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Petra Zebroff Ph.D.

What Brings You “Over the Edge” to Orgasm With a Partner?

Real solutions for orgasm issues.

“I am almost there, I can feel it! It’s so close… and then he’ll change the motion, or I’ll get distracted. It’s so frustrating. I just can’t get over the edge!”

This experience of not quite being able to get over that final lip to orgasm is all too common. “Why is this happening to me? I can usually reach orgasm when I masturbate...” This is a question I hear regularly in my sex therapy office. Not being able to get over the edge to orgasm is not a disease. In fact, it is so common that I can say it happens to everyone on occasion.

Now, I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the importance of having an orgasm every time you have sex. The journey can be just as fulfilling as the final moments of release; but for some more than others, that frustration of not “getting there” is too common.

Some of us experience more difficulty reaching orgasm in times of physical ailments, stress, anxiety, or when using medications (such as SSRIs). But for everybody, there is one particular factor that can make orgasm more difficult. In fact, it is one of the leading causes of orgasm difficulty—being with a partner.

Most people have a relatively easy time reaching orgasm with masturbation when they focus only on their own experience. Orgasm by masturbation takes approximately four minutes for both men and women. Yet, only one-quarter of women reach orgasm during unassisted intercourse (that is, with no external clitoral stimulation) in partnered sex. 1 And men can have trouble reaching orgasm with a partner too. The DSM-V states that only 25 percent of men routinely achieve orgasm in all sexual encounters.

So, what exactly are the scenarios that make it so difficult to get over the edge with a partner?

1. Not getting the stimulation you need.

Most heterosexual women do not get the right stimulation, which usually means their clitoris does not get enough attention. Why is this? It is likely because the clitoris tends to be downgraded in priority when women are with a male partner. In fact, most women masturbate exclusively on the clitoris. It is not surprising then, that women who focus on the clitoris in partnered sex (e.g. when they have women as lovers) have a significantly higher rate of orgasm.2

For men, the organ that does it for them—their penis—usually gets the focus during heterosexual intercourse, but it still may not be the correct pressure or level of friction to orgasm.

2. Distraction.

Dedicated attention to an erotic stimulus is essential for reaching orgasm. Distracting thoughts or interruptions can reduce arousal to a point where orgasm is simply not possible.

While the presence of a partner during sexual activity can heighten arousal with emotional connection, variety, and sensations we just can’t get on our own, their presence can also add distractions. When we are with a partner, the social parts of our brain kick in. “Are they having a good time? Can the kids hear us? Am I doing this right? This is getting boring.” These are some of the common thoughts that only occur when we are with a partner. Alone, it won’t cross most of our minds to consider whether we are doing it correctly or whether the other person is enjoying themselves.

Emotions can also be distracting. Even the good ones. The more we care about our partner, the more we might get distracted from arousal. Sex is just easier when we have ourselves as a partner.

So, what is the answer?

Popular advice for those struggling to get over the edge to orgasm can include valuable information, but it often does not make the distinction between solo and partnered sex. As a result, the advice can seem contradictory. For example:

  • Focusing on the sensation vs. finding something new to focus on
  • Staying on the sensation vs. changing up the sensation
  • Breathing vs. holding the breath
  • Contracting your PC muscles vs. relaxing the PC muscle

These apparent opposites may all be good options depending on the person and situation, but it can be confusing for those starting out to make sense of the contradictions.

The answer might lie in your past.

Which “cues” has your brain linked to orgasm? In other words, what worked for you when you were first learning the joys of orgasm can be the cue to what will work for your brain today. In an excellent article on orgasm, sex researcher Jim Pfaus explains that what brings us to orgasm is learned. This usually happens early in life with masturbation habits. Arousal patterns are established with our movements, positions, hand motions, etc. that are associated with high arousal, pleasure, and orgasm. 3

The good news is that we are all wired to be adaptive—especially women. Nothing is carved in stone. What is programmed to make us orgasm can be added to and re-learned. At any point in our lives, we can enhance our erotic pathways by adding new, positive experiences that can help shape our existing cues.

Where do you put your erotic focus?

Erotic cues, especially those associated with orgasm, have become a focus of my own recent study. I asked close to 3000 people what brings them over the edge to orgasm and the results were startling. It was not so much the techniques they used which were surprising (and will be published next year), but how precise their answers were. The responses were strikingly concrete. People who orgasm easily tend to have a clear idea of what “brings them over the edge.” They know exactly where to put their attentional focus.

Erotic cues are personal and idiosyncratic to every person. Each person develops a plethora of individual erotic cues that work for them, informing their own personal erotic pathways in the brain. So, what does your brain recognizes as “sexual”? Erotic cues can take the form of a position, a movement, the sight of a particular body part, performing an act, playing a role, visualizing a fantasy, or just a thought of anything your brain recognizes as “this is hot!” It is not surprising that people who orgasm easily, tend to have such a clear idea of what their erotic cue(s) are.

The way to orgasm with a partner, therefore, is to have some understanding of your own erotic cues and, better yet, let your partner in on this delicious piece of information. If you find a cue that works for you in masturbation, it may be possible to bring that cue or tailor it for a partnered situation. Just knowing your erotic cues can enhance communication and increase sexual confidence, so you can be the best lovers you can be for each other and yourself. Not to mention how much fun it is going to be as you explore the options of what your cues are with your partner.

Orgasm difficulty with a partner can simply be a sign that you need to know more about your own erotic cues and then let your partner in on the secret. And once you share that secret, you may find you and your partner going over the edge again and again and again.

Do you, or your partner, know what brings you over the edge to orgasm?

Take the quiz to find out your erotic cues with your erotic pathway.

References

1. Shirazi, T., Renfro, K. J., Lloyd, E., & Wallen, K. (2018). Women’s experience of orgasm during intercourse: Question semantics affect women’s reports and men’s estimates of orgasm occurrence. Archives of sexual behavior, 47(3), 605-613.

2. Garcia, J. R., Lloyd, E. A., Wallen, K., & Fisher, H. E. (2014). Variation in orgasm occurrence by sexual orientation in a sample of US singles. The journal of sexual medicine, 11(11), 2645-2652.

3. James G. Pfaus, Gonzalo R. Quintana, Conall Mac Cionnaith & Mayte Parada (2016) The whole versus the sum of some of the parts: toward resolving the apparent controversy of clitoral versus vaginal orgasms, Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, 6:1, 32578

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About the Author

Petra Zebroff, Ph.D., has been a sex therapist and educator for 20 years. She currently lives in Vancouver, BC, where she writes and works as a couple's counselor and sex therapist in private practice.