As many know, an orgasm is usually an intensely pleasurable sexual release. Orgasms can be mild, like a hiccup or a sigh. They can be sensuous experiences, as the body glows with warmth. They can feel intensely physical, intensely emotional, or both. They can even be ecstatic, moving us into a different kind of consciousness that causes us to lose our everyday awareness. Orgasms can feel different at different times, depending on a whole host of factors: our emotional and physical state; whether we are masturbating solo or having sex with partners (including which partners and how we feel about them); the type and amount of sexual stimulation; our energy level and degree of excitement; and our hormones and health.
Physiology of the Female Orgasm
Like snowflakes, no two orgasms are exactly alike. Still, there are commonalities that have been documented in orgasms across time. These common features don’t always occur, much less occur in the same order, but generally orgasm is one stage in a sexual response cycle that includes willingness, desire, sexual arousal, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Pleasure is possible at any point in the cycle, as is sexual shut down.
Willingness means we’re open to being sexual, whether we’re already feeling desire or not. For those of us who have responsive desire, willingness—making the decision to go for it—is the first step.
Desire is when we feel, emotionally, that we are hungry for sex, that we really, really want sex. Desire may come before willingness, or vice versa. Either way is healthy and normal.
During arousal, we have the potential to respond to sexual arousal throughout the entire body and especially the pelvic region. As we get more turned on, the whole pelvic area may feel full, as erectile tissue in the pelvis, vulva, and clitoris swells with blood, and nerves in the area become more sensitive to stimulation and pressure. In the vagina, this increased blood circulation produces the fluid (transudate) that makes the vaginal walls and inner lips wet. We all produce different amounts of lubrication; there may not be much lubrication, there might be plenty, or it may come later, after more sexual stimulation. Sexual tension affects the whole body as muscles begin to tighten. Our heart rate and blood pressure rise, we breathe faster, and we may experience little shivers. Nipples may become erect and hard, and a flush or rash may appear on our face, lips, or chest. In our brains, the part associated with reason, decision making, and value judgments—the lateral orbitofrontal cortex—becomes much less active, which allows us to be bolder and freer than we normally would. Our brains release hormones connected with pleasure and desire into our bloodstreams.
With advances in gender-affirming surgery, most (but not all) trans people who have had bottom surgery are able to experience orgasms. Depending on which type of phalloplasty a trans man receives, he may or may not be able to ejaculate. As might be expected, it can take some time and exploration after healing from genital surgery to discover what feels most pleasurable and how to reach orgasm. Orgasmic ability may also be affected by the age at which hormonal intervention—hormone blockers and/or hormones—were started, as well as by all the other factors discussed in this article.
Those who have had a total hysterectomy, in which the cervix and the uterus have been removed, may learn to focus on different kinds of sexual stimulation and feelings. People with spinal cord injuries who have no feeling in the pelvic area have reported experiencing orgasm and its sensations elsewhere in the body. And some women, nonbinary and intersex people, and trans men can experience orgasm from thought or imagery alone, without any physical touch.
It’s important to note that even if we are very sexually aroused, we may not want to continue having sex. The only way to know for sure what someone wants to do sexually is to ask them. Similarly, we can ask ourselves if we feel like continuing, changing what we’re doing, or stopping, either for a while or for good. Our partners will probably have their own feelings about it if we decide to stop “in the middle” of sex, but respectful partners will always honor our boundaries.
If arousal occurs without orgasm, sexual tension subsides eventually, though it takes longer, and our genitals and/or uterus may ache. This is the analogue of “blue balls” for men; it has the same cause and will resolve itself.
If stimulation continues, we may move into the plateau stage. When this happens, our responses continue to intensify as the vagina becomes more sensitive and the glans of the clitoris retracts under its hood. We may feel “on the edge” of orgasm.
Orgasm is the pleasurable release of all that sexual tension built up during arousal and engorgement of clitoris, vagina, and vulva. Our vaginas contract rhythmically along with other pelvic tissue. Our hands and feet may also clench, leading us to cling to the bed or a partner. Our brains release large amounts of endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine. Endorphins are “feel-good” hormones that can make us feel happy, joyous, transported, and satisfied. Oxytocin is the “love hormone,” which promotes bonding with sexual partners. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and desire.
