Love + Sex
In Search of the Big “O”
Exclusive Interview with Mara Altman, author of “Thanks for Coming”
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Like many women, Mara Altman struggled to reach orgasm. In fact, she’d gone through 26 years of life, five (“and a half”) sexual partners, and piles of encouragement from sexually open parents and friends – yet still, zero Os.
So Mara, being braver (crazier?) than most, decided to write an emotionally honest and unabashedly detailed book about her quest for an orgasm. Thanks for Coming recounts her visits to sexual shamans, her chats with porn stars and her evenings with a sexual surrogate. The results are anything but anticlimactic.
Mara opened up about her O-quest to BettyConfidential’s Carrie Seim.
Carrie Seim: Why did you decide to write a book about your quest for an orgasm?
Mara Altman: I actually had a friend suggest the topic to me. (He knew of my orgasmic difficulties). I became incredibly defensive and pissed off. I didn’t speak to him for a few days. But then the idea kind of grew on me and I realized that I could hit two birds with one stone–put my journalistic and writing interests to work while going on a personal journey for something that had left me mystified (and somewhat frustrated) my whole life.
CS: Were you at all embarrassed or squeamish?
MA: I went into this quest with a lot of confidence, but as I reported and began hearing people’s reactions to the theme–“Oh my God; You’re crazy; REALLY?!” –I started to question my anorgasmic self and a little shame came up. I think women feel dysfunctional or embarrassed when they don’t orgasm, which makes it something very difficult to talk about. Even with friends. I was willing to continue on this journey, partially in the hopes that the stigma women feel would instead become curiosity and a desire to hunt down their own pleasure (plus, I was having fun).
CS: What did your parents, friends and–most important–the men you were dating think about the book?
MA: My best friends were excited that I was finally tackling this issue. It’d been too long that I had kept saying to myself (and them), I’ll deal with ‘all that stuff’ tomorrow … which meant never.
My parents were intrigued by the idea. They are a very open and loving couple. One of their main hopes for me and my siblings is for us to have happy and fulfilling personal lives. They apparently knew that knowing one’s orgasm (which in my case meant knowing myself) leads one in that direction. But basically, they acted as the bumpers in my bowling lane, making sure that I didn’t fall too deep in the gutter.
I didn’t have a boyfriend when I started the journey. Though that wasn’t planned, I was very happy to go into this quest alone. I wasn’t depending on another person to figure it all out for me. It was me, my mind, and my crotch. A battle ‘til orgasm!
CS: You say that you had sex with five (and a half) men, but never reached orgasm. Why do you think you just never tried it on your own or with a vibrator?
MA: I think there are a lot of factors that go into this answer, some that I’m not even privy to. My parents were very open about sex, so it’s very strange that I had a kind of repulsion. I cared much more about getting an ‘A,’ or another article in the paper, than about getting off. All my energy (sexual and otherwise) was channeled into my career aspirations … I realized how foreign my own body had become. It was time, as they say, to take the issue into my own hands.
CS: You embarked on many unusual and highly graphic sexual adventures in your quest for the Big O, including a stroking lesson with the “Orgasm People” and even masturbating inside an MRI machine. Which was the most fun? Which was the most bizarre?
MA: Fun and bizarre definitely go hand in hand in this book. A lot of the adventures were also nerve-racking. Self-discovery, in my case, left me extremely naked on the page and often times, in front of other people. I think one of the more bizarre experiences was–ahhhh, there were so many–well, paying for someone to give me a genital massage was odd. It felt really wrong to exchange money for sex (not intercourse), but Satya, the woman I saw, was a professional tantrika/sex worker, highly gifted and trained. After two hours, I left her ‘temple room’ feeling like a rejuvenated woman. After that experience, I would advise any woman who was interested in learning more about her sexuality to go to one of these amazing sex workers/tantra teachers.
CS: Tell us more about Eric, a sexual surrogate figure you refer to as your “sacred whore.”
MA: I met Eric when I visited Betty Dodson, who is also called the Mother of Masturbation. She’s in her late 70’s and was very active in women’s pleasure during the sexual revolution. Eric, 31, is her assistant and also her non-monogamous partner. At the beginning of my quest, Betty gave me a little crotch consultation, and at the end, she suggested that if I really sucked and couldn’t find my orgasm, then she’d lend me Eric.
I found myself alone with Eric one month later. It was incredibly intimidating. He’s basically a sex teacher, carnal professor, hands-on trainer. We met several times throughout my quest and each time he guided me toward knowing myself. He’s so strange to me, because I’ve never met a man who was more in tune with what a woman needs. He went as slow as I needed. He constantly gave feedback. He brought me toys–a big ole hot-pink dildo and some nice-sized purple vibrator–and taught me how to use them properly (the next day he would e-mail me a summary and report complete with ways to improve my masturbatory form).
CS: Did you ever develop feelings outside of sex for him?
MA: I never did develop feelings for him. At the time, I was almost positive that I would. I couldn’t imagine being so intimate with someone (and with someone who had my pleasure as the number-one goal on his mind) and not fall in love with him or at least grow emotionally attached. But we didn’t. We made a conscious boundary. He was my teacher and I was his student (and come on, could you imagine having a sex teacher boyfriend? “Hey honey, how was work today? Who’d you screw?”)
CS: Was Hank–the guy you ended up dating while writing the book–ever jealous of Eric?
MA: Hank did not understand the Eric relationship. The idea of a sex professor sat with him about as well as a cat sits with a mouse. But Hank was amazing. Though I can’t say he liked or every really accepted the idea of a sex professor, he was reluctantly open to it as long as we weren’t formally boyfriend and girlfriend (which was smart of him, because who do you think reaped all the benefits of the new moves I learned?). I only saw Eric once while I was dating Hank, because Hank and I began dating seriously.
CS: Now that you’re having orgasms, can you describe the best one you’ve ever experienced and how it happened?
MA: I’m still working on orgasms. After 26 years of not coming, there is some catch-up to do. Physiologically, my body has to become accustomed to orgasms. Some scientists and sex professionals I talked with said that any activity creates neural pathways in the brain and the more you do a certain activity, the easier it will become.
CS: Finally, can you give any suggestions to women out there struggling to reach orgasm? The more specific the better!
MA: First, I would say don’t judge or be mad at yourself. Try to let go of expectations–absolutely no ‘shoulds’!
Some other advice that I found really helpful was from a tantra teacher, Zola. She said, “Be the mistress of your own pleasure.” It’s a sexy way to say, play with yourself. Do it a lot. Play with your body every day. Light candles. Take a bath. Buy yourself a new toy. Your fingers are a harem and your p***y is king.
One more thing I’d like to add is that I really hope this book inspires women to ask more from their sex lives. Any woman, orgasmic or not, can design a journey to learn more about her sexuality and to find more pleasure. You deserve it.