As an active alcoholic, the only connection I could imagine between orgasm and addiction was that I sure liked to have sex when I was drunk. Even years into sobriety, when I thought back to the relationship between my drinking and sex, my sloppy, handsy, unromantic and insistent predatory behavior brought a wave of shame crashing over me.
And now – even as I’ve studied the issue from a scientific perspective – even as I make a pitch here based on what I’ve learned – I still feel compelled to defend myself. The compulsion for self defense can only come from one place. It comes from an indelible mark of shame stamped permanently on my soul. All of my sexual attention was always directed only at my wife, and I never raped my wife. I was often disgusting. I was verbally and emotionally abusive. But I defend myself by insisting that I did nothing worse, as if my transgressions are not far more than enough.
Now that I have fallen on the sword to temporarily assuage my guilt, I can make my point. I can prove a link between a lack of K-12 sexual education and addiction. I know I have a tendency to espouse my opinions with the conviction of facts. In this case, I am going to drag you into largely uncharted territory where my opinion won’t likely be enough. So, I did the research, and I am going to connect those dots with the help of scientific studies and sexual health experts.
I’ll save the big words that I had to look up in the dictionary for the peer reviewed studies cited at the end of this article. Likewise, I want to acknowledge the limitations of my assertions right up front. I am making conclusions here that are about heterosexual and monogamous relationships for two reasons. First, much of the available sexual research is based on committed relationships between men and women. Second, that is what I know, and that is what I can relate to. While I am confident that many of these concepts apply to people with different gender identities or sexual orientations, I cannot prove it. I will use words like men and women, female and male, to refer to cisgender people, not out of ignorance, but in order to make the writing readable and be easily relatable. I know that, scientifically speaking, the word “woman” can mean many different things depending on point of reference (gender identity, gender expression, gender at birth, transgender, etc.) To make the writing flow, and to make this the only almost unreadably chunky paragraph, please know this article is heteronormative in nature.
The sexual education I received in fifth grade hasn’t changed much in the almost 40 years since I received it. Based on federal funding requirements that insist that K-12 public school sexual education be based on promoting abstinence only until marriage, the sex ed curriculum in this country has two goals: to prevent sexually transmitted infections and to prevent unwanted (teen) pregnancies. That’s it. Sexual education is not designed to be inclusive of those with different gender identities or sexual orientations. It does not normalize masterbation, let alone describe the mental and physical health benefits of being in tune with one’s own body. And the last thing our K-12 sexual education would ever do is explain the achievement of, or the importance of, sexual pleasure (Oliver, van der Meulen, Larkin, & Flicker, 2013). Of all the things we leave out, I am convinced that ignoring pleasure when talking about sex is the greatest tragedy of all.
To make the omission of pleasure education even more of a travesty, the only thing that is described as “sex” in sexual education is penile/vaginal penetration. Guess who gets pleasure from this traditional concept of sex. That’s right: men (Wallen & Lloyd, 2010). So females experiment with sex, and because our sexual education curriculum can’t even spell clitoris, women are left wondering two things: What’s the big deal about sex? And: What am I doing wrong? This lack of pleasure education, and our resulting ignorance about the critical role of the clitoris in female orgasm, leaves us with the misguided belief that delivering sexual pleasure to females is all about penis size and stamina. As a teenager and into my 20s, it left me thrusting away and thinking about baseball.
The fact is that only 30% of women can reliably orgasm through intercourse (Nagoski, 2015), and those 30% can only achieve orgasm because of the proximity of their vaginal opening to the internal structures of the clitoris (Wallen & Lloyd, 2010). I know I am getting into the weeds, or at least into the bush, but let’s focus on the scientifically proven point: For women, orgasm is all about clitoral stimulation. Pump all you want, guys. Penetration is mostly just for you. And since both sexes are equally uneducated, many women can’t tell us what we are doing wrong, because they couldn’t find an orgasm with both hands and a flashlight, either. And you thought low math scores were the only way our public education system was letting us down.
OK, let’s keep connecting those dots. This is, after all, a blog about alcoholism prevention and recovery.
The female’s “big O” is more than a take-it-or-leave-it luxury. It turns our, while many women do get a lot from romantic physical connection that does not include climax, there is scientific evidence that orgasm is the single greatest indicator of female sexual satisfaction (Kontula &Miettinen, 2016). But the importance of female orgasm doesn’t stop there. Men have to deliver orgasms to their female partners in order for males to feel sexually satisfied (Velten & Margraf, 2017).
Does this research surprise anyone, really? I have a stronger libido than my wife. While it is not always the case that the man in a relationship has a higher sex drive that his wife, it is the majority situation. As a man, I want to do manly, masculine things like chop wood and watch football and make my wife orgasm. And when I can’t deliver (not on the wood or football, so much, but on my wife’s pleasure), I feel like less of a man. And I am not alone.
In fact, this phenomenon has been studied. Go figure. There is a connection between participating in the sexual pleasure of our female partners, and self-esteem in men (Towne, 2019). It turns out, making you feel good makes us feel good. And not making you feel good makes us feel bad. And when we communicate about sexual satisfaction, we are more satisfied (Cupach &Comstock, 1990). But how would any of us know that, since talking about sexual satisfactions is so sigmatized?
In fact, I would be willing to bet some large percentage of our loyal readers haven’t made it this far through this article because of the discomfort they feel just reading my words. I guarantee I lost a ton of people at the first mention of the clitoris (I actually hope my parents stopped reading long before that). Just imagine if our health teachers had talked about the clitoris in fifth grade. You wouldn’t stop reading this article out of embarrassment. You would stop reading because you would already know this stuff. In fact, you would be more sexually satisfied, and you would have more self-esteem.
