In an earlier post, I talked about one of the 2 criticisms that always seem to pop up in Reddit comments about my my blog posts. In that I wrote about the criticism that my blog posts don't properly include discussions of non hetero experiences. So now, I'm going to address the second criticism; women telling me that the description of female orgasm I put forth doesn't describe their personal experience. I actually think that my way of discussing orgasm does include more women than it might seem at first glance; it's just that our language of orgasm is different, and I don't usually address that properly. The problem begins with the controversial and seemingly divisive statement I often throw out there; I often outright say that female orgasms arise from clitoral stimulation, and not from stimulative friction on the inside of the vagina. I stand by the statement, but I also understand why it's criticized. It seems to leave out women who say they have "vaginal" or "g-spot" orgasms.
I do stick to a particular definition of orgasm, and I do find that some claims about female orgasms are unsubstantiated through scientific investigation, but in order to explain fully, there is a lot of background that needs to accompany this, and there rarely seems to be enough time or space to include it. To clarify my statement and my meaning is exactly my intention here.
Why I think this is an important discussion to have
A lot of people have told me, and probably will continue to tell me that I shouldn't be trying to tell women what is and is not an orgasm; I freely admit that I am trying to make the physical definition of an orgasm popular knowledge, but I am not telling women there is only one way to have an orgasm. I am simply trying to encourage the proper use of the word orgasm. When we speak about female orgasm, the word is thrown around to describe all kinds of things that are not orgasms; things like ejaculation, non-orgasmic physical pleasure, or spiritual/emotional highs associated with intercourse. I'm not saying these are undesirable or bad, but I am saying they are not orgasms, and calling them or insinuating that they are orgasms confuses all the women out there who are trying to maneuver their way through a really confusing sexual culture. A willy nilly use of the word "orgasm" leads to the persistence of harmful, misleading misunderstandings of what an orgasm is and how a woman might get one.
There is a need for our culture to finally begin dealing with the female orgasm from a perspective of scientific knowledge; to be clear about what happens physically; to speak about it in realistic and fact based ways. We have too long been wishy washy about what an orgasm is and too all-accepting about any old idea any person has about how a woman might get one. I understand that I am walking a fine line here. I know by pushing a science-based definition on the female orgasm, there will be those who feel as if I am saying anyone who's experience doesn't fit into that definition isn't having a real experience, but I have a different view. I think that having clear definitions does not also have to mean having clear exclusions. I think that the conversation about female orgasm has been so convoluted over the last 60 years that it cannot move forward unless we start discussing it in terms of facts and begin being specific in our language. Change hurts, but I believe this is a change that is necessary. I believe women and society as a whole are fully capable of engaging in this type of discussion; of being accepting while still understanding female orgasm in a scientific and structured way.
So, what is the definition of an orgasm?
Pioneering scientists William Masters and Virginia Johnson (M&J) did the first and most comprehensive observations of how male and female bodies react to sexual arousal and orgasm and released the book Human Sexual Response in 1966. Masters & Johnson's work is still the gold standard of physical orgasm research, and if you want a a more detailed physical description of orgasms, check that book out. They showed that males and females basically have the same physical reactions. During arousal, the pelvic muscles begin to tense and blood begins to pool in the genital areas (this pooling causes males to get erections, and it causes women to begin emitting lubrication from our vaginal walls and causes swelling to occur in our visible vulva area and in our clitoral legs, which are hidden deep in our pelvis; and btw women have as much blood pooling in their genitals as men, the male reaction is just - you know - easier to see). Orgasm is the sudden release of the muscle tension and blood pooling that has built up during arousal. For both men and women, the pelvic muscles will release the tension with spasms at a rate of about 1 every .8 seconds. It's very similar in both sexes; it's just that men also usually ejaculate at the same time they orgasm. This ejaculation/orgasm at the same time thing is not a normal occurrence for women. This Masters and Johnson definition is the physiological definition of an orgasm, and is what I refer to when I say orgasm.
What is not an orgasm: The following things are not within the physical definition of orgasm and not what I refer to when I say "orgasm"
A general pleasure during sex; or a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual high that cannot be described by the description of physical orgasms set out by M&J. Orgasm and pleasure are not interchangeable. They can be interconnected, but they are quite simply not the same things. Pleasure without orgasm is absolutely something that can be valued in sexual interactions, but talking about pleasure during sex as if it were an orgasm, doesn't help give women and girls useful cues about what to expect when it comes to what should actually elicit orgasm. We don't confuse orgasm and non-orgasmic pleasure this casually for men, and we shouldn't for women either.
Arousal - In the same vein as above, arousal is not orgasm. What arouses a person is quite unique and has as much to do with the mental aspect as the physical, but the final stimulation needed to push a woman into orgasm is largely the same for all women - clitoral stimulation. Just think of it in terms of how you understand male orgasm. Yes, he could get insanely hard and aroused by watching a naked woman and having her kiss his chest and neck, but it would seem silly to assume that he would orgasm without his penis being touched; even if it's just a little touch, we would expect that he would need it to put him over the edge. It shouldn't be thought of much differently for women.
