Breaking Down The Orgasm Gap With LGBTQ Sex Therapist & LELO Guru Casey Tanner

A Woman’s Right To Pleasure is the radical new art book by BlackBook, Dr. Marashi and LELO. Available now, the book brings together over 75 of the most important womxn artists, writers and creative thinkers as they explore pleasure—and empowerment—in all its forms. BlackBook partnered with LELO on this project due to their aligning ethos that sees female pleasure as a human right that should be celebrated. LELO has been a guiding and influential force in the sex toy industry for over a decade, with designs that blend pleasure with performance like no other brand. The company aims to empower and liberate women by normalizing conversations around sex and pleasure, and by bringing those dialogues to the mainstream. For more information on LELO, please visit www.lelo.com.

When we consider the orgasm gap, we often think of it in simplest terms: men have more orgasms during partner sex than women. However, we don’t often think about how our orgasm frequency is affected by our intersectionality, or the way our various identities (i.e. religion, sex, class, etc.) combine to create our own unique experiences of privilege, or lack thereof. “The orgasm gap exists across gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status, disability status, and culture,” said LGBTQ sex therapist and LELO sexpert Casey Tanner in our exclusive interview. “While the orgasm gap sounds like a strictly sexual problem, it’s actually a symptom of a much larger cultural dynamic… the reality that the world continues to center white, straight, cisgender, men.”

It’s no coincidence that straight, white men reach climax more than any other demographic during sex—the orgasm gap is just another way that societal inequalities physically manifest in our lives. “Folks who aren’t white, straight, cisgender men tend to have a much harder time taking up space during sex. They have a harder time believing that they deserve to take up space, let alone ask for it,” said Tanner. This can be largely attributed to trauma that LGBTQ people acquire throughout their lives, according to the therapist.

In her work, Tanner has seen that education and therapy have historically helped those who are marginalized improve their sex lives and their ability to orgasm during sex. It’s a mission that she shares with LELO, the world’s leading intimate products designer, whose focus on encouraging women to celebrate themselves and their bodies led us to partner with them on our latest project, A Woman’s Right To Pleasure. It’s that ethos, and LELO’s continued goals of education and destigmatization that separate them from other brands in the field. “Brands claiming to center around sexual wellness do have a responsibility to actually promote wellness,” said Tanner. “Wellness isn’t just about having disclaimers about how to use a product; it’s a movement towards recognizing that people are holistic and multidimensional.” 

In a candid conversation with BlackBook, Tanner dissects the orgasm gap, spills on which LELO toys are her must-haves, and discusses her impactful work.

Can you speak more about your work as a sex therapist? What kinds of services do you offer?

In my capacity as a sex therapist, I work with individuals and relationships in which folks are feeling overwhelmed or stuck as it relates to their sexuality, love life and/or gender identity. I am also a general therapist who specializes in trauma, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. I also provide free sex education via my Instagram, @queersextherapy, guest lecture at a number of universities, and train professionals who want to be more affirming to the LGBTQ+ community. My most recent project has been writing a course for couples who want to reignite their sexual relationship.

When most people think of sex therapy, they imagine that we talk of nothing but genitals and orgasms. In reality, sex therapy entails talking about all aspects of life, because we can’t separate our sexualities from the other parts of who we are. For example, how we feel in our professional life could easily be impacting our confidence in bed. Childhood memories of our parents’ marriage may influence whether or not we trust a partner. Trauma and mental illness are likely to show up in the way we engage with our bodies. Thus, sex therapists aren’t therapists who only talk about sex. Sex therapists are psychotherapists who are also comfortable and skillful in talking about sex, if that’s what is required for the client’s wellbeing.

How is the experience of sex therapy different for the LGBTQ community, if at all?

If they’re working with a therapist who knows what they’re doing, sex therapy should look different for the LGBTQ+ community. All clients are impacted by the scripts, expectations, and norms set forth by their families, cultures, education, and the media. However, LGBTQ+ folks are more starkly confronted with the reality that these scripts weren’t written for them, sex education doesn’t include them, and the media does not accurately represent them. Consequentially, they often walk into sex therapy carrying the weight of imposter syndrome, the impact of microaggressions, and the experience of having been isolated by a heteronormative, homophobic, and transphobic culture. I believe that LGBTQ+ affirming sex therapy acknowledges these harms and goes out of its way to be inclusive and validating. This doesn’t mean that I force people to talk about their gender and sexuality if that’s not part of their treatment objectives, but it does mean I intentionally make space for those conversations so that the client doesn’t have to ask.

How do you go about creating safe spaces where people feel seen and understood regardless of their sexuality and gender identity?

I always start with language. Understandably, many members of the LBGTQ+ community are vigilant about whether or not they’re encountering a safe space or safe person. One of the first ways a queer person can assess whether or not they’re safe is by noticing language. From the moment I introduce myself, I share my pronouns as a way of indicating that the other person is welcome to share theirs. I use gender neutral language, saying words like “folks” or “everyone” instead of “ladies”, “guys”, etc. When I refer to the person someone is dating, I say “partner” instead of “boyfriend”. In other words, I don’t make assumptions based on someone’s appearance, voice, or expression. I don’t want to put people in a situation where they have to correct me because I’m making heteronormative and cisnormative assumptions. 

