Popular culture, as we all know, is saturated with sexual talk and sexual imagery, but the facts about sex are a little harder to come by. How our sexual organs produce pleasure isn’t taught in school, and most people learn by doing – the old trial and error approach doesn’t always work as well as we might like it to, however. The trouble with learning by your mistakes is that you can spend a lot of time thinking there is something wrong with you, or something wrong with your partner when you’re really operating under a lot of misconceptions or errors in thinking about your sexuality and about the way your body responds to touch. So let’s lift the veil on some of the secrets of female sexual pleasure and orgasm.
It has been my observation that women’s experiences of erotic pleasure are deeply affected by the cultural and relational context of our lives. You can’t experience your body outside the world it lives in, and you live in a world where desire and pleasure, for women especially, are thorny concepts. Our body is, in a very real sense, the space in which our cultural ideals, our cherished relationships, our fears, our delights, our histories, our fantasies and our dreams for the future all meld. Every moment of our lives, every message about love, lust end eroticism, is captured and held within our body, and is revealed in its sensations. We each have an erotic story to tell. We each have an erotic vision to realize. And orgasm is a part of all that. In fact, you could say that each time you make love, or have sex, or pleasure yourself, there is a possibility for a climax to one chapter in your ever-expanding erotic tale.
But what is an orgasm, physiologically speaking? Well, it’s like a high voltage burst of energy surging through the spinal cord and into every nerve, every fiber of your body. It is also, quite literally, the release of muscular tension – tension that has been building up during sexual excitement until it can’t be held any longer, and breaks like waves through the body. The shudders and spasms of orgasm that are, perhaps, familiar to you, are a result of that release of tension. If you’ve ever wondered why sometimes you can’t orgasm easily and sometimes not at all, and sometimes it’s very simple, knowing that orgasm is the culmination of an intense and usually quite prolonged process may help you understand why orgasm isn’t as predictable as some women would prefer it to be. Anything that interrupts the process that we call “the sexual response cycle” can be an obstacle to orgasm. So let’s look at that cycle, and then explore the way our body and our mind collaborate in creating its pleasures.
Masters and Johnson were the first to study and describe the human sexual response cycle, but other researchers have modified it since M & J did their work in the 1960’s. Most experts consider that there are 5 phases to the sexual response cycle for men and for women, each with its own physiological traits. The five phases are desire, excitement – also called arousal – plateau, orgasm and resolution. Men are more likely to move through these phases in a linear order, while women tend to swirl around in these phases in varying orders, so that the progression is more like a spiral than a straight line. For example, many women feel arousal before desire. Rather than feel desire hit like a bolt from the blue, they experience sexual desire as a response to arousal itself, rather than a spontaneous urge. Maybe you’ve found that you need to be kissed in a certain way, or touched in a certain way, or talked to in an erotic way, or exposed to erotic material that turns you on before you feel any urge for sexual activity. That means that it might be more important for you to created the conditions in which you can be receptive to sexual arousal than it is for you to act on the spontaneous desire. However, whether desire leads you to seek arousal or arousal leads you to seek desire, this early point in the sexual response cycle is where you feel initial stirrings of sexy or pleasurable sensations throughout your whole body, or genitally, or psychologically and emotionally, or in all those ways.
During arousal, blood is drawn to your most sensitive areas and you begin to experience swelling – what we call engorgement – of the clitoris, vulva and vaginal tissues. If stimulation continues, arousal heightens, and it intensifies during what we call the plateau phase. Lubrication increases and other changes occur to both the internal and external genitalia. Plateau is actually a very funny word for this phase, because it usually implies a kind of ending of stimulation, a flattening out – we aren’t climbing anymore when we hit a plateau. But here, you keep going higher, your muscles become more tense and sensation builds to a fevered peak.
This kind of high arousal is actually the most important part of sex for many women. Arousal sets the stage for orgasm, but more than that it’s actually the pleasure center or key ingredient in the chemistry of lovemaking – it’s sort of like the grape in winemaking. If arousal sensations are strong enough and of the right kind, and if you are fully attentive to and responsive to them, and if nothing else intrudes – then excitement will lead to orgasm. That’s a lot of ifs, isn’t it? Which is one of the reasons that so many women do have trouble reaching orgasm each time they make love.
