Female Orgasm Potential8 Min Read
If you’ve ever heard of the orgasm gap — and particularly if you’re among those who are most affected by it — you know that there’s a large amount of sexual inequity to solve for.
If you haven’t heard of it before, it is the difference in orgasmic rates between heterosexual men and women. More specifically, that women who have sex with men experience orgasms at a far lower rate than their male or lesbian counterparts! And in addition to potentially robbing you of a great time, the gap has helped normalize the idea that female pleasure is both complicated and uncommon.
This misconception hasn’t come without pushback. One of the most frequently asked questions about sex is about achieving a female orgasm — whether it’s your own, or you’re hoping to improve a female partner’s experience. In this post, I will discuss some solutions while fending off the misconceptions or common sources of confusion.
How Do You Know If You Had One?
The first question for those facing orgasm difficulties is often, “How do I know I have had one?,” or “I think I orgasmed but I am not sure.” This is not a rarity, as roughly 16 percent of women can’t identify if they have had an orgasm by the time they are 28 (1).
“Orgasms are kind of like art… You know it when you see it,” says Emily Nagaski, the author of “Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.” “It may not be what you expect, but it will be different from everything else.” Therefore, if you are questioning whether you have had one or not, there is a good chance you have not. But not to worry, there are easy ways to change this.
The North American Sex Script
Stimulating a woman incorrectly is often the result of what experts call the North American Sex Script, or the overemphasis on sex and the secondary nature of foreplay. This trend comes from the tendency to place the male experience as the “default” — in other words, focusing on what a man needs to “get off” and leaving room for little else. This causes women to believe they should be having orgasms from intercourse.
“To say that women should have orgasms from vaginal penetration is anatomically equivalent to saying that men should have orgasms from prostate or perineal stimulation,” Nagoski explains, as the penis and vagina are not anatomically homogeneous. “The question is not so much why some women aren’t orgasmic from vaginal penetration, as it is why are some women?” (1).
The first thing to realize about female stimulation is the importance of external pleasure, and that there are many other areas to focus on besides the clitoris. It can be helpful to reframe foreplay as “coreplay,” expert Ian Kerner suggests, adding that such stimulation shouldn't be seen as a “before” to the main act. Prioritizing this type of stimulation also allows the female body to warm up, which can be crucial to establishing an overall rhythm.
Communicating for Proper Stimulation
Another barrier to experiencing full orgasmic potential is a lack of communication. Telling a partner what works for you — and just as importantly, what doesn’t — can take practice, as nerves and discomfort about this topic are normal. But, it may be helpful to know that there is a good chance that your orgasmic potential is in your own hands… as well as your mouth.
One of the biggest communication errors you can make is faking an orgasm. Of course, it’s common to “fake it” in order to avoid a potentially awkward conversation. But as Lou Paget explains, doing so is “the ultimate form of miscommunication” (4).
Have you ever felt out of your own head in the middle of a sexual experience? This can stem from a number of things, such as focusing too much on your orgasm, feeling insecure in your body, focusing on your partner's experience rather than your own body, and responding to or ruminating on outside life stressors. Many of these specific experiences come down to context, which can be incredibly important. Even if your partner is great at giving you the kind of stimulation you need, knowing that your head isn’t in the right place can cause an arousal block (1). As John Gottman explains, a woman’s mind is her most powerful erogenous zone (6). Therefore, even the most technically skilled partner can fail if someone’s mind isn’t present in the moment.
Pleasure Not Orgasm
It can be incredibly common to overthink an orgasm. As explained by sex therapist Diana Richardson, “We get ahead of the body, pushing it, forcing it to obey and follow the mind's instructions” (7). This ultimately makes people less sensitive, as they tend to focus the next feeling moving them towards orgasm, not on what is happening at the moment (7).
“You don't make an orgasm happen,” Emily Nagoski says. “You allow it.” Thinking of the end goal, while understandable, really limits how present you can be, as well as the range of sensations you may be able to feel (4). If you are having a tough time releasing your focus, you can give yourself a rule of not having an orgasm for one week or two – instead, focus on simply being present, rather than whether you “got there.”
There is a lot to be said about the media’s effect on body image — experts have researched it, written about it… even published entire books on the topic!
According to researchers, people will have viewed almost six million messages that indicate how they should appear by the time they are 60 (6). This leads many women to have difficult, or even destructive, relationships with their bodies. This form of criticizing directly correlates with stress, the number one sex-killer (1).
Poor self-esteem can even manifest as general disgust towards yourself, and that is a very powerful way to stop yourself from relaxing and enjoying the moment. Self-esteem issues have also been strongly associated with pain during sex (1).
It’s not easy, but working on your own body confidence can greatly help your sex life. Experts believe that the more people like or come to peace with their bodies, the more they may engage in sex and even experience orgasms (6).
The Newness of a Partner
Another common threat to orgasms is having a new partner. While orgasms are certainly possible in the early stages of a relationship, it’s normal to need to build intimacy and trust before feeling relaxed and comfortable enough to orgasm (2). It’s important to both freely and confidently communicate your needs, and to feel at ease in your body and your mind. The right partner will help you achieve that, rather than judge you for not being ready out of the gate.
The Current State of a Partnership
A good relationship is also imperative to your sex life. Researchers found the most important aspect of good sex was “a relationship that felt good and worked well emotionally, and where sex was approached openly and appreciatively” (5). For example, the sex that results in toxic relationships often offers a strong sense of relief, but is typically not orgasmic.
But it’s not like you can just turn a sense of closeness and strength in partnership “on” when it is time to have sex, as the longevity of good sex starts far before a sexual experience begins. As John Gottman explains in “The Man's Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the ‘Love Lab’ About What Women Really Want,” foreplay can begin at any time. Opening the door for someone, giving them a compliment, and sending texts throughout the day, are all examples of building a foundation of love and trust.
Furthermore, attention is a really powerful aphrodisiac. Integrating these factors into a relationship can help enhance sexual desire, as well as increase relaxation and comfort.
Going forward, as we can see, there may be several different factors at play, so step one is to learn our on’s/off’s. What we are essentially trying to do is get as many positive sexual elements (or turn “ons”) into the picture to increase arousal, pleasure, orgasms, etc (1). For example, Nagoski explains that even a small state, such as cold feet, could interfere with sexual arousal (1). You want to look for way to turn those interferences off and ignite the “ons”, because “peak sexual pleasure happens when the whole collective works together” (1).
Ultimately, I hope this information got you thinking and gave you some insight into common sexual experiences. However, if you are still looking for more details and information on female pleasure, I highly recommend checking out Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are!
- Nagoski, Emily. Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon and Schuster, 2015.
- Mintz, Laurie. Becoming Cliterate: Why orgasm equality matters--and how to get it. HarperCollins, 2017.
- Wise, Nan. Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-filled Life. Houghton Mifflin, 2020.
- Paget, Lou, and Lou Paget. Orgasms: How to Have Them, Give Them, and Keep Them Coming. Broadway Books, 2005.
- Kontula, Osmo, and Anneli Miettinen. "Determinants of female sexual orgasms." Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology 6.1 (2016): 31624.
- Gottman, John, et al. The Man's Guide to Women: Scientifically Proven Secrets from the" Love Lab" about what Women Really Want. Rodale, 2016.
- Richardson, Diana. Slow Sex: The Path to Fulfilling and Sustainable Sexuality. Destiny Books, 2011.