Orgasm is a physical reflex, usually a pleasurable one, when the muscles that were tightened during sexual arousal relax and the body returns to its pre-arousal state. During sexual arousal there is increased blood flow to the genitals and tensing of muscles throughout the body and particularly in the genitals. Orgasm reverses this process through a series of rhythmic contractions. For women, contractions occur in the lower part of the vagina, in the uterus, anus, and pelvic floor. About 10 percent of women also ejaculate fluid from the urethra at orgasm.
Where the physical contractions of orgasm occur and what particular sensations you experience are two different things. Each person has a unique experience of orgasm but common experiences include changes in breathing, a feeling of warmth, sweating, body vibrations, altered consciousness, or an urge to moan or cry out. During orgasm, endorphins are released into the bloodstream and these chemicals might make you feel happy, giddy, flushed, warm or sleepy.
Some women have orgasms but don’t realize it. You might think that what you are experiencing is too mild to be an orgasm or otherwise doesn’t fit your idea of what an orgasm should feel like. It can be important to focus on what you do feel, and realizing that this may or may not match someone else’s experience of orgasm.
First, you are not alone. Many women — about one out of three — have trouble reaching orgasm when having sex with a partner. This is even more common for younger women who are just beginning to explore sexual relationships. Getting to know your own body and preferences will make sex more pleasurable and can help you discover what brings you to orgasm.
If you would like to experience orgasm, you can teach yourself by learning what type of touch and stimulation gives you pleasure. Generally speaking, masturbation is the most direct route to an orgasm. Most women who reach orgasm with a partner have also experienced an orgasm from masturbation. There’s no right or wrong way to masturbate. Each woman’s body responds differently to stimulation. Experiment with different levels and rhythms of touching and pressure. Experiment with stimulating your clitoris and vagina with your fingers, with a vibrator, or with a stream of water. Getting to know your body is the key to becoming orgasmic.
It can also be important to consider whether there are other factors which might be making it more difficult for you to have an orgasm. Concern that you won’t have an orgasm, even though you are aroused, might repress your sexual response. For some women concerns might also include the worry that asking your partner to concentrate on your pleasure will put too much pressure on you and that this pressure will make it harder for you to have an orgasm. Taking the focus off of having an orgasm and just paying attention to your feelings of arousal and pleasure can be helpful in these situations. Try to concentrate on actual physical sensations rather than thoughts.
Most women experience orgasm through clitoral stimulation rather than through vaginal penetration. So if you are having difficulty reaching orgasm with a partner, try clitoral stimulation during, before, or after vaginal intercourse or oral sex. Masturbation can also be an important step in learning to be orgasmic with a partner. Once you have discovered what type of touch and stimulation you enjoy, you will be better able to give your partner(s) helpful directions.
The clitoris has a central role in the rising feelings of sexual tension which reach their peak in an orgasm. During arousal, the clitoris swells and changes position. The blood vessels throughout the pelvic area also swell, causing engorgement and creating a feeling of fullness and sexual sensitivity. You or your partner can stimulate your clitoris in a number of different ways — by rubbing, sucking, body pressure, using a vibrator. Although some women touch the glans of the clitoris to become aroused, for others it can be so sensitive that direct touching is uncomfortable or painful, even with lubrication. Also, focusing directly on the clitoris for a long time may cause the pleasurable sensations to disappear.
If it appeals to you, oral sex can be one of the most effective ways for women to reach orgasm. Having your partner use their mouth and tongue to stimulate the vulva in general and the clitoris in particular can be very arousing and can help you to orgasm. The sensitivity of your vulva and clitoris will determine what type of oral stimulation you enjoy and are most responsive to, so there is no one approach that works for everyone and new partners will need to learn about each other’s bodies and preferences.
Your clitoris can also be stimulated during vaginal intercourse when the clitoris is rubbed against the partner’s pubic bone, which can be easiest if you are on top. Leaning forward and down a little can help you get in the right position to experience this. If your partner is on top they can position themselves high enough so that their pubic bone presses against your clitoral area. You or your partner can also stimulate your clitoris with fingers or a vibrator during vaginal intercourse to help bring you to orgasm.
For some women, the outer third of their vagina is also very sensitive. When this area is stimulated during intercourse or other vaginal penetration, some women will experience orgasm without clitoral stimulation.
Some things you and your partner might try to help you reach orgasm:
- Focus on touching, kissing, and caressing each other to heighten arousal.
- Experiment with various positions, particularly those that stimulate the clitoris, and with manual and oral stimulation of your vulva and clitoris.
- Relax and take it slow.
- Talk with each other about what feels good and how you both like to be touched.
Your partners can't read your mind, so it's important to be clear about what feels good and what doesn't, and what we do and don't want to do. Orgasms become easier as you develop more knowledge of what is pleasing to you sexually, and as you become more comfortable telling your partners about what you like and don’t like.