Ejaculation - Female ejaculation does exist and some women who have them say they find it pleasurable, but it's not an orgasm. Ejaculation and orgasm are physically different events in both men and women; men just happen to ejaculate simultaneously at the time of orgasm and (most) women do not.
This is where that oh so revered G-spot comes into this discussion. It is touted in women's magazines and pop culture as some kind of amazing, yet elusive spot that causes earth shattering orgasms...for the lucky few. Unfortunately, that's just plain unsubstantiated. There is clearly physiological evidence of g-spot stimulation causing ejaculation in women, but no physiological evidence of g-spot stimulation causing orgasms (there are plenty of survey's where women say they do have G-spot "orgasms," but I have never seen one where these claims are backed up with physiological evidence). The only physical reaction to g-spot stimulation that has been recorded and observed is ejaculation. For both sexes, stimulating their G-spot/prostate without also stimulating the clit or penis can cause ejaculation but not orgasm, and to be clear, the sudden release of muscle tension and blood congestion that is a hallmark of orgasm, does not happen with ejaculation. By all means, enjoy and seek ejaculation if you like it, but let's be clear that it is something physically different - not something we should call an orgasm. (If you want to look into this further, I suggest The G-Spot and Other Recent Discoveries About Human Sexuality. This book sort of "discovered" the G-spot in 1982. It wants badly to support the idea of a g-spot orgasm, but if you read it critically and look for physical evidence, it simply fails. The information in there about G-Spot induced ejaculation, however, is groundbreaking and backed up well.)
What things have been shown to cause orgasm?
When I say female orgasms arise from clitoral stimulation, and not from stimulation of the inside of the vagina, the part about orgasms coming from clitoral stimulation is pretty uncontroversial. Any kind of stimulation of the clit can cause an orgasm. Masters and Johnson physically documented this, and it is important to note that all the orgasms they recorded exhibited the same basic physical reactions. There simply wasn't any evidence of a separate "type" of orgasm; no "vaginal," "G-spot,"or "uterine" orgasm. So the really controversial part of that statement is me saying that I have come across no physical evidence that penises or fingers or dildos stimulating the inside of the vagina have caused an orgasm. That is not to mean, however, that no orgasms can occur during the act of penetration. Below I will list ways that can cause orgasm during acts of penetration.
Grinding - Grinding the clitoral glans area against something during the act of intercourse/penetration is another form of clitoral stimulation. It can be against pillows, bedding, teddy bears, your partners pelvis - whatever. As long as the clitoral glans/vulva area is being stimulated, it makes sense that an orgasm could occur in this intercourse situation. I'd also like to add that this seems to be a way that some women orgasm during intercourse without really realizing that it's due to the clit stimulation from their grinding. It can be unintentional (However, from my own experience, I'd say it won't be a very consistent way to orgasm unless the woman knows what she's going for and works for it)
M&J Rube Goldberg-esque Indirect Clitoral Stimulation The closest thing to the sought after no-additional-clitoral-stimulation intercourse orgasm, was documented and observed by M&J. So, there is evidence that a small amount of women can attain this intercourse orgasm, and M&J even found 2 women who had orgasms from nipple stimulation with no direct clitoral stimulation. Before you get too excited, though, I think it is important to understand what scientific investigation has told us about how these orgasms happen and how they compare to other orgasms these women have.
Both groups were aroused physically almost to the point of orgasm to start with - before the nipple stimulation or intercourse happened. For the first group (a group that was specifically sought out within the possible test population - since M&J held dear the idea that women should be having hands free orgasms during intercourse, even though their investigations clearly showed that female orgasms were caused by clitoral not vaginal stimulation), M&J hypothesized it was a Rube-Goldberg situation where the penis pulled on the highly aroused inner lips, which pulled on the clitoral hood, which rubbed against the clitoris. It was a small bit of stimulation, but enough to push them over the edge. The second group (2 women) started manipulating their nipples after they too were physically almost to the point of orgasm. The nipple stimulation was enough to put them over the edge to orgasm. My personal thought is that the nipples were clearly a favorite touch place for these women, and already being almost to the point of orgasm, they tensed their PC muscle (pelvic muscle) which moved the area down around the clitoral glans just enough to put them over the edge. (Try tensing the muscles that would stop your stream of pee then letting it go - particularly when aroused). Now, M&J didn't have any specific hypothesis for how the clitoris was stimulated in this situation, but they clearly stated that all the orgasms, whether they were from direct clit stimulation or these indirect intercourse/nipple ones, can be described the same way physically.