An orgasm typically lasts under 15 seconds, although some female orgasms can last as long as a minute or even two. Right after an orgasm, some people’s clitoris is too sensitive to touch.
After orgasm, we may go back to the resting state (resolution), in which our bodies return to the resting state, dopamine dips, and other hormones create a sensation of satiety, contentment, and sleepiness. Or we may continue sexual activity and possibly go on to have additional orgasms. Some women orgasm once, some twice or more in quick succession. But even though multiple orgasms are possible, this doesn’t mean that everyone has them or that you’re sexually inadequate if you don’t. Partners may expect it, too, yet one orgasm can be plenty, and sex without orgasm can also be pleasurable. Sometimes orgasms (single or multiple) become one more performance pressure or goal. Try to remember that pleasure, not an orgasm, is the most important part.
There is no known limit to how many orgasms someone can have, although they can become less enjoyable if we get sore from stimulation or grow tired over time. As Heather Corinna writes,
All the blood that has been pooling in the genitals and other sensitive body parts will drain out slowly, usually causing genitals to return to their “resting” state. If we’ve reached orgasm, resolution will feel like a release of tension and stress in our bodies. The resolution stage can also happen without orgasm: if we simply stop being sexually aroused, our bodies will gradually return themselves to their normal, everyday, non-aroused state.
Importance of the Clitoris
The clitoris is at the center of the female orgasmic universe. For most of us, it is the organ that is most sensitive to stimulation, and it plays a leading role in elevating feelings of sexual arousal. It has about 8,000 sensory nerve fibers; more than anywhere else in the human body and nearly twice the amount as on the head of a penis. Unless we discover it has other functions, the clitoris is the only organ in the human body whose sole purpose is to bring us pleasure.
The clitoris is so much more than the extremely pleasurable bulb (or glans) that we can see and touch; it is an expansive network of erectile tissues, glands, and nerves, connected to muscles and most of which is internal. It has bulbous internal extensions (called the vestibular bulbs) and internal winglike extensions (called the corpus cavernosum) which wrap around the vagina. About 90 percent of the clitoris is internal, invisible to the naked eye. The entire clitoris, internal and external, engorges with blood when we’re sexually aroused. At its most engorged, the internal clitoris swells well beyond its resting length of about 9 cm.
Despite its centrality to our sexual pleasure and orgasms, our culture has a vast ignorance of the clitoris, which is downplayed across the culture. We may never hear the word “clitoris” growing up, and it we are unlikely to be taught its importance or even its location anatomically. Instead, our entire vulvas, including our clitorises, will be referred to as our “vaginas”—a kind of verbal clitoridectomy. The word clitoris will likely be minimized or entirely erased from our dictionaries, anatomy textbooks and diagrams, and, often, sex education materials.
As you can see, female and male genital anatomy have a lot in common. The clitoris and penis are analogous to each other, as are the labia and scrotum. We all have genitals capable of bringing us sexual pleasure as well potentially leading to reproduction.
It’s normal to need direct and sometimes prolonged clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm, whether with or without a partner. Using a vibrator and lubricant when masturbating or during sex with a partner is not only pleasurable but may make having orgasms with a partner easier.
You or your partner can stimulate your clitoris in many different ways—with hands and fingers, orally, and by using body pressure or a vibrator. Communication is key. Any rubbing or pressure in the pubic mound (mons) area or the vaginal lips, and even on the lower abdomen and inner thighs, can move the clitoris and may also press it up against the pubic bone.
Given how critical the clitoris is to sexual pleasure, you’d think it would be very well known. Yet even today many anatomical diagrams used in teaching anatomy omit it completely. And the full anatomy of the clitoris was only documented in 2005 by Dr. Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist who used ultrasound imaging to identify its contours. We still have a long way to go toward bringing the clitoris out of the shadows. Much more than the penis, the clitoris is still widely considered taboo. Only misogyny can explain this. Worst of all, in many parts of the world, millions of girls have their clitorises removed in acts of female genital mutilation (FGM).
