Defining the Female Orgasm

By Jessie Fano

What’s an orgasm, anyway? And how do you know if you had one?

In my experience and my research, I have to say that understanding, appreciating and celebrating the female orgasm sucks up a lot of our energy as a species. A lot of the questions my readers would like to ask a sex therapist have to do with orgasms. In my book, that’s energy well placed because the more I get to know the female orgasm the more impressed I am with its variety, subtlety and mystery — and pleasure! A woman’s orgasm is truly an art and a lifetime adventure. After a lot of “work” (of the enjoyable kind) I can finally say I own sexuality by owning my orgasms’ uniquenesses — a huge step in coming to own my personal sexuality.

But a lot of us aren’t even sure when we have one! Personally, I think this is because they’re often so different and varied that while some seem like a sure thing, others are less clear-cut. And since many of us don’t talk about sex with our friends, or watch a lot of porn (which is of questionable veracity anyway), how would we know what’s normal and what’s not?

What the Sexperts Say

I thought I knew the answer to the question “What’s an orgasm?” until I looked it up. The most common definition is that it’s the most intense — or peak — sexual sensation. I actually don’t agree with that because I’ve had some pretty underwhelming orgasms but other sensations that were not technically orgasmic that I would describe as the peak experience of that particular love-making session. Call me a nit-picker, but I didn’t really like the dictionary approach. (Of course “the dictionary approach” to sex just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun anyway, now does it?)

Lissa related a whole bunch of descriptions women gave her when she asked them to describe an orgasm for her book, What’s Up Down There? She’s got a bunch of good ones (p. 127), but when I looked for one on her list I could relate most to, I couldn’t find it. To every description I thought, “Well, yes, I’ve felt that — but sometimes it’s different.”

So I checked in with a bonafide sexpert, Dr. Sayaka Adachi and here’s what she said about knowing if you’ve had an orgasm or not:

Although many experts say “If you have had it, you would know it,” my experience as an orgasm coach tells me otherwise. Unfortunately for us girls, there is no “evidence” when we come. Many girls think it should be mind blowing, super euphoric, and life changing. Although these orgasms are possible, that’s not the experience for all women. Orgasm is defined as “an involuntary muscle contraction accompanied by pleasure”. So, a good thing to do is when you think you are coming, stick one or two of your fingers in your vagina and see if you can feel the vaginal muscles contracting. If it is, in about 1 contraction per less than 1 second for 3-8 times, you are having an orgasm. Still not sure? When you are building up your pleasure, can you tell that your muscles all over body are tightening? Tighten it a little harder than normal, so when it gets released at orgasm, you can feel the euphoria more. Still no evidence? Don’t worry, you are not alone! About 10% of sexually active women are pre-orgasmic. Get a book such as “Sex for One” or “For Yourself” or “I Heart Female Orgasm” and start practicing. If still not sure, hire an orgasm coach. Just remember that you are NOT broken. You are just learning to ride a bike, that’s all.

I admit it. I had to look up “pre-orgasmic.” Here’s what Google says it means: Not yet having experienced one’s first orgasm.

EDIT:  Dr. Adachi also gave me a great quote from Bevery Whipple, famed namer of the Gspot and sex researcher extraordinaire: “Orgasm is whatever you decide it is.” – HA!

So, see? Not yet! YOU decide. Never give up!

I Define Orgasm Differently: The Mental/Physical Tipping Point

This was all good info, but making it up as I go along and sticking my fingers in my vagina to feel if I’m coming sounds rather distracting if I’m trying to blow my socks off. I need a better definition to own it fully. Finally I decided I was going to have to come up with my own. So here’s my definition of the Orgasmic Tipping Point (OTP) when sexual activity turns into the Big O:

That moment during sexual experience where my body completely takes over and is out of my conscious control, moving and feeling according to its own pleasure and taking my mind for a wonderful ride.

