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Missing in Action

The hunt for the elusive female orgasm.


Inside Richard-Carla for Hair, a University Heights salon, the estrogen is pumping and the conversation is jumping. This is a very serious matter. We're not talking about highlighting.

"Nature is cruel," says Maria, a curvy, 33-year-old stylist. (Her name, like many in this story, has been changed to protect her sex life.) "Out of an entire month, there are only two days when I can have an orgasm. That's when I'm ripe, and my boyfriend hardly has anything to do with it. Believe me, he's endowed, he's got a nice package, but at any other time of the month, I can't make it work."

Losing an orgasm's embrace; it happens to all women, says Kim, a slender receptionist. It's just that most women lie about it, lies being the lube of choice in any high-performance relationship. After all, there's little upside in discussing a man's inability to satisfy a woman.

But the fact of the matter is, some women's orgasms go missing in action for weeks, months, even years. It's just that no one seems to know why, and no one wants to talk about it.

"No, I've NEVER had THAT problem!" protests a thirtysomething woman from Solon.

"Anthony would KILL me if I talked about THAT!" says a Shaker Heights woman before quickly changing the subject.

So begins our hunt for this most mysterious creature, the elusive female orgasm.

It's a windy, winter-gray Monday outside the Crazy Horse Men's Club in Bedford Heights. Within its stone exterior is a dated, den-like ambiance, with mirrors and a buffet lunch. It could be any neighborhood bar, but for the circular stage with a polished steel pole in the middle. And, of course, the absence of clothes.

A topless woman, whose peanut-butter-brown tan is spread evenly, with no lines, works the pole with slow, arching moves. Dirty Vegas blasts from the speakers. A manager approaches and asks me what's up. I need to talk to some women about losing their orgasm, I say.

"Oh, you won't find anyone here with that problem," says Scott, a club manager who, in keeping with industry custom, uses only a first name.

The reaction is quite the opposite at the bar, where two women in form-fitting dresses drag on Marlboros. "You definitely have come to the right place to talk about that!" says Nadia, an 18-year-old blonde with ironed-in curls and large, honest eyes.

Then her smile fades. She tells of her first love, which amounted to a three-year relationship. The sex "never worked," she says. "Even if you're both trying, if the guy doesn't last long enough, it can't work." She has a healthy, youthful roundness that fills out her floor-length velvet dress. "Since I was silent during sex, he always thought I was having an orgasm, but I wasn't."

Her next man had a big ego and thought he was the libidinal equivalent of LeBron James. "I was like no, I don't think so." He had his set of tricks, but his magic failed her. "What works on one girl won't necessarily work on another one."

The problem, Nadia believes, is that guys don't think about this stuff. "But there are some guys out there who are damn good!" What's her definition of good? "He's just -- oooh! -- he just is." That would be her description for her current boyfriend and their active -- 4-5 times per week -- sex life.

Michelle, the bartender, has been eavesdropping on our discussion. She rests her elbows on the bar, chin in her hands, as she speaks with soft sadness. "I didn't have an orgasm until I was 27, and that was after a 10-year relationship with one guy," she says grimly. "He was not a giver."

Danielle, 22, with Halle Berry perkiness, saunters over; she is shocked by the conversation. Her eyebrows shoot up and her jaw drops. "I would die!" she blurts out. "I've never had that problem!"

No, indeed. "If it's not working for me, I masturbate. I tell him I'm not interested, and I take care of myself, right there, in the middle of it."

She has one other fact she'd like to share. "Masturbation is something I do daily, but I'm a nympho."

She chuckles, then sashays over to greet a patron.

It's Saturday night in downtown Cleveland. At Metropolitan Café, on the corner of West Sixth and St. Clair, the fashionable wine-by-the-glass, bling-bling-flashing professional crowd is chilling.

Jade, an insurance saleswoman from Strongsville, wants to talk about her six-month-old relationship with Steve, a guy from Oregon who designs electronics.

"Best sex of my life!"

