All of my orgasms are spectacular in their own way. Some are long and sensual. Others are quick and powerful. Still others sneak up on me before hitting like an avalanche. It never matters to me which kind of orgasm I end up having, they’re all delicious.
The concept that women have varying and even wildly different orgasms, however, has eluded men for centuries. Throughout history, men have seen their own orgasms as the default, relentlessly comparing the anatomy and biology behind the female orgasm to their male counterparts.
That's what makes a new article by Concordia University psychologist James G. Pfaus so remarkable. In what might be the most woke article on orgasms ever written, Pfaus argues we should no longer disregard the multiplicity of women’s orgasmic experiences—but, in fact, embrace it.
"Perhaps it is time to stop treating women’s orgasm as a sociopolitical entity with different sides telling women what they can and cannot experience or debating whether female orgasm is a vestigial male orgasm," Pfaus and his colleagues write in their study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.
The authors continue: "Orgasms do not have to come from one site, nor from all sites; and they do not have to be the same for every woman, nor for every sexual experience even in the same woman, to be whole and valid."
That argument seems pretty logical to me; of course, female pleasure should be considered valid no matter where it comes from. But as Pfaus and his co-authors point out in their paper, doctors and sex researchers have not always believed this to be the case.
For centuries, they write, physicians noted that the clitoris was the primary sex organ, with several claiming to "discover" it in the 1500s. But in the 19th century, researchers changed their mind, declaring the vagina—or the “inverted penis, as they viewed it—the main sex organ and leaving the clitoris behind. Even worse, Victorian-era doctors also decided women didn't experience sexual desire at all and couldn't experience anything close to the male orgasm.
Then Freud came along and said that female orgasms could come from both the vagina and clitoris, but that women who stuck to the latter during adulthood did so because they were stuck in an "infantile" state (um, what?). It wasn't until the 1960s—when sex researchers including Alfred Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson studied female pleasure—that the clitoris re-emerged in the scientific literature as a normal and essential part of women’s orgasms.
As Pfaus and his colleagues explain, there was a reason why many men wanted to keep clitoral pleasure out of the picture for so long:
The blatant disregard for the clitoris in the modern era was seen as an example of the patriarchy fearing female sexuality in general, and the clitoris in particular. Recognition of clitoral orgasm would threaten the entire notion of heterosexuality as an institution and the role of the penis as a provider of pleasure to women.
In other words, men couldn't possibly conceive of a world where female pleasure was something completely separate from them.
But just as the clitoris was finally getting its due, the debate over female orgasm grew even more complex with the introduction of the G-spot. Named after Ernst Gräfenberg, the G-spot is a theoretical location on the vaginal wall, one to two centimeters in diameter, that induces orgasmic pleasure. To this day, scientists still argue over whether or not it exists.
Then in the 2000s, with the help of MRI technology, some scientists began to argue that orgasms really came from the "clitoral complex," an anatomical structure comprised of both internal and external parts which stretches all the way down the vaginal wall. It looks like the wishbone-shaped structure that sex educator Betty Dodson draws at the start of this video:
But in the end, Pfaus argues, this centuries-long debate is kind of pointless because women all orgasm in different ways. Some say they orgasm from penile-vagina penetration while others say they need direct clitoral stimulation. Some say they can only come when they masturbate and others need specific positions. Women have also reported being able to orgasm in their sleep or through nipple stimulation, and some women never orgasm at all. However, no test or study has ever been able to pinpoint exactly where an orgasm comes from in a female. So who are scientists to tell women what's really happening during climax?
As Pfaus and his co-authors write in their paper:
It is likely that women have an enormous capacity to experience orgasms of many different types … [T]he subjective experience of it is not necessarily the same for each woman, and can even be different each time a woman has one. Those differences span physiology and psychology.
They also argue that defining female anatomy and pleasure in relation to men strips women of agency:
It is time to stop making believe that the vagina is an inverted penis or that the clitoris is somehow a ‘vestigial penis’ with a smaller capacity for stimulation and pleasure relative to the penis. And to the chagrin of an unfortunate number of men, it is time to stop acting like sexual interaction begins and ends with an erect penis. Sexual gratification in women never required a penis or penis-shaped sex toy.
With one final mic drop, the authors add that men can’t even begin to understand female orgasm if they insist on comparing it to their own experience: "The application of a restricted reproductive model of male ejaculation to understanding the cause and effect of women’s orgasms only serves to obfuscate and hide the truly remarkable variety of orgasmic experiences a woman can have."
Can I get an amen?
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.