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The Clitoris, the Vagina and Orgasm: Feelings and Frameworks

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lioness asks:

I'm a lesbian in my early twenties and I've heard the idea of the "vaginal orgasm" vs "clitoral orgasm" debunked here. But I'm feeling confused about how to reconcile that with my experience that orgasms when I'm stimulated in different ways feel different. Like, when just my clit is being stimulated, I come in one way, and when the walls of my vagina are being stroked, it's like a different kind of orgasm builds up--from deeper inside. The second kind tends to go on for longer, and be less "piercing" than orgasms where it's just my external clitoris being stimulated. Generally, those second ones feel more "complete" too. Both kinds feel good--I'm not knocking either one--but saying one feels more clitoral and one feels more vaginal feels like an accurate description. Do other people have this experience?

Also, I know Freud's idea about "vaginal orgasms" being more "mature" than "clitoral orgasms" is all messed up. But I've heard some older women talking about orgasms coming "more from inside" as they got older. Is there any evidence or do you have any reason to believe that this is true for many women?

I guess part of what I'm asking is, "am I imagining this difference?" When I've read that the idea of "vaginal orgasms" and "clitoral orgasms" is BS, that's seemed pretty cool and liberating. And yet, I do seem to experience these different kinds of orgasms. Can you help me understand all this? Thanks a lot.

Heather Corinna replies:

These are excellent questions, and I don't think it's surprising at all that this all feels confusing. We unfortunately have a very, very long history of some profound misunderstandings of sexual anatomy and sexual response and a relatively short history of study and comprehensive education and information about them. You don't need me to tell you that's hardly a winning combination for an easy understanding.

I expect that we're all going to be having conversations like this, and continued education about this for a long time still, which will probably involve a whole lot of saying, hearing, reading and writing the same kinds of things over and over again, as well as potentially revising all of that from time to time, since study about sexual pleasure regarding the vulva and vagina really is still in its infancy. It's hardly an easy process to move out of the kind of history around all of this, nor an easy process to unlearn poor or inaccurate frameworks and learn and keep adapting new ones.

Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that how any of us experience sex (or heck, anything in life) is... well, how we experience it. We don't imagine our experiences: what we feel is what we feel; how we feel something is how we feel something. Sometimes our experiences will match or be similar to those of other people. Sometimes they won't. Sometimes our experiences are so varied all by themselves that one set of our own experiences won't match another, either from one time of life to another, or even from day to day. But I've no doubt that what you are feeling and experiencing is what you are feeling and experiencing. These feelings and experiences are subjective -- they're about us, not other people, about our bodies, not everyone's bodies -- and they get to be that way.

I'd say that making more sense of this involves understanding and accepting three primary things:
1) Sexual response and orgasm is about much, much, much more than genitals. In fact, orgasm is, in a very core way, barely about genitals at all, and sexual response is usually only as much about genitals as any sex eliciting those responses is about genitals. Orgasm doesn't happen in or on the genitals, even though its effects are often felt there in addition to other sites. By all means, orgasms "come from the inside" but not of our genitals. They come from the inside of our brains and central nervous systems, and all the parts of our bodies those things can impact, every time, for everyone.

2) Orgasm can feel all kinds of ways, based on many different variables, and usually quite a few at any given time. One of those variables is what kinds of physical stimulation are occurring and to what body parts. This isn't about there being different "kinds" of orgasm, though. Orgasm is orgasm is orgasm. Orgasm can feel different ways for different people -- or for any one person from one time to another -- but that's not about there being different "types" of orgasm based on body parts. Rather than thinking of orgasm as "vaginal" or "clitoral" it makes more sense -- and doesn't conflict with what we know to be true about orgasm and these parts -- to think instead of orgasm as feeling, as you have experienced it, one way for you when it involves or centers on external clitoral stimulation, and feeling another way when it involves or centers around vaginal stimulation, to the degree that you do and can separate those things, which gets us to...

3) A total separation between the vagina and clitoris is mostly artificial, often based on a misunderstanding or an incomplete understanding of what, where and how big the clitoris really is. In a word, that separation is often largely based on thinking the clitoris to be only the clitoral glands and hood -- the external portions -- when, in fact, those are only two parts of the whole clitoris, and that no part of the clitoris has anything to do with the vagina, and vice-versa, when none of those things are true. We can't really separate the vagina from that and other anatomy because the internal portions of the clitoris surround the vaginal opening and canal, and most of the vaginal canal has few sensory nerve endings, so a person wouldn't feel much without those internal portions of the clitoris, as well as the muscles, organs and nerve endings also surrounding the vagina outside of it.

I'll walk you through more of the details about those core issues now, and how they apply to you and what you're saying.

The way many people understand sex and think they experience it is about genitals. More people than not define sex as being genital -- though that probably has a lot to do with having it defined that way for them -- and if genitals aren't involved (even if sexual feelings and drives and aims are) often don't consider something to be sex.

