The female orgasm is fraught with myths, and perhaps the biggest one is the myth of the vaginal orgasm. The myth is not that orgasms elicited through internal stimulation exist — they do — but rather that a) penetration is a reliable route to orgasm for most women and b) if you have a vaginal orgasm, it will be the best orgasm of your life. I now know firsthand that both these ideas are false.
So, first, let's be clear: The easiest way for most women to orgasm is through clitoral stimulation. One 19,000-woman study in the Journal of Sex Research, for example, found that 90 percent of women orgasm when they receive oral and manual sex, compared to 50 percent when they just have intercourse. And sex researcher Shere Hite's landmark study published in The Hite Report found that only 1.5 percent of women masturbated only through vaginal penetration. The rest stimulated their clitorises.
Even when women have orgasms through vaginal penetration, this only happens because the clitoris is simultaneously being stimulated. Women with clitorises closer to the vaginal opening are more likely to orgasm through intercourse, likely because the orgasms actually stem from clitoral stimulation via the pubic bone or base of the penis. And even if the clitoral glans gets no stimulation, the orgasm is coming from stimulation of the internal clitoris, which wraps around the vagina.
"There's just a bunch of men, Freud included, who have misled us to believe that there is a whole grail in our vaginas, when in fact the clitoris has been the seat of female sexual pleasure all along," OB/GYN Dr. Nina Brochmann, author of The Wonder Down Under: The Insider's Guide to the Anatomy, Biology, and Reality of the Vagina, tells Bustle. "Only about one in four women regularly come from vaginal intercourse; the rest need clitoral stimulation."
I'm with the majority on that one. Until recently, I'd never had an orgasm that did not involve at least some clitoral stimulation. I enjoy intercourse and can even orgasm during it, but only if a hand or toy on my clit is helping the process along.
I knew this was perfectly normal, but part of me wondered what I was missing. I was enticed by the way porn stars and TV characters screamed while portraying orgasms through intercourse. People (mostly men) had told me how superior vaginal orgasms were. If anything, I was just curious how a vaginal orgasm compared to a clitoral one. I'd tried everything — my hands, all sorts of sex positions, the NJoy Pure Wand, the Rock Chick — but gotten nowhere. I could squirt through these techniques, but my ejaculations weren't accompanied by that feeling of intense pleasure and release.
On the fateful day that I finally achieved a vaginal orgasm, it was almost by accident. I'd put two fingers inside my vagina to massage the muscles around my bladder because it helps relieve my interstitial cystitis pain. Orgasms were the last thing on my mind. Yet I noticed that when I pressed on a particular point very up high on the left of my vagina, it felt like I was going to orgasm. I went over to the right side and figured out that worked, too. It didn't work in the middle. Go figure.
I doubted that this feeling would actually lead to anything, but I was too intrigued not to try. So, I curved my fingers in a come-hither motion and moved them in and out against the front of my upper vaginal wall, alternating between the right and the left side while fantasizing. I kept having to take breaks because my arm was getting tired from reaching up so high.
"I'd expected a vaginal orgasm to feel more intense than a clitoral one, but I experienced the exact opposite."
But my hard work paid off, and I felt that familiar buildup of sexual energy, followed by a release and a series of contractions. They were pretty similar to the contractions I feel from clitoral orgasms... except I didn't feel them in the upper part of my clitoris. Which was kind of unsatisfying. It felt like only half of my genitals were orgasming. Yet despite not feeling much sensation, my clitoris experienced the same numbness to pleasure and hypersensitivity to discomfort that it does after a clitoral orgasm. I felt a bit cheated out!
All in all, despite the exciting buildup, this was one of the weakest orgasms of my life. In fact, I'd put only two other orgasms on the same level as this one. For both of them, I'd gotten myself really close through clitoral stimulation then finished myself off by going into the vagina. Notice a theme here?
