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What has a finish line? The Boston marathon. A horse race. A book.

Sex, my friends, does not!

Unfortunately, so many sex-havers think sex does have a finish line — orgasm. And that crossing that finish line is the point of sex.

The trouble with this thinking is that it often short-changes pleasure. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between pleasure and orgasm.

Indeed, the majority of orgasms are pleasurable. But not all are.

Introducing: bad orgasms, forced orgasm, and painful orgasms.

Bad orgasms, as defined by a 2019 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, are orgasms that occur during consensual sex that “have negative impacts on the relationship, sexuality, and/or psychological health.”

Forced orgasm may be the name of the kinky, consensual practice of a Dominant “making” their submissive orgasm.

But according to Marla Renee Stewart, sexologist with Velvet Lips Sex Down South and co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Seduction and Foreplay: Techniques and Strategies for Mind-Blowing Sex (Ultimate Guide Series), the term is also used for orgasms someone has without their consent. (For instance, an orgasm that occurs during sexual assault).

Also known as dysorgasmia, painful orgasms are just as they sound: Orgasms that cause the orgasm-haver physical pain.

Beyond these three unpleasurable orgasm categories, trauma-focused therapist and sexuality educator Aida Manduley, LCSW, notes that when an orgasm deviates from expectation or orgasm — AKA it’s shorter, quicker, less intense, etc. than desired — it can be disappointing to the person experiencing them.

“If someone’s physical experience of orgasm triggers shame, is tied to traumatic experiences, or feels so vulnerable that it makes them self-conscious afterward, that can be really a complicated (and unpleasurable) experience,” says Manduley.

Good question!

Clinically speaking, an orgasm refers to a specific moment where there’s “a release of tension and energy, muscle contractions (particularly in the genital region), and an elevated heart rate,” says Manduley.

Pleasure, however, is less about one specific moment or destination, and is instead about the entire journey.

“An orgasm may be contained under the umbrella of pleasure, but it isn’t the only thing within it,” they say.

Another way to think about it: Orgasm is the dinner mint at the end of a five-course meal. Pleasure is the whole damn meal bread basket to entree to dinner mint.

“There are various reasons, but a lot of them boil down to misogyny, frankly,” says Manduley. More on this below.

How the mainstream defines sex

What qualifies as sex is far more inclusive and expansive than just a P going in a V.

Unfortunately, many of us were taught that sex starts when a penis enters a vagina and ends when it exits, post-ejaculation.

In other words, the whole shebang is defined around the male orgasm. Ugh.

The new focus on the “orgasm gap”

The term “orgasm gap” was coined to highlight the fact that during heterosexual intercourse, men orgasm far more frequently than women.

Research suggests that straight women only reach orgasm 65 percent of the time, while straight men reach it 95 percent of the time.

The existence of this term has done wonders for increasing awareness of this discrepancy.

But it has also created a class of people who want to prove that they aren’t “one of those people” who only care about their own climax. Instead, they insist upon (read: demand) that their partner climaxes… no matter what.

This is what researchers call the “orgasm imperative.”

Vulva-owners’ orgasms, in particular, have been sidelined for far too long, so that may sound like a good thing.

But there is a h-u-g-e difference between wanting to help your partner who wants to achieve orgasm, achieve an orgasm, and needing your partner to orgasm in order to personally feel sexually competent and/or satisfied.

Unfortunately, many folks fall into the second camp. And when their partner doesn’t orgasm, their ego is bruised, says Searah Deysach, longtime sex educator and owner of Early to Bed, a pleasure-product company in Chicago that ships worldwide.

Often, they have strong negative reactions that put even more pressure on their partners to orgasm the next time they have sex, she says.

Orgasms have become the mark of a successful sexual experience

Whether it’s work, sports, or sex, we’re a very goal-driven culture, says Deysach.

“Orgasms have become the goal of sex,” she adds. “So it makes sense that sex-havers would seek out that sense of accomplishment.”

Orgasm makes good movies and porn

Whether they’re PG-13 or X-rated, almost all sexual encounters in film end with orgasm.

More specifically: performative, simultaneous orgasms that take place within 3-5 minutes, give or take.

While these mediums are intended to entertain, not (sex) educate, many folks feel inadequate if or when their sexual encounters don’t follow a similar narrative.

