In one of my favourite scenes in the Netflix series Sex Education, Aimee goes to Otis for advice because her new boyfriend has what she thinks is a weird kink. “Steve says his ‘thing’ is girls properly enjoying sex,” she says with an eye-roll. After Otis asks her a few questions, Aimee shares that she’s never had an orgasm and she’s never masturbated. Otis, as Aimee puts it, “prescribes a wank.” Cue a montage of Aimee masturbating in various positions all around her bedroom. The next time she’s with her boyfriend, she has very specific instructions: “I want you to rub my clit with your left thumb. Start slow, but get faster, but not too fast. When I start to shake, blow on my ear and get ready for fireworks.”
While it might be a touch exaggerated, there’s a lot of truth in this scene. Never or infrequently orgasming is common, particularly for women, about 10-15% of whom have difficulty orgasming (though it can happen with people of any gender). And if you’ve never had an orgasm — or if you orgasm infrequently — and you want to, the best way to have one is to spend some quality time masturbating.
Let me stress that part again: if you've never (or rarely) orgasmed and you want to, you should start with masturbation. Because you don't have to orgasm. Sex or masturbation can still be plenty of fun without an orgasm. Part of the Mayo Clinic's definition of anorgasmia (the medical term for consistent difficulty reaching orgasm) is that the lack of orgasm distresses you or interferes with your relationship. If you're not orgasming and you're totally fine with that, then don't feel like you need to have an orgasm. While pressure to orgasm, body image, and shame around sex can contribute to anorgasmia, there are a variety of other possible causes, including medications such as SSRIs, illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, and gynecological surgeries.
Okay: if you do want to learn how to orgasm, the first step is to stop focusing on trying to have an orgasm. Though this might seem contradictory at first, taking away the pressure to perform can be a big help. “Commit to practicing some mindful masturbation on your own, and just figuring it out,” Emily Morse, Doctor of Human Sexuality and host of the Sirius XM radio show and podcast Sex With Emily, tells Refinery29. Instead of trying to have an orgasm immediately, commit to getting to know your body over a period of several months.
“Common reasons why people, particularly women, have difficulty orgasming is because we’re in our head, and we’re focused on orgasming,” Dr. Morse says. “If you go in with the goal of ‘I’m just going to try to see where I can find pleasure in my body,’ knowing that you, on your own, can figure it out can be empowering. You’re much likely to get there once you just say, ‘I’m exploring.’”
While you’re doing this exploring, commit to experimentation. “Make sure you’re warmed up, you’re turned on, you’re exploring other erogenous zones, and you’re really taking the time,” Dr. Morse says. Spend some time in front of a full-body mirror while masturbating; try different breathing patterns; try using sex toys; try different positions. Touch different parts of your body, and use different types of touch. If you have a clitoris, Sex With Emily has an episode called “The Clit Notes” that covers all the different ways you can touch your clit. Dr. Morse also suggests spending some time "seducing yourself" — clean your room, light some candles, put on some music, try out different fantasies.
“Our brain is the largest sex organ, no matter who you are,” Dr. Morse explains. “My advice would be to do the exploring, cultivate a really rich fantasy life, and figure out what your erotic themes are. What really turns you on? What are your fantasies? What do you need to feel the most pleasure? And then just experiment with that. Let go of what everyone else is doing, and do your own work to find out how you’re going to get there.”
After you’re comfortable orgasming on your own, then you can take what you’ve learned and tell your partner what you like. "It’s called self-love for a reason, right?” Dr. Morse asks. “No one else is responsible for our orgasms and our pleasure but us. And then once we learn that, we can communicate that to anyone else who’s interested in coming along for the ride.”