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Orgasms are the release of built up physical and/or psychological sexual tension and arousal. An orgasm is a powerful feeling of physical pleasure and sensation, and can bring feelings of happiness or wellbeing.

What is an orgasm?

Orgasms are the release of built up physical and/or psychological sexual tension and arousal. Orgasming can also be known as ‘coming’ or ‘climaxing’.  

Orgasms are a very personal experience and people have different ways of describing how it feels to orgasm. Generally, however, an orgasm is a powerful feeling of physical pleasure and sensation, and can bring feelings of happiness or wellbeing.  

Aside from bringing pleasure, for people with a penis an orgasm serves a biological purpose of expelling semen from the testicles, which can then cause conception if sperm comes into contact with an egg, such as through vaginal sex. For people with a vagina, the orgasm is only for pleasure and is not necessary for conception. 

What happens (physically) when you orgasm

An orgasm is created by the tensing and releasing of certain muscles, and along with the release of feel-good hormones such as endorphins, this is what creates feelings of physical and emotional pleasure.  

People with a penis 

The build up to an orgasm

  • When a person with a penis is aroused (physically by touching and/or feeling excited), blood flows into the spongy tissue of the penis, causing the penis to grow and harden. This is called an erection.
  • At the same time, the testicles move closer to his body as the skin around them (scrotum) gets tighter.
  • The testicles also get bigger as more blood flows to that area.
  • Thigh and buttock muscles tense, blood pressure rises, the pulse and breath quicken

During an orgasm

  • The pelvic floor muscles, prostate gland, vas deferens and seminal vesticles contract
  • These contractions push semen (a mixture of sperm and seminal fluid) into urethra where it is carried out of the body – this is called ejaculation
  • The average orgasm for people with a penis lasts 10-30 seconds
  • After an orgasm, there is a time in which further orgasms aren’t possible. This is known as the ‘refractory period’. Its length varies from person to person. It can last from a few minutes to a few days, and this period generally grows longer as people get older. During this phase, the penis and testicles return to their original size. The rate of breathing will be heavy and fast, and the pulse will be fast. 

More about penises and testicles

People with a vagina 

During the build up to an orgasm:

  • When a person with a vagina is aroused physically by touching or feels excited, the blood vessels within their genitals expand.
  • Increased blood supply causes the vulva to swell
  • Fluid passses through the walls of the vagina which makes the vulva swollen and wet
  • Inside, the vagina also becomes longer. 
  • Heart rate and breath quicken and blood pressure increases
  • The person may look flushed, particularly on the neck and chest
  • Breasts can increase in size by as much as 25% and nipples can appear less erect because of increased blood flow
  • The clitoris pulls back against the pubic bone, sometimes seeming to disappear

During an orgasm

  • The pelvic floor muscles contract around every 0.8 seconds
  • Orgasms for people with vaginas typically last an average of 13 – 51 seconds
  • Most people with vaginas do not have a refractory (recovery) period and so can have further orgasms if they are stimulated again, although this is not possible for everyone. These are known as multiple orgasms. 

More about vaginas and vulvas.

Getting to an orgasm

Often the starting point is desire (wanting sex or intimacy with another person) but some people find that they start to want sex only after they have become physically and emotionally excited. This excitement is known as arousal. If someone has a vagina they may start to get wet, and if someone has a penis they may start to get hard.   

People experience a wide range of physical signs of arousal including increased heart rate and tingling sensation in the genitals. Becoming aroused is the body’s way of preparing for sex, but is very pleasurable in itself and doesn’t need to lead to orgasm.  

If you continue to be aroused and stimulated through touch, you may get to feeling ‘on the edge’ of an orgasm and most people agree it feels good. You might then experience an orgasm. After orgasm your muscles relax and many people say they experience a sense of wellbeing and peace.   

A lot of people with vaginas can’t have an orgasm through vaginal penetrative sex alone. Most need some kind of stimulation of the clitoris, which contains lots of nerve endings, similar to the head of the penis. Stimulating the clitoris can be a helpful and sometimes necessary way of achieving orgasm during penetrative sex. It is helpful to keep in mind that the clitoris is the main source of pleasure for people with vaginas. 

Masturbation and Orgasms

Getting to an orgasm can take practice and most people reach their first orgasm through masturbation. It is easier to reach orgasm if you feel relaxed, if you and your partner let each other know what sexual activities you like and dislike, and if you are turned on by each other. More about masturbation

How long does it take to orgasm?

Orgasms can vary according to mood, where you are in your menstrual cycle, sexual position, communication with partner, situation, and lots many other things too.  

This also means that the time it takes to orgasm varies from person to person and might be different each time. However, on average, it takes people with a penis much less time than people with a vagina to have an orgasm.  

Orgasms in porn

Porn is generally not representative of real sexual experiences or how most people’s bodies function.

