To define a lack, you have to start by identifying what should fill it; to talk about female anorgasmia, first you have to talk about orgasm. We tend to talk around it, giving it cute nicknames: “the Big O,” “the grand finale.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has no single, universally accepted definition. It’s usually the result of sexual stimulation, but not always. Medical practitioners focus on physiological bodily reactions — blood flow to the genitals, muscle tensing and contraction — as the basis for orgasm, while psychologists look to the emotional and cognitive changes that accompany it, such as the rush of the reward chemical, dopamine, to the brain. When it comes down to it, though, the only way to tell for sure that a woman has had an orgasm is if she tells you herself.
“You’ll know it when it happens,” women who have experienced orgasm knowingly advise those who have not, the way we were advised to wait for our first periods — as if our first orgasms were events that would happen to us, experiences we would receive, like some divinely imparted gift. But, what if orgasm doesn’t come when we want it to — or at all?
Kayla, age 25, is in a long-term, committed sexual relationship she calls “considerate and supportive.” She has never climaxed — either alone or with a partner. “Mentally, I have always been very open-minded about sex,” she tells us. “I've always been curious about it and eager to try it, and I masturbated from an early age, so no repression there… I refuse to believe there is anything wrong with me solely mentally or physically — I prefer to believe it's a winning combination of both.”
Kayla’s one of the estimated 10 to 15% of women with anorgasmia, or the inability to reach orgasm after “adequate” sexual stimulation — not that we have one definition of “adequate,” either, or even a clear understanding of what causes anorgasmia. (We're not even sure of the degree of accuracy of that much-cited 10-15% figure.) “We really don’t know if there are medical causes for anorgasmia,” San-Francisco-based sex therapist Vanessa Marin explains. “I would say probably for 90 to 95% of women who are experiencing it, it’s because they have misinformation or a lack of information, sexual shame, they haven’t really tried that much, or there’s anxiety — that’s a huge one.”
While Kayla has what's known as primary anorgasmia — the inability to orgasm ever — there's another kind, secondary anorgasmia, or the inability to orgasm after having been able to before. If you can climax through masturbation, for example, but never come during sex with your partner, you’ve got the secondary kind. Such was the case for 27-year-old Nicole, who holds a Masters of Education in human sexuality. She is studying to become a clinical sex therapist and started masturbating at age “six or seven.” In other words, she’s the archetype of the liberal, open, young woman — the sort people like to call “empowered.” “I was always a pretty sexual person…the go-to person for some of my friends when it came to sex and sexuality issues,” Nicole shares. “I had known what it was like to have an orgasm from a pretty young age, but I always had to have some sort of vibrational stimulation.”
Nicole fully expected to orgasm with her partners when she became sexually active in her teens. She was shocked to find she seemingly couldn’t. “It wasn’t until my current relationship, where we actually introduced toys into our sexual relationship, that I was able to orgasm [during partnered sex],” she says. That was two years ago. Nicole had been too uncomfortable to ask previous partners to experiment with toys in bed, and admits that she’d always faked orgasms during sex with them — something she’s never felt compelled to do with her current partner.
Sarah, 28, echoes Nicole’s sexual openness. She started having “great sex” at the age of 18, but eight years later, at 26 years old, she still had never had an orgasm — not with a partner or while masturbating. She didn't shy away from masturbation; it just never led anywhere. “It became a really loaded thing for me because I felt like something was wrong with me, and I felt like my body just wasn’t capable of orgasm,” she says. “The other thing that really drove me insane is everyone was like, ‘Oh, it’s because you’re not emotionally available — it’s your fault because you’re disconnected.’ I actually feel more like myself when I’m having sex than at any other time!”
Then, one day, Sarah ran into a casual acquaintance on the subway. “We went for a drink and then he came over to my apartment. We didn’t have intercourse, but he fingered me, and I came three times,” she exclaims. “It turns out that this very specific thing makes me squirt: Someone has to press on my stomach really hard and finger me really hard, and they have to be sitting up while I’m lying down. I don’t have to be psychologically connected at all — it’s very technical!” Since this “random dude” introduced Sarah to this type of stimulation, she’s shown each of her sex partners how to do it. Masturbation still doesn’t bring Sarah to climax, but this one move (it's “like a plumber move,” she laughs) works.
