By Justin Lehmiller
How does someone feel when they have an orgasm? If you’re like most people, you probably said that they feel pretty darn good. This makes sense because there’s a widespread tendency to assume that orgasms necessarily equal pleasure.
This association is so strong that pleasure is actually embedded in the definition of orgasm in many dictionaries. For example, Merriam-Webster describes orgasm as both “intense excitement” and “rapid pleasurable release.” In light of this, it’s no wonder that many of us even use the word “orgasmic” to describe intensely pleasurable experiences that have nothing to do with sex, such as eating a really tasty dessert.
However, it turns out that this line of thinking isn’t entirely correct. While orgasms are indeed pleasurable experiences most of the time, a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that it’s very much possible to have a “bad” orgasm during a consensual sexual encounter.
For this study, 726 participants were recruited online to complete a survey about their previous experiences with sex and orgasm. On average, participants were 28 years old and most were involved in romantic relationships. The sample was diverse and inclusive with respect to both gender identity (8.8% identified as gender non-binary) and sexual identity (58.8% identified as something other than heterosexual/straight).
Participants were asked whether they had ever had an orgasm during a consensual encounter in which they either felt pressured into sex, pressured into having an orgasm, or had otherwise agreed to sex that was unwanted (such as being really tired, but saying yes anyway). The researchers focused on orgasms during these situations because they believed the circumstances are likely to set the stage for a less than satisfying experience.
After indicating whether they’d ever had an orgasm under these circumstances, participants who said yes were asked several follow-up questions, such as how they felt about the orgasm and the thoughts that crossed their mind about it. They were also asked to compare these orgasms to orgasms they had experienced in more positive situations, as well as to reflect on how their personal identities shaped their experiences.
It turned out that almost half of the participants (48.1%) reported having had an orgasm during coerced sex (sex they felt verbally pressured to have), compliant sex (sex they said yes to, but didn’t really want), or sex in which there was pressure to have an orgasm (from oneself or from a partner). A qualitative analysis of participants’ orgasmic descriptions during these encounters suggested that they were often “bad” orgasms.
In fact, most participants described these orgasms as less pleasurable than orgasms that occurred without pressure. Approximately two-thirds (66.1%) rated their orgasm quality as lower and indicated that their orgasms were weaker, consisted only of physical reactions, produced less emotional pleasure, and/or were even painful.
Moreover, many participants suggested that these orgasms had a negative impact on their mental health, relationship, and/or sexuality. For example, some said that it made them lose desire for sex, that it harmed their future sexual performance, that it strained their relationship, or that it led to feelings of disgust or frustration.
That said, orgasms during these encounters were not always negative. A minority described them as positive and actually reported benefits from them. For example, some said that even though they didn’t want the sex (but consented to it anyway), they saw it as a way of increasing intimacy or improving their relationship. Likewise, some interpreted pressure to orgasm from their partner as a sign that their partner was invested in their pleasure.
People’s identities shaped how they perceived these experiences to some degree. For example, among women who have sex with men, some described feeling pressured to orgasm in order to boost their partner’s ego. At the same time, though, some men (both heterosexual and non-heterosexual) said that stereotypes about men’s orgasms being “easy to have” amplified pressure to orgasm in negative ways, such as feeling as though one needs to orgasm in order to validate their partner’s sexual skills or attractiveness.
Several bisexual participants also discussed how their sexual identity created unique pressure to orgasm. For example, if a bisexual man doesn’t orgasm when he’s with a woman, she might assume he’s not bi and is actually gay, which can amp up the performance anxiety.
In addition to gender and sexual orientation, some participants described how factors such as being fetishized for one’s race or feeling moral conflicts about sex contributed to negative orgasmic experiences, suggesting that a wide range of identities are relevant in shaping people’s experiences.
It’s important to note that this research is just a starting point in terms of describing the phenomenon of “bad” orgasms. For one thing, given that this research involved an online convenience sample, we do not know the true prevalence of them. For another, this research only asked about orgasm experiences under a limited set of circumstances, and it’s possible that negative orgasmic experiences can occur in a wider range of sexual situations.
Although more research is certainly needed, these results are important because they indicate that orgasms during consensual sex are not an inherently positive experience—“bad” orgasms can and do occur. We might therefore do well to broaden our definition and understanding of orgasm in order to highlight the great variability that exists in the orgasmic experience.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is an award winning educator and a prolific researcher and scholar. In addition to publishing articles in some of the leading journals on sex and relationships, he has written two textbooks and produces the popular blog Sex & Psychology. Dr. Lehmiller’s research addresses topics including casual sex, sexual fantasy, sexual health, and friends with benefits. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or facebook.com/psychologyofsex.
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