I say "think they experience" because it's actually very, very difficult -- if not impossible -- if we're just talking about body parts, to engage in sex that ONLY involves genital stimulation. Think about it: even if you're masturbating alone, using your fingers to stimulate your genitals, your fingers are at least being stimulated (and fingers have a ton of sensory nerve endings). You might also be touching other parts of your body, too. With a partner, it's pretty hard not to have contact with anything but genitals when we're touching each other. Again, hands and fingers are often involved in touch at some point, as often are our mouths, hips, torsos, thighs, buttocks, the works.

Just like genitals, all of those body parts have sensory nerve endings: they feel things, which transmit signals to our central nervous system, which processes and then returns signals to the rest of our bodies, like to our endocrine and cardiovascular system, and then they keep going back and forth in their game of sexual and sensory ping-pong that both responds to and co-authors what we feel physically and emotionally and intellectually.

What orgasm is mostly about and mostly involves are our brains and central nervous systems. If it wasn't, every time someone touched our bodies in the same place or a similar way, it'd feel the same. A visit to your OB/GYN may involve some of the same things a girlfriend does, but it usually feels very different. Our response to sexual assault -- not just emotionally, but physically -- is often (not always, but most typically) very different. We respond differently to sexual stimulation when we're rested than when we're not, when we're more or less emotionally open, when we have different feelings about what's going on or with whom it's going on. And sometimes we may have a bigger sexual response to a kiss or being stroked on the neck than we do to any kind of genital touching. All of this is because our sexual response is about so much more than just genitals or about having a given part of our genitals touched.

A young sex educator I like a lot simplifies all of this very well by simply saying that orgasm is about brains and skin.

When I present sex ed lectures, my favorite question to ask participants is: “What are the two largest sexual organs?”

The answer? Brain and Skin. Stimulating skin sends signals to the brain, which processes the sensations and releases the appropriate neurotransmitters. That’s an orgasm. No clits, vaginas or G-spots to define it.

In other words, orgasm is about our brains and central nervous systems, and then about all the ways those things can be triggered by and respond (or not) to any and all of our body parts where gazillions of nerve endings are. This gets a little trickier when we're talking about sex where there is no physical touch at all, mind, so for now, let's just stick to sex where some kind of touching is happening.

Orgasm is an autonomic physiologic response to various kinds of stimulation; often that stimulation is a kind which someone experiences or perceives as sexual, but not always. To translate that for you, that means it's an event mostly about our autonomic nervous system, a system which engages SO much of our bodies, including the organs in and on our pelvises. It's also not a system we can really control. Most typically, orgasm is recognized as happening in a medical sense when a series of contractions occur in and around the pelvis and some of its organs, like the uterus and testes, but that's only one thing that tends to happen with orgasm, not the only thing (and that also has a good deal to do with the way people define and study sex as being about genitals).

When people orgasm and respond sexually otherwise (like by getting more and more aroused), it's something happening throughout the whole body, usually because of things that have been happening throughout the whole body, often including the genitals, and which also has genital effects, as well as other effects to our brains and other body parts, like increased sensitivity or hypersensitivity and often a flood of neurochemicals that make us feel temporarily different during and after orgasm than we did before. To boot, it's pretty common that the more of our bodies and minds we engage consciously in sex, the more we're going to feel those whole-body effects. If we focus mostly or solely on genitals, we can be prone to experience orgasm as feeling more specifically genital.

If we wanted to attach one body part to orgasm as is often done with terms like "vaginal orgasm" and be accurate, the only way we could would be to call all orgasms "brain orgasms."

So, no matter how you slice it, it's just not very accurate to term orgasm as vaginal or clitoral. Personally, I think that kind of shorthand (which we usually only hear around those body parts, by the way: ever hear someone talk about a penis orgasm?) is one common cultural barrier to orgasm for people and also to holistic sex lives where people can really learn -- or rather, not unlearn -- how to enjoy their whole bodies and see all body parts as well as feelings as sites of and potential team players in, pleasure. There are so many reasons thinking more along those lines would potentially benefit people. I know as a queer person you can probably appreciate how that could be a support for not conceptualizing queer sex that doesn't include intercourse as "not real." Think, too, about how that could impact people with disabilities, especially those which take genital sex off the table, or even helping people to understand the differences between sex that's about mutual pleasure and abuse or assault.

That said, I think it's important to recognize that choosing what language to use is a lot more important when you're working as a sex educator than it is when you're in your bedroom, in your personal sex life, in your own head or talking to lovers. I don't want you to get the idea that I think some kind of sexual apocalypse will happen if you choose to call your different experiences with orgasm what you do, or that you'll somehow be responsible for sexuality going retrograde on us. In our personal sexual lives, we get to choose whatever language feels most true, comfortable (and exciting!) for us, and which hopefully also communicates what we want and enjoy well with any partners. What someone like me says in the context of my work about things like this ideally should apply to as many people as possible: what you or I say in the context of our bedrooms only has to apply to us and anyone we're sharing them with.

