director of UBC’s Sexual Health Laboratory, she specializes in psychological barriers to sexual pleasure.

Some women describe their orgasms as “a blip on the screen,” Brotto says. “Others will describe it as full body and mind, oceans and waves thrashing on the shore.”

Many of the women she treats suffer from anxiety over how they perform. Clearly we share that in common. But while there are some women who wish they would be louder during sex, others wish they could choke back the sound.

Brotto tells me about a client in her mid-20s who has “developed severe sexual problems” by attempting to suppress her loud orgasms.

The young woman struggles with an inability to derive physical pleasure after a boyfriend harshly criticized her for the sounds she makes during sex. She met Brotto when seeking medical treatment for her low desire. Her partner’s words squelched her perfectly healthy libido and she sought a doctor’s intervention.

“She has got all these new beliefs now that need to be worked through,” Brotto said. “The belief that your orgasm is wrong, or that it’s inappropriate, or that you’re a dirty woman for making those sounds.”

“We’ve got a bit of undoing now to do.”

Although I hate that this woman is suffering, I’m comforted to hear that there are women with more sonorous sexual responses.

Sure, unlike men, most of us can approach and reach climaxes without blatant signals. But women’s sexuality is so varied that there is no one right or wrong way to perform sexually.

Which means for me, on stage, there’s no right or wrong way to perform either.

Although some may wince at the sounds I make on show night, Brotto’s stifled client, and women like her, could well be in the audience too. For them, my scripted wails may reverberate in a deeply recognizable and, perhaps, comforting way. At least I’d like to think so.