We and our partners need to become “cliterate” (literate about the clitoris). Sex researcher Dr. Debby Herbenick found that women who strongly agree with the statement, “I feel comfortable using the word clitoris” were significantly more likely to report higher levels of sexual satisfaction compared to those who “strongly disagreed” with this statement. Those who strongly agreed were also much less likely to fake orgasms. Clearly, we need to celebrate the clitoris and our right to pleasure, bodily autonomy, and orgasm, loudly, proudly, and widely.
Not all orgasms directly result from clitoral stimulation. For example, some women experience intense sexual pleasure and orgasm when a particular area inside the vagina, approximately one-third to one-half way up the front wall, is stimulated. This area was named the “G-spot” by sex researchers Dr. John Perry and Dr. Beverly Whipple, in honor of Dr. Ernst Gräfenberg, who published findings about it in 1950. More recent researchers have used different terms to refer to it, including “clitourethrovaginal complex” (CUV), which points to the intertwined nature of the clitoris, urethra, vagina, and related glands. There is still debate among researchers about whether it is a distinct anatomical structure or whether the pleasure some women feel when the area is stimulated is due to its closeness to the bulbs of the clitoris.
Contrary to popular myth, the G-spot is not a magic button that automatically produces ecstasy when pushed. It is not even a “spot.” It is a general area that for some people, at some times, may be very sexually sensitive. And many of us find that exploring this area can enhance sexual pleasure.
If you want to explore whether stimulation of this area is pleasurable for you, set aside a time when you can allow yourself to relax and become aroused. You may want to warm up with other types of stimulation and then use your fingers to explore two to three inches inside the vagina, toward your abdomen. Feel for a rough texture or ridges. It can be helpful to curve your fingers into a “come here” position and explore by massaging and pressing into the area.
Experiment with different positions, such as lying on your stomach or squatting. It may be difficult to find, especially if your fingers are especially short and/or your vagina is especially long.
When you first touch this area, it might feel as if you have to pee. That is because the area of the G-spot surrounds the urethra, the tube you urinate through. The sensation may subside after a few seconds of massage. Your G-spot can also be stimulated by a partner’s fingers or penis, a sex toy, or a G-spot vibrator.
The G-spot isn’t pleasurable for a lot of us; some of us can’t even find it. Like other kinds of sexual stimulation, there’s no need to pursue it unless you feel like it.
Female Ejaculation (Squirting)
For some of us, sufficient stimulation of the G-spot or the clitoris may lead to ejaculation, the release of fluid from the urethra. Some researchers doubt the existence of female ejaculation, but it has been described and honored from ancient Greek writings to the Kama Sutra to 16th-century Japanese artwork.
Ejaculation can occur with or without an orgasm. Although ejaculate is released through the urethra, it is not clear what the fluid is comprised of. Research indicates that it is chemically different from urine, and some research has found its biochemical elements similar to what is found in male prostate fluid. The amount of ejaculate varies, from about a teaspoon to a gush big enough to create a dinner-plate-sized wet spot on the sheets. It looks like watered-down skim milk and the smell and taste may vary during the menstrual cycle. Squirting can bring a feeling of powerful release and pleasure. As one woman describes it:
The sensation when I’m about to squirt is incredibly intense. All my muscles are rigid and I stop breathing and there is nothing I can do to stop what comes next. Then I feel an incredible release as the fluid shoots out of me and my entire body relaxes. It doesn’t happen often, and I can’t make it happen, but when it does it is pretty wonderful!
Importance of Solo Sex to Becoming (More) Orgasmic
Masturbation—touching ourselves sexually—is one way of exploring and enjoying sexual pleasure, and of learning what works for you sexually. Masturbation enables us to explore and experiment with our own bodies and learn what kind of touch feels good. You can discover your own patterns of sexual response without having to think about a partner’s needs and opinions. If you want, you can share what you’ve learned with your partners, by guiding their hands to the places you want touched. It can be freeing to know how to give yourself sensual and sexual pleasure. You become less dependent on others to satisfy you, which can give them freedom, too. Through learning to pleasure yourself, you’re more likely to be satisfied with your sexual life overall, and to orgasm more easily—either alone or with a partner.
