For all the time our society spends talking about sex, many women are still asking themselves this question: What does an orgasm feel like?
As a certified sex therapist turned neuroscientist, I get asked about orgasms a lot. In my new column for Glamour, I’m here to address your pressing questions about sex, love, and pleasure. With over three decades of experience studying the science of pleasure, I can say without a doubt that the ability to experience potent and satisfying pleasures like orgasm isn’t a luxury—female pleasure is a necessity for our health and well-being (something I talk about in much more detail in my new book Why Good Sex Matters, out later this month).
The female orgasm is a fantastic thing: It can be triggered by stimulating the clitoris, the vagina, the nipples, the cervix, or an out-of-this-world combination of all of the above. Here’s what you need to know about what an orgasm feels like, and how to prioritize having more of them.
For starters, what is an orgasm?
Although there’ve been many attempts to define and describe the elusive experience of the “Big O,” my favorite, and simplest of all, was coined by Alfred Kinsey, a pioneer in the study of human sexuality. In scientist speak, he nailed it: “The expulsive discharge of neuromuscular tensions at the peak of the sexual response.”
Here’s how that breaks down: Neuro refers to the nerves of the body and neurons of the brain, muscular refers to muscles, and explosive discharge, well, speaks for itself. An orgasm is an intensely pleasurable response to sexual stimulation.
Having one doesn’t necessarily involve the genitals. Case in point: “nipplegasms.” There are even some talented individuals who appear able to experience a thought- or imagery-induced orgasm, without any physical stimulation at all. Lucky them.
My research has demonstrated that the Big O is indeed a “big brain” event, increasing blood flow to a range of brain regions, which is good for brain health. In fact, having an orgasm may be better for your brain than doing crossword puzzles—not to mention, much more fun.
What should an orgasm feel like?
A study done back in the 1970s asked male and female college students to describe how their orgasms felt. Most of the descriptions involved a pleasurable release of built-up tensions, experienced as an explosion of sensation, sometimes bordering on the ecstatic, and finally a wave of warmth, peace, and relaxation.
The truth is, orgasms exist on a spectrum: There are orgasms, and then there are ORGASMS! Some are pleasant but not earth-shattering, and others are screaming-laughing-crying episodes of pure ecstasy. Both are important and valid.
I tend to discourage people from “shoulding” on themselves or their experiences. When we evaluate how things should feel or how they should be, we take ourselves away from the experience. My book, Why Good Sex Matters is not entitled Why Great Sex Matters for an important reason; when we start evaluating our erotic lives, chasing and seeking great sex or super or multiple orgasms, we miss the point, likely sabotaging our own capacity for pleasure. Good sex involves being present to the experience we are having. And a good orgasm is any orgasm that comes along.
What is the difference between the female orgasm and the male orgasm?
One big difference is that males have a refractory period after orgasm, which shuts down the sex party, at least for a while. Females are not wired that way—women are capable of experiencing multiple orgasms during sexual activity. In a recent study using a nationally representative sample of 1,005 women, a whopping 47% of women reported having multiple orgasms.
Another difference is how frequently men versus women experience orgasm during intimate encounters. The orgasm gap is notable; 95% of heterosexual men reported “usually orgasming” with partners, while only 65% of heterosexual females do. Lesbians tend to fare better in this department: 86% of them reported orgasming regularly when having sex with partners.
Although there is an orgasm gap between men and women, given the percentage of women reporting multiple orgasms, given the right circumstances, the sexual capacity of females is formidable.
How do you know if you’ve had an orgasm?
You might think we have fancy scientific ways of determining whether an orgasm has happened or not. Orgasms are associated with changes in physiological measures such as heart rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation, and involuntary rhythmic contractions of the pelvic floor muscles around the vagina, as well as uterine and anal contractions—but the best way to determine whether an orgasm has happened is to ask the person having the experience.
That is precisely what I did for my orgasm study. I asked participants to press a button when their orgasm started, and again when it ended. As researchers and clinicians know, the best measure of someone’s experience of either pain or pleasure is not the physiological measures, but the person’s subjective ratings.
When women say they aren’t sure they are having orgasms, I coach them to enjoy the sensations as is. I say, “Relax, and let the orgasm find you!” Relaxing into the sensations is the first step in increasing the likelihood of experiencing more sexual pleasure.
How to have better, more intense orgasms
I cannot sufficiently emphasize the importance of strengthening the pelvic floor muscles to enhance the experience of sexual pleasure. Remember the definition of orgasm as a neuromuscular event? Regularly training those muscles will do wonders for enhancing our ability to orgasm and make orgasms even more powerful.
2. Experiment with a “blended orgasm.”
Simultaneously stimulating regions wired for pleasure—clitoris, vagina, cervix, and nipples—activates more of the sensory nerves that transmit those feel-good neural messages to the brain’s ground zero of genital sensation, our genital sensory cortex. We mapped this out in a study published in 2011. Blended orgasms tend to be evoked when these areas are simultaneously stimulated, making for an orgasm that tends to be felt more deeply and more intensely all over the body.
3. Fake it to make it.
I don’t mean pretending you’re having an orgasm when you’re not. When you don’t tell your partner you aren’t orgasming, they lack important feedback about your sexual experience and cannot team up with you to explore new roads to pleasure.
That said, if you allow yourself to make pleasure noises (moaning can actually boost arousal), take deep breaths to improve blood flow and oxygenation, and move your body as if you are experiencing an orgasm, you may prime yourself to release into an orgasm. Sound and movement, in other words, can give us sexy sensory cues to enhance pleasure—so take advantage.
Nan Wise, Ph.D., is AASECT certified sex therapist, a neuroscientist, a certified relationship expert, and the author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life. Follow her @AskDoctorNan.
Originally Appeared on Glamour