Defining Orgasm for Myself

It took me a long time to learn that female orgasm is both straightforward and varied.



photo courtesy of Vera Lair

filed under Science of Love, Sex, True Stories

There is this story we tell ourselves as part of modern sex culture about women’s orgasms. We use words like mystical and elusive to describe what, in theory, is a basic physiological response to specific stimuli. If we talked about men’s orgasms in this way, the parody would be obvious, because we think of the male sexual response as straightforward, completely visible to the naked eye.

Despite all the articles you’ve read about women’s strange and complex orgasms—clitoral, vaginal, G-spot, etc.—the available science paints a different picture: People of all genders generally orgasm reliably and quickly with stimulation of their primary pleasure organ. (That means the clitoris for about half the population.) But we like to mystify women’s orgasms, assuming they are inexplicable, unable to be defined by cold, hard science, all the while normalizing men’s—orgasms so straightforward that we don’t need science to understand them.

I was a bit of a sexual late bloomer. Before I started having sex in my early twenties, orgasm meant one thing: clitoral self-stimulation and the subsequent, predictable orgasm. And I don’t mean predictable in a bad way. When it was just me, there was never any question about whether or not I would get off.

But magazines and movies told me that orgasms, as mysterious and tricky as they are, were something that I should be able to experience during penetrative sex with a man. Not only was this very special vaginal orgasm supposed to be possible, but it was meant to to be the ideal, some goal to achieve.

A lot of women struggle with this right from the start, because that so-called “vaginal orgasm” isn’t something that most women can experience. But I was into it. As I began to explore different kinds of sex and stimulation, I absolutely had regular climactic experiences that involved penetration primarily or exclusively. These “orgasms” were energetically similar, but functionally different, from a typical clitoral orgasm.

Because these climaxes were in many ways reminiscent of my earlier orgasmic experiences, because sex with my lover was so much more intense than masturbation had ever been, and because this was supposed to be the absolute ideal for couples like us, it became a bedroom priority without me even realizing it. Don’t get me wrong. This sex was good; the sheets were soaked. It just wasn’t the same as a clitoral orgasm.

In the aftermath of this kind of sex, I felt energized, ready to take on the world, or write dark poetry, or meditate by candlelight. These were magical moments, the kind of sex that made me feel like we were absolutely doing it right. And yet I often felt the need to masturbate before falling asleep, setting off a little voice in my head whispering that my sex life must have been lacking. I shook my head at men who felt threatened by sex toys, but the same fears were nagging at both me and my partner. For a nonmonogamous couple like us, these feelings were problematic to say the least.

Human sexuality has always been a passionate interest of mine. I spent several years working as a phone sex operator and web cam performer, and even longer studying sacred sexuality and human physiology. When feminism led me to the orgasm equality movement, I realized that despite all the knowledge and experience I had acquired, no one had ever told me that Alfred Kinsey found, way back in 1953, that most women can bring themselves to a clitoral orgasm in four minutes. No one had explained to me that the clitoral complex, including the internal erectile structures of the clitoris, are as big or bigger than the average penis.

I was unaware that not one scientific study has ever shown evidence of female orgasm occurring without some kind of direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoral bud (ie. the part outside the body). That’s a shocking fact, a claim that might make one immediately defensive, and of course it depends on the answer to a very specific question: What is an orgasm?

Must orgasm be defined only in its most clinical form: the unique muscular response involving a number of repeated, involuntary spasms of the pelvic floor muscles when the clitoris is stimulated? Or can an orgasm be something that happens in the brain with any overload of pleasure? How are orgasms measured?

If the pulsing climactic rush I experience during penetrative sex doesn’t end with this clinical muscular response, is it still an orgasm because of the way it engages my core and light up my brain? And if it is, then how do I talk about the specific orgasms I want and when I want them? I already found communicating sexual desires difficult enough, without the added ambiguity around what is and is not an orgasm. So I decided to make a change.

I started by asking myself, where am I being touched? How does the energy peak change my body? How long does it last? The more I learned to observe the nuances of these experiences, the easier it was to name them. Not only did naming them make it simpler to ask for what I wanted, but it helped demystify the entire process. Orgasm was no longer a nebulous collection of intense sexual pleasures, but the distinct result of unique circumstances.

When I’m being penetrated and have what might be called a “vaginal orgasm” by others, I’m coming. I climax from sexual sensation that isn’t directly genital-related, such as nipple stimulation or BDSM. Orgasmic experiences from touch-free practices like intense breathing, or the aftershocks that hit in the wake of really intense sex, I lovingly refer to as blissing out. These aren’t technical terms, obviously. They are arbitrary labels on experiences I’ve had to observe and categorize myself, while I wait for science to catch up.

Revising and expanding my sexual vocabulary marked a point in my life of growing sexual maturity. With more precise language about what I was experiencing during sex, it seemed so much easier to talk about the real questions underlying all these feelings: What does it mean to be fulfilled? And how do we go about satisfying the needs that drive us to seek fulfillment?

Opening about my desires allowed me to take responsibility for their fulfillment. We can choose to form partnerships, share resources, collaborate with others in the art that is great sex, but we can also enjoy the pleasures that are all our own. So if I decide to masturbate before falling asleep, or spend a few weeks in abstinence, or get freaky nonstop for an entire week, none of it irks my subconscious into guilt, or concern, or anything but wonder for the magic that is the human body. Our sex life works because we can talk about our experiences. And that’s a lot easier to do when they have a name.

Bex vanKoot is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and author writing about sex, gender, feminism, and social justice from Oaxaca, Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @bexvankoot.

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