The first time I masturbated, there was not doubt that I'd had an orgasm. Since I'd held a mirror up to my vulva, I could see the series of rhythmic contractions that have been scientifically shown to accompany orgasm. My vagina opened and closed several times, and then I didn't want to touch it anymore. That was it.
But when I began having penis-in-vagina-intercourse, things got less clear. I didn't feel like I'd orgasmed, but I had squirted, which my partner declared was an orgasm. I decided that I must be experiencing "vaginal orgasms" and they must just feel really different from clitoral ones. Years later, I'd learn that you can squirt without orgasming, so my perception that I hadn't orgasmed was correct. After all, I didn't have those contractions.
"Orgasm is well-defined by a strongly stereotyped series of contractions that look the same in men and women," sex researcher Nicole Prause, PhD, founder of Liberos, tells Bustle. "Without the contractions, I would not call it an orgasm."
Liz Klinger, CEO of Lioness, a smart vibrator that measures women's vaginal movements, also believes contractions are the biggest tell-tale sign of orgasm. "If someone asks us to look at their app and identify [the orgasm] for them, we usually look out for a tension then a release with highly regular pelvic floor contractions, the latter being one of the classic physiological characteristics of orgasm," she tells Bustle. "Secondarily, a lot of people also tend to become more still near orgasm (which can be seen in Lioness app visualizations that contain motion), but that’s not a guarantee there and people vary quite a bit."
Do You Really "Just Know" When You've Had One?
I'm not the only person who's been confused about whether or not they'd orgasmed. "When I first started having sex, I definitely thought I was having orgasms, and then when I first had my real one, I was like, 'OK, yeah, I definitely wasn't having orgasms before now,'" says Ashley, 24. "I was probably sort of basing it on the guy's pace. Like, when he was going faster and it felt good, I was assuming that I was having an orgasm."
University of Florida psychology professor Laurie Mintz, author of Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It, says she's also witnessed women getting confused. "I’ve heard women say that they thought they were having orgasms — mostly from intercourse — because it feels really exciting and nice, only to discover that they haven’t been having orgasms — generally after figuring out what an orgasm actually felt like by using a clitoral vibrator," she tells Bustle.
It Can Happen The Other Way Around, Too
On the flip side, there are also people who thought they hadn't had orgasms when they had. "When I had my first orgasm, it was intense and pleasurable, but because it wasn't the Cynthia Nixon-style performance I had assumed it would be based on the days of watching Sex and the City, I was always wondering if I was actually orgasming," Melissa, 25, tells Bustle. "My partners would often question if I actually orgasmed or not due to having more breath-like sound effects than deep, animal-like moans, despite all the anatomical tell-tale signs of an orgasm (perspiration on upper shoulders, internal contractions, etc.)."
Mintz has also seen this with her clients. "I have one client... who thought she wasn’t having orgasms and then, via going to Betty Dodson for a private session, discovered that she had been having them, but they were not as earth-shattering as she expected. She was also holding her breath and holding her pelvis still, which Betty helped her stop doing, and the intensity increased," she says.
The issue's not specific to those with vulvas either. "Most commonly, [those with penises] conflate ejaculation with orgasm, so if they fail to squirt for whatever reason (lots of possible reasons why), they think they haven’t had an orgasm, even if they absolutely did," Barbara Chubak, MD, Assistant Professor of Urology at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, tells Bustle.
Could You Be Wrong About Whether You've Had One?
Prause conducted a study where women and men masturbated with a device recording the anal contractions typical of orgasm — and she found something strange: When men said they'd orgasmed, they always demonstrated the characteristic contractions. But when women did, they only had those contractions about half the time. She thinks this means that many women believe they've orgasmed when they haven't.
"We would still very much like to know what experience they are having when they think they are having an orgasm, and I do not want to devalue their pleasure experience," she says. "However, I think accuracy is important, because it can put pressure on women to respond sexually in ways that actually are not at all reasonable physically." For example, identifying "orgasms" where there are none could perpetuate the myth that most vulva-owners reliably orgasm from intercourse and have multiple orgasms.
The other possibility is that female orgasms aren't always accompanied by the typical contractions. Lioness claims to have identified three orgasm types: ocean wave ("the pelvic floor contracts and releases multiple times — the number of times can vary — first quickly, and then slows down until rest"), avalanche ("also a series of pelvic floor movements, but unlike the ocean wave, it starts from a high point and gradually relaxes"), and volcano ("one extended pelvic floor movement").
But Prause would only identify one of these — ocean wave — as an orgasm. "The idea that there are different types of physical climax is a fine hypothesis, but it doesn't really have any support," she says. "It's not been directly tested. For example, why would none of these occur in men?"
However, Klinger thinks it's important not to invalidate women's experiences of their bodies, so she trusts that when women report orgasming, they really have. Also, I'm an "avalanche" type according to the Lioness team's interpretation of my app's data, and I've definitely had an orgasm. Or have I?! Can you really know??
How Do You Know If You've Orgasmed, Then?
If you're not sure if you're orgasming, you can check whether your vagina is contracting. You could do it my way and look with a hand mirror or put a finger inside to feel the contractions. To be extra sure, you could test it by trying to suppress your contractions, says Prause. "They are a reflex, so it should be like trying to stop a sneeze once it starts: damn near impossible." Another sign you've had an orgasm is that your clitoris gets hypersensitive afterward, to the point that it's uncomfortable to touch, but not everyone experiences this.
If you want to experience an orgasm for the first time, the most surefire way is probably with a vibrator (like one of these super-powerful ones). Put a Satisfyer Pro 2 or Womanizer Deluxe over your clit, turn it to the highest setting, and just leave it pressed there for a few minutes, and it's very difficult not to orgasm, at least in my experience.
Why Are We So Confused?
The reason so many women are confused about whether they've orgasmed is that we're taught so little accurate information about female orgasms and so many myths. "[Our culture] sets women up to expect that they will orgasm during intercourse — resulting in women thinking they have and learning they haven’t when they use a vibrator as per above, as well as women thinking every orgasm should be like fireworks or a major earthquake when in reality, some are and some aren’t," says Mintz. The idea that there are "clitoral orgasms" and "vaginal orgasms" can also throw people off; I'm a testament to that. So can the myth that ejaculation, male or female, always equals orgasm.
So, hopefully, you're now a bit clearer about what an orgasm is. But if you're still not sure, don't sweat it. There's no need to get caught up in figuring out if what you're experiencing is an orgasm or not. As long as you're enjoying it, that's what's important.