Despite the way it may seem on the big screen, achieving a female orgasm isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, about 10 to 15 percent of women are anorgasmic — meaning they can’t have an orgasm at all. And an overwhelming majority of the women who can have an orgasm may require much more than just sex. From learning how to overcome physical, mental and lifestyle barriers to figuring out how to have multiple orgasms, read on to get the lowdown on climaxing. If only it were as simple as women have been trained to believe all these years.
So, What Does an Orgasm Feel Like?
According to New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder, M.D., author of “Love Worth Making: How to Have Ridiculously Great Sex in a Long-Lasting Relationship,” an orgasm is really just a (very pleasurable) reflex — like any of the other hundreds of reflexes bodies are constructed to have.
“Think of the orgasm reflex like the sneeze reflex: It begins with a sensory experience — say, pepper up your nose — which, if it’s intense enough, triggers a reaction that’s very hard to stop (‘OMG, I’m going to sneeze, and there’s nothing I can do about it’). Finally, there’s a feeling of relief — the ‘sneeze’ itself.” That said, unlike sneezing, the inputs of female orgasms are both physical and psychological. “It’s just a matter of getting enough pepper in the right place, if you know what I mean,” Dr. Snyder says.
Obstetrician and gynecologist Sheila Loanzon, M.D., has a more straightforward definition of the female orgasm. She describes it as a general feeling of doneness, but notes that the lead-up to it can vary each time, depending on the situation.
“The traditional description of the sexual response in women is desire, arousal, orgasm and resolution. This is not a consistent cycle, and all phases can be satisfying,” Dr. Loanzon notes. “Orgasm is simply defined as the physical and emotional peak of sexual satisfaction; the sudden, involuntary release of sexual tension. It can feel like you’ve crossed a finish line, a sense of accomplishment and completeness, and for women, it may commonly be rhythmic contractions of the genital muscles.”
How Can I Experience an Orgasm?
Female orgasms can happen in a variety of ways. Clitoral, vaginal, anal, breast or nipple stimulation are some of the more “traditional” ways in which women achieve orgasm, but there are many more erotically sensitive areas on the body (neck, toes, back). That said, according to Dr. Snyder, about three-quarters of women find it easiest to climax through stimulation of the clitoris.
“Most people don’t know it, but most of the clitoris is internal. The clitoris you can actually see is simply the command center for your ‘inner clitoris,’ a vast underground arousal system that reaches out to your entire vulva, vagina and beyond,” notes Dr. Snyder. “So-called ‘vaginal orgasms’ really just come from stimulating the inner clitoris indirectly through intercourse.” Of course, both can be stimulated at the same time.
If there’s one thing women are, it’s cerebral creatures — so orgasming isn’t simply a technique issue. “Clitoral stimulation may be the most common way to a female orgasm, however, it is not the only way to ecstasy because context of the sexual experience can play a large role,” Dr. Loanzon says. “In the end, the brain is the most erotic organ that has to be involved in pleasure-seeking for an orgasm.”
Read more: How Do I Know If I Had an Orgasm?
Why Can’t I Orgasm?
Having generalized anorgasmia doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with you. There are many biological and physical factors that can contribute to the inability to achieve a female orgasm. Diseases that take a serious toll on mental well-being — multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, past gynecologic surgeries, such as a hysterectomy or cancer surgeries and age — can all affect the female orgasm. There’s also the fact that everyone is mentally and physically wired differently, and what works for one person's arousal might not work for the next. Ultimately, it is a game of trial, introspection and focusing on discovering the unique biological or physical factors that apply to you.
How Can I Increase My Chances of Orgasming?
“Sometimes finding your best way to orgasm is simply a matter of exploring what works for you,” says Dr. Snyder, who recommends the website OMGyes.com to his patients. “The easiest way to learn this is by yourself — rather than with a partner — since you can selfishly focus on your own experience without worrying it’s turning your partner on or off or how long it’s taking.”
Of course, even with superb technique, there are women who still can’t reliably reach orgasm. If this is the case, Dr. Snyder advises playing around with vibrators and other sex toys, which are created with the purpose of achieving easier orgasms.
It’s also worth noting that only about 18 percent of female orgasms happen through intercourse alone. For women looking to achieve this, though, Dr. Snyder recommends experimenting with angles and seeing which type of penetration strokes the “inner clitoris” best. “If you’re like most women, to really enjoy a good climax during intercourse you may need some stimulation of your ‘outer clitoris’ as well,” he says. “Hands and fingers — either yours or your partner’s — can serve nicely, and some sex positions are better than others for allowing hands and fingers full access during penetration.”
