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Katharine Smyth is 39 years old and has never, to her knowledge, had an orgasm. This week on The Experiment : A personal quest for sexual fulfillment reveals centuries of mythmaking about female pleasure. Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at theexperiment theatlantic. Fact-check by Stef Hayes.
Sound design by David Herman. Additional music by Brian C. After a beat, birds chirp, sheep bleat, and a flute-led symphony builds as if emerging into some idyllic, sun-dappled pasture in the middle of the forest. Monkeys screech. A lion roars.
After a moment of musical climax, the symphony cuts out. Smyth: I had always sort of enjoyed sex, and really liked sex, but I had never had an orgasm. And, overall, straight women, like Katharine, say they reach climax during sex less often than others.
Smyth: I would talk to friends about it in the same boat. The music loses its higher pitches—a pulsing beat plays without treble under the narration. Smyth: The first person that I ever really spoke about it with seriously was this sex therapist—this sort of plump, elderly woman. And she had a very tasteful office, where everything was sort of gray and muted and hushed. Smyth: Viagra. For—for men. But the thing is, is I came home and I really did feel so energized.
I started masturbating regularly. Whenever I climax, I just start to sing. Smyth: The outfits that these people were wearing were just ludicrous. It was acid-washed jeans and, like, bleach-blond hair, and, um … So I watched those. I—I went off the pill. I, you know, took my Viagra. Smyth: Well, I mean, they can physically put it in their mouth. Both laugh. Smyth: I did not notice any difference whatsoever. And so I did all these things. And I just gradually lost interest and was like, You know what?
Longoria: For some women, success is possible with medical professionals, like therapists or pelvic-floor specialists. But not for Katharine. She lived out the rest of her 20s, got married, and felt like she could live happily without climax. But then, she got divorced. Smyth: My marriage did end up ending, but not for anything to do with sex. Longoria: She was 34 when she dipped her toe back in the dating pool.
And the men she was dating … wanted to help. Longoria: And then another man—a guy she got pretty serious with; she thought she was going to marry him—told her:. That 10 percent of women are just incapable of the closest human connection [Laughs. Smyth: Anticipating the question. He literally said that! Smyth: Oh my gosh. Is this going to be some kind of existential threat to finding love? Longoria: It turns out that these men who were judging Katharine for her sexuality and her lack of pleasure?
They come from a long line of such men. Smyth: What became clear as I was reading up on this is that the female orgasm has been the subject of this, like, massive misinformation campaign [Laughs. Smyth: Well, sorry, do you want to go way back? Like, to Aristotle? Longoria: Why would Aristotle feel like he needed to opine on this? Chuckles lightly. Smyth: And that's actually been misquoted throughout the years, where people thought that he said that only blondes ejaculate. He—he does talk about fair-skinned versus dark women, but not their hair color.
Longoria: Laughing awkwardly. Truly, spectacularly awful. Smyth: It was really interesting to see how the female orgasm had been [Laughingly. And so, up until , it was just understood that if you had become pregnant, that you had therefore had an orgasm.
A change in tone as the background music morphs into a quiet, somber single-note drone. Todd Akin: It seems to me, first of all, from what I understand from doctors He said:. And, thankfully, that tanked his candidacy.
Longoria: Back to yesteryear. In the mids, finally, Western anatomists started to get some things right. Smyth: They actually developed a sort of very detailed diagram of the clitoris. You know, it has over 8, nerve endings. But, again, right, where you might think that this sort of new knowledge about female anatomy would be good for females [Chuckles.
So that, by the s, it was generally believed that women were actually incapable of climax. Longoria: Incapable of climax—or really just not particularly interested in sex at all.
This all changed in the s. Biologist Alfred Kinsey published survey data and found that women were quite interested in sex, even on their own. Longoria: Which, again, seems like a good thing, right? Smyth: Yeah. And, I think, for many women, probably really is a good thing. Smyth: Which is, like, the obvious solution, right? Smyth: Who knows? No one likes the idea of faking it. But, honestly, for me, I actually found it really empowering.
And sex was so much more fun. It was so much less fraught. I felt like I was being seen for the first time the way that I saw myself. And again, I imagine orgasmic women are getting these responses all the time, but, for me, that was a very new feeling. Longoria: But after a while, faking it got old.
It was a paradox. Because she started having more fun, it got more frustrating not to be able to reach a peak. Smyth: I was like, I want to kind of continue on that journey that I started with the sex therapist all those years ago. Smyth: So the first thing [Laughs lightly. He is a sensual-touch therapist.
Smyth: My best friend knew where I was. Smyth: And then he kind of, like, went, you know, down, and, like, pulled apart my legs and just like, you know, was doing whatever he was doing down there.
Both laugh gently. Is it happening? And it was just, like, insane. Smyth: I was getting dressed and—and ready to go. Big hug? Smyth: Both laugh. Smyth: Try hypnosis. I think that seems obvious, or … Dips under as next line comes up. Smyth: With, like, dominatrixes. Domin—is that …?