Ask the Doctors: Did I Orgasm?

As a woman, how do I know I’ve orgasmed?
–Waiting for Skyrockets

This is a more common question than you think, and not just asked by clueless young boyfriends. No insult meant, there — in this culture, generally, we only get a clue about such things through experience, and it’s valuable to remember that no one is born knowing a lot about sex. Indeed, many women, young and sometimes quite a bit older, are confused as to whether they have ever had an orgasm. When you hear it described in metaphorical ways (or maybe not at all), it’s a little difficult to connect the rockets and volcanoes to your own pulsing PC muscles. Let me try to clear this up.

The two main ways you evaluate whether you’ve come (these aren’t all the elements of orgasm, but they are the ones most women address first when you talk to them about what their orgasms are like):

First, an orgasm is associated with a peak of pleasurable feeling. This is why they’re so often called “climaxes” or, indeed, “peaks.” Basically, your nerves grab the pleasurable sensations from the genitals or wherever the stimulation is centered; those neural signals zip up the spinal cord to the brain; and they ring a bell in the pleasure center, sort of like the old county fair game where you hit a sensor with a hammer, and a bell rings. (I do not mean by using this metaphor that there should be a hammer involved when you masturbate or have partner sex. Uh, no. That is not especially recommended.)

Upon feeling this peak sensation, some women feel done and sated; others will keep going and desire (and may achieve) multiple orgasms.

The second thing to tune into is the sensation in your genitals and pelvis. First, arousal (what orgasm is the culmination of) can make your genitals feel more sensitive to touch, warmer, engorged or puffy or heavy, tingly or electric — different women describe arousal’s effects in different ways. But when orgasm occurs, generally it will be accompanied by contractions of the muscles in the pelvic floor — the pubococcygeal or PC muscles. Some women also experience stomach muscle contractions and even uterine squeezing. The basic textbook definition of orgasm (which not all women match exactly) used to have these contractions timed at a certain number of seconds apart, and led us to expect three to 15 of them. Again, if your body has two or sixteen contractions, or they feel like flutters and not pulses, or they happen slower — don’t worry, just enjoy the sensation you do feel. One of the reasons this definition is problematic is that too many women didn’t match it and then began to worry if they were orgasming correctly, or perhaps something was wrong with them. there are way too many impediments to women’s sexual pleasure already, without us worrying about the timing of PC muscle contractions.

If you want to delve a bit more into the science, and diversity, of orgasm, Wikipedia has a pretty impressive section on the topic. Don’t geek out too much, though — thinking about orgasm too hard has been shown to impair one’s ability to easily have one.

Please note that neither of these sensations may be super-strong. Fireworks and other varieties of explosion may be the last thing they feel like. It is perfectly possible to have a mild orgasm you can barely feel; sometimes it’s much more like a sneeze than a volcano. In fact, if you think you might have come but aren’t sure, one way to figure it out is via masturbation (by vibrator or by hand — clitoral focus works best for most women). Some women get so distracted by the (admittedly often delightful) experience of partner sex that they cannot focus on their own sensation enough to know for sure. When you’re by yourself, giving yourself the specific pleasure that creates maximum arousal and response, it is far easier to isolate the sensation of orgasm.

Another element that commonly affects a small and possibly hard-to-interpret orgasm is how strong the PC muscles are. If they are out of shape or not very strong, the sensation of pulsing or contraction will be much milder. Stronger orgasms for women (and everybody else) can be attained with PC (also sometimes called Kegel) exercises.

To learn all about these and other elements of orgasm, check out Betty Dodson’s book Sex for One and Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller’s fun guide, I Love Female Orgasm. And don’t worry too much about coming, which makes it harder to climax — focus instead on learning what you like the best and what arouses you the most. That’s the most foolproof way to get comfortable and familiar with orgasm.


We’re dedicated to getting you the information you need about sex, pleasure and your health. If you have any questions, please email our staff experts, Dr. Carol Queen and Dr. Charlie Glickman, at education@goodvibes.com! For product-related questions, please email or call our customer service staff at customerservice@goodvibes.com.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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