6 Surprising (And Scientific!) Facts About Orgasms You Might Not Know
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Orgasms are the cherry on top of great sex: You don't really need one to make the experience, but they can certainly be a sweet addition when available.
In honor of National Orgasm Day, held annually on July 31, let's talk about orgasms. Here are a few lesser-known scientific facts about them:
1. It's not naturally harder for women to orgasm.
Especially for people with vulvas, you'll often hear people describing orgasm as something that's mysterious, elusive, and even rare—despite the fact that some 95% of women usually orgasm with ease while masturbating. It is more common for women to report struggling with orgasm than it is for men, but it's not about biology. It's about cultural norms and lack of information.
Historically, cultures around the world framed sex exclusively around male pleasure, which is why we today still associate the word "sex" with P-in-V intercourse (despite the fact that penetration alone will not stimulate most vagina owners to orgasm) and why we still associate things that actually get vagina owners off (like oral sex and clitoral stimulation) as "foreplay" instead of as the main act.
It's also why there have been thousands of studies on male sexual pleasure and dysfunction over the last century but very few about female sexual pleasure and dysfunction. (The Week reports that PubMed, a database for scientific research studies, has nearly five times as many studies on male sexual pleasure as it does on female sexual pain.) The medical establishment has spent astonishingly little time researching how vulvas and vaginas work and what arouses the people who have them. It's only in the last decade that we've finally begun talking about the full structure of the clitoris, the majority of which is an internal structure that extends about 4 inches into the body and wraps around the vaginal canal.
2. Just learning about the orgasm gap makes women more likely to have them.
A recent study published in the journal Sex Education earlier this year surveyed women before and after taking a class about sex. Some of them took a general course about human sexuality from an anthropological perspective, while others took a course that specifically talked about the orgasm gap, aka the fact that 95% of straight men orgasm every time they have sex, compared to 65% of straight women (and there are some studies that show the gap being even wider). Those women in the latter course reported having more and better orgasms afterward.
Knowledge is power! Quality sex education literally changes lives.
3. Women orgasm in their sleep, too.
We know boys can sometimes experience nocturnal emission, which refers to when they have an orgasm and ejaculate while asleep (hence the term "wet dreams"). But way back in 1953, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey found 37% of women have had an orgasm from a dream by the time they're 45 years old, and recent research shows women are starting to have more and more sexual dreams: One study published in the Psychology & Sexuality journal this year found more than one in five of women's remembered dreams are erotic in nature.
"Contrary to popular belief, wet dreams are not just for adolescent boys,” Emily Morse, Ph.D., a doctor of human sexuality and SKYN Condoms' resident sex expert, tells mbg. "During REM, if your dream is hot enough, the blood flow to your vagina will increase and can lead to your very own nocturnal orgasm. This is nothing new and certainly isn't uncommon."
4. Not all orgasms are sexual in nature.
People have reported experiencing orgasms in response to ordinarily nonsexual situations and experiences, such as turbulence, brushing your teeth, ankle stimulation, childbirth, breastfeeding, listening to certain types of music, and many more unusual things.
"It may be that orgasm is not necessarily a sexual or genital event but may be better considered as a set of neuropsychological processes, with genital orgasms and/or sexual orgasms being some but not all of the kinds of orgasms available to humans," write the researchers behind one recent study on the variability of orgasms. "Orgasm may be best considered a variably experienced neuropsychological process associated with diverse forms of stimulation including sights, sounds, tastes, textures, imagery, and/or pain and its relief."
(You can read all about the study and its findings here at mbg.)
5. Nearly half of men married to a woman can't tell when she's had an orgasm.
Not to throw shade at men who sleep with women, but men who sleep with women are not very good at recognizing when their partner has had an orgasm. A recent study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine asked over 1,600 married heterosexual couples about their sex lives and found 43% of husbands misperceived how often their wife had an orgasm. That is, they thought their wives were having orgasms a lot more frequently than their wives actually reported having them.
There are obvious reasons for this: Usually there's physical evidence when a person with a penis has an orgasm (aka ejaculation), but that's not the case for people with vulvas. As the Planned Parenthood website explains, "There's no way to tell if a woman's had an orgasm—the only way to know for sure is to ask her."
6. Stimulating the cervix can also trigger orgasms.
Your cervix, aka the cylinder of tissue connecting the uterus to the vagina, also can be a very sensitive area for people who have them. Enter the cervical orgasm.
"A cervical orgasm can be achieved when the woman is really aroused," Morse explains. "If she's not sufficiently aroused, it can be painful. This sensation is much different from clitoral stimulation because they are actually stemming from two different nerve systems. These can take more time and practice and will only occur with a dildo, vibrator, or penis. Most women describe them as being more full-bodied." (Here's our guide to having a cervical orgasm, from functional naturopathic medical doctor and mbg Collective member Jolene Brighten, NMD.)
There's a lot of work to be done to create true orgasm equality among the genders, and information is one of the most powerful ways to do that. So spread the good word by bringing up a few fun orgasm facts over your next brunch date with the squad or the next time you're in bed with your partner. The more we all talk about it, the better sex we'll all get to have.
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