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When the Big O is a No-Show

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Brandyf817 asks:

I am having a problem orgasming, like most women. I am 24 years old. I have tried masturbating myself thinking it will be more relaxing and easier, but its not. The problem I am having is I get so close, but I can't get all the way. I start to feel pleasure, then I feel my muscles start to tense up and spaz a little, but then it gets PAINFUL that I jerk away and can't make it to the orgasm. I don't know how to get past this painfulness or if it's normal. I have tried so hard to get through the pain, but its too much. This is starting to ruin my relationship with my boyfriend. Please help me.

Heather Corinna replies:

It's not actually accurate to suggest most women have trouble reaching orgasm.

A majority of women do have trouble reaching orgasm through vaginal intercourse and simply cannot orgasm that way. It's also true that many women have more trouble having orgasm with a partner than they do getting to orgasm by themselves: 75% of men but only 29% of women always have orgasms with their partner (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, Michaels, 1994). A majority of women also don't consistently reach orgasm, especially from partnered sex: sometimes it'll happen, other times it won't.

But most women are orgasmic and can reach orgasm: of statistics available, the highest number usually stated for women who simply can't reach orgasm (or, more accurately, who haven't at the point they're studies) are 15%. Most women do experience orgasm. The majority of women also report they do with partners: among women currently in a partnered relationship, 62% say they are very satisfied with the frequency/consistency of orgasm (Davis, Blank, Hung-Yu, & Bonillas, 1996). However, it is safe to say that for many male-partnered women, it can take time to learn what really works for them, to be assertive enough to express that to male partners, and then to find male partners who will create a sex life with them that includes what they really like (which more often than not has little to do with the vagina all by itself) and need for sex to both be really satisfying, and to reach orgasm. There also is often a learning curve with sexual pleasure and orgasm, and it can take some people longer to "learn" sex and masturbation, and how to reach orgasm, than it can others. There is also a learning curve for partners, and that can take longer if the partners they're with don't communicate with them, or if when they do, those partners don't listen and respond well.

One of the tricky things about questions like this, where you say you're not reaching orgasm is that I can't know if you really aren't. You express some things here that make it sound like you may actually be reaching orgasm. You express feeling building pressure and pleasure, then a feeling of tenseness followed by spasms, then feeling hypersensitive. That's how a lot of people express orgasm feels like to them, and it's typical for the genitals to feel hypersensitive after orgasm.

I know a lot of people say "you'll just know" when you have an orgasm. Often, I think that's true. However, I also know from years of doing this work and talking to young women that it's clear some women are reaching orgasm and don't "just know." Additionally, it's clear that often women's expectations of what orgasm will feel like can be really off-base.

Sometimes, women expect that when they orgasm, they'll behave in certain ways, like what female orgasm is presented as looking like in mainstream movies or pornography, with a lot of thrashing around or yelling. While that can happen sometimes, it doesn't always, and sometimes why it doesn't is because that's just not behavior that's consistent with a given woman's personality. For some women, orgasm is like that sometimes, but not at other times. Orgasm doesn't feel the same from day to day, or experience to experience: sometimes we have big, knee-knocking orgasms that give us a head rush and make us want to howl at the moon, while other times orgasm can feel like little more than a bump in the road, and we might even wonder if it happened at all, even though it actually did.

Many people expect that orgasm alone will make them feel satisfied with sex, but often, that isn't the case and isn't all a person needs to feel satisfied or satiated. In other words, when people report feeling satisfied or unsatisfied with sex, they're usually talking about more than orgasm, but about things like feeling really connected to a partner or their own body and mind, like feeling as if a bonafide adventure has been had, feeling they were able to let go of the daily stresses of life and get a mini-vacation via sex or masturbation, feeling their whole bodies and selves have really been explored and paid attention to, experiencing and seeing a partner's pleasure (not just orgasm), and other things like that.

