The media may have women believing that every orgasm is a loud, over-the-top, Meg Ryan-level proclamation of ecstasy, but the truth is, that's usually not the case. Quiet, noisy, moderate, intense — just like sex, orgasms come in all shapes and sizes. (Yes, really.)
Aren't sure if you've experienced the Big O? Read on for signs that a woman has climaxed.
What Does an Orgasm Feel Like?
Scientifically-speaking, an orgasm can be described as a "sudden release of muscular and nervous tension at the climax of sexual experience," but that leaves room for interpretation.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you're wondering if you've climaxed: Do you feel a physical and emotional release after being aroused? Do you feel like you've hit the peak of sexual pleasure? Do you feel a general sense of "doneness" afterwards? Then, yep, you've probably had one.
How Does a Woman Know When She Has Climaxed?
Unfortunately, there isn't a one-size-fits-all checklist to consult when you're looking for signs of an orgasm. But getting more in tune with how your body feels during sexual experiences will help immensely, because, to put it bluntly: When you know, you know.
"If a woman is unsure if she has had an orgasm, I would say she has not," notes Stefani Threadgill, a sex therapist and sexologist in Plano, Texas.
"Universally speaking, there are hormones involved and physiological processes that happen during climax. But even with that being the case, an orgasm is a unique and individual experience."
Are All Orgasms the Same?
Just as every woman's sexual experiences are different, so are their orgasms. "In my clinical experience, no one experiences an orgasm in the same way, and orgasms can be different with each sexual encounter for an individual person," Threadgill says.
But even with each orgasm being unique, there are typically three factors that need to be in place for women to climax. "Most women require clitoral sensation, mental concentration, and physical relaxation to orgasm," Threadgill says.
"Most of my female patients report that they have to close their eyes and shut out all external stimuli to climax, as women can be on the verge of an orgasm, become distracted and then 'lose' it."
What Are the Stages of Sexual Excitement?
In the 1960s, sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson divided female arousal into four categories:
Excitement. This is when the entire pelvic area begins feeling full and the nerves become more sensitive.
Plateau. Or, in other words, sustained intense arousal.
Orgasm. For most, this is the peak of sexual experience. According to Our Bodies, Ourselves: "This is the point at which all the tension suddenly releases in a series of involuntary and pleasurable muscular contractions. Contractions may be felt in the vagina, uterus, and rectum. Some women experience orgasm as a total-body contraction and release."
Resolution. For about 30 minutes following climax, muscles begin to relax and the clitoris, vagina, and uterus return to their normal positions.
Is the orgasm the star of the show? Not necessarily. "My own bias is that one's measurable physical arousal isn't the most relevant part of sex," notes New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder MD, author of Love Worth Making.
"Your emotional experience of sex is usually far more important. When you're excited, does it make you forget your to-do list? Does it make you feel deeply validated? Does it take you home to who you really are in your deepest essence? That's the stuff that counts. That's the stuff people usually remember when they recall a peak sexual experience."
What Are the Benefits of Having an Orgasm?
There are a number of orgasm health benefits, including better sleep, lower stress, and an increased sense of intimacy between you and your partner, but there's also a bigger picture when it comes to climaxing.
"Unfortunately, for most people the chief benefit of having an orgasm is that you can feel relieved to have had an orgasm, and your partner can feel relieved that you had an orgasm. But we should aim higher!" notes Snyder.
"The best way to get the most out of sex is to not focus on orgasm at all — rather to focus on the quality of arousal that precedes it. Orgasm is just dessert. A nice way to end the meal, but hardly the reason you went out to dinner."