I also make an effort to model consent in my therapy sessions whenever possible, as a way of beginning to heal experiences wherein a client’s autonomy has not been respected. Offering clients simple choices, such as where they’d like to sit, or whether or not they want to answer a question I’ve asked, goes a long way in letting them know they are in charge of their healing process.

What is the orgasm gap, and how have you experienced it amongst your clients?

The classic understanding of the orgasm gap is that men experience orgasms at exceedingly higher rates than do women. Applying a more intersectional lens that takes into account the variety of identities that each person holds, the orgasm gap exists across gender, sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status, disability status, and culture. While the orgasm gap sounds like a strictly sexual problem, it’s actually a symptom of a much larger cultural dynamic; at the heart of the orgasm gap is the reality that the world continues to center white, straight, cisgender, men. 

Because we all grew up in this world, we tend to enact this dynamic in our sex lives. Folks who aren’t white, straight, cisgender men tend to have a much harder time taking up space during sex. They have a harder time believing that they deserve to take up space, let alone ask for it. Our current sex education system furthers this gap, leaving students fairly certain how to identify a penis, but with little to no idea what a clitoris is. We focus so much on penetration, without acknowledging that the vast majority people with vulvas will never orgasm that way. We’re taught that using lube means that we’re defective, not realizing that people with vulvas are significantly less likely to orgasm without it.

Even though something is clearly wrong with how we talk about sex, this shows up in clients as a deep sense that something is wrong with them. Something is wrong with them because they’re not orgasming from penetration. Something is wrong with them because they’re not wet enough. Something is wrong with them because their male partner has no problem orgasming, but they can’t seem to do the same. In reality, these struggles rarely have anything to do with something that is wrong with the client, and everything to do with what is wrong with our cultural understanding of sex.

How does hereto/cisnormativity exacerbate the orgasm gap?

Hetero/cisnormativity historically has offered one sexual script: A penis gets hard, a vagina gets wet, the penis enters the vagina, and within 2-3 minutes everyone simultaneously orgasms. This script is reinforced in every rom-com and on every major porn site. 

I’ll be totally honest—I’ve never once met a couple whose sex life looked like this. I have also never met a couple who hasn’t been negatively affected by this narrative—even straight cis people!

And what happens when we realize we don’t fit that script? We feel deep shame. We wonder what’s wrong with us. We keep it a secret from our friends, who we imagine fit the script with ease. We may even fake orgasms, for fear that we will otherwise be found out. And in the service of desiring to be perceived as normal, we deprioritize pleasure and connection for the sake of acceptance. 

For many folks in the LGBTQ+ community, pretending to fit the script isn’t even an option. The script wasn’t written for women who have sex with women, for men with vulvas, or for people who enjoy anal. For some, this is incredibly distressing and disenfranchising. I have also seen this be incredibly freeing for members of the LGBTQ+ community, who are often more open to creative and pleasure-focused forms of sex because they’ve realized early on that the traditional script would never work for them.

What role does head space play in achieving orgasm? 

Most people focus so much on their genitals during sex that they forget the brain is the most powerful sexual organ. You can be having sex with the most skillful human on this planet, but if you’re unable to be mentally present, you likely won’t find yourself enjoying the experience. 

One’s ability to experience pleasure is largely dependent on one’s ability to relax. When we are in an anxious headspace, our muscles tighten, blood flow becomes constricted, and our breathing quickens – we’re in a sympathetic nervous system response. All of these somatic expressions of stress are the antithesis of pleasure, which requires a parasympathetic state. 

Especially for folks who have a more difficult time climaxing, orgasm requires erotic focus, or the ability to center one’s thoughts on sexual enjoyment. If we’ve had a particularly stressful day, struggle with mental illness, or aren’t feeling connected to our partner(s), we may find that our mind is distracted from the erotic. If we’re thinking about a to-do list, ruminating about a past interaction, or experiencing sexual performance anxiety, we’re less likely to be present with our bodies.

Do you think people’s trauma, specifically those who identify as LGBTQ, affects their ability to orgasm during partner sex? If so, how?

Absolutely. Many folks who have experienced trauma, including homophobia and transphobia, have a more difficult time maintaining a relaxed nervous system response during sex. Trauma overwhelms our resources, putting us in a state of fight, flight, freeze, or fold in order to survive the traumatic experience. Especially for people who have complex, or repeated, trauma, the body may actually become stuck in that survival state. Some might find themselves hypervigilant about their safety, on alert for whether or not a partner will respect their autonomy. Others may have a deep sense of shame, mistakenly believing that their trauma was their fault or somehow preventable. Many will experience performance anxiety, or the pressure to be “perfect” during sex, for fear that faltering will lead to abandonment or rejection. All of this interferes with relaxation, erotic focus, and connection. 

Do you think education through therapy can help close up the orgasm gap?