She is short and blonde, and possesses a certain toughness, evident in her smirk. She met Steve at O'Hare airport in Chicago, and they see each other every two weeks. Before Steve, her bed was home to disappointment. "We've all faked it, just to get out of the room," she says. "Sure, why not?"

She can explain.

"It all depends on who you're with. It has less to do with physical factors and more to do with psychological ones." She smiles, then grabs her cell phone. "You should talk to Steve. He'll tell ya whatcha wanna know."

Never mind that Steve is at a wedding in Oregon. He's happy to talk about a previous relationship with a woman who could never have an orgasm before he came along. He chalks it up to his guiding philosophy: Don't worry about yourself. Worry about the other person, and she'll take care of you.

"Just do your best. There's no magic answer to making it work. If she says she can't have one, don't worry about it. I don't get offended."

A man nearby is listening. Chris, an Akron business consultant, wears a drunken, surly gaze and an olive shirt that conforms to his muscled build. He wants to share. "If a woman had that kind of problem, she wouldn't be with me," he declares. "Who the hell knows what's going on? How would I know?"

His silent, stone-faced girlfriend, seated next to him, apparently isn't saying.

Further down the bar, Sam is having a glass of red wine with a girlfriend. She's an electrical engineer, married 10 years before going solo for the last 10. The Lakewood woman's easy smile is framed by straight, frosty hair. She's most wary of "dresser guys," the kind "so hot you'd want to put them on your dresser just to look at." Typically, they're too arrogant to be good lovers. "They aren't reciprocal, and they're too into themselves."

Sam believes that all guys think they are great lovers; their egos preclude accepting that their technique may need work. She offers gentle, easy-to-assemble instructions: "Remember that the most erogenous part of the body is the mind. If you arouse her mind, then you can do fabulous things with the rest of her."

Across the street is Blue Point Grille. It houses the equally affluent long-leather-coat crowd, which is presently scanning the room for quality game.

"If I were patient, I could wait for a guy to get me there, but instead, I set the ground rules," says Kathy, a legal secretary from Parma. "When I say don't move, I mean don't move a muscle. Just stay where you're at, 'cause I know what to do to make it work."

There was a time, however, when she wasn't such a commanding presence.

"I was with a man from my late teens until age 33, when we got divorced," she explains. "It was the worst sex of my life."

Since the divorce, she's lost count of how many guys she's been with, but her estimate surpasses 40. "I went through a woo-woo phase, where I'd see a guy and say, "Woo! I want you!' Then I'd see another guy and be like, 'Woo! I want you, too!'

"It was crazy. I didn't want to date. 'Don't call me,' I'd tell the guy, 'I'm moving on.' I had what I called my collection basket, filled with guys' phone numbers. I was with guys of all ages -- old, young, even a 21-year-old -- and with some of them, we did it all night long."

Since that phase, she has been in a five-year relationship with her former boss. "He's awesome in bed!" And on a desktop or an office chair, she adds. "You name it." It's the kind of sex that makes her quiver with mini-seizures.

Along the way, she's gained some wisdom. "You need to tell a man what you want, like slow down! We're not running here! Tell him he needs to make it more romantic. He needs to touch you and work himself up to you. And foreplay is a big deal. You should experiment with different positions, too."

She also suggests masturbating in front of him, so that he knows what you like. "If you got all that going, you'll have that orgasm."

Her friend Tammy, who manages a band in North Olmsted, sings a different tune. "I have a few boy-toys out there, who are always hanging out at the same places, and they have nice, big dicks. But with them, I'd rather have hot, steamy sex without an orgasm, because I can have one by myself with toys."

Some nights, she just doesn't care about the Big O. It's intimate contact she craves. "When I'm lonely, an orgasm is not important, but being with a guy is. I need a human touch, the real thing, but it's not essential to have an orgasm."

How does she communicate this? "I just go along with it and say that it's not going to work for me, and let him finish."

She admits, though, that she's not easy. And the challenge often elicits the wrong response from guys. "When they get frustrated with me, they go faster and harder, and I need the opposite." They might benefit from a night with her friend Kathy, but Kathy, we're certain, is busy.

