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“An orgasm — regardless of the gender or genitals of the person having it — is a climactic peak in the arousal process,” says Carol Queen, PhD. Queen is the sexologist behind the popular sex shop and education hub, Good Vibrations, as well as the curator of the Antique Vibrator Museum.
If it’s a technical definition you’re after, one study defines arousal in four phases:
- Excitement. This is the arousal building phase. You might start to feel little pings of lust and sweet anticipation as your body gets ready.
- Plateau. The state of steady pleasure. The clothes might come off here, and the breathing will probably get heavy. You’re in it now.
- Orgasm. A climactic burst of pleasure and release. Orgasms come in all sizes. Maybe it’s like a little sneeze, or maybe a deep body quake.
- Resolution. The come down. If you’re with a partner, maybe you lay relaxed in each other’s arms feeling squishy and spent. Or maybe there’s no time and you dash out the door to catch the train.
While coming generally follows that sequence, the way every person experiences an orgasm is different, says Queen.
“But one thing’s for sure: it likely looks (and feels) nothing like it does in rom-coms,” she says.
If you’re not sure about what it should feel like, this answer from Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess Podcast is soothing: “Every body and everybody is different and therefore each person’s physical experience of orgasming will be different.”
Here are few descriptions, from the mouths of vulva-owners themselves:
- Susanna K., 24, says, “I can feel my whole body squeeze in on itself for a nano-second. Then there’s a release of tension and an influx of pleasure.”
- Reign T., 32, says, “Orgasming feels like forgetting I have work responsibilities, or kids, or unanswered emails. It feels like stress leaving my body and serotonin taking its place, and then after that I shake a lot. It’s mostly nice.”
- Gail B., 44, who frequently has nipplegasms says, “Vaginal orgasm used to feel like a squeezing sensation in my pelvic floor. Nipplegasms feel like a wave of pleasure radiating down my stomach and to my clit.”
- And one Redditor writes: “[An orgasm feels like] a warm blissful surge that rises in intensity gently and slowly, blows like an ooey gooey Mount St. Helens, and then dips in intensity about three times faster than it rose.”
Come one, come all — but first come solo
Why the heck would you wait for an “ooey gooey Mount St. Helen [like surge]” for a partner, when you could experience that kind of pleasure at your own hand (or toy)?
Trick question. You shouldn’t.
“Masturbation and self touch is how most vulva-owners experience their first orgasm because it takes time to learn about your unique bodily responses,” says O’Reilly.
“Concentrate on you and your own pleasure, then when a partner comes along you can teach them how to assist you in having one.”
It may take a little trial and not-quite-there-yet. But trust, it’s worth it. Keep reading to learn more about different P(O)ssiblities.
The orgasm catch-22
When it comes to orgasming, there’s a bit of a conundrum. Trying too hard to get there can actually make things harder. So, even though we know it’s easier said than done, try not to get hung up on having (or assisting your partner in having) the “right” type of orgasm.
For people with penises, it’s widely accepted that ejaculatory orgasm evolved to up the chances of the semen fertilizing an egg.
But no such leading theory exists for people with vaginas. As we know, orgasm for a person with a vagina actually isn’t a prerequisite for pregnancy.
So, what’s the point? “Jury’s still out,” says Searah Deysach, sex educator and owner of Early to Bed. “But certainly the most common reason folks orgasm is pleasure.”
Beyond evolutionary comparisons, what it feels like in the body when we orgasm turns out to be pretty similar between people with vaginas and people with penises.
While the typical O for a vagina-owner lasts a bit longer (13 to 51 seconds as opposed to 10 to 30 seconds for penis-owners), both experience sped up heart rate, blood rushing to the genitals, and quick, shallow breathing.
In one survey, folks, regardless of genitalia, used very similar words to describe what orgasm feels like. Spoiler: “waves” was everyone’s favorite descriptor.
One difference is that people with vaginas are much more able to have multiple orgasms in one sitting — or “laying,” if you will. While the vast majority of people with penises usually need a longer breather — called the refractory period — before going at it again.
