Illustration: D’Ara Nazaryan

The Pleasure Principle

5 Reasons You’re Not Reaching Orgasm — and What to Do About It

Experts weigh in on why some women are having difficulty doing it

This article is part of The Pleasure Principle, ZORA’s ultimate guide to solo sex, self-pleasure, and self-love. Take our Sex Survey to share your experiences.

First things first: You are not alone, and you’re not broken.

If you’re one of the many women who aren’t able to reach an orgasm through masturbation or sexual intercourse, it can feel like you must be doing something wrong or, worse, that something is wrong with you. But there may be a solution in your search for sexual satisfaction.

“For many women and nonbinary individuals, reaching orgasm can be a struggle,” says Zita Nickeson, a mental health counselor in Spokane, Washington, who is pursuing a doctorate in the psychology of human sexuality. “This may be due to a variety of reasons; however, most often, it is due to variables that can pull the individual out of their arousal cycle.”

While orgasm isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all of every sexual encounter, it can be frustrating when you don’t understand why your body isn’t reacting a certain way. And learning to manage sexual pain can help increase our pleasure and improve our self-image. If you’re curious about what could be going on, here are five things that might make it difficult to reach an orgasm and what experts say might be able to help.

Enjoy the journey of sexual exploration as opposed to getting hung up on one specific outcome.

Pain down there

In some cases, masturbation and sex can be physically painful, taking orgasm completely off the table. The technical term for painful sex is dyspareunia, and Harvard Medical School says it can happen to folks at any age but is a little more common after menopause.

Sexual pain can vary in severity, and the physical sites of this pain can include the vulva, vagina, or pelvis. There are so many potential causes for this type of pain, ranging from physical problems like scarring or growths to estrogen loss, skin conditions, and psychological factors. If you do experience pain during sex, experts say it’s always a good idea to get it checked out if you have access to health care.

If penetration itself is particularly painful, you might have a condition called vaginismus. According to the Cleveland Clinic, vaginismus is “a spasm or contraction of the muscles around the vagina,” and experts don’t know exactly what causes it. The good news is that treatment options like vaginal dilator therapy, Kegel exercises, and counseling can improve or even eliminate the condition for plenty of folks.

Pelvic floor issues

“The pelvic floor muscles can contribute [to a lack of orgasm] as well,” says Rachel Gelman, PT, DPT, a clinician who specializes in pelvic health. “These muscles need to move for an orgasm to occur, so if they lack range of motion or are dysfunctional in some way, it can contribute to difficulty with orgasm.”

Gelman says many factors can contribute to pelvic floor dysfunction, including stress, too much sitting, overexertion, chronic infections like recurring urinary tract infections, medical conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome or fibroids, and past procedures like a hysterectomy or abdominal surgery.

“Most people don’t necessarily need to strengthen their pelvic floor,” Gelman says. “In fact, the majority of people need to work on relaxing the pelvic floor muscles and/or learn how to have better pelvic floor coordination.”

If this sounds like you, Gelman recommends looking into pelvic floor therapy, a unique form of physical therapy that specializes in relaxing muscles and helping patients reconnect with their bodies.

“Pressure is the antithesis of pleasure, and when you’re worried about how your body is responding, you’re unlikely to relax into a state conducive to orgasm.”

The pressure of performing

“Pressure is the antithesis of pleasure, and when you’re worried about how you look, how long you’re lasting or taking, what your partner is thinking, or how your body is responding, it’s unlikely to relax into a state conducive to orgasm,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, the resident sexologist for Astroglide. “Talking to your partner about your needs and ways in which they can support you to reduce performance pressure may also help.”

O’Reilly also recommends addressing any cultural norms or hangups you might have around sex. “If you feel pressure to experience sex in a specific way because of stereotypes related to your age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or other element of your identity, this can impede pleasure and orgasm,” she says. “Addressing these messages, the sources, and their outcomes can help to make sex more enjoyable — and take the focus off of orgasm as the ultimate goal.”

Sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder

Survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse may be experiencing trauma that can even affect their solo sexual encounters. “Untreated trauma symptoms can certainly impact a person’s ability to experience arousal and/or orgasm,” Nickeson says. “Certain acts may trigger a person to experience a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ state physiologically, which will impact arousal and orgasm. Additionally, if the person is experiencing active post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, certain sexual acts or just the idea of being sexual may increase those symptoms.”

Nickeson recommends finding a therapist who is “qualified and well trained in providing trauma treatment within a valid and reliable trauma treatment modality.” In her own practice, she says, “I work with them on mindfulness around their stress response while also encouraging them to gain an understanding of their pleasure points, arousal response cycle, and their ideal sexual self. I spend time working with clients to minimize any guilt and/or shame related to their previous trauma and their current sexuality.”

Postpartum side effects

A traumatic birth experience can definitely affect your sex life. Some people experience births that are physically traumatic while others are psychologically scarred from fear around birth, particularly given that Black folks are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy or birth than White ones. Black parents are more likely to experience complications, too. Nickeson says that trauma can trigger all sorts of physiological responses and again recommends getting some professional help if that’s possible for you.

Be kind to yourself. Self-pleasure and self-love go hand-in-hand.

“Going to therapy can really help to address past trauma and how it impacts an individual’s sexuality and relationships with partners,” says Alexis Clarke, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Redefining Relationships, Acceptance, Empowerment, & Love, LLC. “It may be helpful to seek out a psychologist that specializes in sex therapy to not only address the trauma but help the client explore what pleasure means to them and how to achieve it.”

If you’re not familiar with therapy or you’re anxious about opening up about your intimate life, Clarke says it can be helpful to rehearse what you want to say ahead of time — and know that you’re in charge of whatever level of detail you’d like to provide.

If therapy is off the table, O’Reilly recommends that you avoid putting pressure on yourself: “Enjoy the journey of sexual exploration as opposed to getting hung up on one specific outcome.”

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Self-pleasure and self-love go hand-in-hand. The more we accept our bodies as whole and complete and the more curious we are about how our bodies work, the closer we get to reaching our pleasure goals.

We want to hear from you! Take the ZORA Solo Sex Survey to share your experiences with self-pleasure.

Writer and editor in New York City.

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