How do I have an orgasm? It’s the rallying cry of people with vulvas across the world. Unfortunately, the world has responded by systemically devaluing sexual pleasure, especially for people without penises. Think this is a false premise? Google “how to orgasm” woman and man.
You may notice two things. First, “orgasms for men” literature focuses on extending the orgasm and reducing the time between ejaculations – if not wholly trying to stop them. The “tantric” orgasm is heavily featured. The second thing you may notice when you get to the lady section of your Google search is the heavy focus on “making her cum” or “ways to get off like a man.” The internet would lead you to believe that an orgasm for a person with a vagina is a nice add-on to a partner’s sexual pleasure, a bonus if you will, usually accompanied by images of sexy, conventionally attractive, scantily clad couples gazing mischievously into one another’s eyes.
This is why you may hear feminists refer to solo-produced orgasms as radical acts. It is also why this article is not going to talk about the mechanics of orgasm for people with penises, although many of the principles apply to all people. For the orgasmically frustrated people with vulvas out there, this one’s for you.
Vulvas: How Do They Work?
For clarity, the vulva is the external, visible anatomy attached to the vagina. It includes labia, the clitoris, the introitus (entrance to the vaginal canal), and the urethra as its main components. While each part of the vulva plays a role in the orgasm process, some are more integral than others.
The clitoris, which responds to friction, vibration, and gentle pressure is more densely packed with nerve endings than any other part of the body. The clitoral shaft is external and lives at the top of the vulva, but the entire clitoris extends into the mons pubis. Two branches of the clitoral structure, the crura, lie beneath the labia, alongside the vaginal canal. The clitoral structure is the anatomical analog to the penis – complete with engorging tissues and sensitive head. And stimulating it is as vital to orgasm for most people with vulvas as the shaft and frenulum are for people with penises.
The labia come in two pairs, internal and external, and respond to the same kinds of sensation as the clitoris. They are usually stimulated in most vulva-involved sexual activities, but sometimes, intentionally stroking and rubbing the labia can increase blood flow to the genitals and increase nerve sensitivity.
The vagina, for the purpose of orgasms, has two sections; the two thirds closest to the uterus and the bottom, or distal, third. The distal third of the vagina responds to friction and pressure. The inner two thirds like a feeling of fullness and more firm pressure. While some people really like the feeling full feeling from stimulating the inner or upper vagina, more people have orgasmic responses from the friction in the distal third. The old adage is true: it is the motion, not the size, that leads most people to orgasm.
Out of Your Head, Into Your Body
Have you heard the phrase correlation does not equal causation? It means that, while things may be happening simultaneously, they aren’t necessarily related. This applies to orgasms.
As Emily Nagoski talks about in her book, Come As You Are, the physical, psychological, and physiological components of orgasms function separately. To illustrate this idea, look at sexual assault. Some people, during an assault, may physically and physiologically experience an orgasm, but that is just the body responding to stimuli. These parts of orgasm are run by the autonomic nervous system, which is also responsible for blinking and maintaining heartbeats. That’s how the body is designed to work, and it can lead to further emotional trauma for assault survivors because society says that orgasms mean we like what is going on with our bodies. It just isn’t true.
The way society depicts and discusses orgasms is based on the physical, psychological, and physiological components of orgasm lining up. During an orgasm, the pelvic floor muscles rhythmically contract (physical), the brain releases dopamine and oxytocin (physiological), and, in theory, the person orgasming thinks, “Wow, this feels great.” Within the experience of orgasm, there is a wide diversity how those three parts align – even for a singular person. When you begin having orgasms, you can experiment with different sensations for varying outcomes.
But How Do I Have an Orgasm?
Many how-to lists are out there for vulva owners looking to increase their orgasmic capabilities, but they mostly can be distilled down to five points.
- Relax. If you are a giant ball of stress and are preoccupied thinking about your to-do list or how bad you are at orgasming (by the way, you are doing great), the likelihood of having an orgasm decreases because your brain isn’t with your body.
- Breathe. Anyone who’s been in a choir has probably heard to breathe into their diaphragm because it increases your lung capacity. The same goes for orgasm – but fly past the sternum and focus on breathing deeply into your pelvis. More oxygen means more blood which means higher genital sensitivity.
- Practice. There’s a reason masturbation is called “playing with yourself.” It’s supposed to be fun, not work. When you have time to dedicate to getting in touch with your body, experiment and figure out what feels right, what gets you off, and what doesn’t work at all.
- Involve your butt. The pelvic floor muscles encircle the anus, as well as the frontal genitals, and involve nearly all of the same nerves. If the stimulation you are trying isn’t taking you over the edge, try a different route. These anal toys can help!
- See your doctor. From SSRIs to antihistamines to vitamins, the things we put into our bodies that alter our chemical functions can impair or exacerbate the body’s ability to have an orgasm. If you have had a sudden change in sexual functioning, check in with your physician.
As a final note, orgasms are lovely, and if you want them, you should have the ability to make them happen. However, that earth-shattering, brain-bending, confluence of chemicals and spasming isn’t all there is to sex, especially sex with a partner. Sometimes, sexy time is fun and fulfilling even if orgasm doesn’t happen. It’s up to you, as the boss of your body, to decide that sex is satisfying whether you get off or not.
Originally published in 2016; updated February 28, 2019.
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