Having an orgasm isn’t the be all and end all to great sex, but it certainly helps the good times flow.
In a survey of 2,769 people, most of whom identified as female, 15% said they orgasm every time they have sex with a partner, 45% said most of the time, 27% said rarely, and 13% said they never orgasm. When discussing the barriers to orgasm, the top reasons flagged in the survey by Cosmopolitan UK were: the partner, body confidence, sex drive and mental health.
Orgasms make us feel good. They’re pleasurable (obvs), but they can also boost our mood, relieve stress and help us feel close to our partners. While we shouldn’t be pressuring ourselves to have them all the time – after all, sex can still be amazing without – there are things that can be done to help break down those barriers to orgasm so every sexual encounter can feel more liberating.
We asked a sexologist and sex therapist for their advice on overcoming some of the common barriers to orgasm you might face in the bedroom.
If your partner is behind your orgasm struggles
Cosmo’s survey revealed 39% say it’s a partner who’s stopping them having more orgasms. And there are many reasons why this might be the case.
“It could be that they aren’t providing the correct stimulation the person needs, the person doesn’t feel safe with their partner, or they expect their partner to know what they like without ever saying what they like,” says Gigi Engle, a certified sexologist and author of All The F*cking Mistakes.
Sex and relationships psychotherapist Miranda Christophers often speaks to women who feel under pressure from partners to orgasm, which isn’t conducive to a good time because you’re constantly thinking you need to achieve something – and the more you reach for it, the further it’ll shy away.
“The partner wants to see that they’re really enjoying the sexual experience and while intentions may be good, this can put a lot of pressure on someone,” says Christophers. “Similarly, impatience in a partner can cause issues – most women find they need time to fully relax and ‘let go’. Comments such as, ‘Are you close yet?’ take people up into their head rather than being in their body with their mind totally connected with pleasure.”
“Comments such as, ‘Are you close yet?’ take people up into their head rather than being in their body with their mind totally connected with pleasure.”
– Miranda Christophers, sex therapist
As with most things relating to relationships, the key to pushing past this is communication. This responsibility falls on both partners, who should be advocating for themselves and their partner’s pleasure in an empathetic way. “This creates an atmosphere of exploration rather than discomfort,” says Engle.
If, for example, you’re worrying about your partner’s expectations in bed – and that’s scuppering your ability to orgasm – you need to talk about that. “It’s far more enjoyable and issues are less likely when people don’t feel there are expectations at all – from their partner or themselves,” says Christophers.
If the difficulty achieving orgasm is related to technique or approach, it’s helpful for partners to understand, so this can be adjusted. Instead of saying ‘this is what doesn’t work’, think about what might work or what you may like to try instead and focus on that. Don’t be afraid to put forward suggestions of how to switch things up, either.
Whatever your preferences, chances are your partner will appreciate the heads up. “Stimulation preferences vary,” Christophers continues, “some prefer to stimulate themselves while others prefer a partner’s hand or oral sex. Some women prefer to use vibrators, orgasm with penetration (or without), before, after or at the same time as a partner, or prefer specific positions or rhythms”.
If body confidence is getting in the way
If there are specific areas of your body you’re not comfortable with, it might help to focus on the features of your body you like rather than things you don’t, adds Christophers. “Remind yourself that your sexual partner is attracted to you so they enjoy your body. I think it’s always important to remind ourselves that… we are far more critical of ourselves than anyone else will ever be.”
Stand in front of the mirror and allow yourself to try and see what your partner sees. “If it helps, ask them, or a friend you trust, what they like about you, or feel are attractive attributes,” suggests the therapist.
“Ultimately, if you can recognise your own great qualities… this will really help. Feeling sexy and confident as a sexual being has a lot to do with desire and arousal, so consider what makes you feel this way.”
This could be what you wear, feeling fit and healthy, or being happy with your diet. For others, it might be more about the context when you’re having sex. Things that may help to improve confidence may be having music on, being in a particular place, mood lighting or enjoying some flirtation or chemistry first.
If it’s about ‘sex drive’
Low desire tends to result from the type of sex you’re having, says Engle. “Sex is not an innate human ‘drive’,” she says. “It is not like eating or sleeping. You won’t die without orgasms. The misnomer comes from the feelings we have when we’re sexually aroused – it feels like a animalistic hunger – but it isn’t.”
There are two types of horniness, says the sexologist, and usually only hear about one: spontaneous desire. The other, responsive (or receptive) desire, is much more common, she says. “We need something to trigger that horniness, whether it’s an event, erotic imagery, a fantasy, a smell,” she explains.
“Sexual desire is a bio-psycho-social event. For desire to occur, we need the right number of factors to be in play. Bio (our body) needs to be receptive to arousal; psycho (our mind) needs to be in a mindset that allows for desire; and the social aspects (the relationship with the person/s involved in the sexual encounter) need to be in place – we need to be with people we find attractive, feel safe with, who know how to please us sexually and so on.”
Positive feelings around sex are key here. “Explore your own body, discover what feels good through self-exploration and self-pleasure,” says Christophers. “Allow yourself to think about turn-ons and understand what increases, decreases, peaks or interrupts desire and arousal for you.”
It’s about educating, empowering and liberating yourself. And that might mean challenging yours – or your partner’s – views around sex. But it’ll be worth it.
If mental health is a barrier
Mental health issues– as well as medicines taken for mental illness – can heavily impact on sexual desire, arousal and ability to orgasm. If this is the case for you, it’s important to be kind to yourself, says Christophers. “Communicate with your partner so they know how you’re feeling, and so they can understand it’s related to that, rather than anything they are/aren’t doing.”
Once you’ve had that conversation, take the pressure off yourself. Don’t feel you have to orgasm – or have sex for that matter. Cosmo’s survey found 91% of respondents said sex can be good or pleasurable without an orgasm – and more than half (51%) said they feel satisfied if they don’t orgasm during sex.
And if you do have sex, remember it’s not all about the destination, says Christophers. “Think of it as a journey to enjoy. If you’re having solo or partnered sex, let the focus be on relaxing, taking pressure off and touching for pleasure.”
There are positive mental benefits to having sex – even without the orgasm – because of chemicals released during and after, and the sense of connection it can bring. “It’s worth remembering while orgasms are great, feeling good during and after sex is great, too,” adds Christophers.
And if you’re really struggling, it might be worth seeking out a qualified sex therapist who specialises in anxiety and depression, or other mental health disorders, as they’ll be able to offer more specific help.