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Why can't I orgasm?

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jms91 asks:

It's really difficult for me to orgasm. As a female, I know it's a lot to expect to orgasm from intercourse, but it seems like everyone at least does from oral. But I've been with my boyfriend for over a year and he has yet to ever make me orgasm - even through oral sex. Why can't I orgasm?

Heather Corinna replies:

There is no one sexual activity which we can know brings everyone to orgasm or even almost everyone.

Even though plenty of people certainly enjoy oral sex, not everyone reaches orgasm that way, nor from any other one activity. Your ideas about that aren't accurate, though I can certainly understand how you might get the impression that they are.

Many young women in their teens and even their twenties are and have been anorgasmic or pre-orgasmic: they don't yet experience orgasm. Studies on this usually show a range of anywhere from 30% to 50% or more of women in that age group as having not experienced orgasm. There are a lot of likely reasons for that, including:

  • Women's sexual partners being centered on their own pleasure, uninformed about women's bodies and sexuality, hasty or rushed in the sex that's happening, or focusing most on sexual activities which are least pleasurable for women
  • Relationship problems or conflicts or a lack of sexual chemistry with partners
  • Women themselves being uninformed or misinformed about their own bodies, about sexuality, about pleasure, which would include unrealistic expectations about desire, sex and pleasure
  • Young women not masturbating or really taking the time (or having the space to) explore their bodies and minds fully with masturbation
  • Self-image and/or body image issues, or negative attitudes about sex and sexuality, such as shame, guilt or performance anxiety
  • A lack of earnest desire for sex in the first place
  • Physical or psychological issues such as depression, neurological diseases, endocrine imbalances or pain with any given kind of sex. Some medications -- like some medications to treat depression -- can also inhibit arousal or orgasm
  • Use of alcohol or certain recreational drugs
  • Previous sexual trauma

What age you are can play a role with many of those factors, just because some of them have to do with life experience, with a growing knowledge of yourself and your body -- and also a comfort and confidence in both -- and also with the level of experience and maturity of your sexual partners. As well, not everyone is at a point with puberty where their sexual development has them at the right place for wanting sex, for feeling that strong want for sex. (It should also be added that no matter someone's age, some people find that, temporarily or lifelong, they just don't feel either that desire at all, or the desire to do anything about it. For more information on that, you can have a look at this or this.)

If you are looking for the one thing where most people of all genders reach orgasm, more than from any other sexual activity, that's been shown to be masturbation in all studies on the subject of sexuality we've got (but even with that, we're usually looking at around 60% - 70% of people, just so you understand how we can never say "everyone" when it comes to anything to do with sex). That is also the way a majority of people report reaching orgasm for the first time.

The very best thing I can tell you to do when it comes to becoming orgasmic is to masturbate. Knowing what I know about the study of women's sexuality, I can actually say that if you don't, and don't really spend some quality time with that, you're unlikely to reach orgasm or to have the kind of sex life you probably want. Mind, your motivation there does have some import: if you only do it to try and make orgasm happen, rather than doing it when you are really feeling sexual desires strongly, and doing it with the intent to simply experience pleasure, orgasm or no, it may well be fruitless. Product-oriented masturbation isn't going to do you any harm, but it's also unlikely to help.

Now and then, I will have young women tell me, when I advise this, that they just have zero interest in masturbation, and only have interest in partnered sex. While certainly, another person we have feelings for tends to up the ante and often heighten how we feel with sex (as well as providing other angles and stimulus we might just be unable to physically do for ourselves) my impression is that the women who say that either a) just aren't at a point in their lives or development yet where their sexuality is in real play, c) feel shame in masturbation, or like saying only sex with a partner feels good is the "right" answer or the "right" motivation for sex and/or b) aren't yet experiencing sexual desire so much as a desire for emotional closeness to and intimacy with a partner.

I draw those conclusions particularly when someone voices both not feeling any sexual desire by themselves and tells me that most or all of what they get out of sex is emotional. There's certainly nothing wrong with that kind of motivation for sex, but it also -- all by itself -- is going to be unlikely to result in a lot of physical pleasure and/or orgasm. Too, I personally think it might be wise for those who feel that way to check in with themselves and make sure that their emotional needs are really being met, all around and with sex. It may well be that if, in fact, there isn't any actual sexual desire present, sex may not be what those people even really want or need with a partner (and that they go that route because that's what the partner wants or is offering for intimacy, or because they have the idea that's what their motivation for sex is supposed to be, or what sex will result in, whether or not it actually does or is the best way to have those needs met) or for themselves.

