Orgasms are difficult to study.
Similar to studying mood or pain, female* orgasms need to be interpreted through not just biological mechanisms but also psychological, sociological and historical trends.
Historically, in Western countries, female orgasms have been highly scrutinized. Orgasms were sometimes seen as unhealthy or wrong. And orgasms that are achieved through stimulation that is not heterosexual vaginal intercourse have been considered unacceptable by researchers and doctors (1,2).
The viewpoint that some orgasms were superior to others has been supported by healthcare professionals.
What is the clitoris? And where is it?
Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that mature women experience vaginal orgasm while immature women enjoyed clitoral stimulation (1-3).
The importance of vaginal orgasm became so rooted in 20th-century health that an inability to reach orgasm through heterosexual penetrative sex became part of a diagnosable condition in the DSM III (i.e. psychology and psychiatry’s diagnostic book) (4).
Although most healthcare professionals no longer consider inability for penetrative sex to induce orgasm to be a problem (unless their patients are distressed by it), many people feel that orgasm is a requirement for happy, meaningful and/or fulfilling sex (2). Some people also feel that orgasms should be reserved for sex, as opposed to experiencing orgasm during masturbation (1). Orgasm is great, but feeling pressure to have an orgasm, or a certain type of orgasm at a certain time, can make sex stressful and unpleasant.
The historical and social aspects of orgasm can obscure research
Researchers may bias respondents’ answers by asking questions that imply that an orgasm type exists.
Relatedly, there is a disagreement among some sex researchers about how to classify orgasms (3,5). For example, if stimulation of a non-genital body part causes the genitals to become aroused and the person experiences an orgasm, did the stimulation of the non-genitals cause the orgasm, or was it the arousal of the genitals that caused the orgasm?
Even if a researcher were to do a study using tools that measure arousal, this doesn’t avoid all problems.
People with female genitals have been shown to experience arousal in their genitals but not report arousal to researchers, suggesting that bodily arousal is insufficient indicator of sexual interest or pleasure (5).
Compounding researcher problems are problems of gathering participants for sex and orgasm studies. Enrolling participants in a study is always tricky, but when someone studies a topic that is potentially considered taboo or private, it can be difficult to ensure that your sample is representative of all people in all cultures (this is also called external validity). It also may be difficult for participants to accurately remember or know where and how they were stimulated to cause orgasm (5).
So given all these issues, why talk about orgasms at all?
Given the large amount of social and media commentary on orgasm, it’s important to understand how our bodies and the bodies of our partners actually work so that we can help reduce stigma and stress during sex. In the process, we may learn a thing or two on how to make sex more enjoyable.
The different types of female orgasms
Different types or different stimuli?
There are many pop-science articles (i.e. articles not published in a research journal) that claim there are anywhere from four to 15 different types of orgasms. As mentioned before, there’s a lot of debate as to how to classify female orgasms. However, there’s little evidence to support the idea that different stimuli reliably (i.e. repeatedly, under experimental conditions) cause different types of female orgasms or different intensity of orgasms. Most people report that “some orgasms are better than others” (6), but this doesn’t necessarily seem to be related to the stimuli that cause that orgasm.