Before you start feeling unlucky because you aren't one of these rare women who can just come from a little touch to the nip or from the ol' in and out (someone like our lucky heroine from Fifty Shades of Grey), let me tell you this. Although the orgasms they had were physically similar to the ones these same women had during direct clitoral stimulation, they were also the weakest ones they had - both in terms of the physical intensity of the muscle spasms and in terms of the women's own subjective feelings. If we think of orgasms in terms of clitoral stimulation, it makes perfect sense that these would be weak orgasms - given that these were the orgasms caused by the most indirect stimulation of the clit. The orgasms they had as a result of masturbation (of the clitoral/vulva area) were the strongest, and orgasms as a result of a skilled partner's manual stimulation of the woman's vulva/clitoral area were the second most intense. (It seems that if our Fifty Shade's heroine was realistic in any way, those nipple and intercourse orgasms she had wouldn't have been so earth shattering, now would they?). Also, remember that even though these women did have an orgasm without specifically touching or grinding their clit, they did need to be physically on the edge of orgasm before they even started these non clit touching orgasm maneuvers. So it's not as if these women simply got banged and came...or got a little nip sucking and came. They put a lot of footwork (including direct clitoral stimulation) into getting to a point where the oh-so-coveted intercourse/nipple orgasm could even have a chance of occurring...and for their their coveted orgasm status and hard work, what did they get? A rather weak orgasm, but an orgasm none the less.
Women who have the following experiences fit fully into my statement about orgasm, even if we have semantic differences.
- have orgasms only through direct clitoral/vulva stimulation
- have orgasms during intercourse due to some kind of additional or even unintentional stimulation like grinding against your partner or the bedding
- have ejaculations due to g-spot stimulation - that you may call "orgasms"
- have ejaculations due to g-spot stimulation at the same time you are having orgasms due to clitoral stimulation (cause you're messing with the clit and the G-spot/vagina at the same time) and call that whole thing a different kind of "orgasm"
- have something you call "orgasms" that are based in deep feelings of physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual pleasure...yet, this something could not be defined as an orgasm in the M&J physiological definition.
- have the occasional orgasm that occurs during intercourse or nipple stimulation but after being intensely aroused (probably partially by direct clitoral stimulation) to almost the point of orgasm; with that orgasm physically feeling like a weak version of the orgasms you get during direct clitoral stimulation
Women who have the following experiences do not yet fit into my statement about orgasm.
Women who have physically strong orgasms from nothing but the physical stimulation to the inside of the vagina - the o'l in and out without any clitoral grinding or stimulation. If this is you, then frankly, I can't find your situation in the research. I'm not saying you don't exist. I'm just saying people like you have not been studied. I know someone will come back at me with a study here or there where women say on a survey that they do orgasm this way, but I promise I have looked at a lot, and I have never seen a study where these claims are backed up by physical observations showing there was in fact a physiologic orgasmic reaction. I'm always open to the possibility of learning new things about the female orgasm through solid investigation, so if you are one of these women, please do seek out being part of an orgasm study. There truly is too little good scientific investigation about female sexual release.
I know the exclusion I make may seem harsh, but I do think it is important to let women know that this is the reality of our scientific knowledge right now. Every time a woman says she orgasms easily from the ol' in and out, but she's actually orgasming from grinding her clit, or she's actually ejaculating, or she's actually talking about something in a more spiritual way, or she's actually talking about a really weak Rube-Goldberg orgasm she has had only a hand-full of times in her whole sexual life, then she is doing the world of female sexuality a disservice.
I honestly don't think there are women out there intentionally trying to make other women feel inferior or misrepresenting their experiences. Truthfully, the way our culture teaches, depicts, and discusses female orgasm is so confusing that none of us really know how to talk about our experiences. We just do the best we can with what we've been able to figure out. We need a better way, though. We need to understand what scientific investigation can tell us about what a physical orgasm is and how it can be sought. We need to start using plain and physical terms to speak about our experiences with orgasm and sexual pleasure so that we can learn from the realities of our fellow women.
We also need to be accepting. I know my emphasis on the clitoris and on the physical definition of orgasm makes some feel as though I will be encouraging the type of "my orgasms/sexual experiences are better than yours" situation that happened during Freud's time and that is happening now with the emphasis of mind-shattering effortless Fifty Shades type intercourse-only orgasms. However, I think women are craving the chance to be grounded in reality when it comes to orgasms, and I think we are mature enough to deal with our diversity. There should be nothing wrong with enjoying the emotional high that comes with your sessions of intercourse, even if there is no physical orgasm involved; or in enjoying your ejaculation even without an orgasm also. Also, a woman who says she fits into my second grouping, should be taken seriously. Even if she is part of a small minority that hasn't been studied well, these are her experiences, and we should work to document those experiences as part of the female reality. We do need to understand and make these distinctions though.
So, when I say that female orgasms arise from clitoral stimulation, and not from stimulation to the inside of the vagina, please know that I'm not just trying to be exclusive, mean or divisive. I honestly feel like I'm doing this for the opposite reasons, and I hope that is eventually how most others will feel also. I truly hope to move the language and the understanding of female orgasm towards a clearer, more realistic, more fact-based place.
***Since this article was written in 2012, I have written more that addresses some questions people may have about research linking the inner clitoral legs to the G-spot and/or vaginal orgasm. As of yet I still haven't found any research showing stimulation inside the vagina causing orgasm, but THIS post should help describe how some popularly cited research, not described in this post, fits in with all that.