Gas and Brakes on Our Sexual Engines
Sex researcher Emily Nagoski argues that human sexuality is like a car’s engine, and we each have a gas pedal and brakes. If the things pressing on the gas pedal (“the ons”) are stronger than the things pressing on the brakes (“the offs”), then we feel sexual. The sexual gas pedal can be pressed by anything you find sexy: the way a partner smiles at you, a sensual or romantic setting, the smell of your lover’s neck or the sight of their body, where you are in your menstrual cycle, the feeling of a warm hand on your waist, intimate conversation, erotica. Sexual brakes can be pressed by anything that distracts, scares, or annoys you, and thus detracts from the sexual mood: resentment about housework, a partner’s clumsy sexual technique, a child’s cry, a sound, or a sensation that reminds you of a bad experience. Women tend to have more sensitive sexual brakes and men tend to have more sensitive gas pedals. Trans, nonbinary, agender, and intersex people’s sexuality hasn’t been studied enough to generalize about where they tend to land in this spectrum. Regardless, there is a wide range of sensitivities to sexual stimuli among people of all genders, and a wide range of contexts that either encourage us to feel sexual or to step on the brakes.
Everyone is different. Finding out what you like, what turns you on, honoring your own feelings, desires, tastes, and preferences is key. What are the “ons” that step on your sexual gas pedal? What are the “offs” that press on your brakes? The more we learn about our own sexual gas and brakes, the more we can arrange to turn off the “offs” and turn on the “ons,” laying the groundwork for pleasure and orgasms.
Communication with Our Sexual Partners
Whether we’re in a monogamous relationship or have multiple partners, communication—both verbal and nonverbal—is key to both pleasure and orgasm. When we can clearly share our sexual and emotional desires, we raise the chances of both pleasure and orgasms. But to do so goes against most of our social conditioning as girls and women. Being open and candid means admitting that we’re sexual beings, acknowledging that we’re separate from our partners with our own feelings and preferences, and acknowledging that we’re worthy of respect and care. None of this comes naturally. But to the extent we can figure out how to value and communicate our sexual needs, we give our partners the opportunity to meet them, and help liberate ourselves both in and out of bed.
The Orgasm Gap
Across every demographic that has been studied, men have a lot more orgasms than women do during male-female sex, an inequality referred to as the orgasm gap. While over 90 percent of men are having orgasms during sex with women, only about 65 percent of women are having orgasms during sex with men. A more nuanced picture emerges, though, when we differentiate by sexual orientation. Straight women and bisexual women climax 65 and 66 percent of the time when they have partnered sex. By comparison, lesbians climax 86 percent of the time when they have partnered sex. The solution—orgasm equality—means prioritizing our partner’s orgasms as much as we value our own, and having our own orgasms valued as much as our partners.
Unfortunately, our patriarchal societies create a lot of destructive myths about orgasm that can get in the way of enjoying real orgasms. Myths about sex and orgasm can come from religion, porn, inaccurate sex education, our families of origin, social and traditional media, and more. Orgasm can be especially fraught for women, trans people, and intersex people. Fortunately, there is much we can do to improve our experience of orgasms. Understanding the myths and facts can empower us to find what works best for our own bodies, minds, and lives.
Why do we pretend to have orgasms? We may want to please our partner or stroke their ego. We may want to get the sex over with because we’re tired or not enjoying it that much. We may want to avoid conflict or demonstrate how sexy we are. For whatever reason, faking orgasms is very common; research shows that close to 60 percent of women have faked orgasm at least once in their lives (although about 2/3 of those who have faked it in the past no longer do so).
Unfortunately, pretending to have orgasms has a negative effect on our sexual satisfaction. It’s easy to understand that when we steer our partners astray—pretending to enjoy something we don’t or pretending to enjoy it much more than we do—our partners don’t learn how to be better lovers. But it’s challenging to communicate our sexual needs, especially when our orgasms are seen as proof of male sexual prowess. The younger we are, the more difficult sexual communication is. Common reasons for our reticence, even when we want to communicate our sexual needs, include not wanting to hurt our partner’s feelings, not feeling comfortable going into sexual details, feeling embarrassed.
