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Does an orgasm by any other name still feel as sweet?

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toodlesnoodles asks:

Is cumming and having an orgasm the same thing? I'm a virgin. So I've never had sex. I just masturbate often. When I rub my clit for a while I get this amazing feeling and I can tell I squirt something out. After that, I get tired and stop. I can make myself do this multiple times and I consider that cumming. Is it an orgasm though? Is that how it's going to feel when I have sex?

Robin Mandell replies:

First and foremost, no matter what we call it, if masturbation (or any other activity, for that matter) feels pleasurable, that’s the most important thing. Regardless of the names we give things to put them in categories, our bodies are so unique in the way they work that these tidy little categories sometimes end up being more confusing than useful.

I suspect you want an answer that's more concrete than that, though.

With all the slang and scientific terms for sexual activities, experiences, and body parts there are, it's not surprising to have trouble defining things, or sorting out what words refer to what experiences. I'll give you the best and clearest answer I can, stating at the outset that other people might have different perspectives, or ways of expressing this, which likely aren’t any more right or wrong than what I’m going to tell you.

Cumming, or coming, and orgasm are different terms people use for a sexual experience that is often seen--though is not always--a climactic or resolution experience during a sexual activity. Come is slang and tends to mean different things based on who you talk to. Orgasm is a term used by sex educators, healthcare providers, researchers, and the like, as well as by people talking about their own sexual experience. Ejaculation is another term sex educators and medical professionals use, as well as people who aren't sex educators or medical professionals.

While coming is used as slang for orgasm, it's also used to refer to ejaculation. I suspect that coming was a term coined to describe the experience of ejaculation and orgasm, in people who experience both ejaculation and orgasm, which is something people usually associate only with, and which happens most often for, people who have penises. A lot of our sexual terms and slang were -- and often still are -- based mostly on how men experience sex and sexual response.

Many people don't realize, or forget, that ejaculation and orgasm are two different physical processes, even though for some people, sometimes -- and quite commonly, for most people who have a penis -- they happen so close to the same time, or at the same time, they can feel like they're the same thing. Unfortunately, that way of understanding things leaves many people out of the loop. So, while some people may mean the same thing when they say coming versus when they say orgasm, I'm going to, for clarity's sake, avoid using the term "come" here, and talk about ejaculation or orgasm when I mean either one. Other terms that people use instead of orgasm or come include getting off, climaxing, nutting, and so on.

Cumming is a diminutive of coming, primarily coined by the adult entertainment industry a few decades ago. I can't tell you why they decided that a word already in the English language needed to be respelled. perhaps it was to distinguish the sexy sort of coming from the more mundane coming over to someone's house to visit. Perhaps some marketing professional had a "great" idea, and the word "cum" was born and has remained with us ever since.

What we choose to call our own orgasm is entirely individual and can often be -- and usually is, over time -- very personal. Words for sexual activities and experiences have different meanings for different people, based on how they were raised, the cultural environment they inhabit, and their own sexual history and experiences. One person's pet name for their orgasm, or for their body parts, or for a particular sexual activity could be another person's turn-off. Some people may have different words to describe different orgasmic or sexual experiences they've had over time. And a word or term that means one thing to one person can mean something radically different to someone else.

You mentioned that when you masturbate, you feel as if you "squirt." Some people with vulvas do squirt -- which is a sexual slang term that usually means to ejaculate -- when they masturbate, or engage in some kinds of sex with partners, though not always at the point of orgasm; sometimes it’s before, sometimes it’s after, sometimes it's without orgasm altogether.

Not all people who have vulvas squirt, or squirt all the time, and squirting is not required for there to be an orgasm. The idea that squirting signals orgasm comes, I think, from how people with penises often, though not always, ejaculate when they reach orgasm. That's probably where some of the confusion between the terms come and orgasm come from, as both are used to describe the processes of ejaculation and orgasm, which, in people with any genitalia are two separate processes, like I mentioned already. To learn more about vulvas and ejaculation, take a look at this article or this one.

