Written by Laurie Mintz, Ph.D.
Orgasm. Peak. Climax. Cum. Despite all the talk about orgasms, there is a lot of false information about them. Below we clear this up with facts about this fun, although sometimes elusive, experience.*
No matter your gender, your genitals have erectile tissue. When you’re not aroused, the blood flows freely in and out of this tissue, but when you are aroused, the blood goes in but not out. All that blood filling your erectile tissue creates tension that builds up to a very high point. An orgasm is when powerful, rhythmic muscle contractions release that tension.
Stating the obvious, having an orgasm feels good! Here is a real life description, as quoted in a widely used human sexuality textbook:
It feels like all the tension that has been building and building is released with an explosion. It is the most pleasurable thing in the whole world.
Note: By male, we mean a person with a penis and by female, we mean a person with a vulva. For more information, check out the bodies and gender basics!
Male Versus Female Orgasms
Perhaps you’re wondering why we didn’t specify if the description above was written by a male or female. It’s because research finds that when males and females write descriptions of their orgasms, expert judges can’t guess the sex of the writer. Both talk about tension building up to a point of intensity, followed by a very pleasurable release of that tension (e.g., “A great release of tensions that have built up that is extremely pleasant and exciting.”).
Still, four important things that differ between male and female orgasms are:
Ejaculation: In males, orgasm is almost always accompanied by ejaculation, or semen spurting out of the penis. Some females experience ejaculation as well, although estimates of just how many vary widely. Female ejaculation is when fluid (which can be as little as a teaspoon or more of a gush/squirt) is expelled from the urethra.
Refractory Period: After people with penises ejaculate, they have a refractory period, or a period of time during which they cannot have another ejaculation. The refractory period is shorter for younger males (e.g., as short as 15 minutes) than older males (e.g., more than a day). Female bodied individuals don’t have a refractory period. In other words, they can have more than one orgasm during the same sexual act. This is called having “multiple” or “sequential” orgasms.
The Orgasm Gap: During heterosexual sexual encounters, males orgasm more than females. In one study, 64% of females versus 91% of males said they’d had an orgasm at their most recent sexual encounter. In one survey of college students, 55% of males versus 4% of females said they usually orgasm during first-time hookup sex. There are many reasons for the orgasm gap, but the primary one is that females are not getting enough or not the right kind of clitoral stimulation during heterosexual penetrative sex. That’s why females are more likely to orgasm when pleasuring themselves or when having sex with another female; the focus is on clitoral stimulation, with penetration only included if it enhances one’s arousal. Only about 15% of females can orgasm from penetration alone and the rest need some form of clitoral stimulation. Some females prefer to have their orgasm separate from penetration (e.g., oral sex or manual stimulation before or after intercourse) and some prefer to pair clitoral stimulation and penetration (e.g., with their own or a partner’s hand or a vibrator).
Time to Orgasm: When pleasuring themselves, both males and females take an average of four minutes to orgasm. Among males, the average amount of time from putting their penis inside a vagina to orgasm is anywhere from 2 – 6 minutes. For females, when having a sexual encounter with a partner, it takes anywhere from 10 – 45 minutes of stimulation to orgasm, with the average being about 20 minutes. In fact, if a partner spends 20 minutes stimulating a partner’s clitoris, 92% will orgasm.
Both males and females have a variety of concern about orgasm.
The most common female concern is not being able to orgasm during intercourse. This problem can be solved easily—that is, by knowing that the majority of females do not orgasm from penetration alone and instead need clitoral stimulation. Also, really important, the type of stimulation that females need varies greatly and so the best way to know what you need to orgasm is to pleasure yourself. Then, make sure to get this same type of stimulation during partnered sex, by telling your partner what you need (or touching yourself during partnered sex).
Another common female concern is pain during penetration. This is often caused by not being aroused enough before intercourse. The key, then, is to make sure you are highly aroused before penetration. Many females also benefit from using lubricant during intercourse. If this doesn’t solve the problem, it’s important to see a physician about your sexual pain.
The most common male concerns are ejaculating too fast and losing their erection. Sometimes males think they are coming too quickly due to unrealistic porn images. Remember: the average is about 2 – 6 minutes! For men who come in less than a minute or who feel they have no control over their orgasm, check out the resource list below.
It’s rare for a male to go through his whole life and not lose an erection. Here’s the advice sex therapists give for lost erections: stay calm and continue the sexual stimulation (e.g., have your partner touch you some more). If you do this, your erection will likely come back. Therapists also advise that if you can’t get your erection back, don’t let it ruin a sexual encounter; ask your partner if he or she would like more stimulation or maybe just a long back rub instead. If you constantly lose erections, check out the resource list below.
Mindfulness & Orgasms
It is impossible to have an orgasm when your mind if focused elsewhere. In fact, orgasm requires a total immersion in your bodily sensations. Still, most of us do end up distracted by worries during sex—with common worries being about how we look or if we are “doing it right.” The key is to be able to let go of these thoughts and bring yourself back to your bodily sensations. And, the best way to do this is with mindfulness, which is simply putting your mind and body in the same place, rather than having your body in one place (e.g., receiving oral sex) and your mind in another (e.g., wondering if you smell o.k.). Mindfulness during sex has been associated with greater pleasure and arousal and more orgasms.
While we’ve been focused on orgasms, here’s an important irony. That is, focusing on having an orgasm is a sure-fire way to not have one! Orgasms aren’t something that can be forced and they won’t happen if you’re hell-bent on having one. So, instead, relax, get into a mindful flow, and HAVE FUN! Also take note, faking orgasm teaches your partner to do exactly what doesn’t work for you. Orgasms are an experience, not a goal to strive for. Successful sex is a journey, not a destination.
Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters—And How to Get It
I Love Female Orgasm: An Extraordinary Orgasm Guide
Coping with Premature Ejaculation
Coping with Erectile Dysfunction
*Significant portions were excerpted with permission from Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It (HarperCollins, 2017), by Dr. Laurie Mintz.
Examining the mystery of nocturnal orgasms for people who don’t have a penis.