While sex is one of those things we all love to talk about, it’s a completely different experience for everyone. Some people prefer oral sex, some people lean toward anal, some people like no sex, and some people like all sex.
Regardless of whatever kind of sex you’re having (or not having), one of the main goals for pretty much everyone: experiencing an orgasm. In fact, having an orgasm is usually the determining factor of whether or not the sex was “good.”
But because every body is different and people experience pleasure differently, it can be hard to know when you are or aren’t actually having an orgasm. And that’s why we’re breaking down what an orgasm is, how to have one, and how to have a better one so you can stop Googling and start getting off.
But just so we’re clear, orgasms are not the end-all-be-all, folks. Sure, it’s great if you get one, but it’s also great if whatever you’re experiencing just feels really, really good. There are tons of reasons to have sex—and not all involve orgasms.
What is an orgasm?
Medically speaking, an orgasm is defined as the changes in the body when there’s intense pleasure that causes an increase in pulse rate and blood pressure, explains ob-gyn Jessica Shepherd, MD. Orgasms can also cause spasms of the pelvic muscles that cause contractions in the vagina and contractions of the urethra in penises, she adds.
Gender aside, an orgasm is biologically caused by the same thing for everyone: stimulation. For some people, that’s genital stimulation, for others, it’s breast, skin, or even mental stimulation.
However you get there, one of the most desirable parts of orgasm is the ~ feel-good ~ chemicals that are released. Dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin flood the body after climax making you feel relaxed, peaceful, satisfied, and bonded to your partner(s).
What do we know about orgasms?
“Part of what makes orgasms so glorious is the fact that no two are the same,” says ASTROGLIDE resident sexologist Jess O’Reilly, PhD. “Even a universal definition for orgasm cannot be agreed upon, as our subjective experiences do not always align with scientific conclusions.”
While the science is still evolving, the pros do know a thing or two. First of all, according to a 2017 study, only 18 percent of people with vaginas are able to orgasm from intercourse alone. In fact, Lelo sexpert and author of Becoming Cliterate Laurie Mintz, PhD, notes “the overwhelming majority” of people with vaginas need clitoral stimulation, either alone or coupled with penetration.
Even those who are orgasming during penetration (whether vaginally or via the anus) usually have the clitoris to thank. “The clitoris is a vast internal organ, not just the ‘nub’ you see on the outside,” explains Dr. Mintz. “Most scientists will tell you all orgasms involve the clitoris, no matter where the stimulation that results in orgasm occurs.”
It is also important to note that some people simply can’t orgasm. (And yes, this is completely normal.) That doesn’t mean you don’t get the benefits of sex though. “Several studies show that orgasm is not necessary to have a deeply pleasurable and fulfilling sex life,” says family, marriage, and sex therapist Rachel Smith. “Often, it’s just the icing on the cake.”
Are there different types of orgasms?
When you think of an orgasm, you’re probably picturing your hips bucking to the sky. And while that’s one (very fun type), there are actually multiple different types of orgasms someone can have.
“This may come as a surprise to many people, but orgasms actually happen in our brain, not in our genitals,” says Smith. “Our skin is our largest sexual organ, while our brain is the most important one.”
While Dr. Mintz explains scientists are still debating whether there are different types of genital orgasms (think clitoral, A-spot, G-spot, etc.), they do know there are other ways to come that don’t involve touching anything below the belt:
- While fantasizing: Some people can simply “think” themselves into orgasm by imagining a stimulating situation and letting their minds wander.
- With nipple play: “When the nipples are stimulated, oxytocin is released, which causes the same uterine and vaginal contractions associated with orgasm,” OB/GYN Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom told Women’s Health.
- While working out: Also called a “coregasm” (lol), some people can literally orgasm while they’re running, practicing yoga, or doing core workouts.
- While sleeping: Because orgasms actually happen in our brains—which are v active at night—people of all genders can climax in their sleep. There’s no trick to making it happen but when it does, it makes for one very good night’s sleep.
- A skin orgasm: Also called “frisson,” skin orgasms are those tingles you get when you listen to a really good song, look at moving artwork, or even watch a special scene in a movie. For some people, it’s felt like goosebumps or a little shiver along your arms.