Something huge to understand about orgasm, which often gets lost in the media and how people talk about sex as peers or even as partners, is that what tends to be most important is what leads up to orgasm, and what your experiences are like whether you have an orgasm or not, right from the start.

Desire -- a strong want or feeling of need for sexual activity -- is no minor player in any of this, either by yourself or with a partner. Some people can reach orgasm sometimes without it, but that is pretty unusual. Most people simply need to feel that strong, growly, loud, hungry, achy, loin-tingly urge to get arousal going, to get aroused, to stay aroused and get more aroused as sex of any kind starts and continues, and, when it happens, to reach orgasm. Feeling desire also has a lot to do with feeling satisfied with sexual experiences: orgasm alone may or may not result in feelings of deep satisfaction. Sometimes people get so hung up about the idea of orgasm as what they need to feel satisfied that they forget, or don't realize, that a few seconds of neurological pistons firing may feel mighty awesome sometimes, but sexual satisfaction is so much more than that: it's about the whole journey and process and how we feel throughout, not just at the very end.

And it may be you not only need to learn about what gets you to arousal or orgasm, but also what gets you to desire! So many people talk about foreplay being about what gets us "ready" for sex, but what they're really talking about with those various sexual activities are things we start doing when we are already starting to have sex, and already interested and becoming aroused. Those activities are kinds of sex themselves, after all. Getting to our desire tends to involve more than that, kinds of emotional, intellectual and sensory foreplay, as it were.

Finding out where your desire lives and when it is and isn't present may involve things like evaluating if you and your boyfriend actually have any strong sexual chemistry or not: if you do actually have sexual feelings for him, strong physical desires for him. If you don't feel some kind of zingy feeling in your pants or other parts of your body when you're with him, you probably don't have that chemistry, and alas, it often isn't something we can make happen. It tends to either be there or just not be there, and is one of the things we're going to look TO be there if we are going to pursue a sexual relationship with someone. That chemistry is a major issue, and it's not something we'll tend to have with just anyone, and we may not tend to always have it with the people we wish we did. We can love someone, like someone, think someone is the hottest thing we have ever seen ever, even have all that be mutual but still not feel a sexual chemistry with them: that tends to often be somewhat random, and at times, even really surprising. Many women are raised with the idea that chemistry isn't important for us (but only for men), that sex being good for us is just about if we love someone or not, and those are ideas our cultures tend to also like to support but which aren't often in alignment with women's experiences of fulfilling sex lives.

It also means discovering what turns you on, all by yourself. Is it about daydreaming or fantasizing? We hear people talk about what is sexual for them a lot, but we often hear less about the sensual. I recognize that word can tend to be used in some really cheesy ways, but when I say sensual, know that I just mean what's about your senses. Are there things which make you feel excited, be they visual -- certain kinds of images or visual cues -- textual -- like reading certain things -- auditory -- hearing certain songs, sounds or words -- gustatory or olfactory -- what certain smells or tastes bring up for you -- kinestetic (physical) -- like going out to dance, having a run or a swim, cooking a meal, taking a bath, doing some yoga? How about what things in your memory of times you have felt desire before can bring up if those memories are stimulated? I'm not just talking here about overtly sexual things, either: some of these sensory things may not seem sexual by a given standard at all, but may evoke a sexual response because you have associated them with something sexual, had a sexual experience that involved them, or just because they resonate with your own unique sexuality. So, while you might find that seeing a fine bottom brings on feelings of desire, you might also find the same happens with the sound of a given chord, the smell of a given spice, or how hot chocolate tastes or a given stretch feels to you.

Over time (and it does often take some time) we will learn these things about ourselves and develop a sort of bank of various different things which are our own personal turn-ons. Those don't always stay the same over the years, some may change or fall away, and we often will develop new ones, but there do tend to be some consistencies through time, and as time passes, and we have more life experience, that bank tends to grow larger. Our recognition of when we are and are not feeling desire also is something that, with time, we'll become better and better attuned to.

