If we just listen to movies, songs, and book stereotypes, there’s only one way of having an orgasm. It usually involves squealing, screaming, and “earth-shattering” explosions —dramatic and loud.

The most popular descriptor? “Like fireworks.”

But we forget that on the screens, especially the small ones (pornography), an orgasm is often performative.

The pressure to perform can be rooted in a toxic idea that women and people with clitorises and vaginas must “prove” to our partners that we came. Cue the history of “faking it” in order to please our partners.

For many people, orgasms are rather elusive. Not everyone experiences them but it’s worth it to experiment on your own and find out what works for your body.

After all, it’s easy to tell when someone with a penis has an orgasm. They can visibly ejaculate. But people with a clitoris have a subtler reaction that isn’t always fluid (unless you’re a squirter), and as a result, many feel pressured to overenhance their feelings during sex.

But that doesn’t mean everyone needs to follow this formula or react in any one way at all.

Sex and relationship expert Dr. Jess O’Reilly explains, “Even a universal definition for orgasm can’t be agreed upon, as our subjective experiences don’t always align with scientific conclusions. When asked to describe orgasm, the responses vary wildly.”

Everyone’s body response is different. We’re unique, our reactions vary, and most importantly, not everyone is a screamer.

O’Reilly describes the nuances of an orgasm even further, saying, “For some people, an orgasm is the ultimate experience of pleasure. For others, it’s simply a release. Some people lose control and others simply exhale deeply. What you see in porn doesn’t necessarily reflect real-life orgasms. Some people yell and scream and convulse, but many don’t.”

Let’s look at what an orgasm is for someone with a clitoris

During an orgasm, genital muscles will contract, heart rate will increase, and your genitals fill with blood. While your body is working hard to make you feel good, your brain is also releasing a huge dose of oxytocin and dopamine which contribute to feelings of closeness, empathy, and happiness.

When I first began writing this piece, I reached out to people I knew personally to describe their orgasm. I quickly found that words don’t do the experience justice.

“My legs also go numb for a hot second. It’s never been all over my body, but I’ve had some that make my lower body shake.” – MaryEllen

It’s hard to describe the tingles, the differing effects, the numbness, the euphoria. For myself, I’m a crier. When I think of having an orgasm, I think of crying — known as crymaxing, something I’ve talked about once before.

In my personal experience, my body responds with a euphoria so strong that tears well up in my eyes and I bury my head into my partners chest. Sometimes it’s a few tears, other times it’s sobbing. They sure don’t show that in the movies, do they?

Some orgasms make your body shake

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MaryEllen explains that she had her first orgasm after college. “I thought that I had them, but not until I figured it out on my own and knew what it felt like did it click that that was how it was supposed to feel,” she says.

She now credits strengthening her pelvic muscles greatly to her success with climaxing. “Once I had the starting point, I was able to figure out positions that made it happen faster or at all. Learning process started at a later age, but I finally figured it out,” she tells me.

During her orgasm, she says she feels tingly at first and then her muscles start contracting. “My legs also go numb for a hot second. It’s never been all over my body, but I’ve had some that make my lower body shake.”

When your heart rate increases, it’s not uncommon for limbs, especially your legs, to shake during an orgasm, perhaps due to your fight or flight response from your sympathetic nervous system kicking in.

“I was so flushed afterwards. I didn’t know what had happened to me. I was sweaty and my legs wouldn’t stop shaking, even after the orgasm was over.” – Rae

First-time orgasms can be uncomfortable until we have more

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Tara* explains to me that she didn’t know she was having an orgasm when she first had one. “My partner was fingering me and I started to feel a deep aching in my stomach. Then, suddenly, it was like a release. That’s the only way I can describe it. Like all of my clenched muscles were beginning to release.”

At first, she felt uncomfortable with the feeling — and that reaction is common.

O’Reilly says that sometimes “we’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with our most sexual and reactive parts. The clitoris is far more complex than most of us realize and the vulva is often integral to orgasm, yet we don’t always pay it enough attention.”

“Afterglow is so incredibly important to me, as is afterplay. I love when my partner continues to caress or hold me after I’ve had an orgasm. I feel so euphoric and sometimes still a bit shaky.” – Charlene

When I asked Tara about specifics with her orgasm she tells me that clitoral stimulation feels very uncomfortable. “I enjoy deep penetration, I guess it’s called a cervical orgasm. I feel like my clitoris is far too sensitive to have an orgasm just off of that one singular stimulation.”

Achieving orgasms can be exhilarating and exhausting

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Orgasms don’t have to be limited to something only a partner can give to you either. According to O’Reilly, people with a clitoris report “higher levels of desire, arousal, and orgasm” when using a vibrator.

When it comes to discovering and enhancing what you like, masturbation is a safe and productive option.

Rae* considered themselves asexual for quite a while due to their lack of stimulation when partnered with another person.

