Given the amount of pop culture and media devoted to sex, it might seem like the facts are pretty clear. But mainstream pornography and the success of fantasy films like “50 Shades of Grey” have only propagated many of the myths surrounding sexuality—in particular, female sexuality.
The proliferation of these myths leads not only to sexual dissatisfaction, but serious self-esteem issues. According to one study, more than 60 percent of women have faked an orgasm during intercourse or oral sex. Many of these women were motivated by fear of intimacy, insecurities about sexual functioning, or the desire to get sex over with. When popular culture typically portrays women achieving effortless, earth-shattering orgasms with every sexual encounter, many men and women are left with a poor understanding of the complexities of female sexuality.
Here are seven facts about female orgasms that will improve your understanding of female sexuality.
Fact #1: The majority of women can’t orgasm from intercourse alone.
Only about 25 percent of women can achieve orgasm through intercourse alone; most need clitoral stimulation as well. According to professor and author Elisabeth Lloyd’s book “The Case of the Female Orgasm,” a comprehensive analysis of 33 studies over the past 80 years reveals that only a quarter of women regularly and reliably experience orgasm from intercourse alone.
Most women require clitoral stimulation, but because of the clitoris’s location just outside the vagina, many don’t receive the sensation they need for full arousal. “Just as the head of the penis is the center of sexual sensitivity for most men, the clitoris is for most women—and these are homologues, so they function very similarly,” says Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen, PhD, author of “The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations’ Guide to Great Sex for Everyone.” “Most intercourse doesn’t give adequate clitoral stimulation, or starts before she is optimally aroused. Without high arousal the chances that orgasm will come from intercourse are slim.” For direct clitoral sensation, most women require oral or manual stimulation.
Fact #2: It’s possible to have an orgasm and not know it.
Not all orgasms involve the classic signs—sweating, rapid breathing, and muscle contractions. They can be much more subtle and mild, producing the sensation of gentle relaxation after arousal. “Many women have bought into the ‘mind-blowing rockets and volcanos’ model learned from romance novels and other unscientific sources,” Queen says. “Some orgasms are toe-curling and even transcendent, but some are gentle blips.”
Fact #3: Orgasms don’t happen in the genitals.
They actually happen in the brain, which is possibly one reason that medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors impact orgasm for so many users. “We generally feel them in the genitals, and we’ll feel a powerful orgasm all over the body,” Queen says. “But the orgasm itself occurs in the brain.” When the millions of nerve endings in the genitals are stimulated and aroused, they send messages to the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as the brain’s pleasure center.
During orgasm, the brain is also flooded with oxytocin, the chemical responsible for feelings of intimacy and connection. Both men and women experience this hormonal surge, but higher levels of testosterone in the male brain may combat some of the effects, which may explain why many women experience more intense feelings of connection after sex than men.
Fact #4: Vibrators appeal to specific nerves.
There’s a reason vibrators are a popular choice for self-stimulation—the body has specialized nerves to perceive the sensation. “Nerve endings adapt to all sorts of body functions and sensations,” Queen says. “Sensing vibration is one of them.” The most important consideration when using vibrators is safety: Make sure your sex toys are designed for the purpose for which you plan to use them, and always clean them with mild soap and warm water or a cleaner made specifically for sex toys.
Fact #5: Underwhelming orgasms can be caused by weak muscles.
Pelvic floor health is an important part of sexual function. Weak pubococcygeus (PC) muscles can impact the strength of orgasm—another reason Kegel exercises are important. “PC muscle contractions help us feel our orgasms,” Queen says. “If the muscles are weak, the contractions don’t feel like much, and it may feel like the orgasm didn’t quite ‘get there.'”
Kegels strengthen the pelvic floor muscles that support the uterus, bladder, small intestine, and rectum, and regularly performing the discreet exercises can also aid in urinary incontinence. They’re easy to do: Tighten the muscles that stop urination, then relax them for 5 seconds. Repeat several times in a row and work up to holding and relaxing for 10 seconds at a time. Try to perform at least 3 sets of 10 repetitions a day.
Fact #6: Orgasms are not an innate ability.
“That it’s a potential ability of almost all is true, but the body also must learn how to do it,”
Queen says. “Like crocheting or throwing a ball, nerves will actually grow to support one’s ability to come.” Some experts recommend relaxation exercises and Kegels, but it’s important to talk to your health care provider if you feel a medical condition or medication may be hurting your ability to climax.
Fact #7: Women don’t have to orgasm to enjoy sex.
Many women enjoy the closeness and physical intimacy of sex and are satisfied even if they don’t always have an orgasm. According to researchers, many women say their most satisfying sexual experiences had more to do with the connection to their partner than the sole pleasure of orgasm. “Lovely as orgasm can be, it’s just a bodily reflex, and many people value sex for other reasons: arousal, pleasure, connection, touch, intimate time with a partner,” Queen says. “This notion shouldn’t stop any woman who wants the ‘cherry on top,’ but it isn’t the only valuable part of sex!”
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