The simple answer: They feel good

“Orgasms feel good,” says Stewart. “So once you’ve experienced an orgasm, it’s a pretty natural response to want to achieve that great feeling over and over and over again.”

There’s a difference between wanting to orgasm and being orgasm-focused.

“Wanting to orgasm isn’t a bad thing,” says Manduley.

But when orgasm becomes the sole focus of sex, it is. Why? Because the pressure to “achieve” orgasm often comes at the expense of things like:

  • safety
  • well-being
  • respect
  • connection
  • intimacy

And perhaps most important to this discussion: pleasure.

“Typically, when you take the focus off orgasm and instead put it on shared pleasure, you’re often able to enjoy all sensations more,” says Deysach.

“It’s only an issue if it’s something that’s causing you bother or distress,” says Manduley. “Some people never have an orgasm and that’s OK with them. For others, it’s distressing.”

The medical term for never having had an orgasm *and* feeling distressed by that fact is primary anorgasmia.

Far more common than you might suspect, research estimates that 5 to 10 percent of vulva-owners have primary anorgasmia, while .15 to 4 percent of people with penises do.

According to Manduley, primary anorgasmia is often caused by something such as insufficient stimulation or stress.

In these cases, orgasm can often be achieved through a combination of:

“Shame, trauma, and pelvic floor dysfunction can also interfere with orgasm,” they say.

In these cases, a trauma-informed sex therapist or pelvic floor therapist may be necessary.

Not sure what sex could look like without a trip to the O-zone? Here are some ideas.

Take penetrative play off the table

TBH, the term “foreplay” is trash. It implies that everything that comes before penetrative sex is just the “before stuff.”

Well, this tip is all about prioritizing allll the fun acts you used to short-change because they were in the category of “before stuff.”

Kiss, dry hump, stroke with your hands, rub, talk sexy, masturbate, mutually masturbate, read erotica, perform oral, etc.,” says Deysach.

Become a student on pleasure

“Don’t be afraid to read up on pleasure versus orgasm that’s part of the learning process,” says Manduley.

Some helpful books to consider include:

Quit asking about orgasm

If “Are you close?” “Did you orgasm?” “You orgasmed, right?” and “Cum for me” are common phrases of your coital chit-chat, it’s time to give your dirty talk game a makeover.

Try instead:

  • “Does this feel good for you?”
  • “What can I do to bring you pleasure right now?”
  • “I want to make you feel good.”

Odds are, by focusing on your partner’s pleasure, they will in fact orgasm. These new phrases help de-emphasize the orgasm.

Hey, do your thing! We’re in no way saying you shouldn’t ever orgasm. We’re simply advocating for centering pleasure over orgasm. The below tips can help you do both.

Reframe how you think about orgasm

“Remember that you can’t make someone have an orgasm,” says Deysach. “You can only help them along on their journey to get there.”

Hopefully, this re-frame will help take some of the pleasure-ruining pressure off.

Explore new ways to orgasm

“When you’re focused on orgasm, your sex tends to follow the same patterns that have proven to make you and your partner orgasm in the past,” says Stewart. That’s why she recommends a switcheroo.

“Switch up your position, what body parts you use to stimulate each other, the toy you use, where you have sex, etc.”

Try edging

Also known as orgasm denial, edging is all about building right up to orgasm… then backing away over and over and over again. The idea is that when orgasm finally does happen, it will be mighty AF.

Yes, edging still focuses on the big O. But it requires a ton of communication, trust, and body awareness between couples in a way that the average O may not.

No doubt, orgasms can feel freaking awesome. But sex ft. orgasms isn’t necessarily more pleasurable, intimate, connected, or satisfying than sex where orgasms do not occur.

On the contrary, over-focusing on orgasm can hijack great sex from all those sought-after adjectives.

And that’s exactly why making pleasure — not orgasm — the point can make the whole thing way better.


Gabrielle Kassel is a New York-based sex and wellness writer and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. She’s become a morning person, tested over 200 vibrators, and eaten, drunk, and brushed with charcoal — all in the name of journalism. In her free time, she can be found reading self-help books and romance novels, bench-pressing, or pole dancing. Follow her on Instagram.