A few years ago, they discovered their first orgasm after masturbating more. “I was so flushed afterwards. I didn’t know what had happened to me. I was sweaty and my legs wouldn’t stop shaking, even after the orgasm was over,” they explain to me.

For many people, orgasms are rather elusive. Not everyone experiences them but it’s worth it to experiment on your own and find with what works for your body.

When it comes to experimenting, O’Reilly suggests starting out with the We-Vibe Wish which “cups around the vulva to provide vibrations and friction against the hood, head, shaft and inner parts of the clit regardless of your shape or size.”

I personally never experimented with my clitoris until I began to masturbate, which was later in my adult life. I also began to utilize lubrication more often which O’Reilly says is “associated with significantly higher levels of pleasure and satisfaction.”

Practice also makes perfect, and exploring solo through masturbation is the best way to understand what works for you and why. Rae says that once they started to masturbate, include lubrication, and explore their body, they also became more comfortable with partners.

“My partner was fingering me and I started to feel a deep aching in my stomach. Then, suddenly, it was like a release. That’s the only way I can describe it. Like all of my clenched muscles were begin to release.” – Tara

“I started to find myself being genuine with my moans. I wasn’t faking it anymore,” they explain. “My orgasms are still the strongest with my vibrator. I feel tingly, my legs go numb, and my face is flushed. Sometimes I even lose feelings in my hands.”

When I ask Rae how they knew this was an orgasm and how it differed from pleasure before, they say that an orgasm is ‘obvious.’ “My body was completely and utterly exhausted after my first orgasm,” they say. “I used a vibrator on my clitoris. I remember just lying there afterwards in disbelief.”

Orgasms achieved by multisensory stimulation can be exhilarating

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For people like Charlene*, anal sex is an important factor in having an orgasm. “I can’t have an orgasm without anal penetration. I prefer vaginal and anal penetration at the same time, but this isn’t always easy for my partners to achieve. When I have an orgasm this way, I feel it from my head to my toes. It’s a very warm feeling.”

She says, “I consider myself to be a very sexual person. I began masturbating at a young age and I feel very in tune with my body. Anal sex just works for me.” What Charlene really enjoys though are the feelings after sex.

“Afterglow is so incredibly important to me, as is afterplay. I love when my partner continues to caress or hold me after I have had an orgasm. I feel so euphoric and sometimes still a bit shaky.”

The percentage of people with a clitoris who are having anal sex has risen and many reported a higher rate of orgasm during anal intercourse.

“It’s such a specific thing to have,” Charlene says. “To essentially need double penetration. If I wouldn’t have been so experimental, I wouldn’t have known this is what I wanted, or needed, in my sex life.”

If you’re going to be experimental anywhere in life, you should at least explore sexually in the bedroom. Whether that’s anal, a different position, including toys, utilizing more lube, or exploring with BDSM. You never know which act will scratch your itch.

The benefits of an orgasm

While orgasms aren’t the end-all of every romp you have with a partner, they’re still important to your livelihood and self-pleasure. Orgasms release hormones in your body and these hormones have many benefits such as:

  • reducing inflammation, stress, pain
  • providing circulation and relaxation
  • lowering cardiovascular risk

“Many of us worry that we’re not having orgasms,” O’Reilly says, pointing to how our expectations about sex come from porn. “We compare our orgasms to porngasms which tend to be bigger, louder, and more over the top. But in real life, orgasms come in many forms.”

Many of us could be coming, but we may not even realize because we aren’t shown how different and complex clitorial, vaginal, and anal orgasms can be. Dispelling the myth that orgasms have to be accompanied by screams or firework feelings isn’t just important for relationships. It’s also about re-educating yourself to increase body awareness and encourage pursuit of pleasure for yourself, not just your partner.

By focusing on your needs and communicating them to a partner, you can discover all of the various ways to achieve a tantalizing climax.

How about this: Treat orgasms like chocolate

Chocolate comes in a variety of packages. It can also bring out a variety of outcomes. It can be a single bar of joy that melts softly, warmly, and deliciously on your tongue. Or it can be a sweet chip in a cookie, just a little something extra that excites you.

Orgasms work the same way. For one person, an orgasm can appear in many different tingles, sighs, and moans. One orgasm may lead to four more.

They’re uniquely satisfying, whether it’s a solo session or partnered. There’s not only one right way to eat chocolate, just like there isn’t a right way to climax.

If you’re having challenges having an orgasm or discovering if you’ve ever even had one, make sure you relax, breathe deeply, and focus on self-pleasure.

Having an orgasm shouldn’t be a contest, it’s not about who comes first. It’s about satisfaction and self-love.

*Some names have been changed at the request of the interviewees.


S. Nicole Lane is a sex and women’s health journalist based in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Playboy, Rewire News, HelloFlo, Broadly, Metro UK, and other corners of the internet. She’s also a practicing visual artist who works with new media, assemblage, and latex. Follow her on Twitter.