When Sara Radin, a 29-year-old writer in Brooklyn, started hooking up at age 16, she had a secret: She would orgasm while she and her partners were making out, and, by the time they got to sex, she was no longer interested in continuing. She didn’t feel comfortable telling her partners she already came, so the hookups either ended when her partners noticed her lack of enthusiasm or continued without much enjoyment on her end.
While premature orgasm is a phenomenon you most often hear about as it occurs for men, a 2011 study in Sexologies documented it for women. 510 Portuguese women ages 18–45 were surveyed, and the majority had, at some point, come more quickly than they hoped to. Over three percent experienced it so often that they met the criteria for female premature orgasm: frequently or always orgasming before they intended, a lack of control over their orgasms, and distress and relationship problems as a result. In addition, the University of Chicago’s 2005 National Health and Social Life Survey found that 10 percent of women reported orgasming too quickly. Another 2016 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health reported that 3.9 percent of women ages 16–21 had struggled with premature orgasm over the past year.
Serafim Carvalho, a psychiatrist, sexologist, and the lead author of the Portuguese study, tells me that a typical case of chronic female premature orgasm involves unwanted orgasms, negative feelings associated with them, and consequent culmination of the sexual interaction. The decision to end a sexual encounter because of premature orgasm can be borne of mental dismay or physical discomfort.
“The clitoris can get super-sensitive at orgasm. If sex continues, it can be very intense—even painful,” says sexologist Carol Queen.
Elizabeth, a 33-year-old artist in the Bay Area who asked to keep her last name private, had these issues with premature orgasm. “I almost always orgasmed within two or three minutes of vaginal penetration and clitoral stimulation,” she remembers. “Afterward, I would be too overstimulated to continue. The orgasm itself was always physically satisfying, but I often felt guilty if my partner wasn't also able to finish during intercourse.”
Even though it felt physically uncomfortable for her to continue sex after she climaxed, Elizabeth’s ex-boyfriend pressured her to keep going. “He would get upset and say ‘it's only fair,’ or that I owed him,” she remembers. Yet if he came first, sex was over.
Layla*, a 35-year-old writer in London who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, experienced similar pressure to soldier on until her ex finished. Layla’s premature orgasms continue to make her feel “inadequate and insecure” and amplify her fear of rejection. She finds it painful to continue after she orgasms, but she often pushes through anyway, sometimes faking an orgasm later.
“My clitoris is so hypersensitive after an orgasm, even a micro-orgasm, it doesn't want to be touched again for a good while,” says Cyndy Etler, a 47-year-old life coach and author outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. Etler considers her quick orgasms “80 percent weaker” than ones that take longer, so it frustrates her to be unable to go for another.
While there isn’t yet any research on treatment for female premature orgasm, Carvalho uses the treatments typically recommended to men, including sex therapy and a class of antidepressants called serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that have been shown to help prevent premature ejaculation. Radin happened to go on SSRIs for other reasons a few months ago, and she hasn’t struggled with premature orgasm since. Elizabeth also has stopped orgasming prematurely since going on Effexor, part of a similar drug class called SNRIs.
Sex therapist Vanessa Marin recommends masturbation to become “more familiar with your arousal patterns and what happens in your body in the moments leading up to orgasm.” She suggests putting your vibrator on a lower setting if you use one, or, if you use your hand, going more slowly to follow your arousal process and learn the signs that you’re getting close. Elizabeth says this helped her learn to manage her orgasms.
Amy Baldwin, a somatic sex and relationship coach for the wellness app Juicebox, certified sex educator, and founder of the podcast Shameless Sex, recommends edging, or masturbating almost to the point of orgasm and stopping, for as long as you can, then showing your partner how you do it.
Queen advises figuring out if a particular sexual act or position triggers premature orgasms and avoiding them if you want to last longer. Layla recently got up the courage to tell a partner to slow down and be gentler, which helped her delay orgasm.
If you do orgasm earlier than intended, there are also ways to make continuing more pleasurable. Marin recommends holding your hand or your partner’s hand still over your clitoris, or taking a break from all stimulation until it feels comfortable again.
Marin is wary that labeling female premature orgasm as dysfunctional could give women yet another reason to feel ashamed of their sexuality. “We don't always have perfect control over our orgasmic timing,” she says. “That's just the human body, not a dysfunction.”
Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of Tell Me What You Want, says premature orgasm should be defined not by “a specific number of minutes or seconds” but by its emotional impact. “The key question is whether it’s distressing to the individual,” he says. “When people are experiencing premature orgasm and it’s distressing to them and interfering with their sexual and/or relationship satisfaction, then it becomes clinically significant and it’s an issue worthy of attention.”
That premature orgasms are not typically deemed a dysfunction in women, while they often are in men, raises questions about how sexual behavior comes to be medicalized. The difference in how male and female premature orgasm are treated may stem from the cultural idea that sex is over once a man finishes, says Queen. “It's connected to the ‘sex is when a man has an erection’ thing,” she explains. “Frankly, I don't think all men who orgasm quickly necessarily have a medical condition. We are quick to make it a problem for men, and not so much women, because of heteronormative and reproductively focused definitions of sex.”
Distress over quick orgasms may call for an adjustment in one’s sexual expectations, says Queen. For example, it’s not necessary to aim for simultaneous orgasms, and after someone orgasms, they can continue to please their partners with their hands or mouth. One study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women’s biggest complaint about male partners who prematurely ejaculated was not their lack of endurance, but their lack of attention to the women’s needs after their partners came.
It’s also important for people who prematurely orgasm not to judge their sexual experiences based on their partners’ feelings about it, says Baldwin. One client of hers was insecure about her quick orgasms only because they made her partner feel left out. “The biggest question for both women and men is, if it is premature, for whom is it premature?” she says. “The person orgasming, their partner/s, or society?”
Queen recommends accepting that you might come more quickly than you want, and it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. “Sex could be better and more satisfying for most people, probably,” she says, “so anything that could give us a better experience is worth looking at—not as a problem, but as an opportunity to shed assumptions and explore differently.”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.