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Most women don't climax from penetration alone — and 4 other important facts about female orgasms

Female orgasm represented by a silhouette of two hands and women's underwear on a red background.
Experts say that female orgasms are often misunderstood. (Getty)

There are a lot of questions surrounding the female orgasm, and even people with a vagina may not fully understand what goes into their ability to climax. Unfortunately, plenty of myths have circulated around the female orgasm, making it even harder for women and their partners to understand how and when it happens.

“With the male orgasm, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on — and there’s something to see afterward,” Dr. Lauren Streicher, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and creator of the podcast Dr. Streicher’s Inside Information, tells Yahoo Life. “But the female orgasm is far more mysterious,” which “lends itself to all sorts of myths.”

Americans live in a male-centric society, Streicher says, and men may have misconceptions about the female orgasm. There’s also this to consider: “The female orgasm has been understudied and has been compared to the male orgasm for many years,” sex therapist Debra Laino tells Yahoo Life.

There are a lot of reasons why the female orgasm is misunderstood. Still, it’s important to understand some of the basics. Whether you have a vagina or just are curious about how to please someone with one, here’s what you need to know about the female orgasm.

Not everyone has an orgasm from penetrative sex

In fact, “most vaginas don’t orgasm from penetration alone,” sex therapist Jess O’Reilly, creator of the Sex with Dr. Jess podcast, tells Yahoo Life. She points to a 2017 study of 1,055 adult women in the U.S. that found only 18.4% of subjects could reach orgasm from intercourse alone. Compare that to nearly 37% of women who reported they could reach orgasm during intercourse if clitoral stimulation was involved. An additional 36% said that, even when clitoral stimulation wasn't needed, they had better orgasms when their clitoris was stimulated during intercourse.

“The majority of women need to have physical clitoral stimulation to orgasm — and that doesn’t happen during penetrative sex unless their partner is stimulating the clitoris,” Streicher says. (The clitoris, in case you’re not familiar with it, is a female sex organ found near the top of the opening of the vagina, per the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.)

When women have a longer distance between their clitoris and vaginal opening, they're less likely to orgasm during penetrative sex than those who have a shorter distance, Streicher says. “It’s really about anatomy,” she adds.

But some women never orgasm from penetrative sex. “This can be for a variety of reasons, such as lack of body awareness, fear, anxiety, trauma and stress," Laino says.

Women can still enjoy sex without having an orgasm

Orgasm is often presented as the peak experience of a sexual encounter in movies and porn, “but it’s not the only pleasurable part of sex,” O'Reilly says. Laino agrees. “Many women love the heightened arousal from sex and can still have a wonderful sexual experience without having an orgasm,” she says.

In fact, Streicher points out that tantric sex is built on the idea that orgasm isn’t the end goal. "In tantric sex, the journey is as pleasurable as the orgasm,” she says. “The idea that if you don’t have an orgasm, there is not pleasure is a male-centric thing.”

“Many people report that sex is exciting, sensual, fulfilling and hot — even when they don’t have an orgasm,” O’Reilly continues. “This may not be your experience, but each person gets to decide what works for them.”

It usually takes women longer to orgasm than men

It’s difficult to find precise numbers on this, but research suggests that it takes men an average of five to seven minutes to orgasm and ejaculate. For women, it takes an average of 14 minutes to orgasm during partnered sex — if they orgasm at all, according to the International Society for Sexual Medicine (ISSM).

“This difference is more pronounced when we’re having sex with a partner, as opposed to doing it on our own,” O'Reilly says. “When we’re on our own, there tends to be less pressure. We may use techniques and approaches that are more likely to lead to orgasm.”

Female arousal often requires both emotional and physical foreplay, and that takes time, Laino says. Practical issues can also lead to the longer time to orgasm for women, O'Reilly says. "If you have just put the kids to bed, it can be harder to create a distinction between your role as a mother and your role as a lover,” she says.

Women can orgasm without penetrative sex

The clitoris is located outside of the vaginal opening and, because of that, women don't need to have penetrative sex to orgasm, Streicher says. In fact, females on average are “more likely to orgasm without penetration,” O'Reilly says. “Buzzing, rubbing, grinding, kissing, sucking and caressing externally are more likely to lead to orgasm,” she adds.

But the clitoris isn’t the only pathway to orgasm for females. “Some people orgasm from fantasy alone — without even touching the body or genitals,” O'Reilly continues. “Others can have breast or nipple orgasms.”

Women can have multiple orgasms

Multiple orgasms are possible for women — it’s just not clear how common they are. “Nobody really knows how common it is,” Streicher says, adding, “these things are very difficult to study.” But not all multiple female orgasms are created equal.

“Multiples can take on a variety of forms,” O'Reilly says. “Some women have a series of less intense orgasms followed by a big bang Oh. Others alternate between different types of stimulation to experience different types of sensation as they orgasm. And others only enjoy multiple orgasms when they’re deeply relaxed and free of practical responsibilities.”

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