By: Alex Shea
We’re told that sex isn’t good unless we have an orgasm - that orgasm is something we’re supposed to achieve. That, as vulva-having people, our sexual experiences aren’t successful if we don’t orgasm from them. This storyline of orgasms as the end-all, be-all of sexual pleasure is not only false, it’s damaging. It can cause anxiety and overwhelm in anyone who hasn’t had an orgasm.
The truth is, you don’t need to have an orgasm to enjoy sex. Nothing is wrong with you or your body. “Having an orgasm from intercourse is much less guaranteed [for women] than for men,” according to sexologist and sociologist, Osmo Kontula, and researcher, Anneli Miettinen. And there’s only 6% of people with vulvas who have orgasms from penetrative sex on a consistent basis.
An entire land of sexual pleasure is available to explore. There are a lot of ways to have an orgasm: clitoral, cervical, vaginal, and other stimulation. It’s also worth noting that combining genital stimulation with non-genital stimulation or leaving genital stimulation out altogether can elicit an orgasm, based on a study done by Concordia University in Montreal. It all comes down to your awareness of your body and its pleasure triggers.
So what do we know about the female orgasm?
During an orgasm, a rush of endorphins release into the body. It involves all your faculties: Physical, mental, and physiological.
The lack of research on the female orgasm may have a lot to do with the fact that people with vulvas were oppressed for hundreds of years. The first vibrator wasn’t even invented for female pleasure. It was created to ease neurological pain in penis-having people.
Before Dr. Joseph Granville innovated the vibrator, doctors gave vulva-having patients pelvic massages to treat hysteria, an umbrella condition that was said to only affect vulva-having people. Sexual frustration was an unexplainable female occurrence that fell under the umbrella of hysteria, which led to doctors giving a lot of manual pelvic massages. With the invention of the vibrator, doctors traded hand-given massages for a machine that made having an orgasm more efficient. Remember, doctors didn’t realize vulva-having people were sexually frustrated or that what they were doing was bringing their patients to orgasm. They were simply treating an unfamiliar set of symptoms with what they had available to them.
Dr. Granville may not have had female pleasure in mind but he was onto something about the female orgasm. In his book, Nerve-vibration and Excitation, he says “the female orgasm is characterized, not inaccurately, though popularly, by the phrase ‘finely strung nerves.’” Without realizing, possibly even subconsciously, he knew the female orgasm had to do with nerve sensations. He knew that the female orgasm was complex and intricate.
The female orgasm is a web of sensations. An entire network of nerves causes your genital muscles to contract and release.
“Orgasm typically – but not always – results from rhythmic stimulation of body parts with high concentrations of sensory receptors,” says Adam Safron, Ph.D. and research associate at the Kinsey Institute. The most sensitive part of the female body is the clitoris which has 8,000 nerve endings. That’s twice as many nerve endings a penis has. Knowing how sensitive the clit is, it makes sense that only 18% of people with vulvas can orgasm with penetration alone.
Throughout history, vulva-having people have been told their sexual pleasure comes second. As vulva-having people received more rights and the freedom to put their pleasure first, a gap in knowledge grew between what they liked versus what society told them they liked.
To this day, the female orgasm remains an enigma. Orgasms are dependent on the person experiencing them and no two are alike. “It is clear that natural selection has not favored females who could orgasm easily, hence it is not likely an essential feature of the reproductive process,” say researchers at The Kinsey Institute.
Since female orgasms are not essential for reproduction, understanding them hasn't been a priority. That, and the patriarchal view that masculine orgasm is more important because it’s necessary for reproduction, are reasons why the female orgasm has barely been studied, up until very recently.
It's hard to pin down the definition of the female orgasm because it involves establishing general rules that apply to every person with a vulva and weaving in their unique experiences.
As Emily Nagoski, sex educator and author, says in her book Come As You Are, “If you really want to understand human sexuality, behavior alone won’t get you there.
“But we’re at a pivotal moment in sex science because, after decades of research describing what happens in human sexual response, we’re finally figuring out the why and how.”
Your body is beautiful.
The pleasure you feel is natural.
And having an orgasm requires a lot more than just physical stimulation.
7 practical ways to elicit an orgasm
An orgasm isn’t the final destination of sex. Think of all the roads and dirt paths you can take along the way that bring you pleasure in different ways. Every one of us has the ability to expand our capacity for sexual pleasure. It requires us to be mindful and conscious of the experience; and to let go of any shame or anxiety that comes from external expectations.
If you have time and would like to practice bringing yourself (or your partner) to orgasm, then here are a handful of practices that you can try right now.