And of course there’s the orgasm gap.
One study found out of the 1,931 people surveyed, 91 percent of people with penises said they came during their last rumble in the hay, compared to just 68 percent of people with vaginas.
The theories about why this is are far and wide. But it’s likely a mishmash of lots of different factors.
You have the anatomical reality that penises literally stick out from the body like they’re trying to hail a taxi, while vaginas and vulvas are mostly internal/hidden from view. Penises are simply more accessible to pleasure, or so the theory goes.
But you can’t ignore the fact that most of these sex studies are being done on cis-women who’ve grown up in a world where their pleasure has been shunned, undervalued, and down-right misunderstood.
Kinda hard to learn how to pleasure yourself if you’ve never been given the space to do so.
Orgasm =/= sex
“Of course, you do not have to have an orgasm to experience sexual pleasure or other benefits of sex (like physical closeness, intimacy, self-express, stress relief),” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD. “Sex can be incredibly enjoyable without orgasm, too.”
Ah, the clitoris. What you might know as the nerve-rich bulb at the apex of the labia, is actually shaped like a wishbone. Not a pearl.
“The clitoris has legs that extend back into the body, that can be stimulated through penetrative intercourse or by stroking the outside of the labia,” explains O’Reilly.
Give it a shot
Some vulva-owners enjoy pinpointed stimulation (tapping, pressing, flicking) on the visible bud, others’ clits are super-duper sensitive, and prefer circular strokes around the external clit, which electrifies the nerves beneath the surface.
“Some people with clitorises can experience a clitoral orgasm during penetrative intercourse, but for others sex acts like cunnilingus, manual sex, and vibrator and toy play are more likely to lead to a clitoral orgasm,” says O’Reilly.
Keep in mind that how aroused you are when you’re getting touched may affect how pleasurable (or uncomfortable) it feels.
Toys to try
These toys, as with all the toys we recommended, have been tested by the writer. She based her criteria on price, battery life, effectiveness, and noise.
Clit suction toys indirectly stimulate the external bulb by using air to create a sucking sensation, similar to oral. Some of our faves:
If your clit is more sensitive than a water sign when mercury is in retrograde, opt instead for the Lelo Ora 2, which creates the sensation of a delicate tongue circling your clit. Technology, man.
Pro tip: apply a bit of water-based lube to your bud and the toy to reduce friction and increase pleasure.
When people gab about the vaginal O, they’re typically talking about the pleasure that (ahem) comes from penetrative play.
But there’s a great deal of overlap between the vaginal orgasm and clitoral orgasm, as they’re connected by a number of nerve pathways and muscular structures, says O’Reilly.
So before you go looking for your own, remember that vaginal orgasms from penetration alone are like a humble Wall Streeter: rare. Less than 20 percent of vagina-owning people report being able to have them.
Give it a shot
Instead of using a jackrabbit style in-and-out motion during penetrative play, O’Reilly recommends swirling an object (penis, dildo, vibrator) around the opening of the vagina.
“Gradually increase the depth as you spiral to the very back pressing into the sides as they swell with pleasure.”
Another method she suggests is to “alternate between shallow, slow, gentle thrusts, and deep, hard pumping, as the outer part of the canal tends to be sensitive to light touch whereas the deeper zone is often more reactive to pressure.”
Toys to try
Try using a penetrative toy (like the nJoy Eleven) to apply firm, pulsing pressure to the very back of the vagina toward the stomach wall (sometimes called the A-spot).
The G-Spot is a type of vaginal orgasm that some people experience from rubbing/pressing/pleasuring the spongy front wall — around 2 inches inside — of the vagina.
“Vulva-owners often report a G-Spot orgasm feels different from a clitoral one, as they experience sensations of bearing down or pushing out with their pelvic floor muscles as opposed to a tingling and tenting effect from clitoral stimulation,” explains O’Reilly.
And, like the vaginal orgasm, the majority of people can’t come from G-Spot stimulation alone.