Many women also enjoy what’s called “coital alignment technique” as a way to better reach the clitoris during sex. “It’s where you take his penis up deep inside you, until your outer clitoris sits snugly in that little niche just above the base of his penis. Now when he thrusts up high inside you, he’s stroking your outer clitoris much more directly,” Dr. Snyder says.
Again, though, female orgasms aren’t all about hitting the right spots for some — and if that’s the case, it’s worth speaking with a professional. “If you’re going to speak with a doctor about your inability to orgasm, it’s important to determine if it’s been a lifelong concern or it’s a recent development,” notes Dr. Loanzon. “This may help pinpoint where to target the evaluation.”
How Is My Mental State Preventing Me From Achieving Orgasm?
According to Aida Manduley, LCSW, a social worker and sexual educator, there are numerous mental aspects that can prevent orgasms from happening. “Many things — including stressors such as bills, relationship trouble, worries about ‘taking too long,’ body-image issues, religious guilt, time-related stress, worries about being too vulnerable — can block orgasm. Not to mention the pressure to have an orgasm itself!”
Generally, people have to be in some semblance of a relaxed state or at least have a connectedness to their body in order to have an orgasm. That said, if someone’s body was “trained” to orgasm in a particular set of circumstances that were high-pressure, high-stress and/or high-conflict, such as repeated sexual violence, they may find they can’t orgasm easily (if at all) outside of situations that mirror that.
“It doesn’t mean they can never orgasm under different conditions, but usually it requires retraining the body and mental connections to different kinds of stimulation and learning to explore the body in a different way than they’re used to,” Manduley notes.
That said, on the flip side, for some people, if a situation starts to mirror past abuse it can send them into a triggered state where they can’t orgasm at all. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to responding to trauma. Manduley has also worked with clients who have trauma histories and can only orgasm if they’re completely dissociated, as that’s the only way that they can calm down the intrusive thoughts that relate to past abuse.
How Can I Address the Mental Barriers Preventing Me From Orgasming?
If you’re not achieving an orgasm because of a mental barrier, there are a few things that can increase your chances. Exercise has been known to increase female orgasms due to pelvic floor strengthening and increasing confidence. When you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to put yourself out there and tuck away body insecurities. Speaking with a sexual therapist is also highly encouraged because they can help unravel clues and give tips, tools and reassurances regarding inability to achieve orgasm.
Beyond addressing and reducing external stressors, Manduley encourages clients to explore their bodies in a place where they feel safe and comfortable and to try sensation play or sensual activities where the focus is on very specific feelings and parts of their bodies. This way the stimuli is not overwhelming and they can truly figure out what feels nice, neutral or bad. Another option is to put a temporary block on orgasm-seeking so that the focus of any sexual act becomes overall pleasure. This will lessen the pressure to force an orgasm.
“Learning to take things slow and building up bit by bit is usually really helpful over the long term,” Manduley says. “It can be frustrating for some who are in a hurry to orgasm and ‘get better’ if their ability to orgasm has changed, but it’s crucial that people learn to connect with their bodies and go from there.”
What Lifestyle Factors Can Affect the Female Orgasm?
According to Jennifer Berman, M.D., a urologist and sexual health expert, stress is the primary lifestyle factor that can influence female orgasms. “Women tend to be multitaskers, which can affect sexual health since it makes focusing on intimacy difficult,” she says. Other factors that can affect the ability to orgasm and desire to be sexual are fatigue, depression, alcohol and smoking. Drinking too much can limit your ability to climax, and smoking limits blood flow to sexual organs.
Read more: Three Exercises to Boost Sex Drive
How Can I Navigate Lifestyle Factors Affecting Female Orgasm?
If you’re not achieving an orgasm due to a lifestyle factor, it’s certainly worth addressing. Again, exercise can be helpful, as can speaking with a therapist. Limiting alcohol intake and cutting back on smoking can help boost your chances too.
Read more: 5 Great Ways Sex Benefits Your Body
What’s the Deal With Multiple Orgasms?
Many women don’t just want to know how to have an orgasm, they want to know how to have multiple orgasms. And the fact is, with practice, it can be done.
“According to sex educators, all women by virtue of their anatomy, can be multiorgasmic in theory. Physiologically, it’s possible,” Dr. Berman says. “The difference is the women who are multiorgasmic are focused more on sensing and feeling, as opposed to thinking and doing. It’s about learning how to shut off part of your brain and focus on the here and now.”
In addition to trial and error, as well as education, Dr. Berman also notes that cannabis can be helpful for women looking to be more present and focused on sensations. Worth a shot? Perhaps. Depends on how important having multiple orgasms is to you.
Nicole Fabian-Weber is a writer living outside of New York City with her husband and children. She loves home design, yoga, and apparently clichés.