I get asked about orgasms at least once a week—that's just life as a sex researcher for you. Considering how fleeting the actual experience really is—most times, an orgasm lasts just 10 to 20 seconds—I've always found it interesting how much achieving one matters to people. After all, orgasms are just one way that people judge whether a sexual experience was satisfying. But just because orgasms are fleeting doesn't mean there isn't a lot for researchers like me to dig into. Countless studies have been done on orgasms—like who is having the most of them, the weird things that happen after we have them, and yes, how to increase the odds that you have many, many more, if that's what you're after. Here are a few of the most significant—and surprising—things I wish I could explain to everyone who asks.
(Side note: Although most women are females and most men are males, we understand that gender and sex don't always line up. That said, we use the terms "women" and "men" in this article because they best reflect the participants in the studies, who are usually just described as such—meaning, there's no indication how many were cisgender, transgender, etc.)
I Orgasms aren't just about sex.
Several years ago, a colleague and I published research on exercise-induced orgasm (also known as "coregasm"). We had no idea we were opening ourselves to hundreds of emails from people around the world who, like our study participants, had experienced orgasms while doing crunches, leg lifts, pull-ups, and other exercises that tax the core abdominal muscles. Through subsequent studies, we found that as many as 10 percent of American women and men experience coregasms—though fewer people experience them often. (They're usually rare events.) I also found that, through learning to exercise in certain ways (check out my book The Coregasm Workout if you're curious), most women in our study were able to learn to enhance sexual arousal while exercising.
Women are having their first orgasms earlier than ever.
In a national study of more than 1300 Swedish women age 18 to 74, researchers found that women in the 18 to 34 range at the time of the survey reported having their first orgasm, on average, at the age of 16. Meanwhile, the oldest women in the study were 19 on average. Why such a large difference? Partly because nearly half of younger women now have their first orgasms during masturbation, rather than waiting until they're sexually active with a partner.
Men are often more focused on the clock than their partners.
I was thrilled when, in 2013, a study was published on Belgian men who ejaculate prematurely. The reason I was thrilled was because the study found that the men were not only more distressed about having PE than their partners were, but the they also overestimated their partners' distress. At the time, I had been teaching a human sexuality class at Indiana University for about a decade and—countless times—had found myself reassuring men that PE was not the dealbreaker they thought it was. In fact, I'd heard from many girlfriends, boyfriends, and spouses of men that they were rarely bothered by it—if anything, their sex lives were more often impacted by a guy shutting down or ruminating after coming quickly, rather than moving on and continuing to enjoy sex in any number of ways. So if you're one of the many guys who comes faster than he'd like (estimates range from 20-30 percent of men at any given time), try to remember that sex is about more than when you come. Also, there are many roads to achieving orgasm that have nothing to do with an erection—oral sex, hand and finger stimulation, sex toy play, and so on.
Gender affirming surgeries have come a long way.
As the number of these procedures has increased in recent years, so has attention to long-term outcomes of genital surgeries for trans people. A recent study by researchers at Karolinska University in Sweden followed trans women up to five years post-surgery and found that the vast majority of them were orgasmic, satisfied with the surgery, and experienced little to no pain. Given the challenges in creating a clitoris from genital tissue (often the glans penis), research continues—for example, a recent study examined whether the size or location of the newly developed clitoris mattered. In this preliminary study, clitoral size didn't seem to matter as much as proximity to the vagina when it came to improving sexual function.
Clitoral stimulation is queen.
Although many women orgasm from vaginal penetration alone, during sex, or sex toy play with partners, studies in Sweden as well as here in the United States have found that women more often stimulate just their clitoris during solo time. If you have sex with women, you might take a cue and ask yourself whether you include clitoral stimulation in your sex play together and, if not, why not? Some women avoid clitoral stimulation with a partner if that person is too rough with their clitoris—so ask her to show you what she likes, or start out more gently. You might also check out the touch-interactive site OMGYes where you can practice techniques on-screen. (Full disclosure: I've conducted research with their team).
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Sexual orientation can affect how you orgasm.
In a recent US probability survey, researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin and Duke University School of Medicine found no significant differences in the ability to achieve orgasm among heterosexual, gay, or bisexual men. But they did find slightly less pleasure associated with orgasm for gay and bi guys when compared to straight women. While there were no differences in reported levels of pleasure between women of different sexual orientations, lesbian women did have higher scores on a measure of orgasm ability compared to straight women—but not more so than bisexual women. Achieving orgasm, of course, is about more than your identity—the kinds of sex a person has, how aroused they feel, and how much they desire the sex they're having all contribute in much more significant ways to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
The mind matters.
Sex educators often say that the mind is a person's "biggest sex organ"—and for good reason. Study after study shows that everything from mindfulness to greater education (including sex ed) to our everyday thoughts about our bodies and fears of failure and general sexiness can contribute to our orgasmic potential. Sex is part of a bigger whole that's influenced by stress, relaxation, sleep, diet, exercise, and being able to stay focused in the present on sights, sounds, scents, and tastes. Stay open to that, and you'll likely open yourself to greater pleasures—and more orgasms. Debby Herbenick, PhD, is the director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute. She is also the author of several books, including The Coregasm Workout and Great in Bed.
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Update 06/09/17: a previous version of this story used the words "cisgendered" and "transgendered"; the terms have since been corrected.