For the month of September, Bustle's Sex TBH package is talking about sex, honestly. We’re delving into how women approach the things they’re taught to be shy or embarrassed about in the bedroom — and, in doing so, we're liberating people to live their best (sex) lives. Let’s do it.
Even as our society has begun lifting the veil on vaginas, there's one major sex myth that just won't die: that all people who have them are multi-orgasmic. Many people still seem to believe that while penises have a refractory period, vaginas can experience one orgasm after the other, no problem. So, not only are people with vaginas expected to orgasm through vaginal penetration; they're expected to do it again and again. And that leads to frustrating double-standards.
A Reddit thread with more than 750 upvotes calls out the tendency to assume all people with vaginas have multiple orgasms. "We are erasing the experiences of the women who can't have multiple orgasms at all or consistently (and the experiences of their partners)," the post pointed out. Redditors with vaginas agreed, leaving comments like "I've never had a multiple" and "I do have a refractory period and it's quite long," and partners left similar comments like "once my wife pops, she's done" and "has never had a multiple; one and done."
Many even report that after one orgasm, the clitoris becomes uncomfortable to touch — but their partners often expect them to continue anyway. "Soldiering on becomes extremely unpleasant," Kristin, 34, tells Bustle. "Yet the status quo for most guys I've been with has been 'Ladies first,' and then they take their time afterwards. But if they finish first, it's like, 'Now it's over!'"
Kristin remembers having to finish herself off because her partners would stop once they reached orgasm, yet when she finished first, she was expected to continue until they were satisfied. She points out that porn scenes, which usually end in a "money shot," don't help with this matter.
Research confirms that multiple orgasms are not as common for vagina-owners as we make them out to be. Only 47 percent of women in the 2015 OMGYES Study of Women’s Sexual Pleasure reported having them. Another study found that only 15 percent of women had multiple orgasms. (While more may be able to develop this ability with the right techniques, that's true for those with penises, too.)
"I am extremely skeptical of women with extreme claims like '50 orgasms' and 'one right after the other,'" sex researcher Nicole Prause, PhD, tells Bustle. "The timing is simply not possible." Prause has conducted research showing that when people with vaginas report orgasming, only about half of them demonstrate the vaginal contractions characteristic of orgasm. Of those who reported multiple orgasms, there was only one who actually showed these contractions twice. And, as expected, she was the one whose reported orgasms were furthest apart.
Vanessa Marin, sex therapist and creator of Finishing School, an online orgasm course for women, thinks many vaginas are capable of multiple orgasms, but only if we define them in a more realistic way. "Most women experience some amount of hypersensitivity after orgasm," she tells Bustle. "A woman might have to wait a bit of time before her body is ready for another orgasm, but that doesn't mean her second orgasm shouldn't count as a multiple."
Katie, 37, tells Bustle she can't have multiple orgasms — but according to Marin's definition, she likely has. "I can definitely get off more than once in a 'session' depending on how long I'm masturbating or having sex," she says. "But I've never been able to have back-to-back — or back-to-back-to-back — orgasms."
According to Prause, this expectation isn't even realistic. "I am suspicious that 'multiple' is not really multiple in the way [magazines have] traditionally written about them," she says. "Rather, it seems likely that some women have a relatively short refractory period, just like some men. I doubt men and women are as different in this respect as popular culture has made them out to be."
Yet many remain attached to the idea that sexually, those with penises and those with vaginas are fundamentally different. And the supposedly universal multiple orgasm among vagina-owners is used as evidence of this ~mysterious~ difference. That vaginas can defy the very laws of physics: what goes up doesn't have to come down. It's something we often see perpetuated in pop culture. In the Friends episode "The One With The East German Laundry Detergent," the friends are discussing what baffles them about the opposite sex, and Ross yells, "multiple orgasms!"
"The assumption that women and other vagina-owners of course can have multiple and we're sooooo lucky is always whipped out by insecure bros (in my experience always cisgender heterosexual men) to make them appear like the sad, unfortunate sex," Katie says, adding that this leads us to ignore the fact that in heterosexual relationships, men tend to have far more orgasms than women. "Describing vagina-owners as luckier than penis-owners because we can get off repetitively like some kind of machine gun firing reinforces the cultural focus on the male orgasm during sex."
In reality, both penises and vaginas vary in whether or not they can have multiple orgasms and in the length of their refractory periods. Multiple orgasms for people with penises are possible, too. Some can train themselves to have them by orgasming without ejaculating, but others report being able to have multiple orgasms a few minutes apart without any training. Kate, 35, a trans woman with a penis, has had them spontaneously. "I've had them in rapid succession through anal stimulation, but if it's just penile stimulation, it's more like a shorter refractory period most of the time," she tells Bustle.
Aside from fueling myths about gender and sex differences, the belief that all vagina-owners are multi-orgasmic also imposes unfair expectations. In order to perform this exotic sexuality we're expected to possess, we feel pressure to not only have multiple orgasms but also orgasm through vaginal penetration, squirt, make porn star noises, and do other things most vaginas just don't do. And many don't feel like they can say something if they can't.
"I have bellowed things like 'DON'T TOUCH THERE!!!' (referring to the clitoris, because I just can't) in the moment," says Kristin. "But it's only been with one or two guys that I was in an ongoing relationship with, who were really good at talking and listening, that I've explained exactly the situation, and we've come to a more egalitarian arrangement (like taking turns being first). I am a people pleaser, so it's only as I've gotten older that I've started being able to communicate my needs at all. And until a couple of years ago, it never occurred to me that it could be any other way."
The vast differences in multi-orgasmic ability among individuals with vaginas just show we need to be talking to our partners about what they like in bed and how their bodies work, rather than make assumptions based on what genitals they have. Sexual behavior, like most behavior, is much more based on the individual than what "category" they belong to. And regardless of what genitals we have, we deserve as much sexual attention — and as much rest — as our partners.