What leads us to orgasm? What if we haven’t experienced an orgasm? What happens to the body during orgasm? Have you had an orgasm? Is orgasm important?
These questions have been asked for many, many years. We’re constantly trying to break down orgasm. We want to know how to have one, how we get there, and how we get our partners there.
There is so much variance in the way women experience desire, pleasure, arousal, and orgasm. There are no true black and white answers. “Most of us tend to think of sex as linear and it doesn’t have to be. It’s great to use it as a guideline, but everyone’s experience is subjective,” Dr. Emily Morse, a sexologist and host of the Sex With Emily podcast tells Brides.
While we can suss out facts based on scientific research, it is important to recognize that there are vast personal differences. We each fall on a kind of spectrum. In no way is this information meant to incite feelings of “lacking” or “abnormality.”
The only normal that exists is the abnormal. We are all complex, unique, and different.
That being said, here is everything we know on the stages of sexual response and, yes, orgasm.
A wee bit of history
Not to bore you with a bunch of facts and history, but it’s actually quite important when discussing the ways we’ve come to understand (and not understand) female sexuality. If we don’t have the facts, what do we even have? It’s not like the information we receive on sex from school or family is highly reliable. (If you hate history and facts, just skip to section three).
When we talk about human sexual response, orgasm, etc. we usually jump to the original model created by pioneering sex researchers, Masters and Johnson, in the 1960s. These groundbreaking researchers broke the human sexual response cycle into excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. While a huge contribution to sexual science, Rena McDaniel, a certified sex therapist, tells Brides that this isn’t where the story ends.
In the 70s, this original model of human sexual response was further developed by Helen Singer Kaplan, adding in desire as the beginning of the sexual response cycle. This made way for a new framework which broke sexual response into a Triphasic Model: desire, arousal, orgasm.
“I’m most concerned with women knowing the difference between desire and arousal. Desire is our sex drive, our pilot light, or mental stimulation – whereas arousal is what happens when we’re physically turned on,” says Morse. Desire is in your mind, arousal is in the body. Including desire in the overall sexual cycle is crucial.
This three-part model may seem a little simpler than the Masters and Johnson’s, but it actually accounts for the overlapping, broad way we experience desire and arousal. Each of these three phases is complex and are experienced differently from woman to woman.
But, there’s more!
Sexual response was even further developed by researchers Janssen and Bancroft's Dual Control Model and Basson’s Sexual Response Cycle.
These models map out sexual response as a super complex, overlapping, nonlinear system. McDaniel tells us that for female sexual experiences, desire may not be the first thing you feel; it might develop as you brain recognizes and codifies sexually relevant contexts. For example, your partner has lit candles and you start making out. Your vagina may lubricate before you think, “This is hot. I’m into it.”
"The Dual Control Model speaks to a similar system of ‘accelerators’ and ‘brakes’ that govern sexual response in a non-linear way,” McDaniel says. Accelerators move you forward in the sexual response cycle, while breaks slow you down. (To learn more, read on here.)
It’s complicated to say the least!
So, why does this matter?
It’s, like, why are we talking about this history stuff when there are juicy sex things to discuss? Because if you’re a woman, or a man, or a genderqueer person, or a non-binary person, or ANY person, you know that sexuality is complex AF.
It’s important to know how far science has come in order to get a better grasp on how your body works. If anything, all of this history and research can show you how we’re still figuring stuff out. You are not broken or lacking. Bodies are not a one-size-fits-all model.
Orgasm is not some ‘big finish” or “goal”
If the history lesson above should teach you anything it’s that sexual response and experience is anything but simple. Orgasm is defined as the involuntary release of sexual tension. That’s it. The word pleasure ain’t present in there, y’all.
We put a bunch of pressure on “orgasm” as this exciting big finish. If we don’t “get there” or if our orgasm is anything other than earth-shattering, we’ve failed. This is the wrong way to think about it. And frankly, it just makes women feeling like crap about themselves.
Orgasm isn’t the goal—sexual pleasure is the goal. If orgasm happens to take place, great. If not, your sexual experience is not invalidated. “When we reframe orgasm as the ‘cherry on top’ of a pleasurable and intimate sexual experience, it takes the pressure off and gives us more space to be present and enjoy the pleasurable sensations for their own sake instead of a means to an end,” McDaniels explains.
What this all means
Stop forcing an orgasm! It’s not doing anything for you. Putting pressure and stress on yourself will not result in the framework needed to relax into an orgasm.
If your partner is constantly asking you, “Did you come?” Have a conversation with them about how orgasm works. Pressure = breaks.
“It’s most important for women to figure out what turns them on and explore their body rather than worrying about whether or not they’re experiencing the ‘correct’ model of sexual arousal,” Morse says.
If we stopped freaking ourselves out so much, we’d probably all have more orgasms. Ah, a lovely sexual catch-22. Take time for yourself and figure out what works for you. Whatever works is right. That's all there is to it. “Self-exploration is the key to understanding what it takes to orgasm during sex,” Mose says.
Masturbate, masturbate, masturbate. Consider this your call to action.