Orgasm also is usually the shortest part of a sexual experience: on average, a single orgasm usually lasts but a handful of seconds. And if all any of us ever experienced with sex was orgasm, you can rest assured we'd likely feel highly unsatisfied.

One thing that concerns me is that you say this is starting to ruin your relationship with your boyfriend. Why? Whether or not you reach orgasm shouldn't have the potential to ruin a relationship, because the quality of your relationship shouldn't rely on anyone reaching orgasm. By all means, if your sexual relationship, as a whole, isn't satisfying for one or both of you, that can certainly put a real strain on things. But sexual satisfaction is about more than orgasm, and whether or not a sexual experience is satisfying for us or our partner may or may not have squat to do with orgasm. After all, sometimes we can orgasm from sex or masturbation that really didn't feel satisfying at all. If your boyfriend masturbates, he can probably tell you that sometimes orgasms are really pretty cheap: that now and then -- maybe even often -- he'll reach one quickly, without a satisfying experience of getting there or having orgasm being anything to write home about at all.

You didn't give me any information about what your sex life with your partner or yourself entails, or what it's like, overall, for the both of you. So, I want to pose a few questions for you to consider:

  • Overall, do you feel connected to your partner and your own sexuality during sex with him? Does he feel that when being with you?
  • How do you feel about your body: what's your relationship with your body? Is it good, do you feel at home in your own skin? How about sexuality in general? Do you have any sexual shame or fear you need to unpack?
  • Before you masturbate or have sex, are you coming to both when you are truly feeling really turned on already, and are feeling a strong desire to BE sexual? feeling real desire is a critical part of the equation with both sexual enjoyment and orgasm. If both or neither are the case, not only is orgasm unlikely, either being things you enjoy are, too. In that same vein, is masturbation and partnered sex as much about what YOU want for yourself as they are about what a partner does, or about trying to meet some kind of standard? Are you initiating sex together just as much as he is?
  • During masturbation and partnered sex, are you both experimenting and exploring all kinds of things -- not just say, rubbing your clitoris with fingers when masturbating, or only having vaginal intercourse with your partner -- to find out what feels best for you, uniquely? Like, have you tried a vibrator? What about putting less pressure on our clitoris, or stimulating it more indirectly (sometimes too much pressure or too-direct stimulation can hurt rather than feel good)? What about receptive oral sex for you? What about seeing how different kinds of language or talking work for you sexually? Maybe you need a lot more lead-up before genital sex, like longer times spent making out or with other parts of your body? Are you both truly open to experimenting with things sexually? In other words, are you both comfortable and eager to try new things without feeling embarrassed or ashamed, or feeling like only certain kinds of sex are acceptable or "real?"
  • Do you feel relaxed during sex or masturbation? Feeling and being relaxed is part of what allows our bodies to respond to things sexually. I like to remind people that in a way, sex is an adult from of play: in other words, it's one of the ways we're playful, that we kick back and have fun (even when we love each other: love doesn't mean we can't have fun, after all) like we did with certain kinds of play when we were kids, where we just let loose and got silly and free. Stressed out kids have a hard time playing and enjoying themselves: the same is true for stressed-out adults.
  • Are you both communicating well, openly and honestly during sex? When something feels good, are you letting him know that feels good with your words? When something doesn't feel good, are you asking him to try something different, not just grinning and bearing something that hurts or feels like nothing special? Is he asking you what feels good and doesn't? Do you both feel able to say when something doesn't feel so hot, or do one or both of you feel like it isn't okay to give that kind of feedback?
  • Are you really letting go when you're feeling like you're about to reach orgasm? Some people just won't let themselves go all the way there in body and mind, won't "let go" and surrender to those moments because they're scared -- maybe of how they might look during orgasm, or of the feeling full-stop -- or embarrassed, or have concerns about being or feeling out of control, as orgasm can make us feel.
  • What do you and your partner both want from a sexual relationship: physically, emotionally and intellectually? What are you both looking for from it? What are each of your favorite things and least favorite things? Is your sex life pretty consistent with all of that? Have you both shared with each other what those things are?
  • What's your relationship like in general? Is it overall healthy and happy? It's common to have a tough time reaching orgasm when a relationship isn't so great, and sometimes that can even impact a person's sexuality when they are not with that partner.

