When we talk about sex, sometimes it seems like all we talk about is orgasms: clitoral orgasms, G-spot orgasms, blended orgasms, squirting orgasms… but what if you can’t orgasm? Many women have difficulty reaching orgasm, and some even find it impossible. Research indicates that around 10 to 15% of cis women are anorgasmic, meaning that they can't orgasm (some people prefer the term pre-orgasmic). Many more women can orgasm, but only very rarely.
There are many, many potential causes for anorgasmia, including illness, medical conditions such as vaginismus, medication such as SSRIs, hormonal birth control, aging, and psychological factors such as past trauma, guilt around sex, or stress. For some, there may be a combination of factors, and others may find no clear explanation. Lux Alptraum, author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And The Truths They Reveal, experienced a period of anorgasmia after beginning antidepressants, and then getting on the birth control pill. “It was a combination of factors that shaped my anorgasmia, and it really shaped my understanding of sex and orgasm,” she tells Refinery29.
If you’re experiencing anorgasmia — especially if it’s new — it’s a good idea to schedule a visit to a gynecologist to make sure you’re not experiencing an illness or medical condition. If you suspect medication or birth control may be a factor, you could talk to your healthcare provider about switching brands to see if that makes a difference. However, for many people, there may be no clear cause for anorgasmia.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, if you’re having trouble orgasming, you shouldn’t masturbate or have sex with the goal of orgasming. “Orgasm is something that’s most likely to happen when you’re relaxed, so if you’re dead set on ‘I’m going to make this f***ing happen,’ that’s not going to work,” Alptraum says. “People who are anorgasmic are put in this vicious cycle where you can’t orgasm, so you feel broken, so you try to orgasm, but the more you try to orgasm, the more difficult it is to achieve.”
A lot of the cultural messaging we get insists that orgasm is the most important part of sex — and that sex without orgasm is automatically bad. But this isn’t true. As Alptraum puts it, ”It’s funny to me when people act like orgasm is such a priority, because I don’t think any of us would consider a sexual experience a good sexual experience if it lasted 30 seconds and then we orgasmed. We make fun of men for who that’s the experience.”
Instead of focusing on orgasm, focus on pleasure. Alptraum says, “What I would tell someone who is anorgasmic and wants to have enjoyable sex is the same thing I’d say to someone who is orgasmic: think about how you like to be touched, think about what feels good, think about what you want out of sex. Figure out what you like and then do that, and don’t think of an objective beyond feeling pleasure.”
However, even if they’re happy with the sex they’re having, many anorgasmic people face another problem: their partners. “Oftentimes people, especially straight men, want proof that they’re good at sex, and that proof is the orgasm,” Alptraum says. “That metric is flawed, but we put so much emphasis on orgasm that it’s understandable. Men, straight men especially, are taught to think about sex where it’s about building their manhood rather than collaboratively enjoying an experience with another person.”
Whether you want to have a heart-to-heart about this with your partner probably depends on what the relationship is like. If it’s a casual hookup, you might decide to just fake it rather than try to explain that you’re focusing on pleasure over orgasm. If it’s something more long-term, though, it might be worth having a discussion. Alptraum says, “If your partner is open, you might say, What does it mean for you to give me an orgasm? Is it about proving your skill? Or is it about ensuring I’m having a good time? Because for me, the mindless pursuit of orgasm is not a good time.”