Because our culture defines "sex" primarily as penis-in-vagina intercourse, it's often expected that those with vaginas have "vaginal orgasms." However, only around a quarter of women regularly orgasm through penetration, according to a meta-analysis in Elisabeth Lloyd's The Case of the Female Orgasm. Does that mean that the vaginal orgasm is a myth? And if it does exist, how exactly is it different from a clitoral one?
First, we need to look at where the expectation that those with vaginas achieve vaginal orgasms come from. A large part of the reason this expectation exists is that they can be elicited through stimulation by a penis, which provides cis men with validation and allows them to engage in an activity that they find pleasurable.
"The issue a lot of times isn't even the statistics of how or who achieves what but this idea that we set this norm that all women must achieve orgasm from vaginal penetration or there is something wrong with them," Alexis Thomas, sex educator and owner of the sex-positive shop Taboo Tabou, tells Bustle. "The truth is, people achieve orgasms in so many different ways, some through nipple stimulation, while some have claimed to achieve orgasms through dreams. Because everyone is so different, setting this norm that vaginal penetration is the main way, or most valid way, to achieve an orgasm is not only destructive to female sexuality but is also majorly patriarchal."
So, let's move past these cultural expectations and look at what we really know about vaginal orgasms.
Fact 1: The Clitoris Is Involved, Too
Lots of vaginal orgasms actually involve the clitoris in one way or another. Sometimes, direct outer clitoral stimulation helps them along. A a 2016 review published in Clinical Anatomy found that women with a shorter distance between their clitoris and vagina were more likely to orgasm through intercourse, probably because the penis was touching their clitoris. Even when the outer clitoris is left untouched, a vaginal orgasm is often the result of stimulation of the inner clitoris, which reaches four inches below your skin's surface and wraps around your vaginal canal.
"It can be difficult to determine why you have an orgasm from vaginal penetration; it’s possible that you simply enjoy the feeling of vaginal stimulation, and it’s also possible that while stimulating the vagina, you’re also stimulating the G-Spot and/or the clitoris," Astroglide's resident sexologist Dr. Jess O'Reilly tells Bustle.
"Many women achieve orgasms through anal stimulation, and one of the reasons for that is because clitoral nerves travel all the way down there as well," says Thomas. "There is really no wrong way to achieve an orgasm, but we should give a lot of credit to those clitoral nerves because they do play a major role one way or another."
In fact, it's impossible to separate a vaginal and clitoral orgasm because both involve both parts. "Any vaginal stimulation causes clitoral stimulation," sex researcher Nicole Prause, PhD, tells Bustle. "No one has ever demonstrated any separation of contracting structures. They are, quite literally, all connected. It is not possible for the clitoris to 'contract' and not feel the same contractions in the vagina, because the pelvic floor interconnects all these structures."
Fact 2: It's Just One Of Many Kinds Of Orgasms
"You can most certainly experience orgasm from vaginal penetration — just as you can experience orgasm from stimulation of the breasts, the buttocks, the lower back and more," says Dr. Jess. "There are many paths to orgasm and the pelvic region is innervated by multiple nerves. ... These different nerve pathways illustrate the complexity of sexual response and orgasm and support anecdotal evidence of orgasms from various sources of stimulation."
There's a remarkable range of ways people reach orgasm, from having their earlobes rubbed to thinking sexual thoughts. There's only a problem when we expect them all to do it in one particular way (and a way that favors male partners' enjoyment).
Myth 1: The Vaginal Orgasm Is Superior
You sometimes hear women say that vaginal orgasms are more intense than clitoral ones, but others find it to be the opposite, and others still say they feel the same. If you don't have vaginal orgasms, that doesn't mean you're experiencing less pleasure than those who do.
"Our orgasms can feel different just from the time of the month, hormones, or even the stress in our life," says Thomas. "However, the issue here isn't really that our society concentrates on this idea that vaginal orgasms are a different type of orgasm but that they are better then clitoral orgasms."
In fact, there isn't any evidence that clitoral and vaginal orgasms cause different reactions in the brain, says Prause. "When you ask, women will come up with all kinds of descriptors differentiating vaginal and clitoral orgasms," she says. "I find this a fascinating cultural phenomena, because there is no demonstrating physical difference. I believe, just like the non-existent G-spot, vaginal and clitoral distinctions are a purely social construct. I would change my mind if I ever saw any physical tests demonstrating differences, but I have never seen such data."
Myth 2: Most People With Vaginas Have Vaginal Orgasms
"We do not know how common [the vaginal orgasm] is in any general sense," says Prause. "Studies all use convenience samples (e.g., someone decided they wanted to do a sex survey), and those people tend to be higher sensation-seeking. This means that estimates of sexual sensitivity, like being able to orgasm with 'just' vaginal stimulation, are likely too high from these samples alone. ... In any sex study, volunteers are likely to be more sex positive, which has been associated with greater orgasm consistency."
Thomas also suspects that the one-in-four statistic is an overestimate. "The statistic we use and believe in is 10 percent of women orgasm through vaginal penetration, and we truly believe that statistic might be much lower because it could honestly be a clitoral orgasm occurring and [they're] not aware of it," she tells Bustle. "The fact that our society and media teaches that many women can even achieve orgasm from vaginal penetration without any clitoral stimulation is super distressing, since that is a far and few between type of person."
The point being: Despite what you've read in romance novels or seen on Sex and the City, the expectation that you orgasm during intercourse is not realistic. If you can't, it doesn't mean you're broken, it doesn't mean you're doing it wrong, and it doesn't mean you're psychologically blocked.
And if you can, your experience is also valid. After all, having an orgasm is like going to a good party: We may take different routes there, but we all have fun once we've arrived.