How many times can someone orgasm in one session?
A major win for people with vagina owners: The limit does not exist when it comes to the number of possible orgasms per sesh. “Women having up to 100 has been documented. However the general range is about two to five,” says Mintz.
Still, plenty of people are perfectly content with just the one orgasm, and “putting pressure on oneself to have multiple orgasms (or anything else) is detrimental since pressure and sex do not mix well,” explains Dr. Mintz. “Goal-oriented sex (i.e., the goal to orgasm, the goal to have more than one orgasm) is most likely going to result in the opposite (no orgasm).”
If you want to try to go for more than one, Smith says it’s important to take things slow and switch it up. It usually happens “when partners take their time to not rush a sexual experience and incorporate different types of sexual stimulation with a special focus on clitoral play.”
How do I know if I had an orgasm?
Dr. Shepherd explains that thanks to the neurochemicals released during orgasm, an orgasm can feel like a sensual trance and create a state of sexual ecstasy that you can feel both physically and psychologically. Simply put, an orgasm is “the heightened sexual excitement and gratification sensed and then followed by relaxation,” she adds.
There are some physical signals that can clue you in if you’re on your way too. When you’re aroused, your heart beats faster, your breathing quickens, your nipples become erect, and your genitals become engorged with blood. As arousal climbs, these sensations increase until you orgasm.
Can I orgasm without knowing?
While the physical process is generally similar for most people, the actual orgasmic experience varies, which is why it’s actually possible to have an orgasm and not realize that you’ve had one.
Granted, this usually happens if your expectations come from porn or media, which tends to depict orgasms more one-dimensionally like screaming, squealing, and convulsing. But in real life orgasms vary, and they’re not all going to be earth-shattering.
“Sometimes it can feel like you have to be ripped off the walls, other times it may just be a little blip on the radar,” explains Smith. If you’re unsure, the chief medical officer of The Pill Club, ob-gyn Amy Roskin, suggests looking for “muscle contractions or spasms, heavy breathing, and a flushed face” to start.
You might also want to take inventory of how you’re feeling. Relaxed? Accomplished? Super close with your partner? Those are all signs that your body released those feel-good chemicals post-climax.
That said, if you’re taking note of all the signs—and you have your expectations in check—and you’re still unsure, chances are you’re not reaching your peak, says Mintz.
How to have an orgasm:
If you suspect that you aren’t climaxing, you might be able to learn to by becoming familiar with your body and how it reacts to sexual stimulation. All the experts agree that some solo play is a great place to start. Try out a few masturbation techniques to see what feels good by varying up your touch and intensity.
It also helps to focus on what you’re feeling in the moment rather than worrying about achieving the goal of orgasm. As sex therapist Vanessa Marin has pointed out, “Deep breathing is a fantastic way to let go of distracting thoughts.”
Once you’ve mastered your own domain, you’ll be better able to let your partner know what turns you on. If you want to try to orgasm via penetration, Dr. Jess suggests giving the Coital Alignment Technique (CAT) a try as it “allows you to simultaneously squeeze the shaft of the penis [or toy] between your thighs, grind your clitoris against the pelvis bone, and enjoy the snug fit of penetration.”
Tips for an even better orgasm:
If you’re able to orgasm but you want to turn things up, don’t be afraid to bring toys into the mix. Dr. Mintz suggests experimenting beyond clitoral vibrators once you have the hang of them. “Try rabbit vibrators, such as Lelo’s SORAYA Wave. It may be that your orgasm will be more intense by combining clitoral and vaginal stimulation,” she says.
Looking for toys that fit you and your body can even be its own sexy form of foreplay whether you do it solo or with a partner, so don’t be afraid to get them into the mix and going on a little shopping spree.
Regardless, it’s important to remember not everyone can achieve orgasm, either with a partner or ever, and that’s absolutely normal. Open communication with your partner and talking with a sex therapist can help—but the fun of sex is in the exploration, which encompasses so much more than an orgasm. So let go and enjoy, no matter what the climax looks like.
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