The way the average person achieves orgasm probably seems intuitively obvious: genital stimulation, of course. That’s not always the whole story, though. It turns out that genital touch isn’t always needed in order to climax. Orgasms can result from a wide range of activities—and those activities don’t necessarily have to be sexual in nature. According to a new study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, there are seemingly endless ways people can potentially reach orgasm.
The study involved a analysis of responses to an email on the website postsecret.com, in which the author described having an orgasm while exercising. A total of nine hundred and nineteen people replied, most of whom described various ways they had also reached orgasm without any sexual stimulation.
A large number of respondents (23.7 percent) said they had also experienced exercise-induced orgasms. Among the many exercises linked to orgasm were “horseback riding, biking, [and] ‘sitting and jumping on a Pilates ball.’” While these exercises likely involved some genital friction or pressure, not all of them did—some people also mentioned things like core abdominal exercises, roller skating, swimming, and weight lifting.
Several respondents (10 percent) described orgasms that occurred while riding in a vehicle, from cars to buses to planes to rollercoasters. Often, the orgasm resulted from a particularly bumpy ride. In the words of one participant: “I kept my old Ford pickup for two years pretending to try and get the suspension fixed, but it was too enjoyable from the vibrations when I wore too tight jeans.”
About seven percent described orgasms resulting from other bodily functions, especially urination and defecation. For example, as one participant said: “When I have really bad gas pains and have to poop I sometimes have an orgasm and they are strong. One time it happened in a meeting at work with several others and I had to look down and grip the arms of the chair I was in. I was throbbing so hard.”
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Less commonly, people described orgasms resulting from stimulation of non-genital body parts, like their feet, mouth, and ears. Orgasms from foot stimulation seemed to be more common than the others, though. While they often resulted from foot massages, others reported a range of experiences: "I once got one from sticking my feet out the window of a moving car. The wind tickled them and I had a weird orgasm that started in my feet.”
Still others reported having orgasms while breastfeeding, using drugs (especially marijuana, ecstasy, and LSD), reading, listening to music, giving birth, scratching an itch, and sleeping. Perhaps most fascinating to me—as someone who studies sex for a living—were the people who reported orgasms from eating. One person said they orgasm every time they eat a “perfectly ripe cherry tomato,” and another said they orgasmed when they ate tuna—something about the texture of tuna in their mouth apparently really does it for them.
I was also fascinated by the people who reported orgasms while experiencing a lot of pain, such as while getting a tattoo or body piercing, or even while being in severe pain from a kidney stone or dental procedure. In the words of one person: “The most intense, surprisingly unexpected one was when I got a tattoo on my foot. The pain was awful and when it was done the tattoo artist started rubbing the gel on my foot. Something about the juxtaposition of the intense pain immediately followed by the intense pleasure was too much. I’m not sure if he knew what was happening, but he rubbed my foot until I was done.”
This research is limited in that we don’t know how often people experience these types of orgasms or how common they are in the general population. Likewise, we don’t necessarily know what the driving factor is in many of these cases. For example, some involved multiple things, such as listening to music while driving in a car, which makes it unclear whether it was the music, the ride, or some combination of both that triggered the orgasm. Also, some described these orgasms as occurring in the presence of others, while others were alone, so we don’t know how much other people matter in all of this, either.
There’s also the fact that we’re dealing with self-reported data. In the absence of physiological or neurological data, we don’t know whether these orgasms are physically the same as orgasms resulting from genital stimulation. (Clearly, we need more orgasm research.)
Limitations aside, the results of this study suggest that orgasms don’t seem to be an experience limited to sex or stimulation of the genitals. Instead, they appear to be a multisensory experience that can potentially arise from many different kinds of stimulation. If true, this means we’ve probably only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding when, how, and why people might have orgasms.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or Instagram @JustinJLehmiller.