Depending on whose statistics you believe and how they are gathered, anywhere from 30 percent to 75 percent of women do not experience orgasm through intercourse alone. General agreement puts the figure at “more than half of American women”.

Some of the confusion lies in how the question is phrased during the information gathering. “Do you generally climax during sex?” is one statistic muddler. Some people equate “sex” with the act of penis in vagina intercourse alone and some broaden the meaning to all the fascinating activities two naked people can do in bed…or anywhere else. Even if a woman responds that she does have an orgasm during intercourse that could also mean “while my partner or I stimulate me by hand” which eliminates orgasm via PV intercourse solely.

Since some women report very different feelings of arousal and satisfaction from clitoral stimulation in contrast to vaginal stimulation they might define having an orgasm as one particular sensation and not others. Some chose to define having an orgasm as a variety of possible events. Then, of course, since the belief is so popularly held in our culture that a real woman (by definition of Freud and popular pornography) must have her orgasms via intercourse alone, many women simply fake it and/or lie.

So what is an orgasm? Like the commercial ideal of beauty which changes by the decade, what constitutes an orgasm is also often very narrowly defined. Fluttery feelings somewhere deep inside aren’t mandatory. Neither are uterine contractions, screams of abandon or loss of consciousness in ecstatic swoons, though all are possible.

In the broadest sense an orgasm is a buildup of tension followed by its release. An unromantic simile, I know, but the whole process is extremely like a sneeze. Some women experience a suspenseful “ah…ah…ah…CHOO!” while others do so in a series of tiny mini explosions. All are in the realm of normal and each woman usually has her own norm which may change depending on the nature of the stimulation causing the climax, whether she is alone or partnered, where she is in her menstrual cycle and in her stage of life. All of these may change over her lifetime as well.

The sexual response cycle itself is not as unvarying as the one on your washing machine, even with its adjustments for heavy duty and the laundry equivalent of a quickie. It’s the overall outline describing the distinct stages one can go through from sexual disinterest through peaks of ecstasy and back again to “where was I when I was so lewdly interrupted?” Masters and Johnson and other sex researchers have given proper names to the distinct stages. I have described them in another essay here (“Demystifying the Sexual Response Cycle”, September 20, 2010) as Ho Hum, Oh?, Oh Yes!, Wow, Aaah, and Oh No.

I have often heard people say “If you can’t be sure you had an orgasm then you didn’t have one” but it just isn’t that clear cut for a lot of women, and certainly not for their partners. In many cases one can tell in retrospect because of the feeling of pleasant lassitude that follows a sexual episode. But in the case of women who habitually have several orgasms in succession, the first one won’t be followed by a feeling of satiation but by a need to continue doing whatever brought them the first one.

If you have any doubt that you or your partner did not have an orgasm further stimulation may answer the question. If it is welcomed, great. If the feeling it provokes is like the offer of a second dessert after a great meal (“Oh, I’d love it but I couldn’t possibly!”) than whatever the woman experienced, she probably had an orgasm.

Every woman really needs to decide for herself what is an orgasm for her and to discover what will bring her there. Like many of life’s journeys , enjoying the ride is often far more satisfying than the goal.

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