Maybe some women can let their body overcome their mind more easily than me, but there’s only one instance where my mind is truly in the back seat and that’s when I am just coming up to, through, or off of, an orgasm. Sometimes it’s quick and sometimes it’s drawn out; sometimes it’s intense and other times is frustratingly “almost intense”; sometimes it comes with wild bucking, sometimes with little shudders and shivers and sometimes just a moan and a roll to the side (and a bunch of stuff in between). Here are my most common experiences; do any of these resonate with you?

•   Rolling waves of sensation my hips writhe to all by themselves.

•   An intense little point of light that explodes behind my eyes while my body shudders, sometimes followed by patterns of color and light.

•   Intense clitoral “itching” that demands to be “scratched” and that my body can’t possibly keep up with so I just kinda vibrate and jerk — usually noisily.

And here’s the ultimate irony — a little bit of mystery for us all to explore; getting to orgasm is very much a mental thing for me. My mind has to be into it, focused and present, or it doesn’t matter how much physical stimulation I give or am given, I can’t even get close. Until that OTP – and BOOM!

I’m not alone. Every book and article I read on the female orgasm notes how easy it is for a woman to get mentally distracted (or how difficult it is for her to get mentally focused) during the act of sex. And — sadly — it took a rat experiment to convince some men that maybe it’s genetically normal. Alfred Kinsey reported, “cheese crumbs spread in front of copulating pair of rats may distract the female but not the male.” (As reported in Bonk, by Mary Roach – a great book!)

Le sigh…

So for me, orgasm is that moment when all that mental focus pays off and the balance of mind and body tips so the mind gets a break and the body clenches and contracts on it’s own for a completely — 100% physical — few moments of intense experience.

How do you know when you’ve reached the OTP? What’s the sure sign? How did you first find it? Got any tips for those still seeking it? Hey, if you have sex (even with yourself) you’re a sexpert in my book. Share your experience so we all get smarter and feel even more normal (cuz we all are). Anonymous comments welcome!


Researcher of WTF? Questions You’d Ask Your Sex Therapist If Only You Had One? Got a question? Ask me! (Twitter @JessieFano)


Love This? Never Miss Another Story.


Danielle P.
Past Member 9 months ago

Amazing definition. So on point with everything!

Danielle P.
Past Member 9 months ago

Amazing definition. So on point with everything!

Andrea lo
Andrea loabout a year ago

I've watched many videos here for woman orgasm!

Karen Langer
Karen L.4 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim4 years ago

I do agree with you that orgasm takes a lot of mental concentration. You have to keep your mind aligned with your actions and that's when you'll reach the best orgasms :) Thanks for the article!

Shawn P.
Shawn P.4 years ago

Fantastic article, and very true!

Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog4 years ago

Thanks so much for sharing, fantastic article! The only thing I could disagree with, personally, is that when I'm focused on having an orgasm during intercourse/oral sex, I NEVER have one...just recently I realised that my focus on that particular outcome was also causing me anxiety that it WOULDN'T happen, and so it didn't! I've found that just completely not thinking about the actual orgasm at all really intensified my pleasure because my mind had totally shut off and my body was left to do whatever it needed to do...and even then, although I am having some intense pleasure peaks with my partner, I am not having what feels like a normal orgasm to me (as I have given myself enough orgasms, I know exactly what mine feel like!)...however, after these intense pleasure peaks, I am completely limp, satisfied, sensate, and there is not a thought alive in my head :D A new kind of orgasm (for me)? Perhaps!

Lika S.
Lika S.4 years ago

I have had two of those mind blowing orgasms in my life. I'm trying to "teach" my hubby how to do that, but, I don't know if it's that he "doesn't get it" or if I'm just not explaining it to him right... Anyway, sex has always been pretty much enjoyable for me, and well, I just like to have that intimacy, so maybe it will come about. One thing for sure, he wants to make sure that I'm into it, so he wants me to have fun as well. We've never had a bad session, and I've had the normal type ones, but not the kind that sends you in a tizzy to cloud 9. I'm sure it will happen.

Latonya W.
Latonya W.4 years ago

lol @ sticking my finger inside while experiencing it freaked me out as well...thanx for ur version....glad to know Im having orgasms:)

Loo Samantha
Loo sam4 years ago