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Lions and Tigers and Orgasms, Oh My! When Orgasm Seems Scary.

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jelsova asks:

I'm a girl and I've been with my boyfriend for 8 months. I'm 18 and he's my first boyfriend. We've never had sex (he has had it before) but we've done other things. I have a problem though, I'm really scared to orgasm. Like we'll be doing something that feels so good and I know that if we just continued a bit longer I would get there (I feel the muscles contracting, the heart pumping, the intensity building and all that) but then I chicken out and make him stop. He's fine with it and very supportive and respects that I'm so scared, but it bothers me. Why can't I just let myself get there? It's the same deal if I um, "pleasure myself." Is there any way I can or he can help myself get over this fear of the unknown?

Heather Corinna replies:

My best advice is to just try and let yourself go there.

I think the safest way to do that, emotionally, would be to first try that in whichever sexual situation you tend to feel safest in, whether that's alone, in your masturbation, or during sexual activities with a partner. More people than not would probably feel less vulnerable and anxious alone, when no one else is there or watching, but people differ, so I don't know what you would feel best about. Only you can determine that for yourself, and there's no right answer to that, just what feels most right for you.

I do want you to know, though, that you're not alone in this. Reaching orgasm, just like experiencing pleasure in other ways, does involve letting go of some control, something which can feel terrifying for some people. When it hasn't happened before, as you know, it also involves experiencing something you don't know yet, and where you don't know what it will be like. You might make faces or noises you don't have complete control of, or might feel embarrassed by. There can be a lot of pressure right now for sex to be like a performance: to always look "sexy" or only involve people responding in certain ways presented as what's sexy or attractive, and people can feel afraid that certain sexual responses where they have less control, like ejaculation, orgasm or responses during orgasm, might not fit whatever those ideas or ideals are.

You might also feel like you're afraid to find out what orgasm is like, like it might be more exciting than you expected or less exciting than you expected. Orgasm is a pretty loaded thing in our world, and a lot of people feel very attached to it being or feeling a certain way, and some people can experience anxiety about orgasm not meeting their expectations or the expectations of a sexual partner. And of course, just like anything that's unknown, the unknown with this, as with anything else, can feel scary or precarious.

I'm not sure if it would help you to know a little more about orgasm than you do now, but in case it does, let me give you some information you probably don't have. Orgasm, like a lot of our experience of sexual activity, is something that happens primarily in our brains and central nervous system, not in our genitals. We can feel -- and often do feel -- genital effects of orgasm, like muscle contractions in our genitals and pelvic area, and orgasm can occur as a result of engaging in genital sex, but it really isn't primarily a genital thing. Have you ever exercised to the point where you get to what's often called a "runner's high?" Where you're moving and moving and moving and get to a point where you feel a rush in your brain and your body tends to just kind of chill out, even if you're still moving? Orgasm is a lot like that, experientially and also in terms of what's happening in our brains: it's mostly just a temporary neurological and neurochemical switch, and probably like others, in different situations, you've experienced before.

Orgasm involves the same things it seems you're already experiencing when you feel close to it: muscle contractions, increased heart rate, feeling greater physical sensitivity, and, probably, just feeling good. The main difference is that when you're experiencing those things before orgasm, they a) tend to last longer, as orgasm only lasts, on average, between 15 and 30 seconds, even though it can often feel like a lot longer when it's happening, and b) may feel somewhat less intense than during orgasm. In other words, what's feeling really good now will probably feel at least a little bit better during orgasm. The things you might feel with orgasm that are different than you have been experiencing are some muscle spasms -- though generally these aren't like the spasms someone might experience with a seizure, but more subtle and less dramatic than that -- a euphoric feeling and a feeling of relaxation or resolution after orgasm. Of course, when people are new to orgasm, orgasms can tend to feel more mild, so it might even be less to write home about than you think. That's not a guarantee, as experience with orgasm varies a lot, but for young women, milder orgasm at first is what tends to be most common.

One other thing to know is that when people are experiencing orgasm, fear and anxiety tend to decrease, if not shut down entirely. The tension you feel before orgasm, both psychologically and physically, will likely fizzle or go buh-bye. In other words, it's possible that the ways you are feeling before orgasm will change for the better if and when you just let yourself go there.