Most girls and women have not been taught to value or advocate for our own sexual pleasure. Similarly, many of us still struggle to use anatomically correct language for our genitals. Research by Dr. Debby Herbenick found that women who are more comfortable talking to their partners about their sexual preferences, and who feel comfortable using medically correct terms for their sexual anatomy (i.e., clitoris), are less likely to fake orgasms and more likely to be sexually satisfied. Partners who don’t pressure us to have orgasms, and who are open to communication and feedback, are also critical in creating space for us to share our sexual needs, desires, and preferences. Fortunately, comfort in speaking candidly about our own bodies and sexuality grows with practice, and with a positive feedback loop that’s created when our partners respond positively. When our actual sexual needs are attended to, there’s less pressure to fake our orgasms.
Did I Miss It?
Sometimes it can be difficult to know if you’ve had an orgasm. Orgasms come in different intensities, and with different sensations for different people, and even for the same person at different times and in different situations. They are not always explosive, and you may not make the sounds and gestures you’d expect.
As one woman notes:
The way I’ve heard about orgasms is there’s supposed to be a big release, but that’s not the way it works for me. I feel a really intense buildup that feels great, and then suddenly, my clitoris becomes too sensitive to keep stimulating, so I stop. I no longer have a desire to keep going, and I just feel relaxed and tired, in a good way. I always wonder, did I miss the climax? Or was that not really an orgasm?
If you’re not sure, look at the Physiology of the Female Orgasm section, above. If you’ve experienced some of the typical signs, you probably had an orgasm. Other signs that you’ve probably had an orgasm include:
- You felt sexual tension, and then you felt a release
- Your vaginal and other muscles pulsated or spasmed (you can check this by orgasming with your finger in your vagina)
- You feel happy, relaxed, and satisfied
- You feel sleepy
Just remember, everyone is different, and you are the expert on your own orgasms.
Problems with Orgasm
Keep in mind that even when sex feels good, it may not lead to orgasm. This is perfectly normal, too. Sex can be about pleasure or connection; it doesn’t have to focus on orgasm. And, again, most of us are more likely to orgasm during oral or manual stimulation than during insertive sex.
For some of us, experiencing orgasm is complicated by other issues. Religious and other misogynist conditioning has given us shame about exploring and touching our bodies, which may prevent us from learning to bring ourselves to orgasm through masturbation or with a partner.
Specific problems with orgasm include “delayed” orgasms, fewer orgasms, less-intense orgasms, and complete absence of orgasms. The medical name for the absence of orgasm is anorgasmia or Female Orgasmic Disorder (FOD). But this diagnosis is very problematic, as it reinforces sexist stereotypes about what’s normal. Problems with orgasms, however, are real, and very common. These problems may be life-long, recent, general (even in situations where we formerly climaxed reliably), or situational (only with a particular partner or kind of sex). This last category is tricky, because so many women are distressed by our inability to reach orgasm from penis-in-vagina intercourse. Good sex therapists and other clinicians will educate us on the importance of clitoral stimulation, rather than diagnosing us with “situational anorgasmia.”
Problems with orgasm can have many causes—medications (especially SSRIs), mental health issues (depression, anxiety, psychosis), hormonal changes, fatigue, trauma, relationship problems (infidelity, maltreatment, partner’s illness or death), sexual pain, medical problems (hysterectomy, diabetes, neurological problems.
Sexual, physical, or emotional abuse (past or present) can also impair our ability to orgasm, or even to be mentally present during sex. Arousal may prompt mental and/or physical memories of past abuse, even in a consensual and trusting relationship. Anything that makes us feel unsafe can step on our sexual brakes.
With partners, here are some problems that may get in the way of orgasm:
- You don’t really want to be having sex with this person right now.
- Communication about sex is poor, so you’re not able to guide your partner.
