"For 25 years I had a lousy sex life. I blamed my husband over and over again. If only he did such and such, I thought, things would be different. I was sure it was all his fault.
"I didn't realize that I could do something about the problem myself. Learning this changed my life."
The speaker is Jane, a small, energic woman of 50, mother of two grown children and now on a second career in business management. Through-out most of her married life she had been unable to achieve orgasm.
Florence, divorced and 54:
"My role had been to tell my husband what a great lover he was. One thing I never told him was the truth: I had never had an orgasm in the 28 years we were married. I was afraid if he knew the truth it would unbalance the relationship by spoiling the nice little illusion."
Julie, 30, single, a lawyer in a federal agency: "I felt left out. What was successful sex really like? What did an orgasm feel like? And why couldn't I experience one? I thought I was defective. I was worried."
So was Susan. She prized her marriage deeply, but at 35 she found herself completely disinterested in sex. Successful in a busy career as a congressional lobbyist, she was at a loss as to a remedy for her personal life. c
These women and several hundred more in the Washington area of varied ages and backgrounds - but with a similar inability to experience orgasm -- have participated in a series of therapeutic workshops which deal directly and effectively with sexual difficulties.
"A surprising number of women in their 20s are experiencing this kind of difficulty," says social worker Naomi Kolko. "One would think that with society's more liberal attitudes towards sex, this would not be so. But it may be that the pressures to perform are even greater on women now than they used to be.
"Until they come into this program, there are women who feel very alone, as if they're extremely unusual, or as if they're some kind of a freak. They have the idea that everyone out there is having a marvelous sex life and that most women are multi-orgasmic. It's something they don't even talk to their friends about."
The workshop program, which costs $300, is directed by certified social worker Linda Levine and certified social workers Kolko and Phyllis Hirschkop, both of whom she has trained.Six to eight women meet as a group with a therapist two hours a week for 10 weeks and follow a structured curriculum.
The workshop is patterned after one developed in California by psychologist Lonnie Barbach of the Universtiy of California Medical Center's Human Sexuality Program. In her book, "For Yourself: The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality" (Doubleday), Barbach outlines steps to help women learn to achieve orgasm themselves through intimate knowledge and acceptance of their bodies.
"Each woman is unique," says Barbach in her book. "Although women have some sexual likes, dislikes and responses in common, basically each woman has an idiosyncratic sexual pattern that is all her own.
"Just as each of us knows what diet works best when we want to lose weight, and what will best cheer us up when we are feeling blue, each woman can know her sexual self and be an authority on her own body. Once you understand yourself better, it's easier to communicate your sexual needs to a partner."
While the word masturbation -- particularly for women, is still a shocker, even a sin, in some circles, it is unblushingly used by Barbach and, in the workshops, as the key to releasing women's sexual energies.
"A lot of people," says Levine, "think females wouldn't, or shouldn't, do such a thing. Girls are supposed to be good. They are not supposed to have sexual feelings.
"But it is precisely that attitude that has led so many little girls to grow up into women who cannot alow themselves to enjoy sex."
Once a woman can achieve orgasm on her own, says Levine, it is fairly easy to transfer that accomplishment into a satisfying relationship with her partner.
The workshop includes extensive teaching about the mechanics of a woman's body, as well as detailed information on the sexual response cycle. Much of the information, in lectures, slides, films and reading materials, comes from Masters' and Johnson's 1960s studies on sexuality.
Each woman must commit herself to one hour of homework each night throughout the course. The first assignment is basic: Go home, take a long sensual bath or shower, relax and get to know your own body.
"Many women grow up without really knowing their bodies," she says. "They feel forbidden to expore themselves. They may have had several children, yet only vague ideas or actually wrong information about how they are built."
Another assignment: Each participant must call her mother and ask directly how she herself first learned about sex. "This can open up a dialogue between daughter and mother," says Levine, "That can be very revealing and instructive."
Crucially important to the workshop are the group sessions, which can be emotionally wrenching and dramatic. Each woman learns gradually to feel safe in discussing the negative and often painful memories, experiences, thoughts and feelings about sex that have inhibited her.
"There may be much anger and fear," notes Levine. "Many women spend years blaming others for their problems. They resist taking responsibility for their sex lives. They may have harbored secret fantasies that they were put together wrong, defective in some horrible way.
"Many feel inadequate, not a real woman because of being non-orgasmic. Within the warmth and acceptance of the group, where each shares her difficulties under the sensitive guidance of a trained therapist, the women begin to face their inhibitions."
Recalls lawyer Julie: "I was so nervous. I thought I would be the one to fail. I said, 'How can you teach someone something like this?'"
Florence: "I go so I could very comfortably talk about sex. It lost its overtones of secrecy and naughtiness."
Susan: "I would sometimes drive home after sessions and cry at the incredible courage the women had to reveal their personal fears and secrets. It was a deeply important part of the experience. The sense of relief at facing our fears was tremendous."
Perhaps the most important issue resolved through the group experience is a basic one: permission to enjoy sex. Many participants admit they did not have that before.
"I was a perfect angel as a child," recalls Jane. "Angels don't enjoy sex and I unconsciously thought I shouldn't either."
Florence: "I thought I had only to give to others, to my husband and children. I didn't think I was worthy of having my needs attended to. I needed permission to allow myself pleasure, and the time, energy and attention to achieve it."
Women also may need permission to let themselves go.
"Some women, particularly the high-powered and career-oriented, must keep control at all costs," says Leving. "Letting go it equated with being weak, yet it is necessary if sex is to be enjoyed."
Another common problem identified by Susan: "Sex was way overcharged as an issue in my life, and had been in my family when I was growing up. I had an incredibly unrealistic and romantic fantasy about orgasm, that it would be earth-shaking, the key to the perfect life, everything the media hype it up to be.
"During the workshop, sex shrank in its importance, becoming life-sized, rather than larger-than-life. It isn't distorted out of proportion anymore."
For Florence, who is now involved with a man on a regular basis, becoming orgasmic meant attaining a long-desired goal: "When I finally had my first orgasm by myself at home, about halfway through the course, I was surprised, and so delighted. It was amazing, marvelous really.
"I had given birth to four children, yet I hadn't known my own anatomy. If only I had learned these techniques and faced it all at 25. I find that my friends, other women like me in their 50s, just clam up at the first mention of sex. I feel sorry for them."
Susan says her marriage "stabilized" as a result of her participation in the workshop. "I go around now trying to convert people to marriage . . . and to the workshop."
"When I became orgasmic," remembers Julie, "I wanted to jump up and dance and sing. My homework paid off."
She has since met a man with whom she is living and is talking about making it permanent. "I like the whole world better now because I don't feel left out anymore."
"Nothing happened overnight," says Jane. "It was step by step. As I started to experience sexual feelings that I had been out of touch with before, I stopped blaming my husband. Now we have a wonderful sex life, which has brought us much closer. And all this, after so many difficult years.
"There are no words in Webster to tell you what the change has been."
About three out of four women in the workships, according to Levine, become orgasmic through the workshop approach. Stressing that there are no guarantees, she says some participants' emotional difficulties are too complex to sort out in the brief workshop.
A screening session (cost $40) is required, during which the therapist can help each woman decide if the course's approach is for her. Sexual partners are encouraged to attend the screening sessions, since their support is considered necessary for success.
"If a woman is involved with a man who is going to fight her taking the course, it is unlikely to work out," says Levine. "She needs his cooperation."