I wonder if you couldn't sit down with pen and paper and try and make a list of what you're scared of with orgasm. If you don't feel like you know, or can't put your finger on it, I think it might be helpful to try and figure it out. Heck, on top of potentially helping you to feel more comfortable with orgasm, you might even identify some fears you have that may be impacting other parts of your sexuality or sexual life. For instance, if you feel very scared to let go a little when it comes to controlling your sexual responses, that can also make partnersex or masturbation a lot less pleasurable and fun, physically and emotionally. Or, if you feel worried that reaching orgasm will mean different or unwanted expectations of sex from your partner, or even from yourself, than there are now, those fears might be holding you back from exploring other things you might want to.

Writing down what your expectations about orgasm are might help, too. I don't know what your perceptions of what orgasm will or may be like are, nor where you're getting them from. If you're getting them from pornography, for instance, they're probably not realistic. For instance, you thrashing around like someone is sticking you with a hot poker and screaming like your house is on fire are pretty unlikely, especially if you don't choose to engage in those things yourself to amplify your experience. It might help to know that whether we're talking about mainstream pornography or other media, most orgasms you have "seen" are usually people faking or acting orgasm, not people actually experiencing them. In a lot of ways, orgasm for you really may feel and look pretty similar to all the other kinds of sexual responses you have already had. While how orgasm is presented and framed in our world often makes it seem like it's this totally different thing than every other part of sex, in reality, it just really isn't that different, especially if you're experiencing a lot of sensitivity, arousal and pleasure during the sexual activities you're engaging in already.

Again, I'd say to try and just go there in a safe situation and see how it goes. Orgasm isn't something that is going to hurt anyone, or that makes you unsafe. It doesn't present any different physical or emotional risks than engaging in sexual activities without orgasm does, save risking finding out something is or isn't what you expected or wanted. If you experience orgasm and it turns out to be something you don't like or don't feel safe doing, you don't have to go there again if you don't want to. But it sounds to me like you feel worse about feeling so scared than you'd probably feel in the few seconds you took to let yourself find out what this is like.

Those lists might also help you identify what you need to feel safer: it may be some of these fears are about you feeling you need things to feel okay with this you don't have or don't always have. For example, maybe you don't ever or rarely have the kind of privacy you need: maybe you need to first find a place and space where you feel most comfortable, and can be sure no one will walk in on you or hear you. Maybe you need some reassurance from your partner that reaching orgasm isn't something that will radically change the dynamics of your relationship, or just need to talk about that. Or maybe you just need more time to get more comfortable with your own body, how it responds, and your sexuality first.

If this all still just feels way too scary, and those lists don't help or only make you feel more apprehensive, I'd not sweat this overmuch or push yourself to do anything you don't really want to do or feel grossly uncomfortable with.

It is okay not to experience orgasm until it feels more comfortable and less scary, and it's okay to not go there until it feels more right or safe for you. Ultimately, the big deal with sex, be it with a partner or with masturbation, is just enjoying ourselves -- which tends to include feeling more relaxed than scared -- and that tends to last a lot longer than orgasm and offer more than orgasm, all by itself, does for most folks. That's not to say orgasm can't feel great, as it most certainly can, but it, like any other part of sex, is not required of anyone. If it's not something you feel excited about in a good way, you don't have to go there yet.

You say this is your first boyfriend and, it sounds like, your first sexual partner. You, like everyone should, get to take the time to have a learning process with sex, and that includes taking whatever time you need to get comfortable with your own sexual responses or those of others. It seems like your boyfriend totally gets that and is on board, so you might want to take a cue from him, here. Maybe you're still getting comfortable with sex and sexuality as a whole, and this feels scary because it just feels way further in that process than you're actually at. You might even feel best scaling back where you're at with sexual activities: some of this may be that it feels like this is all moving too fast for you. It may be that you just need to take more time to become comfortable with engaging in any kind of sex, including masturbation. From the way you talk about that, it sounds like that isn't something you feel all that comfortable with yet, either. And that's okay. It's not unusual for it to take time for people to feel comfortable with the wide range of sexual responses we can have, and for some people, I'd even say many, that's a lifelong process, really, and rarely something people arrive at right at the gate.

I'm going to leave you with some links to look at that might help you figure out how you feel, but might also help you feel more comfortable, or feel better able to talk about this. You're also welcome to come on over to the message boards if you'd like to talk more about this with me, one of our volunteers or other users.

written 28 Nov 2011 . updated 28 Jan 2014

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