A happy, post-dinner group enters the bar. Three women split from their men. They know about orgasms on hiatus.

"Everyone has had that problem! Thank God for battery-operated toys!" says Sandy, who's engaged and lives on the West Side. Her girlfriends speak euphemistically. "There are a lot of variables to making it work." "It depends on who you're with . . . a one-night stand, a new relationship, or a husband." The last of which just happen to be returning with drinks and want in on the discussion.

"What guy is going to say, 'Yeah, I know about that?'" says Leroy, when informed of the topic. He's a hair-products salesman, visiting from Chicago. "What guy will admit to it?"

His buddy wants no part of the conversation, but soon admits that his wife lost her O. Okay, it happened recently. Okay, look, it marked the beginning of a huge sexual dry spell.

He has a 10-week-old baby.

McCarthy's Olde Boston Ale House in Lakewood is where the boys are on Friday night. It's a loud, low-on-atmosphere, high-on-cheap-beer kind of bar. The guys conform to a specific uniform: button-down-collar shirt, T-shirt underneath, with jeans or cargo pants to complete the look. They also don't mind giving their names.

Steve Wickstrom, 26, has no idea what he'd do if confronted with a nonorgasmic female. As he thinks about it, his sweet smile gives way to a perplexed expression. "Maybe I'd tell her to see a doctor."

Across the floor is Marty Joyce, 24, who's equipped with long sideburns and serious attitude. "I'd tell her to go home." But just so there's no misunderstanding, he adds, "I can last all night."

After giving the issue the same serious consideration he would give to the over/under on a Cavs game, Jason Cleaver, 30, thinks he's got it. "Some girls just need the right environment. Like if someone is in the other room, they can't do it." The problem is that they can't push through their mental block. "We [guys] are less mentally concerned."

He asks his buddies if they know when a woman is having an orgasm. They talk amongst themselves. Several minutes go by. "I can tell, but sometimes I can't. But other times, it's very obvious," Cleaver declares.

Over by the bar entrance, Jim Grobe and his pal Andrew (no last name, please) instantly chug their beers when the issue is raised. Grobe suggests that it's all a matter of experience. "Hopefully, she has been on a test run or two and knows what she likes."

Andrew wouldn't sweat the situation. "As long as I'm happy . . .," he says.

Sex therapist Sherry Lehman says it's very common for women to lose their orgasm. "It happens to almost all women, and they often fear that this is it, they'll never get it back."

So what's a woman to do?

"I talk to patients about how they can help themselves. We discuss masturbation techniques, either with a vibrator or their hand. This way, at least with themselves, they can be reassured that their orgasm hasn't gone away forever."

Lehman, a striking woman with bright blue eyes, vibrant lipstick, and conservatively styled blond hair, is the author of two books -- It Was Better in the Back Seat: How to Recharge Your Sex Life and Love Me, Love Me Not: How to Survive Infidelity. Her office in Woodmere's Eton shopping complex is a vision of tranquillity. Everything -- the walls, the carpet, the furniture -- is white.

She walks to a closet where she keeps her stock of vibrators. "I sell them to patients who are uneasy about going to a sex-toys store." She bought her supply at a drugstore, where they pass for massage tools. They look more like hand mixers.

Lehman understands that some men feel threatened by vibrators, "'Cause there's nothing on them that can work like it," she says, chuckling.

But why do women become, to use the medical term, anorgasmic?

She offers many reasons: certain medicines, such as antibiotics and anti-inflammatories; past traumatic sexual experiences; dieting too heavily (you can't relax when you're starving); excessive exercise; shifting hormones; and stress. "Most of us are so stressed out -- it's unbelievable that women even function."

Ultimately, women needn't worry about their orgasms, she says. "I operate under the assumption that if you've had them before, you will again, unless there's a serious illness."

She defines the loss as temporary and situational, which means that something is going on in a woman's head.

But when a woman is having trouble, what is a man supposed to do? Sometimes, the answer is nothing. "Dynamite won't even work.

"Sex with a woman is a big project," she admits. "Men have my sympathy."


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