Orgasm is a physical reflex, usually a pleasurable one, when the muscles that were tightened during sexual arousal relax and the body returns to its pre-arousal state. During sexual arousal there is increased blood flow to the genitals and tensing of muscles throughout the body and particularly in the genitals. Orgasm reverses this process through a series of rhythmic contractions. For people with vulvas, contractions occur in the lower part of the vagina, in the uterus, anus, and pelvic floor. About 10 percent of people with vulvas also ejaculate fluid from the urethra at orgasm. For people with penises, contractions occur in the penis, anus, and pelvic floor and most will experience ejaculation from the penis at orgasm.
What is an orgasm?
What does an orgasm feel like?
Where the physical contractions of orgasm occur and what particular sensations you experience are two different things. Each person has a unique experience of orgasm but common experiences include changes in breathing, a feeling of warmth, sweating, body vibrations, altered consciousness, or an urge to moan or cry out. During orgasm, endorphins are released into the bloodstream and these chemicals might make you feel happy, giddy, flushed, warm or sleepy.
Some people, particularly people with vulvas, may have orgasms but not realize it. You might think that what you are experiencing is too mild to be an orgasm or otherwise doesn't fit your idea of what an orgasm should feel like. It can be important to focus on what you do feel, and realizing that this may or may not match someone else's experience of orgasm.
What if I’ve never had an orgasm?
First, you are not alone. Many people — including about one out of three people with vulvas — have trouble reaching orgasm when having sex with a partner. This is even more common for younger people who are just beginning to explore sexual relationships. Getting to know your own body and preferences will make sex more pleasurable and can help you discover what brings you to orgasm.
If you would like to experience orgasm, you can teach yourself by learning what type of touch and stimulation gives you pleasure. Generally speaking, masturbation is the most direct route to an orgasm. Most people who reach orgasm with a partner have also experienced an orgasm from masturbation. There’s no right or wrong way to masturbate. Each person’s body responds differently to stimulation. Experiment with different levels and rhythms of touching and pressure. Experiment with stimulating your vagina, penis, or anus with your fingers and hands, with a vibrator, or with a stream of water. Getting to know your body is the key to becoming orgasmic.
It can also be important to consider whether there are other factors which might be making it more difficult for you to have an orgasm. Concern that you won’t have an orgasm, even though you are aroused, might repress your sexual response. For some people, concerns might also include the worry that asking your partner to concentrate on your pleasure will put too much pressure on you and that this pressure will make it harder for you to have an orgasm. Taking the focus off of having an orgasm and just paying attention to your feelings of arousal and pleasure can be helpful in these situations. Concentrating on actual physical sensations rather than thoughts can be helpful as well.
How can I orgasm with a partner?
For people with vulvas, most experience orgasm through clitoral stimulation rather than through vaginal penetration. So if you are having difficulty reaching orgasm with a partner, try clitoral stimulation during, before, or after vaginal intercourse or oral sex. Masturbation can also be an important step in learning to be orgasmic with a partner. Once you have discovered what type of touch and stimulation you enjoy, you will be better able to give your partner(s) helpful directions.
The clitoris has a central role in the rising feelings of sexual tension which reach their peak in an orgasm. During arousal, the clitoris swells and changes position. The blood vessels throughout the pelvic area also swell, causing engorgement and creating a feeling of fullness and sexual sensitivity. You or your partner can stimulate your clitoris in a number of different ways - by rubbing, sucking, body pressure, using a vibrator. Although some people touch the glans of the clitoris to become aroused, for others it can be so sensitive that direct touching is uncomfortable or painful, even with lubrication. Also, focusing directly on the clitoris for a long time may cause the pleasurable sensations to disappear.
If it appeals to you, oral sex can be one of the most effective ways to reach orgasm. Having your partner use their mouth and tongue to stimulate the vulva in general and the clitoris in particular can be very arousing and can help you to orgasm. The sensitivity of your vulva and clitoris will determine what type of oral stimulation you enjoy and are most responsive to, so there is no one approach that works for everyone and new partners will need to learn about each other's bodies and preferences.
Your clitoris can also be stimulated during vaginal intercourse when the clitoris is rubbed against the partner's pubic bone, which can be easiest if you are on top. Leaning forward and down a little can help you get in the right position to experience this. If your partner is on top they can position themselves high enough so that their pubic bone presses against your clitoral area. You or your partner can also stimulate your clitoris with fingers or a vibrator during vaginal intercourse to help bring you to orgasm. For some people, the outer third of their vagina is also very sensitive. When this area is stimulated during intercourse or other vaginal penetration, some women will experience orgasm without clitoral stimulation.
Some things you and your partner might try to help you reach orgasm:
Focus on touching, kissing, and caressing each other to heighten arousal.
Experiment with various positions, particularly those that stimulate the clitoris, and with manual and oral stimulation of your vulva and clitoris.
Relax and take it slow.
Talk with each other about what feels good and how you both like to be touched.
How do I talk to my partner(s) about orgasm and sexual pleasure?
Your partners can't read your mind, so it's important to be clear about what feels good and what doesn't, and what you do and don't want to do. Orgasms become easier as you develop more knowledge of what is pleasing to you sexually, and as you become more comfortable telling your partners about what you like and don't like.