I'd expected a vaginal orgasm to feel more intense than a clitoral one, but I experienced the exact opposite. And I'm not alone in that. Many women described the same experience in The Hite Report. "Non-penetration orgasms are more intense, almost disturbing in intensity," one said. "Penetration ones are usually lighter, almost fleeting." Another commented, "Clitoral orgasms are more intense, longer; intercourse orgasms are dull, no edge, very short." Yet another said, "Clitoral orgasm is higher, more exciting, the peak of sensitivity." One even said, "Intercourse [orgasm] is weak and unsatisfying and extremely frustrating!"
Almost all the responses regarding the difference between clitoral and vaginal orgasms conveyed this sentiment. Some of the women preferred vaginal orgasms, but this was usually because they involved more emotional intimacy and provided more of a whole-body feeling. Even many of the women who preferred vaginal orgasms said clitoral orgasms were more intense.
So, how on Earth did we get this idea that vaginal orgasms were the pinnacle of female pleasure?
Answering this question requires a brief history lesson. Until the end of the 18th century, scientists believed that female genitals were the same as male ones, just turned inward, and that both partners’ orgasms were necessary for reproduction, according to Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Laqueur. So, the importance of the clitoris was stressed. Without the clitoris, "the fair sex (would] neither desire nuptial embraces, nor have pleasure in them, nor conceive by them," read a sex manual published in 1684. Since female orgasms were tasked with such an important job, they were taken seriously. In the 18th century, the princess of Austria’s physician recommended that “the vulva of Her Most Holy Majesty should be titillated before intercourse.”
The idea that women should be able to attain "vaginal orgasms" can likely be chalked up to Sigmund Freud, who believed that in order for a woman to successfully mature, she had to shift her focus from her clitoris to her vagina. As Jane Gerhard points out in Desiring Revolution: Second-wave Feminism and the Rewriting of American Sexual Thought, 1920 to 1982, this was very much tied up with the idea that women should be heterosexual and have sex lives that involved penises. In fact, Freud's colleague Helene Deutsch claimed that it was through penis-in-vagina sex that women must learn to attain vaginal pleasure.
And now, over a century later, here we are, in a world where the majority of the female orgasms in Pornhub's 50 most popular videos occur through intercourse. Where movie sex scenes disproportionately portray simultaneous orgasms during intercourse. Where people continue spreading rumors about a body part known as a the "G-spot" when it's really just the internal clitoris. Where G-spot injections and G-spot-plasties are being offered to help women orgasm through penetration. Where teen girls are writing into Scarleteen with complaints like "I can't orgasm from intercourse and it's ruining my relationship!"
"The societal standard that teaches women they must orgasm through penetration isn't really for women."
Given that most women enjoy clitoral stimulation at least as much as vaginal penetration, if not more, the societal standard that teaches women they must orgasm through penetration isn't really for women. Instead, it's for cis, heterosexual men. The myth of the vaginal orgasm is imposed on women so that they'll seek sexual pleasure through a sex act that's gratifying to most cis, heterosexual men (intercourse) rather than activities that are focused solely on women — ones that actually get them off, like oral and manual sex.
Our society has defined sex as "intercourse," a definition based on cis men's pleasure. Because this is considered the optimal, "normal" way to have sex, women are expected to orgasm through it as well. And what better way to keep women focused on attaining that goal, despite the ample pleasure they already get from the clitoris, than by teaching them the "vaginal orgasm" is superior? The belief in the vaginal orgasm's superiority is a way to persuade women to adhere to our society's patriarchal, heteronormative definition of sex.
The day after that fateful first vaginal orgasm, I decided I'd try it again. I rubbed those same spots inside the vagina and fantasized and felt myself getting close. But my clitoris was aching for attention. At first, I thought to myself, "Hold out! See if you can experience another vaginal orgasm!" Then I thought, "Why would I do that? Why would I orgasm with half my genitals when I've got the whole thing to work with?" So, I lifted up my other hand, rubbed my clit, and had the "inferior" kind of orgasm I've always enjoyed. It sure didn't feel inferior to me.