If this discussion seems daunting, remember that your partner(s) will probably be glad to know how to please you. Each person’s body, experience and preferences for sexual pleasure are different. There is no reason why your partner would automatically know how best to help you have an orgasm. Telling your partner what works for you is not a judgment of their skills or abilities in bed. And having this “conversation” can be as simple as offering one or two word directions like “more,” “slower,” “faster,” “lower,” or “right there.” You can also take your partner’s hand and show them what types of pressure, pace and placement works for you.
You and your partner can also undertake a little research together. One good resource, available to borrow from the Health Education office, is I Heart Female Orgasm, by Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot. You might also spend some time surfing the links below. Learning about sex together can be a non-threatening (and fun) way to address the issue.
Kegel exercises were developed by Dr. Arnold Kegel to help women strengthen their pelvic muscles. These exercises can help increase the intensity of your orgasms.
- When you're peeing, clench your muscles to stop the flow of urine for about four seconds. Then release those same muscles to let the urine flow again. These are your pelvic floor muscles; these are the muscles you'll be exercising when you do Kegels. If you want to check and make sure that you're using the right muscles, put a finger or two into your vagina. Tighten the muscles. If you can feel your fingers being squeezed (even just a little), then you've located the right muscles.
- Contract the pelvic muscles hard for one second and then release them, ten times in a row. Repeat this process five to ten times a day.
- You can vary the exercise by holding the contraction for a count of three and then releasing it, doing fast short holds, or a mix of long and short holds.
- Kegel during commercials, every time the phone rings, in line at the Ratty—find your own regular pattern.
- Kegel during sex for added pleasure for you and your partner.
As with any exercise, results won’t be immediate, but over time (probably about 6-8 weeks) you will notice a difference.
Some women find that vibrators or other sex toys can be a good tool for reaching orgasm. You can use vibrators or sex toys for masturbation or for sex play with a partner. Visit our sex toys page for more information on types of sex toys, tips for using them safely, and links to further sex toy information resources.
The physical process is actually pretty similar. For both men and women, an orgasm produces rapid muscle contractions usually in the genital and anal area and sometimes throughout the body. These contractions, in the sexual and reproductive organs, the muscles of the pelvic floor, and the anus occur at the very same intervals (0.8 seconds) for both women and men. Men average four to six orgasmic contractions. Women average six to ten.
Ejaculation with orgasm is much more common in men than in women. Most of the time, a man will have an orgasm at the same time he ejaculates, but occasionally men have an orgasm without ejaculating, or ejaculate without having an orgasm. About 10 percent of women ejaculate —a clear fluid spurts from the urethra during intense sexual excitement or during orgasm. This fluid isn’t urine. Instead it is very like the fluid (found in semen) produced by the prostate gland in men. In women this fluid comes from the Skene’s glands in the wall of the urethra.
You may have heard that it takes a lot longer for women to reach orgasm than it does for men. This is not entirely true. During masturbation, women and men reach orgasm in very similar amounts of time. On average, women reach orgasm in a little less than four minutes. For men the average time is between two and three minutes. The difference in the time it takes women and men to reach orgasm during foreplay and vaginal intercourse is greater. On average, it takes women 10-20 minutes to reach orgasm. Men reach orgasm after 7-14 minutes overall, but average two to three minutes after beginning intercourse.
If you are a trans student you may have a hard time finding information that speaks in language that reflects how you feel about your body. If you feel that your biological body doesn't reflect your gender identity, you may use different terms for body parts than those we have used on this page. No matter how you label your body parts, if you are having difficulty achieving orgasm, taking steps, like some of those described above, to discover what kinds of touch give you pleasure and sharing this information with your partner(s) can be helpful. You can visit the sexuality section of Trans-Health.com for further information, including the effect of hormones and surgery on libido and orgasm. For further information and resource links, please visit our Trans Health page.
Health Education 401.863-2794
Health Education has books and videos about female orgasm available for loan and also offers confidential sexual health appointments for Brown students. We are located on the 3rd floor of Health Services at 13 Brown Street.
Health Services 401.863-3953
Providers at Health Services offer Brown students reproductive health care and can help you to address physical or health issues which may be impacting your ability to experience sexual pleasure. We are located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets. Please call us to make an appointment.
Psychological Services 401.863-3476
If you feel that anxiety or another psychological cause is impacting your ability to experience sexual pleasure, accessing counseling services could be helpful and important. Brown students can make confidential appointments with Psychological Services.
Go Ask Alice
This Q&A site from Columbia University has answers to many orgasm questions and is a great source for sexual health and sexual pleasure information. You can also submit your own questions.
This site offers extensive information on female sexuality and sexual response.
This page of our site has information about sex toys and links to sex toy websites.
American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists
AASECT offers a directory of certified sex therapists as well as links to sexuality resources
Disclaimer: Health Education is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Education maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Education offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.