Give it a shot
To explore the ~orgasmic capacity~ of the G-spot, O’Reilly suggests these steps.
- Start by lubing your fingers and curling one or two into the vagina, about 2 inches.
- Press them into the upper wall in a come hither motion.
- If that doesn’t feel amazing, sweep your fingers back and forth like a windshield wiper against the upper wall.
- For added pleasure, use your other hand — or a toy — to give your clit some love.
During partnered play, have a partner use their penis or dildo to slide in missionary style… but only halfway. Then, round your hips backward to angle the shaft up (as opposed to in).
If deepdeepdeep vaginal penetration is your jam, you may enjoy cervical stimulation and be able to come from it. As a refresher: the cervix is the deepest part of the vaginal canal, right below the uterus.
Most of the cervix isn’t accessible through the vagina but stimulating the external portion, called the ectocervix, can be pleasurable for some vagina-owners.
Give it a shot
If you’re playing with a partner who has a penis, doggy style and rider are good options for really getting in there.
Toys to try
A longer-than-the-average-dong toy like the nJoy Eleven or a double-ended dildo.
If you like it? Great. If it feels painful — and for some vulva-owners it will — stop. You can either try again at a different time in your menstrual cycle (when your cervix is in a different position), or not at all.
Ain’t nothing butter (er, better) than an anal orgasm. Lucky for you, there are two main routes to an anal O.
- The ring of nerves at the entrance of the anus, also known as the external sphincter.
- The anterior fornix erogenous zone (the A-spot), which is located deep in the vagina, toward the cervix. Although in the vagina, it can sometimes be stimulated through anal penetration.
If you’re with a partner, try missionary for an intimate experience, or doggy style for deeper penetration. Some new sensations are to be expected, but if what you’re feeling is pain, stop — you’re not warmed up enough yet. Try again when you’re more aroused.
Give it a shot
Ideally, you’ll start small — like with a ring finger or Snug Plug 1 — and slow. Very slow. Wait until you’re super turned on and relaxed, then liberally coat the ~instrument of insertion~ with lube, and apply it to the entrance, too.
If you’re brand spanking new to anal play, start with external stimulation.
For this, Deysach recommends either rimming (anal oral sex), circling the entrance of the ass with a lubed-up finger, or butt-plug or vibrating butt plug like the b-Vibe Rimming Plug.
“Some vulva-owners can come from nipple stimulation alone, be it from gentle flicking or fluttering or from more intense pinching or nipple clamps,” says Deysach.
For some vulva-owners, getting to O-town with their pants still on has extra benefits.
Gail B. says, “My antidepressants dulled my ability to climax from vaginal or clitoral stimulation. I learned that I can orgasms from my tatas a few years ago, and it was a game changer because now I don’t feel like I need to choose between my mental health and pleasure.”
Give it a shot
- Start by paying the nipple itself no mind.
- Instead, give your whole jugs some sweet squeezing and stroking.
- Then, work your way from the areola to the nipple with slow, slow strokes.
- When you get to the bud, try pinching, flicking, and rubbing the nipple itself — ramping up the intensity as pleasure warrants.
Toys to try
Deysach suggests experimenting with cooling, heating, and CBD creams to maximize the possibility of a nipple orgasm.
Sexpert tip: Use saliva or silicone-based lube to reduce the friction between your and your partner’s skin.
A blended O — the result of combining two or more of the orgasms listed above — can be (as you might guess) intense. “Theoretically, combining these sensations doubles or triples your pleasure,” says Deysach.
Um, heck yeah.
Give it a shot
Considering all the orgasms we just mentioned, there are truly tons of combos to explore. Some of our faves:
- Wear a (vibrating?!) butt plug during penetrative intercourse.
- Use a wand vibrator on your clit during penetrative play.
- Use a rabbit vibrator for G-spot and clitoral stimulation.
- Wear nipple clamps and a vaginal plug during cunnilingus.
Squirting and female ejaculation both refer to the release of fluid from the urethra during Sexy Time.
