One of the most haunting marital stories I've been told involved the male best friend of a former colleague. This lawyer had a wife he adored, two teenage children and – perhaps most enviably of all – a sex life that had held steady into the couple's early 50s. Right up until the point his wife confessed she had never had an orgasm over the 24 years of their marriage and had been faking them all along.
More than that, she had never had an orgasm with previous boyfriends and had no idea what women were talking about when they described supernova bursts of ecstasy. It was impossibly hard for the husband to come to terms with the fact their pleasure had never been properly reciprocal, and the marriage collapsed under the strain.
Now the topic has come to the big screen with Sophie Hyde's critically praised movie Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, in which Emma Thompson plays a middle-aged widow whose dull marriage yielded scant erotic pleasure, let alone climactic joy. Determined to make up for lost time, she hires a young male sex worker, Leo, in the hope that – at long last – the earth moves.
This scenario may sound far-fetched, but I know of women in pleasure-starved extremis who took the same step with men who describe themselves as intimacy coaches or somatic therapists, rather than escorts. And, yes, there is an accredited training process – even if the qualifications and process tend to be better known in locations such as San Francisco or the Netherlands, where there's a longer history of sexological bodywork (meaning a practitioner may touch intimate areas as part of therapy).
The film's writer, comedian Katy Brand, told me she based the character of Leo on real somatic therapists in Germany and Holland, who she met during her research. They talked about sex in the open way Leo does in the film, Brand says, adding: "It seems to me to be the absolute height of enlightenment."
But that's the continent – what about in the more buttoned-up UK? Actually, tracking down an articulate youngish man who works in the sexual intimacy field proved surprisingly easy. Within two phone calls, I found myself talking to 33-year-old Sebastian Wright, who I can safely say epitomises the candid approach Brand was talking about.
Wright says his work divides into areas: he undertakes escort assignments, but he also practices as an "intimacy and sexual skills coach" – and often collaborates with sex therapists who recommend him to clients.
Nor is it unusual for women to make the approach, says Wright, saying they'd never had an orgasm; his oldest clients have been in their late 50s and youngest in their early 20s. He explains: "You need to get a bit of background first, and what they've already tried, to get proper guidance. Challenges can be related to a specific stage in life."
Some have experienced trauma, he explains, or shame, that builds up in their bodies and creates "a roadblock". Although there are others who discover their anorgasmia (the inability to achieve orgasm) is related mostly to an expectation they should reach crescendos of pleasure via sexual intercourse alone, once proper foreplay is introduced to the equation everything changes.
Wright sometimes finds the most effective route is to take the emphasis off orgasms altogether. Pace is everything; he says "slowing a woman down before arousal is massively important. They often feel awkward or ashamed of their body." Other clients have become over-dependent on sex toys and pornography to reach orgasm and want to "de-escalate away from those forms of stimulation".
When I ask Wright how he got into this work, he says: "The world of non-monogamy was in line with my curiosity; the more I experienced it, the more I loved it. I wanted to apply myself and learn about the sexual intimacy coaching side of it." On average, he now sees three or four clients a week and sessions vary from a couple of hours to a whole week. He'd just returned from a weekend away with a regular client.
But he is at pains to emphasise the issue of fully informed consent is paramount, that women learn their own boundaries. Wright is talking about the way everyone absorbs cultural and social customs, which with women often means a deeply instilled duty to please overriding their natural instincts. The fear of causing offence is a common inhibition in the bedroom, where women find it hard to prioritise their pleasure.
Many people believe this learning process should come before anything else; at the forefront is Adam Wilder, who is established in "the intimacy and connection space". The kind and charismatic Wilder set up Shhh! Dating (speed-dating without conversation) and the Togetherness website and events: "social technologies for flow states and embodied self-leadership". Which may sound woo-woo, but really means reaching deep inside for self-knowledge and better relationships.
Wilder espouses The Wheel of Consent (established by US chiropractor and "sexological bodyworker" Dr Betty Martin), which he explains as follows: "A lot of us are very much focused on the idea we should be enjoying what this person is doing to us – and, if we're not, we think 'there must be something wrong with me, my body is broken, I must have an orgasm'."
He says the practice teaches there are three components of pleasure: the stimulus (the actual touch, or sensation), the context (where and when that stimulus is happening, and who's involved), and thirdly, the meaning (if your partner touches you, the meaning's different to a stranger doing so). Wilder adds: "To be able to receive pleasure we need to have these three elements running harmoniously together." Fundamentally, it's about exploring the sort of touch and experience we actually like.
An increasing number of women in their 50s and 60s have started attending Wilder's workshops. He's noted "a lot of them have spent their whole lives serving others", whether that's husbands, children, parents, or working in a caring role like nursing (Thompson's character in the film is a teacher).
It's hard to be in touch with your own pleasure, he points out, "when you're overworked, and tired". So, he sets exercises where the purpose is to "slow down, notice sensation and experience the physiological changes in our body". At that point, people start "switching into the state of receiving pleasure and being in charge of controlling it".
Wilder says this not only builds "the foundation of our sexual embodiment in orgasms, but it actually starts changing the way we actually show up in the world".
For some women, an intimacy coach may be difficult to find – or just too embarrassing. For them, the answer may lie in the new generation of sex toys, which have a more intense mode of stimulation than traditional vibrators. The upmarket erotic emporium Coco de Mer has just brought out its own suction and air-pulse toy, The Stimulator, which a single friend deemed so miraculous "I may never go on a date again". CEO Lucy Litwack says many of her customers don't need further help after "trying toys like this for the first time".
One thing is certain: the much-cited "pleasure gap" – meaning the deficit in the number of orgasms women experience by comparison to their male partners – looks likely to diminish as women's quest for sexual equality and satisfaction becomes a mainstream preoccupation. As Litwack says, "Female pleasure is not a luxury, it's a necessity."
Orgasm by the numbers
• 81.6 per cent of women don't orgasm from intercourse alone
• 9 per cent of women have faked an orgasm
• During partnered sex, women take an average of 14 minutes to orgasm
• Women in a relationship of more than six months are more than six times as likely to orgasm during a sexual encounter than a woman might be with a first-time hookup
• 5-10 per cent of women have never orgasmed
- Source: The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy