Our impressions of what sex is or should be like come from many sources – the media, movies, porn, our friends and peers, our religious community if we have one, health classes if we had them, and so on. As you might expect, not everything we hear from all of these places is accurate or true. Some sex myths or misconceptions can be totally benign and even funny – as my (paperispatient) “about me” says, I heard that sex simply meant a man kissing a woman on the boobs and butt. I learned shortly thereafter that was not quite accurate, but not all myths or common assumptions about sex are so easily disproved.
One myth that I think has the potential to be quite damaging or disheartening is the idea that when a woman has an orgasm, she’ll know it. For some women, this is completely true – they know from the moment they have their first orgasm that that’s what those sensations were, and this post is not meant to deny or invalidate their experience in any way. But not all women do know, and the notion that everyone knows beyond a shadow of an uncertainty when they have an orgasm for the first time is not true, and it can be a real downer for women who are not sure if they’ve had an orgasm before.
If I’m writing about a general topic for this column (as opposed to, say, a “we follow Cosmo’s advice so you can laugh at our misfortune” post), I try not share too much about myself (and future Mr.), but I think that my own sexual history will provide some context and a great example of why this myth is misleading and potentially quite discouraging for some women. I discovered masturbation around age 4 and was very enthusiastic about it through age – okay, well, I still am. Anyway, when I got a little older I mostly read descriptions of sex and orgasms in women’s magazines and the occasional romance novel, and I assumed since I hadn’t felt anything resembling “fireworks” or “waves of pleasure,” and I never had any “rush of relief” after said fireworks or waves that I had never had an orgasm. It wasn’t until I had my first few orgasms with a partner, via oral sex, that I realized I had indeed been having them all those years – the orgasms with him were like an amplified, bigger version of the extra-great feelings I’d often have by myself. But since they did not really fit the descriptions I had read of orgasms (and ironically because my body seems predisposed to having multiple orgasms fairly easily and thus rarely having a big sense of relief or conclusion), I figured that couldn’t possibly be what they were because, as a few more experienced friends told me, I would just know for sure when I had one.
Because I had never had a lightning-strike “this is an orgasm!” moment, before my experiences with that partner I thought maybe I just couldn’t have them. Sometimes I felt okay with this, but other times I felt really shitty about myself (what was wrong with me, why wasn’t it happening) and extremely envious of all the novel heroines and sex columnists I had read about coming all over the place. But if there’s anything we ought to know by now, it’s that we are all special snowflakes when it comes to sex – we all like and want and need different things, and it should come (heh) as no surprise that we won’t all experience orgasms the same way. Here are a few quotes describing orgasms from members of the LiveJournal community VaginaPagina (quoted in VP’s VulvaPedia entry on masturbation and orgasms, which can be found here):
- “It’s like a build-up of pressure and then I get this warm/cold chills feeling that spreads from my cunt all the way through my body, and my pussy contracts, sometimes really hard, sometimes not as hard, and I feel light-headed.”
- “[It’s] like going down a really fast dip in a roller coaster, only without moving.”
- “How each orgasm feels individually varies — it may just feel like a few waves of ‘nice’ relaxing pleasure, or intense pleasure that causes involuntary moaning and squirming, or somewhere in between the two.”
As the last commenter notes, how an orgasm feels for an individual can differ depending on a range of variables – what kind of stimulation (masturbation by hand or with a toy; any number of sexual acts with a partner or partners), how long the stimulation has been going on, your mood, how aroused you are at that moment, how aroused you were when you started, possibly your feelings for your partner if a partner is involved, and so on. As Paul Joannides writes in the fourth edition of The Guide to Getting It On:
Some orgasms make you feel great; others can be wimpy and disappointing. Some orgasms are strictly physical; other are physical and emotional. Some reach into the body; others read into the soul. Some are intense and obvious; others are diffuse and subtle. […] Orgasms with the same partner are likely to run the gamut from totally spectacular to downright disappointing. It depends on the particular day and whether your worlds are colliding or are in sync.
According to the generally accepted definition of an orgasm as described by sex researchers like William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, an orgasm for a woman consists of rhythmic muscle contractions in the vagina (and also the uterus and the anus) that occur at slightly more than one contraction per second; other muscles may contract and brain waves may change. But as we can see from the above descriptions (and Joannides also includes a bunch of orgasm descriptions from men and women in his book), precisely how that all feels for a single person varies enormously.
It makes sense, then, that you may not immediately recognize something you have never felt before for what it is, especially when there can be such tremendous variation for any single person let alone among people. (And it also bears repeating that orgasms are not the be-all and end-all of sex, all the time, for everyone – what matters most is if you and any partners are having fun and feeling satisfied, and most people do not need constant orgasms to feel that way.) Uncertainty does not in any way indicate a failure on your part, and at the very least, thoroughly exploring all of the different activities that might lead to an orgasm can be very enjoyable.
Got a question or subject you’d like us to discuss? You can e-mail us at FriskyFeminist@persephonemagazine.com, and we’ve also set up a Tumblr for the sole purpose of receiving completely anonymous questions here.