And you might not be hanging out on an alcohol addiction prevention and recovery blog, because you might not have experienced addiction in your life and in your marriage. Let’s connect that last dot.
I have proclaimed for years now that the single greatest factor in eliminating the need for inadequately self-medicating through alcohol abuse is self-esteem. If we feel good about ourselves, we don’t need our toxic medicine.
Feeling bad about ourselves can come from a lot of different life experiences. Being a human is hard, and bad things happen. Childhood trauma, sexual trauma, parental neglect, generational impacts of addiction, and never really feeling secure and loved as a child are just a few of the underlying causes that can make us turn to a toxin like alcohol for relief from the pain.
But here’s another potential underlying cause – one that I’ve never heard discussed, outside of a few one-on-one conversations, after six years of learning about the details of thousands of cases of alcohol addiction. Insufficient self-esteem because of a lack of sexual satisfaction can lead to addiction and prevent successful sobriety and recovery.
Let me be crystal clear. If you suffer from alcohol addiction, I am not blaming your wife because she didn’t give it up often enough. If that’s your takeaway, then I did a terrible job of making my point (maybe that’s because I’m nervous that my parents are still reading). Let me say it in no uncertain terms.
Your alcohol addiction is not your spouse’s fault.
I talk a lot about blaming the alcohol. As we have proven here, we can add some accomplices to the list of perpetrators. Criminally bad K-12 sexual education bears a lot of the blame. Stigmatized communication that makes us cringe at words like orgasm and clitoris makes sexual satisfaction elusive. And a bunch of dudes assuming they know what to do coupled with a bunch of chicks who think they are doing something wrong leaves us destined to feel bad about ourselves.
Oh, and one more thing: Sexual rejection comes in many shapes and sizes. There is outright rejection for sure. But there is rejection inherent in consent as well.
When my wife reluctantly agreed to perform her “wifely duties,” I could tell she wasn’t interested. If female sexual satisfaction is linked to male self-esteem, then female sexual repulsiveness is linked to males feeling like shit. That’s the technical term, I’m pretty sure.
So where does this leave us? How do we prevent the next generation from falling into the same uneducated and uncommunicative traps? How do we keep more people from feeling like shit and turning to the bottle for relief?
Should we change K-12 sexual education curriculum? Well, I shout an emphatic and scientifically significant, “HELL YES!” But we have a problem. A political problem. As long as half the country refuses to talk about our transgender neighbors and ignorantly thinks nonbinary folks have a fixable mental disorder, comprehensive K-12 sexual education reform that includes knowledge about sexual pleasure is an awfully tall hill to climb.
So what can we do while we’re climbing? We can educate adults. We can show both men and women where the clitoris is and what it is used for. We can stop telling spouses to agree to anti-intimate quickies to pacify their mates. We can push for more research to further strengthen the connection of these dots. We can ask our government officials for research funds designated for addiction prevention and recovery to explore sexual satisfaction, because we ignore this link at our own peril.
Here in Denver, our mayor and city council just allocated over 15% of our $1.66 billion annual budget to working on our massive homeless problem. The connection between homelessness and addiction is an easy one to make. I don’t even need research studies to make that point. Maybe I’ll attend the open public comment portion of the next city council meeting (every Monday night at 5pm), and spend my three minutes at the microphone learning-up our elected officials and connecting some dots. Maybe I’ll ask them to sub-allocate a few bucks to explore my hypothesis further. They’ll say no, but the next time the topic arrises, maybe they’ll remember that they’ve heard of that concept from some sex-crazed alcoholic who, surprisingly, seemed to know his stuff.
And that’s where you come in. You surely know more now than you did when you read my click-bait article title. Now the unexpected connection between orgasms and addiction isn’t a chuckle-worthy mystery to you anymore. I consider you an ambassador of this important nugget of knowledge. Think about it. Nurture it. Maybe help the idea spread. It won’t be a grassroots movement unless you help it grow.
If you would like to hear our interview on the Untoxicated Podcast of a public policy expert discussing the next steps, please click here (if you want to skip the dot connecting, and get right to the policy discussion, please proceed to the 40 minute mark).
Cupach, W., & Comstock, J. (1990). Satisfaction with Sexual Communication in Marriage: Links to Sexual Satisfaction and Dyadic Adjustment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0265407590072002
Kontula, O., & Miettinen, A. (2016). Determinants of Female Sexual Orgasm. Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5087699/#__ffn_sectitle
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as You Are. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Oliver, V., van der Meulen, E., Larkin, J., & Flicker, S. (2013). If You Teach Them, They Will Come: Providers’ Reactions to Incorporating Pleasure into Youth Sexual Education. Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Journal of Public Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6973705/#__ffn_sectitle
Towne, A. (2019). Clitoral stimulation during penile-vaginal intercourse: A phenomenological study exploring sexual experiences in support of female orgasm. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. Retrieved from https://muse-jhu-edu.ezp2.lib.umn.edu/article/722526
Velten, J., & Margraf, J. (2017). Satisfaction guaranteed? How individual, partner, and relationship factors impact sexual satisfaction with partnerships. Bochum, Germany: PLoS ONE. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0172855
Wallen, K., & Lloyd, E. (2010), Female Sexual Arousal: Genital Anatomy and Orgasm in Intercourse. Schaumburg, IL: Hormones and Behavior. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3894744/#__ffn_sectitle