As with the male orgasm, the female orgasm begins with intense electrical activity that sweeps across the brain, followed by stimulation of the pudendal and perineal nerves and their branches. In women, these nerves trigger waves of rapid contractions of the muscles in the pelvis and surrounding the anus, vagina, and uterus. Typically, these contractions last for 10 to 30 seconds, though they can last longer. Women can also experience extended orgasms that alternate roughly equal periods with and without contractions. (In one case recorded in the lab, these alternating periods lasted about 12-16 seconds each, and the extended orgasm lasted for an hour!)
Physiologically, the female orgasm follows the same general outline as the male orgasm, but is somewhat simpler because it lacks the overt activity of ejaculation. Psychologically, however, it is the female orgasm that is usually considered more complex.
A century and a half ago, it was widely believed that “good” women were incapable of getting pleasure from sex. A century ago, Freud described clitoral orgasms as “immature” and opined, without any evidence whatsoever, that any woman who could not have a “mature” orgasm solely through vaginal intercourse was “frigid.”
This misogynistic nonsense was accepted as fact for another half century, until the information in the Kinsey and Masters & Johnson studies began to percolate among scientists and the general public and some pioneering feminists began to crusade against Freud’s mistaken dictum. At first, many of the counter-arguments against Freud continued to accept his notion of a distinction between “clitoral” and “vaginal” orgasms, but in recent years, research has made even that distinction appear untenable with the discovery that the roots of the clitoris extend downward behind the vulva and wrap around the vaginal opening.
We now know that orgasms can occur with a wide variety and combination of stimuli. Some women can orgasm entirely from nipple stimulation. Others sometimes have an orgasm while doing yoga or deep core crunches at the gym (the so-called “coregasms” that have provoked a flurry of recent publicity). And, like men, some women can reach orgasm from fantasy alone. It does not matter what the source or combination of sources, it's still an orgasm.
Why Some Orgasms Feel Different
Part of the general confusion and debate about orgasms stems from the assumption that orgasms from the same source feel the same for different women. In reality, orgasms can vary quite a lot in how they feel, how long they last, and how intense they are, based on the duration of stimulation, how the woman feels about her partner or situation, how physically relaxed and mentally comfortable she is, how she feels about the different kinds of stimuli, and a lot of other factors. A woman will experience orgasms very differently if she is tired and tense, or rested and relaxed. And a woman who perceives vaginal sex as boring and oral sex as exciting will experience orgasms from those two sources quite differently from a woman who regards vaginal sex as normal and loving, and oral sex as dirty and wrong.
In general, anything that causes a woman to be tense or anxious will make it harder to reach orgasm and will diminish the duration and intensity of her orgasms. This is especially the case for high levels of physical tension in the muscles of the lower back and pelvis, which can make it difficult or impossible for a woman to become aroused or have an orgasm, and tension in these areas is strongly influenced by a woman’s emotions and attitudes toward sex.
This means that the likelihood of a woman having an orgasm and the nature of the orgasms she does have can both be affected a great deal by factors such as body image issues, whether the lights are on or off, and the degree of confidence she has in the bond with her partner. For example, a woman who feels, consciously or unconsciously, that her private parts are smelly or unattractive may have orgasms from oral sex that she experiences as short, “sharp,” “hard,” or otherwise unpleasant, while the same woman may thoroughly enjoy longer, more mellow, or more intense orgasms from manual stimulation (her own or her partner’s), even though both are “clitoral” orgasms. So the determining factor is not the location of the stimulus so much as it is all of the emotions and preconceptions that are bundled with it, including especially her ideas about different areas of her body and her comfort with her own or her partner’s activities.
Given all of the possible influences, it is not surprising that most women experience orgasms differently depending on the circumstances and the sexual activity involved. But there is little consistency as to the differences when women are compared to each other. This has led to passionate debates between those who argue that one kind of orgasmic stimulation is “better” than another, but ultimately the arguments are meaningless. Most women can have better orgasms in some ways than in others, but which way is best, or preferred, for any given woman is almost completely idiosyncratic, and can change dramatically as the setting and circumstances and her own attitudes and experience change.
Tantra provides an exceptionally clear example of how preferences can change with circumstances and experience. All of the women I interviewed, regardless of their previous preferences, say that as a result of their experience with Tantric sex they now have a strong preference for a true Tantric orgasm, that is, a blended orgasm or series of orgasms that follows a deliberately extended period of arousal and the stimulation of multiple erogenous areas.