Spotting the signs
Sex research tells us you can always tell a woman’s had an orgasm because her pupils dilate, her chest flushes pink, her breathing quickens, she gets very wet (or perhaps ejaculates) and her brain activity changes.
These messages have been repeated so often in books and magazine features that whenever I do talks about sex science, and ask people how they know someone’s had an orgasm, they’ll repeat these signs back to me.
Undressing the science
Unfortunately, these signs are not especially useful as a diagnostic. Here’s why. Many studies completed on orgasm were carried out on small numbers of white, young, able bodied, heterosexual volunteers – who could have an orgasm in laboratory conditions.
This doesn’t account for those of us who’re older, not straight, of diverse genders and races. It doesn’t represent those who experience orgasm but don’t have physical ‘symptoms’. And it focuses on many physiological responses that you probably wouldn’t be able to check during an intimate moment – unless you happen to have an fMRI scanner in your home.
Critics of these studies argue that in focusing on physiological responses we ignore deeper cultural and personal understandings of orgasm. And the rich and multidimensional understandings most of us have regarding sex.
Although well intentioned, our efforts to document orgasm have led to us putting our partners under surveillance. Are you going to take her pulse or monitor her breathing after sex to be sure she’s had an orgasm? Unlikely, unless you’re into medical play.
Believing a woman’s only had a ‘real’ orgasm based on physical symptoms, or her making a lot of noise may make people believe their partner isn’t experiencing orgasm when she is. It can also convince women who are enjoying sex that they’ve not had a ‘good enough’, or ‘real’ orgasm. Or, it could make women who are struggling to experience orgasm feel even more inadequate.
Why are we so hung up on ‘real’ orgasms?
I suspect you didn’t email me for a science lecture. Most people, when asking about the signs their partner has experienced orgasm, are actually worried about something else. That they aren’t good enough in bed.
This, in turn, can lead to all kinds of anxieties related to trust, communication, jealousy and confidence. Partners may experience sexual problems if they believe their lover is faking. Or, they fear they may lose their lover if they’re not satisfying them sexually.
If someone’s faking or struggling to experience orgasm, feeling like they are under scrutiny can make them less likely to orgasm, or enjoy sex. They may also feel far less able to confide in you about what does, or doesn’t, feel good.
What can you do about this?
Some women orgasm during sex, some don’t. Not everyone experiences orgasms in the same way. Some only experience orgasm occasionally, or through masturbation on their own rather than sex with a partner. A woman who hasn’t had an orgasm isn’t faulty, ill or ‘wrong’. (This also applies to men and trans* people).
Can you try taking it in turns to tell (or show) each other what feels good? If you’re shy, writing it down may help.
The following resources are helpful because they focus on a variety of ways to connect with and enjoy your partner:
Hopefully this information will be reassuring. If you find you are still suspicious, or critical of your partner you may find counseling helpful. Or try relaxation and mindfulness techniques to reduce anxiety.