I know it can! In training for sex therapy, we often talk about the power of “limited information.” In other words, a little bit of pleasure-positive, affirming, accurate sex education can go a long way. I’ve seen lives changed with the simple knowledge that it’s normal not to orgasm through penetration, or with a brief lesson on where and what the clitoris is. I’ve witnessed relationships change with the simple introduction of a vibrator into their sex lives. I’ve seen people become multiorgasmic just by letting go of the myth that they’re supposed to orgasm in under five minutes. 

Of course, it’s not always as simple as offering facts and figures. Unlearning is just as important as learning, and it often takes deeper work to unravel the harm caused by living in a sexist, homophobic, transphobic culture. 

You’ve said in the past that we can’t have healthy sexual relationships with other people if we don’t have that with ourselves. What are some tips you recommend for people looking to improve their sexual relationship with their own body?

Certainly. We often go into sex expecting our partner(s) to make us orgasm, when research says that pleasure starts with us. If you’re looking to improve your sexual relationship with yourself, ask yourself what the smallest next step would be. Don’t jump ahead because of where you think you should be. For some, the idea of talking about sex is really difficult. These folks often benefit from starting out with a pleasure-positive book, audiobook or podcast about sex; this helps normalize hearing the topic discussed in non-shaming way. Maybe follow some pleasure-positive folks on social media, and notice what comes up for you as sexuality becomes a more regular part of your routine.

Others have no problem talking about sex in general, but get uncomfortable when confronting their own bodies. Start with simply looking at the parts of yourself you’ve been avoiding. You don’t have to jump to feeling sexy—although, by all means, you are—but rather start with the facts. Touch part of your body, and simply name it. For example, touch your clitoris and say to yourself, “this is my clitoris.” Kegels are also a great way to increase your awareness and sense of ownership over your body.

If you feel ready, masturbating with your hand or a toy is a great way to get curious about your relationship to your sexual self. Begin masturbating, and notice any judgments you have about your body, your desires, or even masturbation itself. Once you can name the judgments, you can begin to understand where they came from, and then challenge them with accurate information.

LELO has numerous sex education campaigns to educate their clients on topics like pleasure and sexuality. Do you feel that sexual wellness-related brands should have a responsibility to educate people? 

Brands claiming to center around sexual wellness do have a responsibility to actually promote wellness. Wellness isn’t just about having disclaimers about how to use a product; it’s a movement towards recognizing that people are holistic and multidimensional. 

Regardless of if a sexual wellness brand intends to educate, it is telling their customers something about sexuality. Messages about sexuality are implicit in the photos they choose, the intentionality of their language, the people in their advertisements. An ad campaign in which all the models are thin, able-bodied, and white, for example, sends a very clear message about who does or does not deserve pleasure. Thus, unless a sexual wellness brand is making an active effort to provide diverse, intersectional, accurate, and pleasure positive information to consumers, they are likely delivering the opposite.

What are some LELO products that you personally recommend?

At the moment, I’m obsessed with SONA 2 Cruise—it’s the closest sensation I’ve experienced to oral sex. So many toys attempt to master clitoral stimulation, but are either too overwhelming or too weak to be effective. SONA 2 Cruise uses sonic wave technology that creates an ideal balance of gentleness and intensity. I’m also someone that gets notoriously frustrated when a vibrator runs out of battery mid-sex, so I deeply appreciate that SONA 2 Cruise has a power reserve that kicks into gear if the motor is running low. Pro tip: Use lube with the SONA 2 Cruise to experiment with how much friction feels good for you!

I also can’t get enough of the wireless remote-controlled vibrators, HUGO and TIANI 3. HUGO is ideal for prostate massage, while TIANI 3 hits the clitoris and g-spot. While they can absolutely be used for solo play, I recommend mixing up sex by handing over control of the toy to your partner. Or, if you’d rather be in control, play with edging by using different intensities and settings, and notice how your partner responds to each.

You’ve spoken about it before, but what constitutes successful sex? 

I can’t say this loudly or often enough: it’s not about orgasm. People can have incredible sex without orgasming, and people can have really terrible sex with an orgasm. I’m not saying to stop being passionate about your orgasm. I am, however, saying that often the more people feel pressured to orgasm, the less likely they are to actually have one. I like to think of orgasm as the icing on an already delicious and fulfilling cake.

Successful sex is sex in which you experience connection—connection to self, to the body, to a partner, to spirituality, etc. This connection is possible because everyone’s boundaries are respected, each person is attuned to the other, and there is an allowance for people to be imperfect. When I ask couples/relationships about the best sex they’ve had, I don’t hear about the orgasms. I hear, “that time when we tried something new together” or “when we argued and then found our way back to each other through sex.” Successful sex can be sex when you and your partner(s) broke down laughing because of a weird sound one of your bodies made. It can be the experience of unexpectedly crying halfway through and being comforted by a partner. It might be when you had queer sex for the first time, even though you had no idea what you were doing. 

Successful sex isn’t about orgasm, or the size of a body part, or even skillfulness—it’s about experiencing the fullness of the moment without judgement.

A Woman’s Right To Pleasure by BlackBook. Shop the book here.

Shop LELO products here.

Images courtesy of LELO.

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