It often gives the impression that people with penises can last a long time before orgasming, and that people with vaginas can have orgasms very quickly and easily.  In reality, like all film productions, there are breaks, re-takes and clever editing tricks that take place behind the scenes. 
It’s important to remember that porn actors are working when they are filming. People tend to reach orgasm faster when they are turned on. The set of a porn shoot is a place of work with lights, a production crew and pressure to perform, which might make it difficult for the actors to feel aroused. It is not a natural, intimate moment between people who are physically or emotionally attracted to each other. 

Often the actors pretend to have orgasms and use staging tricks to create the visual impression of an orgasm. The way people feel and look when having an orgasm is often very different from how actors in porn appear to have orgasms.  
More about porn

Premature ejaculation 

When talking about ejaculation in relation to sex, people are generally referring to when semen (usually containing sperm) is discharged from the penis as the result of an orgasm. 

Premature ejaculation is when this happens earlier in sex than is wanted, either by the person or their partner(s). Most people with penises will experience premature ejaculation at some point in their life, and this is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about. 

However, if you find it is happening a lot and you or your partner are unhappy about it, you may want to go to your GP or a sexual health clinic for help and support. 

More about premature ejaculation

Is it only people with penises who ejaculate?

People with vulvas can also ejaculate, though it’s not something that everyone with a vulva will necessarily experience and isn’t always linked to an orgasm. This is commonly referred to as “female ejaculation” or “squirting”. 

Sex isn’t just about orgasms

Orgasms are fun, but if that is your only aim it can take the fun out of sex. Putting pressure on yourself or your partner to have an orgasm can actually make it harder to do, and can encourage performance anxiety rather than enjoyment. Also, you or your partner having an orgasm doesn’t mean sex has to finish there if you don’t want it to!

Our advice is to let go of any ‘scripts’ about how sex should be and go with the flow! Taking the pressure off certain activities and being flexible with your expectations can help you relax and enjoy being intimate with someone. 
More about how to have great sex safely

Things that can affect orgasms

Drugs and alcohol 

There are various reasons people choose to use drugs or alcohol, and one of them is to become more confident and make it feel easier to engage in sexual activity. For example, some people may drink to relax them and give them the confidence to flirt or hook up with someone they fancy. 

Using drugs or alcohol may make engaging in sexual activity feel easier, however, it is important to know that it comes with downsides and risks.  

There is a common myth that drugs and alcohol can mentally and physically help you have better sex that lasts longer than when you are sober. 

In reality, alcohol and drugs can make you want sex less. You might feel mentally turned-on but your body might not respond:

  • For people with a vagina, if sexual arousal decreases with drugs and alcohol there will probably be a decrease in vaginal lubrication. Having penetrative sex when the vagina is not lubricated can be uncomfortable.
  • For people with a penis, drugs and alcohol can make it difficult to maintain an erection. More about erection problems.

It can also be more difficult to have an orgasm while high or drunk partly because your sensations will be reduced. While an orgasm doesn’t need to be the point of sex, and there is lots about sex that makes it enjoyable beyond physical sensation, it can be frustrating and much less fun than sex when you are sober.  

Alcohol, drugs and consent

The sexual offenses act is very clear about the impact of alcohol and drugs on someone’s ability to consent: “If they are drunk or high, then they may not have the capacity to consent to sex and this includes any kind of sexual activity, like kissing or fondling”.   
Someone should be fully coordinated and responsive before you engage in any kind of sexual activity with them. If you are unsure if they are drunk or high, be cautious and wait until they have sobered up to check for consent. More about giving and getting consent
If someone forces you to do something you do not want to do of a sexual nature, it is never your fault and it is not okay. You should speak to someone you trust so that you can get help and support. 

Risky behaviour

Alcohol and drugs can affect people’s ability make decisions – including decisions about contraception and safe sex. A person’s judgement can be affected and they may do or say things that put them at risk. This includes risky sexual behaviour, such as not using contraception or going home with someone without telling anyone.  

Carrying condoms is a great idea to make sure you are prepared for a sexual encounter and can make safer choices about sex. 

Remember: condoms are the only type of contraception that also protects against STIs, so even if pregnancy isn’t a concern, they are still important!  

More about condoms

Mental health 

A person’s ability to have an orgasm can be affected by their mental health. When someone is under a lot of stress, or mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, they might find it difficult to have an orgasm. Anti-depressants (medication some people take to help with depression), can affect your sex drive and ability to orgasm.


Hormonal changes can have an impact on someone’s ability to reach orgasm. This can particularly be the case for people with vaginas, whose hormones change regularly with their menstrual cycle. You might find that you want sex more at certain times in your cycle compared to others. More about the menstrual cycle

Change in hormones can cause:  

  • Reduced sex drive 
  • Reduced natural lubrication 
  • Difficulty maintaining an erection 
  • Reduced genital sensitivity 

More broadly, hormones are constantly affecting people’s sex drives and experience of sex, and this isn’t always a bad thing. It is totally natural for your sex drive and body to fluctuate and change, and not something you need to worry about. However, if you are finding that any aspect of your mood (including your sex drive) is regularly changing in ways that you find difficult to manage, then you may want to seek help. If you are concerned, you can speak to your GP, a counsellor or a trusted adult. 

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