Orgasm Explained: Myth vs. Truth

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Come As You Are" by Emily Nagoski. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is an orgasm exactly? Does the experience of orgasm differ from person to person?

Scientists define orgasm as the climactic release of built-up tension during a sexual experience. However, according to sex researcher Emily Nagoski, orgasms are much more complex than this definition allows for, and each individual experiences them in a unique way. 

Keep reading to learn about the most common misconceptions that frame our culture’s understanding of orgasms, explained and debunked.

Misconceptions About Orgasms

Our society perpetuates a lot of false information regarding sex. Nagoski tells us that this is no different when it comes to ideas about orgasm. In her book Come as You Are, she discusses several misconceptions about orgasm and how these beliefs depart from the truth. Without further ado, here are three myths about orgasm, explained and debunked.

Misconception #1: Orgasms Are Primarily a Genital Response

Nagoski says the first misconception about orgasms is that they’re primarily a genital response. This belief comes from the fact that orgasms are often accompanied by certain physical genital responses, such as pelvic floor contractions.

In reality, Nagoski argues, orgasms are really about what happens inside the brain, and research shows no relationship between our subjective experience of orgasm and our genital response (just like arousal). In other words, muscle contractions can happen without orgasm, and the reverse is also true.

Misconception #2: Orgasms Are Always Enjoyable

Nagoski tells us that the second misconception about orgasms is that they’re always enjoyable. This most likely stems from the depiction of orgasms as an experience of ecstasy in porn and other media. Nagoski argues, however, that the way we feel about an orgasm depends on the context, just like other sensations. Often orgasms are pleasurable, but they can also be frustrating, painful, or even not feel like much at all.

(Shortform note: While Nagoski acknowledges the role of context in our experience of orgasm, she doesn’t provide specific examples of which types of context influence bad orgasms. Research shows that some of the most common reasons for these unpleasant experiences include having sex to avoid arguing about sex, feeling obligated to orgasm, or having sex that lacks emotional connection.)

One situation in which this falsehood is especially problematic, according to Nagoski, is in the context of sexual assault. To believe that orgasms are always pleasurable is to believe that if a person has an orgasm while being sexually assaulted, then they’re enjoying the experience. On the contrary, we know from personal accounts (in addition to the science) that this isn’t the case—many victims have reported feeling disturbed and confused about experiencing orgasm during assault.

(Shortform note: Victim accounts have stressed numerous harmful consequences that arise from experiencing orgasm during sexual assault. For example, one victim was so traumatized by her experience that she made herself believe that she only enjoyed sex if it was violent. Because of this, she purposely sought out risky and violent sexual encounters, which led her to be assaulted two more times. Additionally, the trauma caused an immense amount of shame, difficulty orgasming, and dissociation during sex.)

Misconception #3: Some Orgasms Are Inherently Better Than Others

Nagoski states that the third misconception about orgasms is that some are better than others. In particular, there’s a widespread notion in both the media and the medical field that penile-vaginal orgasms are the ideal. As discussed previously, this and many other false ideas stem from our society viewing men’s experience as the standard. Nagoski clarifies that in this case, however, men’s pleasure is the default. We’re led to believe that because men usually experience orgasm through vaginal penetration, women should too. However, Nagoski notes that many women rarely, if ever, orgasm in this way.

(Shortform note: We can trace the glorification of female orgasm through vaginal penetration—despite this method of orgasm being relatively uncommon—back to Freudian psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud, considered to be the father of modern psychology, believed that orgasm through heterosexual, penile-vaginal sex was the proper way for a woman to orgasm. Anything else—including clitoral stimulation and masturbation—was considered to be immature and to make women prone to psychological disorders like psychosis.)

Nagoski says that regardless of the means through which a woman experiences orgasm, there’s no right way to have one. What’s more, no single type of stimulation produces an orgasm that feels inherently better than another, whether it’s vaginal, anal, clitoral, thigh, breast, earlobe, or even mental stimulation. Each orgasm simply feels different.

(Shortform note: New research on the female orgasm may call into question Nagoski’s claim that no orgasm feels inherently better than another. Preliminary findings from a pilot study show that there may be two different types of female orgasm—clitoral and vaginal—rather than different types of stimulation triggering one single type of orgasm. If this proves to be true, further research would be required to understand how exactly they differ and whether one could produce a more pleasurable sensation than the other.)

No Orgasm Is the Same

Nagoski’s claim that no orgasm is inherently better than another ties into her fundamental idea that no orgasm is the same. As we already saw, a person’s experience of orgasm can vary depending on the individual and the type of stimulation that produces it. But it can also differ depending on the situation. 

In fact, Nagoski tells us that orgasms can happen in lots of different scenarios—far more than what the media depicts. People can experience orgasms alone or with a partner, while they’re asleep or exercising, or during any number of other regular activities.

(Shortform note: While Nagoski doesn’t go into detail about the diverse circumstances in which orgasms can occur, women have reported a variety of unexpected and even mundane scenarios that have led to orgasms. In particular, women have had orgasms while riding roller coasters, yawning, brushing their teeth, getting laser hair removal, birthing children, and even eating a particular type of mushroom.)

Orgasm Explained: Myth vs. Truth

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Emily Nagoski's "Come As You Are" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Come As You Are summary:

  • Why women should change the way they talk, think, and feel about their sexuality
  • A look at the misinformation and harmful cultural messaging surrounding sex
  • A discussion around the individual experiences of arousal, desire, and orgasm

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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