During the 5th stage in the response cycle – resolution – the body returns to its preorgasmic state. But not all women go from orgasm to resolution. Some women slide back into plateau and on into another orgasm, and another one, and maybe another one, until they have to be scraped off the walls.
The key point to remember is that these phases are inter-related and highly interdependent. So if you are having trouble feeling good during any one of the phases, then you’re going to have trouble reaching a conclusion or a climax. You’re going to have difficulty physically, emotionally, psychologically, or in any combination and that will affect your pleasure all the way through.
For some women, just because of the way they are physically wired, reaching orgasm takes more time and more effort and isn’t guaranteed, but the pleasure of the journey is so great that it supercedes orgasm as a goal. For these women, 45 minutes or more of stimulation is a perfectly ok – it’s a perfectly natural amount of time to take to come. Some other women are so genitally sensitive that they can orgasm within minutes, quite easily and reliably – but I’ve worked with many women who can climax so quickly, and they don’t always find sex terribly motivating. They don’t linger in lovemaking and sometimes aren’t even aware of feeling arousal at all. They can be a little bit like the men who we call premature ejaculators – the “two minute men.” Their bodies flood with sensation so quickly that there is no time to savor each phase and all it has to offer. And while it sounds to someone who doesn’t orgasm easily that it would be great to be so quick on the trigger, the truth is that being out of touch with one’s full sexual response capacity can diminish desire and have a domino affect on relationships. In fact, numerous studies have shown that women often aren’t aware when they are physiologically aroused, even when they are hooked up to instruments that register indicators like vaginal lubrication, blood pressure, and vaginal congestion. For some women, responding to sexual provocation is fraught with shame, confusion and resistance, so that even when their body says yes, their consciousness tunes out sensory cues.
This is such a loss in pleasure and power for so many women, and it can be especially problematic in long term relationships, where keeping sex fresh and motivating is an advanced art form all its own. If sex is all about the orgasm, sex can become pretty routine in no time. The women who complain that they have very little desire for sex aren’t necessarily women who can’t get satisfaction – sometimes they’re the women who get satisfaction so quickly that they get very little real delight.
Bottom line, women who really love sex don’t love it just for the orgasms. That would be like reading a book just for the ending. Like any good story, your own erotic tale needs an arc of development, colorful characters, stimulating dialogue, unexpected twists and turns and, like the jacket blurb says: adventure, drama, deep emotion, and heart-breaking intensity. A big part of what makes a good story is being able to get lost in it. The high arousal phase of the sexual response cycle is really about getting lost in sex. And THAT feeling – not orgasm – is usually the strongest single motivator for having sex again soon. A great sexual encounter can be like a scene of nail-biting suspense in your own thrilling erotic tale, and it makes you eager to turn the page to see what comes next. And, yes, sometimes what comes next is a mind-blowing, earth-moving, tear-jerking orgasm.
How does that climax occur, though? What do we need to do to get there? We’ll talk a bit about that, and what our psyche and spirit need, but first, let’s look at what our body does and needs. When everything is working just right, how do we get from those first little tingles of excitement to a shattering climax? To answer that, we need an anatomy lesson.
You probably know that the highly sensitive area most responsive to touch, and the source of many an orgasmic convulsion is the clitoris. You may be thinking of the clitoris as the small bud-like bundle at the top of your genital area. Did you know, though, that the clitoris is actually a much larger organ – one that looks like this? Here is the full body of the clitoris. As you can see, it’s shaped a little bit like a wishbone. And this right here the part that you see, and the part that you touch when you masturbate – this is the glans. This is the side view. As you can see, the shaft, right here, and the legs, or cru, form another “v” from the side – and it almost looks like a little penis! If this surprises you, don’t worry. It wasn’t until about fifteen or twenty years ago that even the experts understood how dominant an organ the clitoris is.
But let’s look at the clitoris in the context of its placement among all the genital structures. And to do that we need to start with the vulva. The vulva is the name for the external genitalia. Think of it this way – vulva is to the area between our legs as face is to the area between our ears. The face has eyes, nose, cheeks, lips, mouth. The vulva is composed of the mons pubis, the labia majora & minora, the clitoris glans, the urethral opening and the vaginal opening. Interestingly, we don’t call our face by the name of the opening to its internal space. We don’t refer to our face as “mouth.” Yet for some reason, people call vulva by the name of the internal opening – vagina. Even the very feminist play, the Vagina Monologues, centers on the vulva, but uses the term vagina instead. Also, like our faces, there is great variation in women’s vulvas; no two are exactly alike. There is difference in the size and shape of the inner and outer labia, the symmetry or difference in the length and thickness; the size and positioning of the clitoral glans, the distance between the glans and the vaginal opening; the placement of the urethral opening – that is, the tiny hole between the vagina and the clitoris through which you pee – which can be sometimes midway, and sometimes almost in the vagina. So let’s take a look at that too.
