Mythbusting Sex Ed

What To Do If You Can’t Orgasm

At least once a week, somebody tells me that they can’t orgasm. It doesn’t matter what gender they are or what body parts they have. They text me, email me, or sidle up to me while I’m at work and say, “Hey, can I talk to you?” And then they tell me — full of shame — that they’ve been having a hard time reaching orgasm.

[A puppet dog hanging his head in shame next to a puppet snowman.]

I’m the snowman.

Well, friends, this post is for you.

The great news is that, as usual, you’re not alone. “Delayed orgasm” is one of the most common sexual difficulties. Luckily, it’s also a lot easier to fix than most people assume. In general, delayed orgasm is not actually a medical problem; people are usually held back by a combination of physical and psychological factors that are treatable without medication, surgery, or intensive therapy. Yay!

Even though people don’t usually require medication or surgery to reach orgasm, it does take some work to figure out how to orgasm easily. So let’s take a look at what you can do to kick off your journey:

1. Ask yourself, “What do I really mean what I say that I can’t orgasm?”

Usually, when people say that they “can’t orgasm,” they actually mean that they have trouble orgasming. If you’ve never orgasmed — even from masturbating — or you have been unable to orgasm for a very long time, you’re probably experiencing anorgasmia, which is a slightly different issue. Again, though, you’re not alone! Anorgasmia is treatable, and even people who never learn to orgasm can have amazing sexual experiences. Even though most of this article is written for people who have difficulty orgasming (rather than true anorgasmia), you might find the content useful, so keep reading!

Another thing that people often mean when they say that they can’t orgasm is that they have difficulty orgasming with a partner. These people are actually pretty good at reaching orgasm, but they usually get there from masturbation. If you’re a masturbation pro but have difficulty orgasming when a partner is touching you, that’s important to know. It means that you’re either not entirely comfortable with partnered sex yet or that your body hasn’t learned how to orgasm from your partner’s touch yet.

Lastly, a lot of people mean that they can’t orgasm from penetration alone. This is especially common for cisgender, heterosexual women, who are (incorrectly) taught that penetrative sex is the most common route to orgasm. In reality, only 1/3 of all cis women can reliably orgasm from penis-in-vagina sex. This has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with bodies: most cisgender women require direct clitoral stimulation to orgasm, and penis-in-vagina sex doesn’t usually provide that. Problem solved!

2. Get comfy, get educated, get safe.

According to the sex researchers Beverly Whipple and Karen Brash-McGreer, orgasms require three ingredients: seduction, sensation, and surrender. In other words, you have to be excited for sex, the sex has to feel good, and you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable. Of course, these conditions don’t apply in the same way to everyone, but in general this is a good recipe for climax.

[A circle with the words seduction, sensations, surrender, and reflection running along the outside of the top half of the circle. On the inside, the words desire, excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution are placed along a graph that corresponds in intensity to each word.]

Whipple and Brash-McGreer’s diagram of the sexual response system.

This is a lot to juggle just for a measly orgasm, though. In order for you to be excited for sex, the sex has to be consensual and you have to actually be attracted to the person you’re having it with. In order for the sex to feel good, you and your partner need to understand your bodies and be able to communicate clearly with each other. And in order for you to allow yourself to be vulnerable… well, that’s where it gets more complicated.

The fact is that it’s hard to be vulnerable enough to orgasm unless you feel safe. And it’s not enough to trust that your partner won’t harm you; you also have to trust that they won’t be disappointed in you, ridicule you, or shame you. Even if your partner is a kind, caring person, this might take some work. We’re fed a lot of false and damaging narratives about sex throughout our lives, and it takes a really long time to let go of these narratives, especially in the presence of another human.

For example: You might find that your partner is unintentionally reinforcing your orgasm anxiety by being over-insistent about stimulating you, demanding that they keep going until you orgasm, or looking dejected when you don’t orgasm. A lot of cisgender women find that their male partners demand to know if their orgasms were “genuine.” It’s important to bring this up with with your partners and let them know that their behavior actually adds pressure and makes it harder for you to orgasm. Reassure them that you’ll tell them how to make you feel good and that you enjoy sex with them (only if that’s true, of course), but be firm: your orgasms are for you. If a partner needs you to orgasm in order to feel secure in their own sexuality, work together to find ways to help them feel secure without exacerbating your own insecurities.