So, you start with your desire, and with the various things that stir it up and make it grow deeper. Once you're feeling that in a big way, and getting more in touch with that, then you're in a good place to explore your own sexuality (be it alone or with a partner), become aroused by touch, and take matters into your own hands. Sex therapists often make a strong point, too - and a good point -- about giving yourself real time with masturbation: not trying to fit it into small segments of a few minutes, or rush with it. I know it can be tougher as a young person to find the time and privacy for that, but my feeling is that if you can find it for sex with a partner, you can find it for sex with yourself. You just have to recognize it's important and make it important. Here's some basic information for you about masturbation: How Do You Masturbate?

Once you start to really take that time and be open to exploring any number of things, and do that over time, you will begin to learn some more about your body and your sexuality by yourself, you'll be likely to find you are in a far better position to bring those experiences and that knowledge to the table with a partner, and better able to communicate to a partner -- with your words, by showing them with your own hands -- what does and doesn't feel good, what does and doesn't work for you, what is and is not most likely to bring you to orgasm. Heck, even just learning how to take care of yourself sexually takes a lot of the stress and the pressure off of experiences with partners.

Do be sure, though, that with your newfound knowledge, you also check in and be sure that sex with a partner is even a place you're at at this point. Leave room for discovering that you may need or want some more time with your sexuality for yourself before you're at a point of being able to feel able to explore it with someone else. With that, I'd also evaluate if your relationship is at the point of being ready for sexual partnership: can you two openly communicate about sex? Are you both able to be open-minded and respond to what both of you tells the other you like and want to do? Are you both mutually invested in one another's pleasure, not just orgasm or getting sex? If you feel like you are (and talking about that together would be a great way to be sure), then great. If not, you might just want to put sex on hold for a while until you do feel like you're both really at that place.

If you look back to that list I made for you up top about things that tend to inhibit orgasm, and you find other things on the list you might need to address, tend to those as well. For instance, if you're suffering from depression, do some work on that and get what care you need. If your self-esteem or body image needs some work, invest some energy there. Working on any of those things in that list not only may help with orgasm, they'll certainly help with the whole of your life.

How you think about all of this also matters. It matters a lot.

If you come to any kind of sex -- alone or with someone else -- full of anxiety or frustration, or if you're fixated on sex as a product, not a process, you're both unlikely to reach orgasm AND unlikely to enjoy yourself very much. One thing we know is a huge barrier to orgasm for many people who are otherwise doing everything right is getting their head stuck in a place during sex where all they are thinking about is how to get to orgasm, if they'll get to orgasm, how may times they have not reached orgasm, how their partner will feel if they don't reach orgasm, and where the heck is that bloody freaking orgasm for the love of... ARRRRRGH! You can perhaps see how that kind of thinking, that kind of feeling, hardly creates an environment for pleasure. It's totally unpleasant and completely crazymaking. I think we can all agree that it is in no way a sexy feeling.

Sex is a place to destress, to release stress, not the place to get stressed out. So, do what you can to let go of attachment to orgasm, and invest yourself instead in just doing what feels good for you, physically and emotionally. That way, not only are you more likely to orgasm, you're also more likely to feel satisfied even when you don't.

I have some links to pass on to you, but I also have some books I'd like to suggest you find and spend some time with. I think they'll all be helpful for you. I'd advise you get your hands on Sex for One: The Joy of Selfloving by Betty Dodson, I Love Female Orgasm: An Extraordinary Orgasm Guide by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller, For Yourself : The Fulfillment of Female Sexuality by Lonnie Barbach, and/or Women Who Love Sex: Ordinary Women Describe Their Paths to Pleasure, Intimacy, and Ecstasy by Gina Ogden. I'd also suggest, while you're at the bookstore, finding something just utterly delicious to read that is not nonfiction, but some kind of very sensory poetry or prose. Buy your desire a nice birthday present.

Here are some more links to round all of this out for you. Have a read, and then the very last thing you're going to need is just some patience for yourself. While I understand how frustrated you seem to feel, and understand why any of us wants to reach orgasm, I also know that for some folks, this takes time. If you can start to do all of this stuff and cultivate some patience with yourself in the process, you will very likely get to the place you want to be, and once you're there, you're unlikely to find yourself caring very much about whatever time it took you to get there.

written 31 Jan 2009 . updated 03 Aug 2012

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