Right here we have a rendering of the vulva. And as you can see, this vulva has rather flower petal-like labia minora, has round and fleshy labia majora, has a very pronounced clitoris, which is partially hooded. And right here you have the vaginal opening, and right here you have the urethral opening. And this area right around the urethra that looks as though it might be a little swollen is actually the external area, behind which is the “female prostate,” which we call the g-spot. Down here, we have another picture of a different clitoris with a different hood, and I just wanted to make the distinction between one so large, up here for demonstration or illustration purposes, and this down here, which is much, much smaller, and probably what most people envision or what they see when they look at themselves. This is a little clitoris, covered by a hood. It’s not engorged, it’s not swollen, and it’s very typical – although everybody is different, and no two women are alike. In fact, let’s take a look at one more drawing. This is a drawing of a vulva in which the labia majora are pulled back with the fingers, and as you can see, the inner labia, the labia minora, are very small, and here’s the vaginal opening and the vestibule, and here is the urethra, and there’s the little clitoris. Placement can be very different in different women. This urethral opening in this case is very close to the vagina. In some women, it’s up a little higher, and for some women, the clitoris is actually much closer to the vagina. In the drawing I showed you a moment ago, the clitoris was quite a distance from the vagina, but sometimes it can be only an inch and a half or so away.
Going back to the clitoris – the swath of tissue called the clitoral hood is what protects this very sensitive pearl. It seems as though the clitoris exists only to produce pleasure – it’s the meeting spot for 8000 nerve endings, so it’s understandable that it would produce an enormous amount of pleasure. You can gently pull back the hood to expose the tip of your clitoris, as you saw in the drawing, which for many women is so sensitive that direct stimulation is uncomfortable. Extending beneath the glans is the clitoral shaft, which you saw in the first drawing, a bundle of erectile tissue which you can feel if you press down. Your entire clitoris – the wishbone shaped organ that I showed you earlier – is also composed of erectile tissue that extends under the surface down along the sides of your vulva, following the lines of your inner labia. When you are aroused, the clitoral legs become highly responsive to firm stroking and pressure. They also embrace the area around the urethra, which itself is hugged by erotically sensitive spongy pillows that surround what we have come to call the g-spot. This area – in fact, the entire vulva – is replete with nerve endings and blood supply. During arousal, the stroking, pressure or tugging on any area can refer sensation to nearby zones. Depending on the richness of stimulation and the sensitivity of any woman – and we really are all very different – orgasm can be achieved by a variety of different kinds of stimulation in different spots, positions, combinations and intensities.
One of the reasons it’s so important to build up to a state of heightened arousal and engorgement during sex play is that there are ecstatic colors and shadings of sensation that can ONLY be evoked when you are highly aroused at optimal readiness. Women often try to rush their own pleasure to keep up, or keep the pace with a male partner, and in so doing, they lose so much of the enjoyment, and wonder why. Not only does having an orgasm depend on discovering the right kind of stimulation for you, but it matters when that stimulation is applied. A partner with magic hands or a magic tongue may know exactly WHAT to do to help you climax, but if he or she is in a hurry to get in there and do it before you’re hot enough and physically primed, you’ll respond very differently than if you took control of the pacing and encouraged using those special skills at the right time, when you’re really ready.
One way of developing more sensitivity and orgasmic capacity is by strengthening the muscles of the pelvic floor. These contract upon orgasm, and stronger muscles can amplify pleasure. You can feel your PC muscles by inserting a finger into the entrance to your vagina, and squeezing. To focus, imagine that you are trying to stop yourself from peeing. In fact, you can use the imagination part of this right now! Go ahead, squeeze as hard as you can. Release. Do it again and this time hold for a count of 5. I’ll help – I’ll count! One – two – three – four – five. There! Very good. You may have heard about doing exercises known as Kegels, named in honor of Arnold Kegel, the doctor who developed them. Well, you just did one! There are instructions for more specific training of your PC muscles on this site, in the link embedded in the text below the video you are watching.
