The Female Orgasm: What Women (and Men) Should Know
Ladies, don’t we all secretly wish every orgasm was like the unrestrained climax Meg Ryan simulated in that unforgettable deli scene in When Harry Met Sally? The slow, pleasurable buildup, the dynamic and climatic screams of “Yes, Yes, Yes!” If we’re lucky, we’ve experienced at least few (real) monumental orgasms like this in our lives. More than likely, though, we’ve faked it at some point— and some of us do regularly.
Indeed, the female orgasm can be quite elusive. In a nationally representative survey of more than 2,300 women ages 18-40, Cosmopolitan found that 39% of women reported achieving most of their orgasms through masturbation, while only 15% of those surveyed said that vaginal intercourse (without manual clitoral stimulation) on its own helped them achieve most of their orgasms.1
Why does penetrative sex alone so rarely lead to climax for women, and how often are women actually having orgasms? We’ll explore these and other questions ahead, along with things that women (and the men and women who love them) should know about the Big O.
What Happens Inside a Woman’s Body During Orgasm?
Nothing brings us into the present moment more than a good romp. Here’s what happens during an orgasm:
- Muscles: Muscles all over the body contract—the toes curl, the back arches, and muscles in the vagina, anus, and uterus contract and relax in a rhythmic pattern. Uterine contractions may help pull semen deeper into the vagina, increasing the chances of egg fertilization (more on that later). The number of muscle contractions during orgasm varies from as few as one to as many as 15.2
- Brain: Dozens of different areas of the brain are thought to be involved in orgasm.3 Brain activity is so intense during climax it’s been described as similar to the activity that occurs during an epileptic seizure!3 The amygdala (often referred to as the “reptilian” brain) is activated, which helps process emotions; the orbitofrontal cortex (involved in behavioral control) is temporarily shut down during the Big O, which may account for the out-of-body-like experience that orgasm often brings; the hypothalamus receives a hefty dose of feel-good chemicals, including dopamine and the bonding hormone oxytocin (which can also trigger uterine contractions). In short, the brain experiences overwhelming activity during orgasm, which explains the almost paralyzing experience of climax.
- Heart: Hunter S. Thompson said, “Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.” Foreplay, sex, and orgasm most certainly do get the blood pumping, and heart rate and metabolism can increase significantly during arousal and orgasm. A 30-minute romp can burn up to 144 calories.4 Who knew an afternoon in bed could be good for the waistline?
- Skin: Your cheeks flush, and you suddenly feel hot. During arousal and orgasm, your genitals swell with blood; as you climax, circulation increases, bringing blood to the skin’s surface (hence the term “afterglow”).
You might have noticed that the same muscles that contract involuntarily during orgasm are the ones women engage when they do pelvic floor exercises or Kegels. The pelvic floor muscles extend across the pelvis like a hammock, holding a woman’s uterus, bladder, and bowel firmly in place. These muscles can become weakened over time (especially after pregnancy and childbirth), leading to a common problem in women—bladder leakage—as well as diminished sexual experience.
Doing Kegel exercises regularly with a biofeedback pelvic floor exerciser like PeriCoach can help strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor. Through a consistent and guided exercise program, women become more familiar with engaging their pelvic floor. Together, the strength and control has great va-va-voom benefits. It is even called by some clinicians, ‘gripping your man’, which is the act of contracting during an orgasm. By doing this some women report it gives them the ability to climax multiple times and in positions they hadn’t tried previously. So, not only can stronger muscles prevent or reduce episodes of stress incontinence, they can also lead to stronger, longer orgasms.
It Gets Better with Age
There’s evidence to suggest that a roll in the hay may get better with age. The Cosmopolitan survey found that a smaller percentage (84%) of women ages 18-24 had experienced orgasm, while 96% of those age 30+ did.1
Researchers from the University of Indiana conducted the largest ever nationally representative study of sexual and sexual-health behaviors. The National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior looked at the sexual experiences of 5,865 adolescents and adults ages 14 to 94. The study found that older adults have active and pleasurable sex lives and report engaging in a range of different sexual behaviors.
The study also found that, among other things, older age is associated with a higher likelihood of orgasm during masturbation among women ages 18 to 59.6 Fewer women (64%) reported having an orgasm during their most recent sexual event, however, while 85% of men did.6
The study also identified variations based on sexual orientation; the findings suggest that women may be more in tune with what other women need. Lesbian women who participated in the survey reported having a significantly higher orgasm rate (74.7%) than heterosexual women (61.6%).6
Finally, women were more likely to orgasm when they engaged in a variety of sex acts, and they were more likely to climax when they received oral sex or had vaginal intercourse.6
The Importance of Foreplay
Women and men are different anatomically, which may, in part, account for these differences in experience, and foreplay is especially important for women when it comes to achieving orgasm.
Massage, kissing, touching, and oral sex help build up momentum for orgasm during penetrative sex. The same regions of the brain that are active during orgasm light up when you’re in an aroused state, so think of orgasm as a concentrated form of what you experience during foreplay.
Importantly, foreplay helps trigger the natural lubrication necessary for comfortable sex. For many women, it takes 5, 10, or even 15 minutes or more for the glands surrounding the vaginal opening to produce sufficient lubrication, so don’t skimp on foreplay.
When it’s time for the main act, a technique known as CAT (Coital Alignment Technique) may help women achieve orgasm without manual clitoral stimulation. CAT is a modified version of the missionary position, in which the man shifts his pelvis forward into an “override” position, which puts the base of his penis in direct contact with the woman’s clitoris.
Instead of thrusting (which rarely provides adequate clitoral stimulation) CAT involves using a side to side grinding motion, which helps maintain constant clitoral contact. Rather than one person actively thrusting while the other takes on a more passive role, the CAT technique requires that partners work together to develop a rhythm. Go, team work!
A Range of Experiences
There are several obstacles to female orgasm, but they are certainly not insurmountable. Of the women Cosmopolitan surveyed about reasons for not achieving orgasm, 50% said they were almost there but couldn’t quite get “over the edge,” 38% cited not enough clitoral stimulation, and 32% said they were too in their head or too focused on how they look.1
No two women are exactly alike anatomically, psychologically, or otherwise. What works for one woman may not work for another. Open communication with a receptive partner is perhaps the most important factor for increasing the likelihood and frequency of orgasm; it’s also vital for building strong, healthy relationships in which both partners feel like their needs matter.
Here’s to the Big O!
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