All About Orgasms: Why We Have Them, Why We Don’t, and How to Increase Pleasure

By OBOS Sexuality & Relationships Contributors |
UPDATED: Sep 12, 2014

An orgasm can be a mild and sensuous experience, or it may feel intensely physical or even ecstatic, causing a loss of everyday awareness. It may feel different at different times, depending on such factors as: your emotional or physical state; whether you are masturbating alone or sexually active with a partner; the type and amount of stimulation; your energy level and degree of excitement; and where you are in your menstrual cycle.

Some orgasms are purely physical; others may involve subjective and psychological aspects. Feelings of intimacy may enhance orgasms with a partner and, conversely, orgasms can enhance intimacy.

One woman describes how she feels afterward:

Once a lover knows my body well enough to be able to get me off fairly easily, it feels so good to relax and relinquish control over what’s happening. After, I love feeling sexy and pleased with my body, that it responds to all these fun sensations and I can reliably get release in the way that I crave. For someone who’s had a pretty rough relationship with her body over the years, it feels big and important now to be crazy about my body through the way it experiences pleasure.

Some of us need direct and sometimes prolonged clitoral stimulation both before and during intercourse. Using a vibrator alone when masturbating or during sex with a partner may help.

Women have the potential to respond to sexual arousal throughout the entire body and especially the pelvic region. Women 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.

Women 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 experience orgasm from thought or imagery alone, without any physical touch.

What Happens When I Orgasm?

Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, early researchers in the field of human sexuality, asserted that all female orgasms are physiologically the same — brought about through stimulation of the clitoris, with contractions occurring primarily in the outer third of the vagina. Yet some women describe orgasms that don’t fit this model.

Some women find the cervix and uterus crucial to orgasm. An orgasm that some women describe as feeling “deep” or “uterine” is brought on by penetration of the vagina. The buildup may involve a prolonged involuntary holding of breath, which is released explosively at orgasm, and there do not seem to be any contractions of the outer third of the vagina.

The Role of the Clitoris

For many women, the clitoris is the organ that is most sensitive to stimulation and plays a central role in elevating feelings of sexual tension. More than a single spot; it is an expansive network of erectile tissues, glands and nerves.

You or your partner can stimulate your clitoris in many different ways — manually, orally, or by using body pressure or a vibrator.

Any rubbing or pressure in the mons area or the vaginal lips (even on the lower abdomen and inner thighs) can move the clitoris and may also press it up against the pubic bone.

The G-spot

Some women experience intense sexual pleasure and orgasm when a particular area inside the vagina, approximately one-third to one-half up the front wall, is stimulated. The area was first described by Dr. Ernst Gräfenberg, who published his findings in 1950, and was named the G‑spot by sex researchers Dr. John Perry and Dr. Beverly Whipple in his honor.

There is debate among researchers about whether the G‑spot 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.

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 dildo, or a G‑spot vibrator.

Contrary to popular myth, the G‑spot is not a magic button that automatically produces ecstasy when pushed. Yet many find that exploring this area can enhance sexual pleasure.

Female Ejaculation

For some women, sufficient stimulation of the G‑spot or the clitoris may lead to ejaculation, the release of fluid from the urethra. Some people doubt the existence of female ejaculation, but from ancient Greek writings to the Hindu Kama Sutra to 16th-century Japanese art-work, female ejaculation has been described and honored.

Sometimes called spraying or squirting, female ejaculation 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!

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.

Did I miss it?

Sometimes it can be difficult to know if you’ve had an orgasm. 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 arousal occurs without enough stimulation to orgasm, sexual tension subsides eventually without orgasm, though it takes longer, and your genitals and/or uterus may ache. This is the analogue of “blue balls” for men; it has the same cause and will resolve itself. Many women have been convinced (mostly by men) that the male version of this ache is somehow dangerous and deserves immediate relief, while also believing that the female version is of no real consequence because it will go away if you let it.

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 sexual expression without orgasm can also be pleasurable.

Sometimes orgasms (single or multiple) become one more performance pressure or goal. Try to remember an orgasm isn’t the most important part.

What if I Don’t Orgasm?

Keep in mind that even when sexual intercourse feels good, it may not ever lead to orgasm. This is perfectly normal, too. Intercourse can be about pleasure or connection; it doesn’t have to focus on orgasm. You may find that you’re more likely to orgasm during oral or manual stimulation than during insertive sex.

For some women, experiencing orgasm is complicated by other issues. Shame about exploring and touching our bodies may prevent us from learning to bring ourselves to orgasm through masturbation.

Sexual, physical or emotional abuse (past or present) may also impair the ability to orgasm. Arousal may prompt mental and/or physical memories of the abuse, even in a consensual and trusting relationship. (For more on this, read How Past Sexual Abuse or Violence Affects Relationships and Recommendations for Healing From Abuse.)

Sex therapists are specifically trained to help women understand the complex blocks to orgasm, which may include physical issues, negative memories, partner dynamics, education, negative cultural messages, and fear of reaching out for what we want.

With a partner, 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, or communication about sex is poor.
  • You and/or your partner need more sex education in order to understand what’s happening during arousal.
  • You’re 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 feeling impatient or tired.
  • 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, a 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’re feeling guilt about having sex and cannot really enjoy it.
  • 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.

One woman writes:

Vaginal penetration alone doesn’t make me orgasm, and this is true for many women. I need direct clitoral stimulation, and I need it done right. I’ve only had two partners who have been able to make me orgasm without my assistance at all, out of what I generally count as 11 partners. And even for these two, it took them a good long time to learn how — six months for one and a year for the other — and while both were able to do it via oral sex, only one has been able to do it with his fingers, and then only on occasion. If I’m going to get off during sex, I’m most likely the one who’s going to make that happen, and the best way for me to do that is usually with a vibrator.

To learn more, head over to Scarleteen and read this in-depth article: With Pleasure: A View of Whole Sexual Anatomy for Every Body.