Let's check in with that anatomy stuff, too. You've probably already seen the following articles that explain the accurate anatomy of the clitoris and the vagina, and then how sexual anatomy looks when we're talking about pleasure, rather than reproduction, but if you haven't, let me hook you up:

When what you're experiencing with vaginal stimulation is going to be about the vagina but also, especially when you're talking about more than the front 1/3rd of it -- the internal portions of the clitoris and everything else that can put pressure on the vaginal canal from both inside the body and whatever it is that is inside the vagina at a given time. That not only includes the internal portions of the clitoris, but also a bunch of nerve bundles not part of the vagina, but awfully nearby, and other muscles and organs around it.

It's likely feeling more "complete" to you and others who voice that because you're getting stimulus to more than once place, engaging BOTH your vagina and your clitoris, as well as other parts, rather than mostly or only one part of the clitoris.

At the same time, that might maks you then stop and wonder, then, why a majority of women don't reach orgasm from intercourse alone than from external clitoral stimulus.

When we're just talking physics, that has to do with the fact that there are WAY more sensory nerve endings in the much-smaller space of the external clitoris than there are in that bigger picture of the whole clitoris and the vagina. That's also a big part of why most people with this anatomy who can experience orgasm usually won't reach orgasm as quickly if the external clitoris doesn't get at least some quality time, either on its own, or in conjunction to vaginal and internal clitoral stimulation. That also can perhaps help you make sense of the difference you feel between "piercing" sensations and feelings that might feel fuller, but less distinct or intense in some ways.

Think about it like wasabi, or something else super-spicy. If you take a dab and mix it in a big pot of something, that dish will probably taste a little spicy, but it'll be subtle. But if you put the same sized dab directly into your mouth, undiluted, you can burn your freaking mouth off. The whole of the clitoris -- and what it surrounds, namely, the vaginal canal -- are like the whole pot, whereas the glans is like that undiluted dab.

Of course, it's probably obvious when you revisit what we were talking about in terms of our brains that we also can't separate how people feel, emotionally, about what's happening physically. For example, a lot of people put a very high value on vaginal intercourse, and even if they don't feel a lot physically from it, might deeply enjoy it, want to engage in it and reach orgasm that way because it is emotionally, spiritually or interpersonally meaningful for them.

Conversely, when we talk about the fact that the majority of people with vaginas don't experience orgasm from intercourse alone (we might see the same stats with other kinds of vaginal entry, but I'd guess the rate is higher for other sorts), that really is what that means: from intercourse alone, without any, or with very little of, other kinds of stimulation, physical and interpersonal. While some of that issue is going to be about anatomy, some of it is going to be about emotions, conceptualizations of sex and oneself as sexual and what's going on with partners. If someone is just sticking one body part into another and scooting around for a few minutes, with little to any other kinds of touch, or little to any interpersonal interaction, it's not going to feel very exciting for most people on the receiving end most of the time. And that is, unfortunately, a reality for plenty of receptive partners.

I linked you up there to a piece where we talk about the bigger picture of someone entering someone else's body, or people even entering their own, and I don't think we can dismiss that or discount it's potential weight. Having a partner be inside our bodies, or exploring inside our bodies is -- I'm not sure if I intend a pun here or not -- deep stuff. That doesn't mean external stimulation isn't, but. The point is that some of those deeper feelings are often, literally and symbolically, deeper feelings, when we're talking about sex that involves being inside people's bodies or having someone or something inside our bodies.

You bring up older women talking about this differently. Women outside their teens and twenties often do report different experiences with sex and orgasm compared to when they were younger, and will often say that things like reaching orgasm became easier, orgasm or arousal feel like a deeper or richer experience, or the things that get them to orgasm are less limited than they used to be. But what we know that to often be about isn't just things like hormones or body parts, but things like improved body image and comfort with -- including knowledge of -- one's body, better communication skills and assertiveness with partners, and doing better at choosing partners who are really seeking out mutual pleasure. So, this issue is, yet again, about more than genitals or parts.

So. Where does that leave you?

I think it might leave you pretty much where you started, because I think you had more of a hold on all this than you thought. It leaves you knowing that in a broad way, politically, and when it comes to the accuracy of discussion about orgasm and sexual response, terms like "vaginal orgasm" and "clitoral orgasm" aren't sound. But it also leaves you understanding -- hopefully -- that orgasm can feel any number of ways, and one of the variables in the different ways it can feel is often about different kinds of stimulus, but also how we feel about that stimulus, and how we, uniquely, experience that stimulus. The way people experience orgasm is diverse, about way more than just genitals or having a given set of them. Whatever you experience is what you experience, and others may also share similar experiences, while some other folks don't, and whether what we experience is similar or dissimilar to what others do doesn't make anyone's experiences any more or less real.

written 25 Aug 2011 . updated 29 Aug 2011

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