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10 Reasons Women Don't Always Have Orgasms

Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.
April 8, 2015
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.
Sex Educator & NYT Bestselling Author
By Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.
Sex Educator & NYT Bestselling Author
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., is a sex educator and the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller 'Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life.' She has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Health Behavior with a focus in human sexuality from Indiana University.
April 8, 2015

Having an orgasm is natural. So is skipping, for instance. That doesn’t mean you’re born knowing how to skip; it means you’re born with the capacity to learn. There was a time when you didn’t know how to skip. Someone presumably taught you how to coordinate your body, and soon you were doing it on your own, any time you felt like it. The same is generally true for orgasms.

The process of becoming aroused and having an orgasm is a two-part process: turning on "the ons" and turning off "the offs." We have to “activate the accelerator” in our brains, which means giving the brain a lot of sexy stimulation to be turned on by, and “release the brakes” in the brain, which means eliminating all the potential threats and other reasons not to be turned on right now.

With that in mind, here are ten reasons why women can struggle with the orgasm and suggestions for how to remedy that struggle.

1. They’re still learning how.

Just like learning to skip, it comes more easily to some people than others, it takes persistence to learn, and nobody ever really has to. But it sure is a fun game, and everybody deserves a chance to try it. (Here's our guide on how to make a woman orgasm.)

2. They believe they're just not a woman who has orgasms.

There probably are women who never orgasm ever in their whole lives. But in my experience, any woman interested enough in sex to want to have an orgasm almost certainly can, given the right context – i.e., enough activation of the accelerator and letting go of all the brakes.

3. They don’t want to.

Maybe it’s because they’ve had a long, hard day, and it’s just not worth the effort. Maybe they enjoy the pleasure of arousal all on its own, without the goal of orgasm. And you know what? Maybe they’re withholding their orgasms from their partner because it takes a lot of trust to let go that much, it’s a huge gift to the partner, and it can even slingshot a couple into a deeper level of intimacy. Sometimes a relationship isn’t in a place that makes orgasm seem like a good idea. (Yes, there's such a thing as a bad orgasm.)

4. They’re not “pre-heating the oven.”

It still surprises me how many women believe orgasm should just happen, more or less without effort, just through clitoral stimulation. Even the clitoris needs a sexy context; without being turned on, stimulation of the clitoris will just feel weird or even painful. That said...

5. They’re not getting enough clitoral stimulation.

Women worry about not having orgasms during intercourse, especially. But actually less than a third of women are reliably orgasmic from penetration alone. The reason? Intercourse is not a very good way to stimulate the clitoris, and the clitoris is, for most women, the hokey pokey: it’s what it’s all about.

So when in doubt, add clitoral stimulation, whether it’s with your hand, your partner’s hand, a vibrator, your pubic bones pressing together, whatever.

6. They’re not taking enough time.

It can take anywhere from a few minutes to most of an hour to have an orgasm (20 minutes is typical, longer is totally normal). Orgasms are like childbirth: they take as long as they take, and each one is different.

7. Their partner is in the room – or their partner isn’t in the room.

Or generally they’re in a physical environment where, instead of being able to go all mushy-brained and just celebrate the sensations in their bodies, they’re distracted by thoughts like, “What if this is taking too long?” or “What if my partner is bored?” or “What if I’m not even doing this right?” or any of the million other ways that they might be self-monitoring instead of paying attention to pleasure and allowing that pleasure to grow. This also includes potential unwanted consequences that come with a partner, such as risk of STI transmission or unwanted pregnancy.

8. They’re still recovering from trauma.

When sex has been used as a weapon against a woman, her brain learns that sexy things (things that activate the accelerator) can also be threats, things that hit the brakes. Given that a conservative estimate is that one in five women has experienced sexual violence, this applies to a whole lot of women.

Healing from trauma takes patience, self-compassion, and opportunities to experience sexual pleasure in contexts where you feel safe inside your own body. Start on your own, figuring out what you want and what your body needs. Once you learn to feel pleasure while you feel safe in your body, you can then add a partner if you like.

9. They’re worried about their body.

Even more common than trauma are the body-shaming cultural messages that distract women’s attention. They’re thinking about how their face looks or what the fat on their belly is doing or whether their cellulite is noticeable. The question to ask yourself when these thoughts emerges is, “Why does it matter?” No really. Why?

Answer: because we’ve been taught that only women with “flawless” bodies are allowed to enjoy sex, and if we make faces or have fat on our bodies or otherwise “fall short,” then enjoying sex is against the rules. This is bullshit. It takes time and practice to replace those self-critical thoughts with affection for your body, but the benefits extend far beyond having more and better orgasms. (Here's how to start to love your body, even when it's hard.)

10. They’re worried about their orgasm.

Oh, the irony. Perhaps the most common difficulty faced by women who struggle with orgasm is the tendency to worry about orgasm, even as their arousal increases. The more aroused they get, the closer they get to orgasm, the more they worry. “What if I don’t have an orgasm?” and “What if I do have an orgasm?” and “Will I even know if I’ve had an orgasm?” and “Are my abs supposed to be shaking like that?” and “Is this what it’s supposed to feel like? Am I sure I like how this feels?”

The solution is to notice those thoughts, let them go for now, and shift your attention, gently and neutrally, to the sensations in your body. Orgasm happens when we surrender our bodies to sexual arousal – and the best orgasms happen when we surrender in a context of trust, affection, permission, and acceptance of all the things our bodies are and do.

It’s like skipping. Once you learn how, your body never forgets. And everybody deserves a life so full of joy that they can do it when they want to.

Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. author page.
Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.
Sex Educator & NYT Bestselling Author

Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., is a sex educator and the award-winning author of the New York Times bestseller Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. She has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Health Behavior with a focus in human sexuality from Indiana University.

Nagoski spent eight years as a lecturer and the Director of Wellness Education at Smith College. She has taught graduate and undergraduate classes in human sexuality, relationships and communication, stress management, and sex education. Now she travels all over training sexuality professionals, therapists, and lay people about the science and art of sexual well-being.