All The Ways You Can Have Orgasms That Have Nothing To Do With Sex
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.
Not to get too TMI here, but sometimes the smallest, most unexpected things can bring me to orgasm. For example, during a recent sexual encounter I had my eyes closed for a while because I was concentrating on the pleasure down south, but when I finally opened them and locked eyes with my partner, I instantaneously orgasmed. Something about that intense, sudden, direct eye contact in the heat of the moment just pushed me over the edge.
The unexpected orgasm.
Now, if having an orgasm in response to the way someone looks at you sounds strange, get this: A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health studied 687 self-reported cases of nonsexual orgasms, with triggers including exercise, breastfeeding, riding in vehicles, listening to certain kinds of music, getting tattooed, childbirth, defecating, and more. The researchers also cited some cases documented by scientists in the past, including orgasms induced by stimulating one's knees, by using one’s imagination without any physical touch at all, or even by mundane activities like brushing your teeth. Yes, really.
The cases were gathered from comments anonymously left under a post on a community art site called PostSecret. According to the paper, a user described having an orgasm during a workout, which prompted nearly a thousand others to chime in with similarly nongenital and/or nonsexual orgasm experiences of their own. Some of the most unexpected anecdotes:
- "Every time the flight I'm on takes off. Or if I'm outside the airport and I can hear a flight take off. Both will do it."
- "I also ride a motorcycle and 1,800 rpms on my current bike is perfect for orgasming at long stoplights. Perk of being a female biker."
- "When I was a little girl, about 9 or 10, I would bob in the swimming pool with my legs tightly crossed. The most wonderful feeling would come over me…I never knew what it was till I grew up."
- "On the bus to a band competition in high school, I had to shit so bad that the muscle contraction I had to make was so intense I came all over the inside of my boxers. That was the most frightening experience of my freshman year."
- "I can orgasm if I sit up too fast or spin in a chair. If I'm hanging my head over the side of something then sit up, it just comes very powerfully."
- "Walking barefoot on unfinished or weathered wood (think piers and boardwalks) ALWAYS makes me orgasm!"
- "The most deliciously erotic orgasm I have ever had was at the culmination of a terribly good long novel I was reading at the time. It wasn't a romance (classic, horror-based Stephen King, in fact), and I was doing absolutely nothing to warrant the physical reaction. I've never been able to look at the 'climax' of a story the same way!"
- "Two years ago, I was caught shoplifting various items of clothing in a major retail store. They sat me on a wooden bench inside the store's little spy room, and I was terrified. The security guard started asking questions, but the moment he said he was going to call the cops, I was completely surprised by a big orgasm. I guess it was out of stress, but I don't think he noticed."
What causes an unexpected or accidental orgasm?
Whether it's a breastfeeding orgasm, a car orgasm, or a totally spontaneous orgasm, how is it possible to have an orgasm from something other than genital stimulation?
To answer that question, it’s important to consider what we know about what an orgasm actually is. Most sexually triggered orgasms are a head-to-toe experience. As the body is aroused, the brain sends more blood to the genitals (causing swelling, heat, and a flushed appearance), the heartbeat and breathing increase, your muscles tense, and your nerves kick into high-gear, sending information back up to the brain. MRI scans of the brain during orgasm have shown its pleasure and reward centers light up, as well as the areas related to sensory touch, muscle tension, memory and emotional regulation, unconscious body control, problem-solving, and even pain. Yes, it seems as though nearly the entire brain is involved—meaning so are the various parts of the body other than your genitals that these brain regions control.
But the scientists behind this study—including Debra Herbenick, Ph.D., noted sex researcher and director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University Bloomington—emphasize that the cause of these physical reactions has not itself been researched in great detail. "Much of the research related to human sexual orgasm has focused on physical mechanisms of orgasm (e.g., stimulation of specific body parts and/or nerve pathways in the genital area)," they write. "Less is understood about how feelings such as joy, ecstasy, or love might act alone or in concert with physical stimulation to facilitate orgasm."
"Even in one specific sexual behavior such as penile-vaginal intercourse, it is unclear how much weight to give vaginal stimulation versus clitoral stimulation versus emotions or cognitions," the researchers explain in the paper. "It is not obvious, during sex or apart from sex, the extent to which orgasms are caused by singular triggers versus a perfect storm of physical, mental, and/or emotional stimulation."