All of those kinds of things matter when it comes to reaching orgasm and also when it comes to both you and your partner feeling satisfied with sex and your sexual relationship. Often when people express they don't feel satisfied when a partner isn't reaching orgasm, that's because they think an orgasm "proves" that a) they, as a partner, are awesome and great in bed, and b) that sex felt very good for that partner. The trouble with that idea, if someone has it, is that as I've explained, reaching orgasm doesn't always mean any of those things. Sometimes it does, but sometimes it doesn't.

Because we feel full after eating a meal doesn't tell us much about if it was a good meal we really liked: the same holds true here.

Did you know that one of the most common reasons people don't orgasm is feeling pressure -- either from a partner or oneself -- TO orgasm? If you feel like a lot is riding on you reaching orgasm (and certainly, feeling like your whole relationship is is a heck of a lot), that all by itself is likely to make it mighty tough for you to reach orgasm. To boot, if during sex you're thinking at all "I'd better orgasm or else..." it's highly unlikely sex is going to be as enjoyable for you as it could be. That is a pretty serious buzzkill, and a mindset few people would find sexually exciting or arousing. If there's any one thing that has the greatest negative impact on people's sexual enjoyment and response, it's stress of any kind.

If you haven't yet been able to have sexual experiences, alone or with a partner, where you earnestly are able to feel relaxed, to just go with the flow without worrying, at all, about whether or not you come, it's safe to say we actually may know very little about what your sexual response is truly like. Without that kind of accepting, go-with-the-flow environment, none of us can really function properly sexually or enjoy ourselves as much as we could otherwise. Sex -- with ourselves, with anyone else -- should be about the whole of the experience, not just one part. Sex people enjoy tends to be process-oriented, not product-oriented: in other words, tends to be about people focusing on and flowing with all of their experience, in every moment, and feeling good and pressure-free in all those moments, not about trying to achieve some kind of end goal, like orgasm.

Here's what I suggest: for starters, take the fracking pressure off of both of you, and ask your partner to do the same. Talk with him about the things I have shared with you here. Let him know that you feel like your whole relationship is at risk because you can't reach orgasm, and that not only is likely to make it way tougher for you to get there, it's also likely making sex together a lot less enjoyable for both of you. Make clear you need for both of you two to let go of any attachment to orgasm, and that you need to know that orgasm does NOT have any bearing on the quality of your relationship. You might also point out that if he's stressing abut whether or not your orgasm, not only can that make sex less enjoyable for you, it's probably making it less enjoyable for him, too.

In these talks, it can help to ask WHY your orgasm is so important to him (or you). Is it about his self-esteem? If so, he needs to know it's not sound or fair for him to make your orgasm about him or his value as a person or lover: it's about you, it's just something he can be part of and share with you. Is it about him needing more assurance that you're enjoying yourself? If so, and if you truly have been enjoying yourself, then you can work on communicating that more clearly to him. It is important to partners invested in everyone experiencing pleasure to know that's happening and some folks aren't always so great at communicating that. Orgasm doesn't communicate that as well as words do or as being more active and mutually engaged in bed does. You two may find that you just saying "Wow, that feels amazing" more often when something does, or asking him to do something you really like is what he really needs to feel satisfied in this respect, rather than you reaching orgasm.

If you have NOT been deeply enjoying yourself, then you two can talk about what you both can change or try so that you can get there. But do try and get to the heart of why you reaching orgasm is so important to him and/or you that you feel you not getting there is ruining your relationship. You may well even discover orgasm isn't actually the answer you both think it is, and that one or both of you wants or needs something else entirely.