If this discussion seems daunting, remember that your partner(s) will probably be glad to know how to please you. Each person's body, experience and preferences for sexual pleasure are different. There is no reason why your partner would automatically know how best to help you have an orgasm. Telling your partner what works for you is not a judgment of their skills or abilities in bed. And having this "conversation" can be as simple as offering one or two word directions like "more," "slower," "faster," "lower," or "right there." You can also take your partner's hand and show them what types of pressure, pace and placement works for you.
You and your partner can also undertake a little research together. One good resource, available to borrow from the Health Promotion office is I Heart Female Orgasm, by Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot. You might also spend some time surfing the links below. Learning about sex together can be a non-threatening (and fun) way to address the issue.
What are Kegel Exercises?
Kegel exercises were developed by Dr. Arnold Kegel to help people with vulvas strengthen their pelvic muscles. These exercises can help increase the intensity of your orgasms.
When you're peeing, clench your muscles to stop the flow of urine for about four seconds. Then release those same muscles to let the urine flow again. These are your pelvic floor muscles; these are the muscles you'll be exercising when you do Kegels. If you want to check and make sure that you're using the right muscles, put a finger or two into your vagina. Tighten the muscles. If you can feel your fingers being squeezed (even just a little), then you've located the right muscles.
Contract the pelvic muscles hard for one second and then release them, ten times in a row. Repeat this process five to ten times a day.
You can vary the exercise by holding the contraction for a count of three and then releasing it, doing fast short holds, or a mix of long and short holds.
Kegel during commercials, every time the phone rings, in line at the Ratty-find your own regular pattern.
Kegel during sex for added pleasure for you and your partner.
As with any exercise, results won't be immediate, but over time (probably about 6-8 weeks) you will notice a difference.
What about vibrators or other sex toys?
Some people find that vibrators or other sex toys can be a good tool for reaching orgasm. You can use vibrators or sex toys for masturbation or for sex play with a partner. Visit our sex toys page for more information on types of sex toys, tips for using them safely, and links to further sex toy information resources.
Are orgasms different depending if you have a penis or a vulva?
The physical process is actually pretty similar. Regardless of whether you have a penis or a vulva, an orgasm produces rapid muscle contractions usually in the genital and anal area and sometimes throughout the body. These contractions, in the sexual and reproductive organs, the muscles of the pelvic floor, and the anus occur at the very same intervals (0.8 seconds) for people of all genders. People with penises average four to six orgasmic contractions, while people with vulvas average six to ten.
Ejaculation with orgasm is much more common if you have a penis. Most of the time, someone with a penis will have an orgasm at the same time they ejaculate, but occasionally someone with a penis may have an orgasm without ejaculating, or ejaculate without having an orgasm. About 10 percent of people with vulvas ejaculate -a clear fluid spurts from the urethra during intense sexual excitement or during orgasm. This fluid isn't urine. Instead it is very like the fluid (found in semen) produced by the prostate gland. In people with vulvas this fluid comes from the Skene's glands in the wall of the urethra.
You may have heard that it takes a lot longer for someone with a vulva to reach orgasm. This is not entirely true. During masturbation, people tend to reach orgasm in very similar amounts of time. On average, people with vulvas reach orgasm in a little less than four minutes. For people with penises the average time is between two and three minutes. The difference in the time it takes to reach orgasm during foreplay and vaginal intercourse is greater. On average, it takes someone with a vulva 10-20 minutes to reach orgasm. People with penises reach orgasm after 7-14 minutes overall, but average two to three minutes after beginning intercourse.
What about trans students and orgasm?
If you are a trans student you may have a hard time finding information that speaks in language that reflects how you feel about your body. If you feel that your biological body doesn't reflect your gender identity, you may use different terms for body parts than those we have used on this page. No matter how you label your body parts, if you are having difficulty achieving orgasm, taking steps, like some of those described above, to discover what kinds of touch give you pleasure and sharing this information with your partner(s) can be helpful. You can visit the sexuality section of Trans-Health.com for further information, including the effect of hormones and surgery on libido and orgasm. For further information and resource links, please visit our Trans Health page.
BWell Health Promotion 401.863-2794
Health Promotion has books and videos about orgasm available for loan and also offers confidential sexual health appointments for Brown students. We are located on the 3rd floor of Health Services at 13 Brown Street.
Health Services 401.863-3953
Providers at Health Services offer Brown students reproductive health care and can help you to address physical or health issues which may be impacting your ability to experience sexual pleasure. We are located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets. Please call to make an appointment.
Counseling and Psychological Services 401.863-3476
If you feel that anxiety or another psychological cause is impacting your ability to experience sexual pleasure, accessing counseling services could be helpful and important. Brown students can make confidential appointments with Counseling and Psychological Services.
Go Ask Alice
This Q&A site from Columbia University has answers to many orgasm questions and is a great source for sexual health and sexual pleasure information. You can also submit your own questions.
This site offers extensive information on sexuality and sexual response for people with vulvas and their partners.
This page of our site has information about sex toys and links to sex toy websites.
American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists
AASECT offers a directory of certified sex therapists as well as links to sexuality resources