Hey! I’m Niki Davis, a consent and sexuality educator and Bushwick Daily’s bedroom coach. Every other Humpday, I’ll answer your sex and relationship questions.
Q: Hi there! I am 16 and in a pretty new relationship. As a girl who has had sex before, I have trouble knowing if I have orgasmed. It is easy and simple to make my boyfriend orgasm, and I am certainly enjoying what I’m doing with him, but I never seem to climax the way people do in movies or books. How do I know if I have orgasmed?
A: Female orgasms are elusive as fuck. I asked a lot of people with vaginas if they were ever unsure if they orgasmed and overwhelmingly, they said yes! So, you are definitely not alone. Some ladies were unsure if they were orgasming when they were first sexually active, but with time and experimentation they eventually had an orgasm, and realized that they previously were not. I also spoke to several ladies in their 20s and early 30s, who have been in a number of relationships, who were also unsure if they were experiencing orgasms. Let’s deconstruct this a bit.
Why are female orgasms so confusing?
There are many different kinds of female orgasms. The most common type of orgasm comes from clitoral stimulation. The clitoris is located on the top of the vulva, therefore it is often not stimulated during penetrative intercourse. Another type of orgasm is a vaginal orgasm, which comes from penetration (by a finger, penis, toy, etc). There are also cervical orgasms. These are less common, but there is really cool new research on women with spinal cord injuries, who are able to experience cervical pleasure, even though they have no feeling in other parts of their genitals.
To further complicate things, not all orgasms are created equal. Orgasms feel different if they are orally stimulated, self-stimulated or when sex toys are involved. There is also a huge range in the intensity of female orgasms. I’ve had orgasms go from “Oh, I guess that was chill,” to “Holy Fucking Shit! That was so good… Where am I?”
Unlike men, women do not require a refractory period (i.e. a break) following an orgasm and are able to have multiple orgasms. This can make orgasm identification confusing:
There isn’t always that feeling of post-cum fulfillment, because we are able to keep going.
What vagina owners experience as pleasurable also depends on their anatomy. The larger the distance between the clitoris and the vaginal opening, the less likely a person will be able to cum from intercourse alone. Perhaps, one of the reasons that lesbians experience more orgasms than straight women, is because they are able to step away from the standard narrative, that penetrative intercourse is the main act and everything else is foreplay. I’m not going to go into the whole patriarchy spiel here, but it’s clear historically whose pleasure has been prioritized, when the research consistently shows that most women can’t orgasm from penetration alone.
A recent study had women use a vibrator to stimulate themselves, while being hooked up to devices which measure the physical signs of an orgasm. Interestingly, half of the women who reported experiencing an orgasm did not have the corresponding measurable response (i.e. the devices did not measure the muscle contractions and neurological response that is typically experienced in conjunction with climax). One explanation given by the researchers, is that perhaps we ought to differentiate climax (the muscle contractions etc.) from the state of orgasm. A state of orgasm would involve intense pleasure, that may or may not be, accompanied by the traditional physical markers of climax. In other words, an orgasm may be self-defined: I think I came, therefore I came.
In line with the results of the study above, I think you should do your best to not stress about if you are experiencing orgasms or not. Who knows if it is even a consistently measurable thing. My guess is that you may have not yet experienced a climax, as a climax involves an intense build up and release that is hard to confuse with anything else. However, do not stress! Focus on doing what feels good when hooking up with your partner.
Stimulate your clitoris. Stimulate your clitoris with a vibrator. Stimulate your clitoris alone. Stimulate your clitoris with a partner. Stimulate your clitoris during penetration. If you don’t know where your clitoris is: Google it… then stimulate it.
Spend some time getting to know your body. A lot of people have their first orgasms alone. It’s hard to experience pleasure with a partner before you know what feels good for you. In case it’s not obvious, I’m a clitoris girl. But that may not be what works for you, so play around.
Communicate with your partner before, during, and after hooking up. This takes practice. There were years where a partner would be doing something that felt “meh,” and I did not have the balls to tell them exactly what I wanted. What helped me gain confidence in this area was by talking to partners and realizing that they were genuinely turned on by my arousal. It was better for both of us if I told them what I like.
Don’t fake pleasure and get out of your head. For many of my earlier hookups I spent all of my energy thinking about my partner, “Are they are enjoying what is happening? If I don’t cum soon, will they get bored? How does my stomach look on this angle? Should I moan louder so they know they are doing a good job?” It took me a long time to realize that chances are pretty good that my partner is enjoying what is going on, so I can chill and also prioritize my own pleasure.
Movies, books, and porn, don’t depict orgasms realistically. Orgasms don’t always involve screaming and a complete loss of control. We all show pleasure in different ways. Instead of comparing yourself to the unrealistic standard model, spend some time getting to know your body and noticing your natural reactions to pleasure.
Talk about orgasms with your friends! We need to normalize talking about sex. It helps us not feel alone in our experiences and learn from each other.
@nikidavisf is a full-time consent educator, and does private sex and relationship counseling sessions. The focus of her Masters was positive sexuality. Niki has lectured at NYU, The United Nations, and many other locations on the subjects of sexual communication, sexual assault intervention, and human sexuality.
Cover photo and art courtesy of Sara Erenthal.