Kayla, meanwhile, is still awaiting that first orgasm. “I know I like sex,” she states. “I even have my own climax, of sorts. I have no idea what it is, but it’s a peak of pleasure and it’s mine. I can get it when I’m on top, all back-and-forth with basically no up-and-down — my boyfriend doesn’t enjoy it particularly, but I’ve learned to be more selfish — and it’s a build-up that at some point I can’t take any longer, and so I squeeze some muscles and bask in the afterglow. No, it’s not an orgasm. But, for now, it’s enough.”
Sarah, Nicole, and Kayla might not identify as misinformed, or ashamed, or inexperienced — those descriptors sex therapist Marin calls out as typical of the anorgasmic — but then, these factors can manifest subtly. Sarah, for example, wasn't “inexperienced” at the time of her first orgasm(s); she just hadn't yet had the experience she needed to send her over the edge. “I have clients who say ‘I’m a feminist, I’m progressive, I’m liberal, and I can’t orgasm,’” Marin observes. With no cut-and-dry culprits to blame for their anorgasmia (a religious upbringing that discouraged sex, say, or a medical condition such as vaginismus) some women feel as though they’ve failed — that the “fault” for their “condition” lies with them.
Marin’s response: Subtract the blame from the quest for climax and add masturbation, masturbation, and more masturbation. “There’s just so much that’s wrapped up in the process of learning how to orgasm and learning how to experience pleasure in your body,” she says, “to know what you want, to ask for what you want, to experiment, to try new things.” Most women know they’re “supposed” to masturbate, but don’t know where to start, which is why Marin provides her clients with specific techniques to try at home and then discuss with her. She’s currently developing a six-to-eight-week masturbation curriculum — an orgasm boot camp, if you will, to add actionable moves to that clichéd directive of “Know yourself.”
Marin points out that another issue standing between women and orgasm is timing. “I’ll ask women, ‘How long do you give yourself to reach orgasm?’” she says, “and they’ll say ‘Oh, I don’t know, I give up after two minutes, three minutes.’ Some women can [orgasm that quickly], but the vast majority of women need a lot more time.” Marin also recommends using lube (even when you’re masturbating), especially on the clitoris, and experimenting with different positions and pressure levels. Hint: Sometimes, less is more. “The clitoris is so sensitive,” Marin points out. “A lot of women are trying to stimulate themselves but are more irritating the tissues than actually giving themselves pleasure.”
Marin’s parting message for women who haven’t yet experienced orgasm, or haven’t experienced it with the person they’d like to: Orgasms, while great, aren’t everything. For many of her clients, orgasm “becomes almost like an item to check off their to-do lists… Yes, orgasms are awesome, but they are 10 to 20 seconds of an encounter.” For her part, despite the fact that she’s never climaxed, Kayla insists that she “downright refuses to be unsatisfied with myself and with my sex life.” “I know I can get all amounts of pleasure from sex,” she says, “and so want to enjoy it as fully as I can. Enough time with the same person is allowing me to build up confidence, to ask for things, to explore.”
Nicole, meanwhile, hasn’t ruled out one day experiencing a vibrator-less orgasm, but she’s at peace with the fact that — for now at least — vibrational clitoral stimulation is what she needs to climax. Sarah says she’s only ever had one “clitoral orgasm,” but that her “G-spot” orgasms are mind-blowing, thanks. An orgasm is an orgasm, after all — and a clitoral orgasm is no less valid or enjoyable than an orgasm from penetration, and vice versa. (Every woman’s body is so different, and our understanding of those differences so incomplete, that even putting orgasms in different categories may be beside the point.)
Just because Kayla hasn't yet experienced orgasm, it doesn't mean she won’t; while that “10-15%” figure is tossed around to quantify, roughly, the share of women who are currently anorgasmic, there’s no evidence that it reflects the percentage of women who go their entire lives orgasm-free. So, while there may be no silver bullet that “solves” the Life Anorgasmic, there is a vibrating Bullet (and a Rabbit, and a Magic Wand, and many more). And, while women who’ve never experienced the Big O shouldn’t give up hope, they can be confident that a thriving sex life is wholly possible — with or without it.
The names of women who have shared their stories of anorgasmia have been changed.