An orgasm can feel different for everyone: it also won't feel the same every single time it happens for even any one person. It almost always involves muscle contractions in the pelvis, and can include muscle spasms or twitches in other parts of the body. Many people find that orgasm feels like a peak, and will typically experience euphoric, joyful or satisfied feelings during and after the orgasm. Some people describe it as a rushing sensation throughout their body. Some people describe it as a more gentle sensation of physical pleasure, emotional pleasure, or both. And sometimes, people describe a given orgasm as feeling like little to nothing at all.

For many people, orgasm can feel like a finish to the sexual activity they were engaging in. This isn’t true for all people at all times, though. People with vulvas in particular can experience another orgasm, or several, right after the first, or with only a short rest period between. We also know that feeling satisfied by sex is, for most people, about much more than orgasm.

Is this how you will feel when you have sex? What I think you’re asking about is whether this is what it will feel like when you have vaginal intercourse with a partner. This is what a lot of people mean when they say “sex”, but sex includes a much broader set of behaviours and interactions.

All kinds of sexual activity can be considered sex, including masturbation. Masturbation is sex with yourself. The idea that only one thing is sex kind of belittles the existence of all other sexual activities, and particularly belittles solo sex. Solo sex, which can include masturbation but which can also involve fantasies, enjoyment of erotic written and visual material, and other ways a person might interact sensually or sexually with their body or with their sexuality in general, is a potent way for many people to enjoy their own sexuality. I mention this to say that you're already engaging in sex -- sex with yourself.

Sex isn't generally just about the physical though, whether we're talking about sex with a partner or sex with ourselves. Sexologists, people who study sex, have come up with a lot of different ways, or models, for describing the human experience of sex and sexuality. None of them describe everyone's experience, but can give us a good sense of how broad people's sexuality, and their experience of sex can really be.

One model I find particularly useful myself is called the Circles of Sexuality. The circles in it are the different components that can potentially make up a person's sexuality; the size of each circle, and the way they overlap, is specific to each individual's experience, and can change over time for a single person as they have different experiences, and as their minds, bodies, hearts and lives change.

The components listed in the Circles of Sexuality model are: sensuality, intimacy, sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual and reproductive health, sexual behaviours and practices, and power and agency. See how these components include not only physical aspects, but emotional, relational, and social aspects as well?

You can read more about what these different components mean, and see a visual representation of the circles here.

Being sexually involved with a partner is usually going to feel different than being sexual with yourself does. After all, it even feels different when you brush your hair than when someone else brushes it. When someone else brushes it, the way they touch you is often different from the way you touch yourself. It might be more comfortable to have someone brush your hair sometimes, because when someone else does it you don't have to reach behind your head. Sometimes they're gentler with you than you are with yourself, but other times they brush too hard (not meaning to, of course) and it hurts. Or, let's take dancing. It feels different to dance by yourself, in a group, or with a dancing partner. When you dance with others you have to synchronize the movements of your body with the way the other person is moving their body. That usually doesn't happen automatically. You're usually going to step on each others feet a few times, need to negotiate verbally, and, in the case of formal dancing (such as jazz or ballroom), follow at least some specific proscribed rules.

This isn't to say that your experiences with masturbation are completely different from the experiences you'll have should you ever choose to engage in partnered sex. Enjoying and knowing how to express our own sexuality on our own is a beautiful and, in my opinion, necessary thing. Exploring our sexuality on our own can also tell us a lot about what we do and don't enjoy, and has the capacity to give us the confidence to communicate that to a partner. If you didn't know what you liked to eat, you wouldn't be able to tell someone who was cooking for you what you wanted. However, if you'd never, say, eaten artichokes, and someone cooked them for you, you might well find that you loved them. Sex with a partner can be a new and exciting adventure like that, but its foundation is still going to be the experiences each partner has with their own sexuality.

Solo sex and partnered sex aren't mutually exclusive. They each feed the other, which is why it often makes me sad when I see people saying that they don't believe in masturbating once they've paired up with someone sexually, or feel hurt or angry when they find out a sexual partner they're with is still masturbating. I know you didn't say this, but I feel that retaining one's independent sexuality when one is partnered is so important that I had to mention it.

I hope this has answered your questions, and given you some food for thought. I'm leaving you with some links to some more information that you might find helpful.

written 20 Jul 2012 . updated 19 Mar 2013

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