By the time Elly Belle, a 23-year-old writer in Brooklyn, first masturbated in college, she assumed she’d never had an orgasm with her past partners. But once she paid attention, she realized she was experiencing multiple short, subtle orgasms—around three or four over the course of five minutes—and that she had, in fact, experienced them before.
“I still kind of craved that gigantic dramatic orgasm that most of us have been fed by movies, TV shows, and pop culture,” she recalls. “When I started entering more queer spaces and had more open conversations about things like sex and orgasms and likes and dislikes, I realized that everyone is different. I felt like I could own that and own however I felt pleasure.”
Her partners weren’t always as open-minded, though, which led her to sometimes fake longer orgasms. “There have been a few times in the last several years or so when I've been with a partner and they kept going for making me experience that gigantic dramatic orgasm, and I had to explain later that that's not going to happen. This is the way I orgasm and trust me, you're not doing anything wrong. Mine are just smaller and come in waves.”
Intimacy ConAmore, a 40-year-old activist in Dallas, says some of her male sex partners would shame her (and themselves) for her short orgasms. “Some men would question if they had been good enough since I didn’t have an orgasm,” she says. “So I would tell them that I did and that it happened more than once but that my body is just usually far more subtle and quiet than other women and unlike what you see in pornos.”
This phenomenon is sometimes described as “mini orgasmic,” a term coined by sex educator Ginny Brown in an Everyday Feminism article. Brown cites Masters and Johnson’s Human Sexual Response, which documents three female arousal patterns, one of which looks like lots of mini peaks in pleasure rather than one steep one.
There’s little explanation of this pattern in Human Sexual Response, but Markie Twist, a professor and sex therapy program coordinator at University of Wisconsin-Stout, believes they could have been referring to mini orgasms when discussing status orgasmus: “This physiologic state of stress is created either by a series of rapidly recurrent orgasmic experiences between which no recordable plateau-phase intervals can be demonstrated, or by a single, long-continued orgasmic episode.” Their research suggested that this is not one long orgasm but many orgasms in rapid succession.
“Since this research—50 years ago now—cis women continue to share that some have mini orgasms,” Twist says. “Women have wide variety in their abilities, ways, kinds, and quality of orgasm, and this means this pattern is possible and so are many others.” For unknown reasons, this pattern appears to be more common in women with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities, Twist adds. She believes many women who think they’ve never had an orgasm are actually mini-orgasmic.
But due to a lack of research on this phenomenon, some experts are more skeptical. “Mini orgasmic” isn’t a term recognized by scientists, says Nicole Prause, neuroscientist and founder of the sex research center Liberos. Prause believes Masters' and Johnson’s data show peaks in arousal that stop short of orgasm. “We have a few data examples now of people—especially women—get into a brain state associated with reduced cognitive control that appears to be necessary prior to orgasm, then drop back to a ‘trying hard’ engaged state increasing sexual arousal,” she says. “The pushes are not associated with any contractions defined physiologically as climax.”
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Justin Lehmiller, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want, agrees that the pattern Masters and Johnson documented is “prolonged plateau phase arousal that never quite makes it into orgasm territory,” but he does believe that some women experience mini orgasms. “I don’t question women who describe their orgasmic experiences this way because we know that human sexual response, including orgasm, can be experienced in different ways for different people,” he says. “But in terms of knowing whether this is a common phenomenon or what the physiology behind this is, we’d really need scientific research that focuses specifically on it.”
While experts might debate whether these phenomena count as orgasms, women who have experienced both mini orgasms and more typical ones describe them as similar. For one 37-year-old consultant in London, who prefers not to use her name because publicly discussing sex could put her job at risk, larger orgasms consist of a series of vaginal contractions, while mini orgasms are a single contraction. “I do get a spasm of internal muscles and a quick flood of extra wetness, and it makes me catch my breath or groan,” she says. “Pretty much a speeded-up, scaled-down version of the absolute climax that is the conventional view of orgasm.”
Movies, TV shows, and porn often depict female orgasms as loud and dramatic, which can lead mini orgasmic women to feel like they’re missing out. But Belle has come to like being mini-orgasmic. “When I had just had enough sexual experiences, whether with myself or others, I realized, 'Oh, this is how things work for me and that's okay,'” she says. “Especially when I began to have really good sexual experiences, like with women in college, I realized it was about my pleasure and I shouldn't judge or try to change the way I experience or express that for someone else.”
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