Don't forget: you also need to take the pressure off on your end. When you're masturbating, make it about feeling good, orgasm or not. Do what feels good, don't do what doesn't. That's 100% you-time, after all. You may also need to remind yourself that your orgasm isn't proof of anything, other than a functioning nervous system. You not having orgasm for now, or at any given time doesn't mean you're not a sexual person, doesn't mean there is something wrong with your body, doesn't mean you're immature, less female or human or anything like that. All it means is that a given time, you're not a person reaching orgasm, probably because you haven't discovered or experienced all the conditions you need to get there yet, and that's okay. You have all the time in the world to get there: there's not a time limit on this.

Do also make sure your expectations or orgasm are realistic. Like I said before, you may have been experiencing orgasm, but it's just not like what you've expected. It could be that to date, if you have had orgasms, they just haven't been particularly big ones: sometimes they're just not, and sometimes, we're just not yet at the place in our sexual lives and process where we have more intense orgasms. Sometimes people also expect orgasm to feel like something much bigger than it often actually does.

For sure, orgasms can feel really great, but they don't usually feel greater than the sexual experience that led up to them. What's most important is that the sex you are having all feels good and is what you want while it is going on. If it is, you're both more likely to orgasm and feel good about it even when you don't.

In the case that you've been getting super-close to orgasm, but haven't quite gotten there, you might also need to push the reset button on all of this and take a few steps back. Maybe you two have gone to genital sex too fast, before you took enough time to explore each others whole bodies and to develop a dynamic between the two of you that is physically and emotionally playful and comfortable and sans-pressure. Even if what you've described here is you having orgasm, if it feels like a whole lot of nothing much, it may be because you are moving to your genitals too soon: extending the time it takes to get to that can often result in bigger, more satisfying orgasm for people of all genders. You might also try doing something you know helps you to relax before any kind of sex starts, be that taking a hot bath or a long walk, doing some stretches or yoga, dancing around the room, listening to music that makes you feel chill, deeply connecting with your partner emotionally by talking or snuggling or something like that. A lot of folks frame foreplay as genital sexual activities we do that aren't intercourse, but since those things are also sex (and the kinds of sex women are most likely to reach orgasm from, no less), the kind of stuff I just mentioned can really be more of what foreplay is about.

Lastly, do think about the sexual dynamics between the two of you and as the dynamics of your relationship overall. If a relationship earnestly could be broken or ruined because someone isn't reaching orgasm, that doesn't suggest it's a very good relationship or one you feel all that secure in. Is this really the right partner for you? Are you two really a good sexual and emotional fit together? Might you need to work out some bigger issues right now that can be impacting your sex life and sexuality, like not really trusting someone will stay with you if you don't perform sexually in a way they want? Feeling sexually satisfied and/or reaching orgasm is rarely about just "finding the right person," but being with the wrong kind of person, partner, in the wrong dynamic, or trying to be in a sexual relationship with someone who just isn't a good fit for us sexually absolutely can often be a big barrier to pleasure, satisfaction and/or orgasm.

If you read all of this and the links I'll give you below, and give these kinds of things a real shot for a few months and still don't find any of this is any different, wither by yourself or with a partner, then you can also check in with your doctor about this. Some physical or mental health conditions or issues can absolutely have an impact on how much we enjoy sex, our sexual response, and orgasm. For instance, depression or anxiety, diabetes, MS, hormonal issues, vaginal or vulval pain disorders, certain medications (including hormonal methods of birth control) are some things that can inhibit orgasm. So, if none of my advice winds up helping to foster some changes, you might want to check in to see if something else is afoot you need to address.

Okay? Here are some extra links for you, and I hope this answer and the following links can help. I'd just like to give you one more reminder to just cut yourself a break, ask for your partner to do the same, and put your focus on enjoying yourselves, full-stop, and take it off the few seconds of orgasm which just can't offer you more than pleasure through all of sex and feeling okay about whatever happens during the whole process.

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.