How To Tell If You’re Having An Orgasm — Because It’s Not Always Obvious

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
Like falling in love or meeting your soulmate, people say you'll "just know" when you're having an orgasm. That's a lovely sentiment, and might be true for some people, but sometimes you might actually not know. Orgasms can be explosive, subtle, inaudible, or somewhere in between. If you aren't sure what you're "supposed to be feeling" during an orgasm, that's okay, because it can be confusing.
Unfortunately, many people feel embarrassed and defeated when they question whether or not they've had an orgasm, says Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist who specializes in teaching women how to orgasm. "There's this idea that if you're questioning it, it's not real," she says. The truth is that orgasms can feel very different from person to person, and one person can "experience wildly different orgasms," Marin says. Some may even experience an orgasm the first time they have sex.
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To that same point, many women will go their whole lives and never have an orgasm, for a variety of reasons. But you can still have a fulfilling, pleasurable sex life without orgasms, because they don't have to be the finish line of every sexual experience. If you're not sure if you're having orgasms, or just want to explore your own orgasm potential, here are some answers that might help you get there:

What exactly is an orgasm?

Orgasms seem mystical, but you can just think of them as a "peak sexual experience," Marin says. To get even more basic, orgasms are simply a "reflex in the body," or side effect of great pleasure, says Shannon Chavez, PsyD, a clinical sex therapist. That means it's helpful to not get hung up on whether or not you're going to have an orgasm, and instead really savor and enjoy all the other pleasurable aspects of sex, she says. "If you are focused on arousal, you can explore different sensations and practice stimulating and building up tension and learning to release that tension in the body," she says. And then if you are aroused enough, that could lead to an orgasm, she says.

What does an orgasm feel like?

In short, an orgasm feels like an "intense buildup of tension in the body, followed by a release of energy that results in sensations in different parts of the body — especially the part being stimulated," Dr. Chavez says. A lot of people think they're supposed to feel a sense of relief or release, but that doesn't always happen, Marin says.
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Technically, when you have an orgasm, there's a "surge of chemicals in the brain responsible for feelings of euphoria and bonding," Dr. Chavez says. Those chemicals should make you feel happy and good, she says. One of the best ways to describe an orgasm is just "pleasure" itself, Marin says. "Do you feel better than you were feeling previously?" she says. Then you probably just had an orgasm, she says.

What happens to your body when you orgasm?

Lots of things that are often unexpected. "A big physiological sign to look for is involuntary muscle contraction," Marin says. If it feels like your vaginal walls, thighs, butt, leg muscles, or abs are contracting or twitching, that's usually a pretty clear sign that you're orgasming, she says. Some people get very sensitive after an orgasm, and experience "throbbing, twitching, fluttering, and tickling," Dr. Chavez says. You might also notice a change in your breathing pattern or heart rate, Dr. Chavez says. Some people also get a reddish flush across their neck and chest, Marin says. Again, everyone is different, so you might not notice these exact things happen to you, but generally these are the clues to look out for.

Why can't I orgasm?

An estimated 10 to 15% of cis women can't orgasm, a condition that is sometimes referred to as being "anorgasmic" or "pre-orgasmic." There's also a group who can reach the "big O," but rarely do.
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There are multiple potential explanations for anorgasmia, including vaginismus, hormonal birth control, aging, and psychological factors. Sometimes, it's a combination of things. For example, Lux Alptraum previously told Refinery29 she noticed a period of being unable to orgasm after taking birth control and antidepressants.
If you have anorgasmia, it's best to focus on pleasure rather than actual orgasm during sexual activity. “What I would tell someone who is anorgasmic and wants to have enjoyable sex is the same thing I’d say to someone who is orgasmic: Think about how you like to be touched, think about what feels good, think about what you want out of sex," explained Alptraum, author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And The Truths They Reveal. "Figure out what you like and then do that, and don’t think of an objective beyond feeling pleasure.”

How do you have an orgasm?

First step: Relax. Many people focus too hard on having an orgasm and end up losing all arousal, so it's important to just chill and think about being aroused instead, Dr. Chavez says. The other thing that's often misunderstood about orgasms is that they're a "learned response," she says. That means how you experience an orgasm depends on how you've conditioned your body to experience arousal and sensation, she says. "You need to know your unique genital anatomy and how to prime your body to experience arousal," she says.
Marin suggests you masturbate to figure out what works for your body. "It's normal to need some guidance in learning what your body needs," she says. (If you're not sure where to start, we have a 30-day masturbation challenge that will probably give you a few ideas.) Ultimately, "practice is the best way to experience orgasm," Dr. Chavez says. So if you put in a little effort, your time will probably come.

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