- You and/or your partner need more sex education in order to understand what’s happening during arousal.
- You’re “spectatoring”: too busy thinking about how to do it right, why it doesn’t go well or quickly enough, or whether your partner is into it or is feeling impatient or tired.
- You feel self-conscious about your body’s size, shape, smells, tastes, textures, colors, and/or movements.
- You feel that your body, or body parts, are disgusting and shameful.
- You’re afraid of asking for too much and seeming too demanding.
- You’re afraid that if your partner concentrates on your pleasure, you’ll feel such pressure to orgasm that you won’t be able to—and then you don’t.
- You’re trying to orgasm at the same time as your partner (simultaneous orgasm), which seldom occurs.
- You’re angry at, or have unresolved emotional issues or conflicts with, your sexual partner.
- You’re angry or scared about something that happened in the past, which may or may not have involved the present partner.
- You don’t like what your partner is doing sexually, but you don’t know how to make it stop.
- You’re feeling guilt about having sex and cannot really enjoy it.
- You’re having flashbacks or fantasies that are disturbing to you.
- You’ve bought into the assumption that with a male partner, women should have orgasms through intercourse, and it’s just not working.
- You’ve fallen into a pattern of “faking” orgasm to please a partner or to get it over with.
Not being able to have an orgasm with a partner is not by itself a flaw in a relationship, though it can sometimes be a clue that the relationship needs to change in some way. It may also be that you or a partner needs to learn more about your sexual arousal and responses.
Treatment for Problems with Orgasm
Problems with orgasm are often treatable; even lifelong inability to orgasm responds to treatment in many women. Because there are so many potential causes of problems with orgasm, it’s important to get to the root of the problem. Sex therapists, OB/GYNs, mental health practitioners, and even physical therapists may be helpful.
Sex therapists are specifically trained to help us understand and overcome the complex blocks to orgasm, which may include psychosocial or physical health challenges, relationship dynamics, upsetting or traumatic experiences, lack of sex education, negative religious and cultural messages, and fear of reaching out for what we want. Be sure to look for a feminist sex therapist who is able to help you focus on what matters to you the most, not on labels and diagnoses. No matter how longstanding our problems are, we deserve to enjoy our bodies and sexuality. Reaching out for help when we need it is a sign of strength and can lead to greater sexual pleasure and orgasms.
Every society has unspoken norms that tell us what’s “healthy,” “feminine,” “pure,” and otherwise socially acceptable. When these cultural stories have to do with sexuality, they can interfere with our sex lives and orgasms, along with our lives outside of the bedroom. Some of the most powerful misogynistic stories our society tells us include the sexual double standard, along with “slut shaming,” the idea that for men to be sexual makes them more manly, but women being sexual makes us dirty, shameful, impure sluts. Another one is that girls and women should be beautiful, slim, people-pleasing, and unselfish, and that our worth is based on our ability to attract and keep men. Gendered expectations about who makes the first move, who is “on top” in sex, and even who pays for dates, all contribute to us being less assertive and less orgasmic than men.
Of course, there is also a large amount of physical and sexual violence against women, girls, and gender-expansive people. Sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, slapping, pushing, choking, using weapons to threaten, maim, and kill, up to and including homicide—a large percentage of women, girls, and gender-expansive people have been subject to these forms of violence. Coercive control of the victim’s life is the norm in abusive relationships, as is disbelieving and shaming the victims. Most of this violence is committed by people we know, including family members, intimate partners, and former partners. These crimes are supported by beliefs in family honor and sexual purity, as well as ideologies of male sexual entitlement. They are also supported by a culture of impunity, in which fewer than 2 percent of sexual assaults result in a criminal conviction. Even if we are not direct victims of gender-based violence, we grow up and live in a society rife with violence and the threat of violence. Orgasm, on the other hand, requires letting go, and feeling safe/trusting enough to do so.
Given the misogyny of our culture, and the fact that our culture over-values male sexual pleasure compared to female, and men compared to women, it’s not surprising that women, especially heterosexual women, have less sexual pleasure, and fewer orgasms than their male counterpoints.