Give oral sex a chance.
Thirty-six percent of people with vulvas need clitoral stimulation to orgasm and an additional 36% indicated that, while clitoral stimulation was not needed, their orgasms felt better if their clitoris was stimulated during intercourse. So give yourselves time to practice. Instead of making oral sex the appetizer, make it the full meal.
Try this: Use affirmation words to let your partner know when they’re doing great things and use your hips. Lift your hips to meet their tongue and rock in a motion that clicks.
Get to know what you like by exploring your body. There are many ways to masturbate so don’t give up if one technique doesn’t work for you.
Try this: Try moving a finger or two around the labia before sliding them inside. For hands-free play, get creative with water, pillows, and furniture.
Or watch your partner touch themselves.
You don’t always have to touch your genitals to have an orgasm. Sometimes watching your partner touch themselves can be exciting enough.
Try this: Ask your partner if mutual masturbation is something they’re comfortable with. Feel free to touch yourself while you watch. Or better yet, touch and kiss them in places that bring them closer to orgasm themselves.
Find a vibrator that makes you purr.
You have dozens of vibrators to choose from. Technology is great that way. They come in all shapes, sizes, and materials. And the good ones heighten your solo or partnered experience.
Try this: Shop around online or in-store for a vibrator that makes you tingle in all the right places. There isn't a safety standard for sex toys yet. So make sure that you know what you’re touching yourself with before you buy.
Use your words.
People with vulvas who can orgasm more frequently tend to use dirty talk, express their feelings, and praise their partner during sex, according to an Archives of Sexual Behavior study. Dirty talk and expressing what you're feeling can help you focus on your pleasure and get clear on what feels good. Being in tune with your body will make it easier to orgasm, as orgasm has a lot to do with your comfortability with your body and familiarity with your pleasure.
Try this: This can be helpful in a relationship if you tend to finish at different times. Talking your partner through what feels good along the way can help you orgasm at the same time. Bonus is that your partner will start to learn what feels good and can aid in bringing you to orgasm!
Tweak and adjust.
Orgasms are fickle. Our bodies are wise and if we can release the expectation that the same thing will always work to bring us to orgasm, we can start to flow with what our body naturally calls us to do. Orgasm can only occur when we are relaxed and comfortable.
Try this: Instead of worrying about "why" something isn't doing it for you tonight, get curious about what your body wants in this moment. The position that worked last night may not work tonight. Adjust to your circumstances and what you’re in the mood for.
Explore erogenous zones.
Nipples. Butt. Ears. Neck. Lower back. All of which are examples of erogenous zones that have nothing to do with your genitals. Twelve percent of people with vulvas reach orgasm through erogenous stimulation itself. So discovering which of yours brings you to the edge may be worth the effort.
Try this: Run your fingers along your body and notice the sensations you feel. When you have sex with your partner, make extragenital touch a priority.
If “Why can’t I orgasm?” has ever crossed your mind, you aren’t alone and you aren’t the first.
Many people with vulvas go their entire lives without having an orgasm or unsure of what an orgasm is when they do have one. Six percent of people with vulvas weren’t sure if they had experienced an orgasm, while 19% had trouble having an orgasm from penetration alone, according to results from a Population Institute Study.
An orgasm can feel like a million different things depending on the person having one.
If you’re not having orgasms, more often than not, nothing is “wrong” with your body and it is simply your mind that is holding you back. If our mind is on the mess we’re making, the work assignment we need to finish, or what to eat for dinner, then we can lose sight of the moment we’re in. Stress, worry, and anxiety limit our capacity to enjoy sensations and pleasure, limiting our ability to have an orgasm.
If you’re having trouble with having an orgasm, try emptying your mind and keeping your focus on the present moment and pleasure you’re feeling. See what happens when you let go. Ever so often, mindful practices won’t work. That’s okay. Speak with your partner about what's coming up for you or take a break from sexual activity to bring yourself back to safety and comfort. Maybe you just want to be held, cradled or comforted for a while instead. Maybe you need to take some deep breaths or talk something out.
Knowing that our mental experience has a HUGE impact on our physical experience will hopefully allow you to have some compassion for yourself. Stress and lack of physical activity can affect your desire for sex as well so go easy on yourself if you're in a particularly stressful time of your life. In addition, as vulva-havers we've been told our whole lives that "it's harder for women to orgasm" and we've most likely internalized this. It can take a long time to undo all this conditioning so be gentle with yourself. There are also some medications and medical situations that may make it difficult to have an orgasm as well.
Again, orgasms don’t make or break a great sexual experience.
Pleasure without the female orgasm is possible.