Analyzing the less common, nonsexual ways people described climaxing, the researchers found some orgasms that still came down to physical stimuli (for example, riding in a vehicle that's particularly bumpy, causing a stimulation of the genitals, or a workout routine that particularly worked the abdomen area typically tensed during a genitally induced orgasm). Other orgasms, however, came from totally psychological experiences (like the feeling of intensity and passion I got when I looked directly into my partner's eyes).
"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," the researchers write. "This analysis supports the idea that 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."
Accidental orgasms are totally normal, and they're not necessarily sexual.
Orgasms are clearly extremely complex. Not only can some people never experience an orgasm ever, but clearly some can experience them in pretty nonsexual situations. It's important to recognize that having a physical pleasure reaction in response to an event—especially involuntarily—doesn't necessarily make you some kind of sexual deviant. (Nor does it mean you necessarily "enjoyed" it. Case in point: Some sexual assault survivors experience lubrication, erection, or even orgasm during their trauma.)
An orgasm is your brain's natural response to a certain set of physical, mental, emotional, and environmental stimuli. Keyword: natural.
"Numerous people described feeling strange or unusual, or having never previously told anyone about their nonsexual/nongenital orgasms," the researchers write. "Some commenters, such as the women worried about orgasms during breastfeeding, expressed comfort and relief after reading that others had similar experiences. Counselors, educators, midwives, and clinicians who are aware of the range of human orgasm can share this information with students and patients and help to normalize or contextualize their experiences."
Although these aren't common ways to have an orgasm, there's nothing inherently wrong or "dirty" about them. Here's a comment from one of the users analyzed in this study that encapsulates just how important it is to shed some light on the seemingly endless variability of the human orgasm:
"I am so fucking relieved to read that many women have orgasmed while breastfeeding. I have Very sensitive nipples [the only 'odd' orgasm I've ever had], and I have been Terrified and ashamed about what I will do in the future when/if I decide to have children. ... I can feel an orgasm building just thinking about it. Talk about strange feeling. Sometimes it makes me feel like a pedophile. I saw someone write she will no longer breastfeed because of what I imagine is a similar feeling. But after reading all the comments, I think I'm okay with it happening because I know it is not in a sexual way. I guess I just needed to hear that it happened to others."
A comprehensive list of things that can cause an accidental orgasm.
Just for fun—and in the interest of normalization and empowerment—here's a comprehensive list of all the things mentioned in this particular study that have induced orgasms for at least someone. (There are likely many more!)
- Exercise (usually core-related workouts but also skating, hiking, swimming, dancing, running, yoga, push-ups, walking, squatting, leg lifts, triceps work, marching, climbing poles, situps, pullups, rope climbing, and tree climbing)
- Chores or manual labor like stacking bags or mopping
- Spinning or sitting up too quickly
- Playground activities like monkey bars, climbing poles, and swinging
- Riding buses, trains, cars, motorcycles, planes, and bicycles
- Listening to certain songs
- Airplane turbulence
- Driving over a bunch of hills
- Needing to pee or poop
- Roller coasters
- Getting a haircut
- Giving a haircut
- Marijuana use
- Cocaine and other drug use
- Opiate withdrawal
- Starting schizophrenia medication
- A spinal injury
- A seizure
- Getting a tattoo
- Scratching a mosquito bite or rash
- Yeast infection and UTI symptoms
- Head, back, and shoulder massages and rubs
- Cleaning the ears with a Q-tip
- Performing oral sex
- Breast stimulation
- Neck stimulation
- Knee stimulation
- Foot stimulation
- Ankle stimulation
- Intellectual stimulation
- Mental imagery (i.e., no physical stimulation, just imagination)
- Taking a test
- Stressful, anxiety-causing, or emotional situations
- Eye contact
- Waking up from sleep
- Nothing (i.e., totally spontaneous orgasms)
And by the way, about 44 percent of these folks described these nonsexual orgasms in positive terms—that is, happily and without shame.
Moral of the story? Whatever flips your switch.
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Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach based in Brooklyn, as well as the sex and relationships editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and educator certifications from The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed. Her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Gonsalves provides heartful, evidence-based information about sexual well-being and healthy relationships through counseling, coaching, workshops, and journalism. Her research and reporting have debunked myths about the “elusive” female orgasm (nope, women’s orgasms are not a mystery and not naturally more difficult to achieve than men’s orgasms), explored the complicated history of American period care, uncovered the surprising psychology of ex sex, and much, much more.