It is important to recognize that orgasms are different for everyone. Some women can always have an orgasm when they choose, others can do so only sometimes, and some have never had an orgasm.

Some women can have orgasms during sex play with a partner; others only have them when they are alone. The ability to have orgasms depends on a number of physical factors including blood flow, nerves, and strong, flexible pelvic floor muscles.

The mind also plays a significant role.

Many of a woman’s sexually responsive nerves are located in the lips surrounding the vagina (the labia), the first two inches of the vagina, and the clitoris. The clitoris is approximately four inches long, but you can only see the tip or head located at the top of the vulva.

From the tip, the clitoris extends back toward the pubic bone  and then curves back under the labia to the vaginal opening. The shape of the entire clitoris is like a wishbone.

How Does Orgasm Happen?

An orgasm is a pleasurable peak experience brought on by stimulation, usually during sexual arousal.  A person must be extremely aroused in order to reach orgasm, and without adequate arousal over a sufficient period of time, orgasm is not likely to happen.

During sexual arousal, our nerves send information to the brain about the sensations we experience. The brain, after interpreting the information as pleasurable, responds by sending messages that cause increased blood flow in different parts of the body. 

This increase in blood flow typically results in engorgement or swelling of the genitals, erection of the clitoris, flushed skin, and vaginal lubrication.  With adequate stimulation and time (it can take 20-45 minutes of direct clitoral stimulation), a woman typically becomes aroused enough to have an orgasm.

When orgasm occurs, the brain sends the message for the pelvic floor muscles to rhythmically contract, which can last 10-15 seconds. This is a reflexive response, similar to a sneeze.

For most, this is perceived as an intensely pleasurable experience. Eventually the brain says “done,” and all of the muscles in the body relax. Gradually, the physical signs of arousal subside, and feelings of well-being and whole-body relaxation set in.

This is often referred to as the “afterglow.” Some orgasms feel huge, some feel small, and others somewhere in between. No two orgasms are exactly alike.

Interest and Desire

The amount of time it takes a woman to reach orgasm is very individual and can change from day to day. Every woman is different, and what feels intensely pleasurable for one person may be too much or not enough stimulation for another. 

This can depend on a person’s frame of mind, stress level, and stage of the menstrual cycle (or the presence of menopause). Medications, especially SSRI-type anti-depressants, can also affect orgasm, typically making more time or more intense stimulation necessary to reach a climax.

Some level of relaxation is necessary for arousal to happen. Concerns about work, kids or a partner, worries about body image, and religious, cultural and parental teachings all can play a role in inhibiting high levels of arousal. 

An orgasm is unlikely to happen if you’re “just not that into it” or if you find it difficult to communicate how and where you like to be touched, or if you experience any unwanted pain during sex play.

By design, the body and mind give priority to the kinds of thoughts that prevent us from focusing on arousal—it’s the same fight or flight response that keeps us aware of our surroundings in case of a threat.

The period of high arousal just before orgasm is sometimes referred to as the “Plateau Phase,” and it may be short, long, or mid-length. Some women experience frustration during the Plateau Phase, believing they are taking too long to have an orgasm, or feeling like something “isn’t working.”

Each woman experiences different lengths of time on the plateau, and any length of time is completely normal. The plateau is often a very pleasurable place to be, even if you do not have an orgasm. In fact, many women find this period of high arousal to be the most pleasurable part of sex play. 

Masturbation is one of the most effective ways to determine what types of stimulation are most pleasurable for you, and how much intensity you prefer. It’s a great way to get to know yourself and your body, allowing you to experience pleasure without the pressure of anyone else’s expectations.

Many women find this to be a good place to start if they have never experienced an orgasm and would like to. You can share what you learn about your body from self-pleasuring with a partner, including what types of stimulation are most pleasurable to you.

Communicating in this way can help you build and increase arousal during partner sex, while taking an active role in defining your pleasure and preferences.

How to Improve Orgasm

Have you had orgasms in the past and find that you have more difficulty now? Has something changed in your life? The changes might be physical or age-related, induced by work or stress, caused by a shift in your relationship or a new medication.

Change is not a bad thing, but it may require you to explore new types of stimulation, and to discover new paths to arousal and orgasm. Remember, the amount of stimulation each of us needs to reach orgasm can vary for many reasons.

It is normal for the amount of time and type of stimulation required for orgasm to change throughout the course of a person’s lifetime.

Do you find that the muscle contractions and sensations of orgasm do not feel as intense as they used to?

Learning to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles—the muscles that contract during orgasm—can help make orgasms feel stronger.

Consider learning to do effective Kegel exercises by contracting and relaxing the pelvic floor muscles. Consciously relaxing the pelvic floor muscles is just as important as strengthening them, because it helps the muscles stay flexible. 

If you find that it takes you longer than before to reach orgasm, experiment with increasing the amount of arousal time you allow yourself, either alone or with a partner. 

Try stimulating your mind and the rest of your body before sex play: Read or listen to an erotic story, or watch an erotic movie. Play with different kinds of touch, trying new techniques to see which ones work for you.

Try using a vibrator or other sexual enhancement tools to see if that increases stimulation and decreases the time it takes for you to be aroused to orgasm. Incorporate all of your senses, and see what it feels like to stimulate other parts of your body besides your genitals (nipples, ears, toes, back of your neck). 

Have you rarely or never had orgasms?

5-10% of women have never had an orgasm, but almost all women are physically able to do so. Medications, circulatory problems, metabolic disorders, scar tissue or nerve damage from surgery can all strongly influence your ability to reach orgasm.

Consult a healthcare provider if you think an existing health condition or medication may be a contributing factor. Most women are not able to reach orgasm through vaginal penetration alone—fewer than 30% of women have orgasms during penetrative vaginal intercourse without additional, direct stimulation to the clitoris by a hand or a vibrator. Lelo has a great data based resource on this. 

The anatomy just isn’t right for adequate stimulation of the clitoris during vaginal penetration. Incorporating positions and techniques that allow you or a partner provide clitoral stimulation can make orgasm more likely.

Some women can experience numbness due to too much focused stimulation on the clitoris itself. If this happens to you, try stimulating the areas around the head and legs of the clitoris. 

You can also try stimulating other areas of your body and vulva for a period of time before returning to direct clitoral stimulation. As you incorporate new tools and techniques, try not to be goal-oriented.

By removing the pressure to have an orgasm often makes it easier to have one. Don’t worry if arousal builds and subsides as you experiment—that’s normal. Think of it as some healthy research on the sensations you like best. 

Want More and Better Orgasms?

Many people find that they have longer orgasms when they incorporate a wide variety of stimulation to all of the parts of their bodies that enjoy touch. Stroking and caressing many different nerve endings will intensify arousal and pleasure. In addition, the longer you pleasure your whole body, the more intense your orgasms are likely to be.

This means exploring all those places that feel wonderful when you or your partner strokes, licks, or rubs them. You may choose to experiment with “peaking,” or stimulating yourself almost to the pleasurable peak of orgasm, and then removing or decreasing the intensity of stimulation to delay orgasm.

This allows you to extend the time in which you are experiencing higher levels of arousal, and can result in a more intense orgasm.  Also, the more often you have orgasms, the more intense your orgasms will likely be. 

Although it may take longer to have orgasms when you have them frequently, many women and men report stronger more satisfying orgasms.

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By Dr. Amanda Olson, DPT, PRPC
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