What Should Women's Orgasms Really Feel Like?
Porn, erotic literature, even mainstream films have turned women's orgasms into hyperbolic experiences: They're often depicted or described as "an eruption," "earth-shattering" or "explosive." They make women's legs flail and shake. They leave lucky ladies passed out or in a puddle of bliss. (Is there any doubt that many auteurs of these artistic interpretations are men?)
In actuality? Your big "O" might feel a little more subdued—and it might feel different depending on what's being stimulated.
Return with me, if you will, to Sex 101: a woman's orgasm is an impulsive reflex involving six to eight contractions that occur throughout the pelvic musculature, with increasingly longer lengths of time between contractions until they stop, explained Nicole Prause, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who studies orgasms and sexual arousal. Other actions that frequently accompany orgasm include muscle contractions throughout other parts of the body and changes in breathing patterns (think: gasping, holding breath, deeper exhales and so on), said Carol Queen, Ph.D., a staff sexologist at San Francisco sex toy retailer Good Vibrations.
Physiologically, all orgasms are the same: most noticeable is that involuntary pulsing.
“There's no documented difference between a clitorial or vaginal orgasm,” Prause said. “These appear to be largely psychological phenomena.”
There's no 'normal' when it comes to how an orgasm feels.
That said, your orgasms will feel unique to you. That's because the subjective experience varies substantially, Prause said. Factors such as how aroused someone is, the duration of the sexual stimulation, even the strength and flexibility of their pubococcygeal muscles, can all affect how pronounced those contractions are, leading to "stronger" or "weaker" orgasms, Queen explained.
"Differences in sensation may depend on where the stimulation is happening, since there are different nerves that serve the clitoris versus the vagina," Queen said.
Even though there's no "normal" when it comes to how an orgasm feels, it is normal to not realize whether you're actually experiencing one.
"Knowledge about orgasm physiology appears very poor,” Prause said, “and pornography is not helpful."
If you're not exactly sure what you're feeling down there, here's how to determine whether or not it's an orgasm.
This is the type of orgasm you hear the most about: fingers, a penis or some other safe object enters the vagina and stimulates an orgasm. In reality, it's not that simple. Only 18 percent of women orgasm from penetration alone, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.
"Ordinary intense intercourse is more likely to stimulate the introitus (the opening of the vagina, which leads to the vaginal canal), and surrounding area, where bodies grind together, and the cervix," Queen said.
When it does happen, a vaginal orgasm is often described as more diffused, Queen said—meaning you're more likely to feel it throughout your core, not just in the pelvic or genital musculature.
"If a woman has an orgasm while a penis is inside her vagina, she presumably will be more likely to notice sensations in her vagina," Prause said, whereas the woman might be unaware of the sensations in her vagina if she's just using a vibrator on her vulva.
Most people, or at least those people who can find it, recognize the clitoris as the small nub that peeks out from the top of the vulva. But that's just what you can see. The clitoral glans—it extends farther into the body and splits into two pathways that surround the vagina, Queen said—is packed with more than 8,000 nerve endings.
"The entire structure becomes very engorged with blood during sexual arousal, just like the penis," Prause said, and it's most often stimulated by friction versus penetration.
Thirty-seven percent of women reported clitoral stimulation was necessary for orgasm during intercourse in that same Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy study. An additional 36 percent said that while clitoral stimulation wasn't needed, their orgasms feel better if it does occur during intercourse.
"Clitorial orgasms tend to be called more focused or electric," Queen said.
A blended orgasm is exactly what it sounds like: basically, two Os in one.
"This happens when more than one sexually sensitive area is stimulated at once," Queen said. Think: clitoris plus nipples or vagina or anus. "Many people do consider this the most intense kind, because two sets of nerves are supporting the orgasm," she added.
Since all orgasms are more or less the same, a blended orgasm is likely to have qualities you'd associate with orgasms from the other erogenous areas you're stimulating.
"And it is very likely it will be more intense than usual because more nerves are involved," Queen said, "and/or will happen faster because that extra stimulation gets you to the point of climax sooner."
Just don't rush‚ she added. More time plus more stimulation is likely to result in an even better orgasm.