The same muscles that you just squeezed can also push out. You can find and actually SEE your g-spot by using those muscles. Now, you’ve certainly heard the term g-spot, but maybe you’re wondering where it gets its name. The “G” is for Ernest Grafenberg, the doctor who in the 50’s published work indicating that this zone could elicit waves of pleasure when stimulated. He didn’t name the spot – that happened later, when the book of the same name came out. What he did was identify an area of spongy tissue surrounding a woman’s urethra that could be handled and felt against the front wall of the vagina. Later, experts generally agreed that the so-called g-spot is actually the female prostate gland, the sister organ to the male prostate. Some women can have orgasms from manipulation of this area alone – usually with fingers or a toy designed for that purpose, and occasionally with a penis too. And when the g-spot is engorged, sexual arousal can even release a fluid known as female ejaculate. Some women are well acquainted with g-spot pleasures and others don’t feel much sensation there at all. Sometimes the g-spot comes alive only after being given a lot of attention for a very long time – almost like a muscle that you can’t isolate until you begin to work out consistently.
To mark your own g-spot, you’d need to insert one or two fingers in your vagina, palm up, about two inches – for some women it would be a little less – then curl your fingers toward your palm in a “come here” motion. You might feel an area of thickening, or an area with a nubby texture, or ridges on the skin. There are many ways to stimulate pleasure through the g-spot and surrounding urethral tissues – it can be done from the vulva, vaginally, or even anally.
Now that you have a map of the territory, I want to answer what is probably the most common question sex therapists get from clients, and columnists get from readers: What kind of orgasms should a woman be able to have – what’s normal, what’s typical, what’s weird? Believe it or not, this is also the easiest question to answer. So – you ready?
There are orgasms that come about through stimulation of the clitoris, orgasms that originate through stimulation of the vagina and female prostate, orgasms that originate or are enhanced by stimulation around the urethra, orgasms that originate in the uterus, brought on by deep intra-vaginal penetration, and orgasms that originate or are brought over the edge with stimulation anally. And many of these can occur in combination. They can be single, or they can be multiple. Some can feel quite localized, and some will provoke a whole body sensation, and even an emotional rollercoaster that leaves you shaking.
There is no one right way to orgasm, and there is no wrong way. Not every woman is wired up either physically or psychologically to come in the same ways. Some women, as I mentioned earlier, can come with relatively brief and light stimulation. Others require prolonged intense stimulation. Some can come only with the particular rpms that a vibrator provides, others with oral or manual caresses. None of these patterns are any less “normal” than any of the others.
I receive lots of letters from women or from their male partners who say that they have no trouble having orgasms via oral sex, or vibrator sex, or whatever, but they want to have “real” orgasms. And what they mean is that they want to have orgasms when their male partner does nothing too much different than what he would otherwise do to satisfy himself. They aren’t describing “real” orgasms. They’re describing effort-free orgasms for the partner. Real orgasms originate within a woman’s body. She feels them. That’s what makes them real. And even orgasms that seem to be the result of vaginal stimulation are not what some people think of as “intercourse only” orgasms. For most women who do have orgasms during intercourse – and that’s only about a third of women, maybe a little more, depending on which survey you read – the clitoris is also stimulated directly or indirectly as well. Plus, the style, direction, duration and rhythm of penetration and thrusting is often deliberately calibrated to the woman’s unique needs in order to bring about an orgasm during penetration. Lots of communication, practice and trial of different positions, different kinds of simultaneous clitoral touch, and so on go on during this dance. The mistaken perception that women can have intercourse-only orgasms without a couple having to do a lot of very special maneuvering is a myth of major proportions.
Of course, even the near impossible is possible now and then when all the stars are aligned and the moon or the sun is in Aquarius. But that’s a rare event. And I do, from time to time, encounter a couple who is so sexually compatible from day one – they are such a remarkable physical fit, it’s as if they were molded for one another – that they seem to be the very source of these myths, and what is a rare event for everyone else is an everyday occurrence for them. However, in these instances, you could just as easily say that the male partner comes as a side effect of the woman doing nothing more than whatever it would take to for her to orgasm naturally. When it’s that easy, then it’s a gift, or a blessing, but it’s not by any means a norm. When it comes to coming, your norm is THE norm.