If you’re having difficulty orgasming even from masturbation, the same conditions also apply — you just have to turn them inwards. Are you excited to touch yourself? Does it feel good when you do so? Do you feel physically and emotionally safe? If you’re somebody who feels a lot of shame about masturbating or have been told throughout your life that masturbation is bad or dangerous, you might have to spend some time consciously working to reverse those narratives.

3. Teach your partner about your body!

This is part and parcel of the passage above, honestly. If your partner doesn’t know what feels good for you, they won’t be able to make you feel good. Most of the time, people who don’t understand their partners’ bodies revert to doing what makes them feel good — but every person is different, so that rarely works.

Sounds like it’s time for some “workshop sex.”

[A classroom. Two men are writing on blackboards. One finishes a long equation that takes up the entire blackboard. The other finishes and leaves, revealing a chalk drawing of the cartoon character, Dick Butt.]

Wait for it…

“Workshop sex” is low-stakes, no-orgasm sex in which the main goal is to figure out what feels good for each person involved. I’ll write about it more in the future, since it’s an incredible tool that deserves its own post, but in the meantime, here’s how you do it.

First, choose who is going to be workshopped. Get naked, lube up, and make sure that everyone is feeling happy and horny. Then, rather than having sex the way you normally would, focus on one activity — handjobs, blowjobs, analingus, fingering, penetration… the list goes on. Try doing this activity in multiple ways, asking your partner which feels better each time. For example, if you’re workshopping handjobs on a person with a penis: try stroking up and down, then try stroking in a rotating motion. Ask your partner, “Which feels better?” Then try gripping tighter and looser. Then give more attention to the head of the penis or the shaft of the penis. And so on.

The point of “workshop sex” is education, so don’t worry about orgasming. In fact, it’s better if you don’t! That way you can focus on what matters, which is feeling good before you orgasm.

4. Take. Your. Time.

Have you ever been receiving oral sex and started to think, “Yeah, this isn’t going to happen anytime soon?” You feel bad for your partner — after all, oral sex requires a lot of tongue and/or jaw action — so you gently pull them away from your genitals and start kissing them. “It’s okay,” you think. “I’ll get them off instead.”

While your generosity is admirable, maybe it’s time to trust that your partner will stop when they want to stop. After all, hopefully they’re down there (or wherever they are, doing whatever they’re doing) because they enjoy being down there, not because they feel obligated to make you orgasm. Revolutionary thought, huh?

People who have difficulty orgasming often interrupt their own sexual pleasure because they feel guilty for “making” their partner “work” so hard. But here’s the thing: sex is not work (except for sex workers). Sex is something that we do — voluntarily — because it feels good. So do it for as long as you want to do it (and no longer). And, unless you actually believe that your partner isn’t enjoying themself, let them keep going!

This one is especially important for anyone who has medical or physiological reasons why orgasming is difficult (for example, anyone on SSRIs or other psychopharmacological drugs). You might find that you’re *almost* there and then the sensation disappears. This might happen multiple times. If this is discouraging or unpleasant, you’re not obligated to keep going! But if you want to… well, there might just be an orgasm in your future.

5. Stop worrying about whether or not you will orgasm.

Here it is, the big one. The more you worry about whether or not you’re going orgasm, the less likely you will be to orgasm.

Let me say it again: The more you worry about whether or not you’re going to orgasm, the less likely you will be to orgasm.

[Kristen Bell holding a tranquilizer gun and saying, "Say 'what' again, I dare ya! I double dare ya!"

Kristen Bell demands that you stop worrying.

Why? Let’s circle back to Whipple and Brash-McGreer: if you think that you need to orgasm, if some part of you is convinced that something not orgasming means something is fundamentally wrong with you, sex becomes a test. Tests are scary; they are high-stakes. They don’t encourage you to feel safe or to surrender. And orgasms are all about surrender.

It’s hard to let go of the idea that orgasms are the Best Thing Ever. We’re told for our entire adult lives that they are the end-all, be-all of sex, that the only reason to have sex is to orgasm. But that’s not true. Sex is a pleasurable, wide-ranging experience that should be fulfilling even when you don’t experience the series of muscle contractions that has, for some reason, been held up as the sexual holy grail.

Yes, orgasms are great. You don’t have to stop wanting to orgasm, but try letting go of the idea that you have to.

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