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 wellbeing (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, vagina, nipples, cervix, or an out-of-this-world combination of all of the above. Here 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 Charles 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 1005 women, a whopping 47% of women reported having multiple orgasms.