How do they differ
Most folks say that squirting is just the colloquial term for female ejaculation. But a 2011 study suggests there is a difference in the fluid that gets released.
According to the study, female ejaculation is the release of fluid from the female prostate (yep, that’s a thing!). And squirting is basically the release of fluid from the bladder. So yes, there’s likely a little bit of pee in there.
Give it a shot
Female ejaculation and squirting (yep, the technique is the same for both) typically happen from some intense G-spot stimulation. Or, from that combined with some clit lovin’.
If you’re with a partner, try applying a rumble on your ruby during penetrative play.
Toys to try
A rabbit vibrator, like the Lelo Ina Wave. This toy is ah-mazing because it stimulates you internally and externally at the same time.
You may feel like you’re about to pee, but lean into it. You may even use your free hand (if you’ve got one) to apply pressure to your lower abdomen.
Molly G., 22, says it’s her go-to step to squirting. “Right when I feel close, I apply some pressure and bada bing, bada boom.”
If you’ve ever moaned when someone licked your earlobe or kissed your neck, this won’t surprise you: you’ve got hot spots beyond your nips, buds, and bumps.
The neck, lower back, scalp, armpits, feet, inner wrist, inner knee, and fingers (to name a few!) all have pleasure potential, says O’Reilly. “Some people can reach orgasm through these zones. Don’t discount the power and pleasure of full body arousal.”
Give it a shot
When it comes to sex, most of us are guilty of being genital-focused. So next time you’re in the mood, challenge yourself by exploring other parts of your body.
“If you sometimes enjoy being tickled, try using a feather or tassel on your non-genital regions,” she says.
Or, “if you enjoy a more intense sensation, you might have your partner slap your bum with a paddle or flogger.”
Just be sure to discuss boundaries ahead of time and have a safe word.
Toys to try
Deysach recommends using a sensation toy (like the Wartenberg Wheel) or temperature play (with an ice cube, stainless steal sex toys, or sex wax).
Orgasms can be part of your sexual journey. But they’re certainly not the point of, nor defining feature of, sex. Pleasure is.
So if you’ve never had an orgasm, know this: so long as the sex you’re having is consensual and pleasurable, it’s still good sex!
It’s the norm
Data suggests that 10 to 40 percent of women report never having, or having difficulty having, an orgasm.
If you’re bothered by the lack of orgasm or otherwise interested in exploring the pleasure-potential of your bod, O’Reilly’s got a few tips.
- Masturbate, masturbate, masturbate. “Sure, you can read about anatomy and orgasms online,” she says. “But this type of learning pales in comparison to touching your own bod.”
- Breathe. One of the biggest impediments to orgasm is holding your breath. “Try breathing in rhythm with the movement of your hips or with every lick or stroke,” says O’Reilly.
- Use erotic aids. Get your brain in on the action with audio erotica, porn, a one-handed read, or sexy comic. “Sexual response originates in the brain, so even if your body is getting what it needs, you have to feed your mind too.”
- Try toys. Seeking out new types of pleasure and experimenting with toys a great way to get to know your body better, which can bring you close to climax. “Vibrators are responsible for many first orgasms,” says O’Reilly.
- Don’t rush the process. “It takes a bit of practice to learn what feels good, and then to let go and allow an orgasm to happen,” she says. With time, the right tools and mindset, you will find what works best for you.
External vibrators are excellent for exploring your pleasure potential. Remember, your clitoral structure has branches, the good feelings aren’t isolated to the famous nub. Here are some of our faves:
Dr. Queen points out, “Things like shame, fear, and a history of sex trauma, may impede the orgasm process.” If you identify with any of those, she suggests working with a sex therapist or mental health professional.
“They’ll be able to help you heal in the ways you need to orgasm, and also live a more full life.”
And because certain conditions — like endometriosis, vaginismus, pelvic floor tension, and vulvodynia — and infection can make sex hurt, Queen suggests ringing up your ob/gyn or healthcare provider.
Exploring your bod shouldn’t come at the cost of grimacing through physical painful (pass!).
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.