Orgasms are a complex psychophysiological response.
We often talk about orgasms with the assumption that they’re always pleasurable and always wanted, but that’s far from the reality.
A new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior surveyed 726 people and found approximately 55% of them had experienced a “bad orgasm.” These included orgasm experiences that felt negative or just not positive, orgasms that felt less pleasurable compared to other experiences, orgasms that were painful, and orgasm experiences that had negative effects on their psychological health and relationships.
Yes, some orgasms can feel bad.
The bad orgasms people described in the study occurred in instances when the person felt the sex was consensual while also feeling they’d been coerced into having sex when they didn’t want it, when they complied with unwanted sex, or when they simply felt pressured to have an orgasm when they didn’t want to have one. (Note: Some scholars see sexual coercion as inherently nonconsensual, but these participants specifically described their experiences as consensual—despite a negative context and some negative results.)
“Physical stimulation alone is sometimes enough to elicit a physiological orgasm response, even in situations when negative affect is high and psychological and physical arousal and desire are absent,” the researchers write in the paper.
These experiences may be related to arousal nonconcordance, in which the mind and body are out of sync: The body is aroused when the mind isn’t, or vice versa. Past studies have shown people can experience orgasm in all sorts of nonsexual situations, from exercise to breastfeeding to brushing your teeth. Some sexual assault survivors have even experienced orgasms during their trauma, clearly demonstrating how some orgasms can be completely unwanted.
Some people in the present study described their bad orgasms as a “solely physical response with no pleasure at all.” Others actually described their orgasms as painful. While pain during orgasms can be a sign of sexual dysfunction, many described their pain as specific to the circumstance: Their bodies weren’t aroused enough or ready for the intense sensation.
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Feeling pressured to orgasm can ruin the experience.
Feeling pressured to orgasm can be very stressful and taint the entire experience, even if you do end up having one. The researchers point out that both women and men can have this experience: Women report feeling pressured to have orgasms “to bolster men’s egos and make them feel sexually accomplished” and feeling additionally pressured when they feel they’re “taking too long” to orgasm. Men describe feeling pressured to orgasm every time they have sex (and not too quickly) “to avoid feelings of embarrassment and failure.”
“Having an orgasm upon feeling pressured may be positive for some people because it relieves the pressure, but it could also make the entire experience feel stressful, frustrating, or negative in other ways, potentially constituting a bad orgasm experience,” the researchers explain.
The psychological effects of a bad orgasm.
People also told the researchers about negative psychological consequences from some orgasms, particularly when they happened during sex involving coercion, compliance despite a lack of desire, or pressure. Many cited feeling “upset, frustrated, or emotionally detached,” while others reported, “feeling frustrated with or betrayed by their body because their orgasm was unwanted.” Some said they thought they shouldn’t have had an orgasm because they didn’t want to be having sex in the first place, and the fact that they’d had the orgasm was distressing or disorienting. Other descriptions of these orgasms included terms like “mental torture,” “hollow and mechanical,” and “irritating and uncomfortable.”
Some participants specifically mentioned feeling upset about their orgasm because it made their partner believe everything was OK and made it seem like the sexual experience was positive and wanted. This made participants feel ignored, and it affected not only their relationship to their partners but affected their feelings about sex (and, in some instances, their physical arousal and libido). Some people described their orgasms in these situations as making them feel “sad and detached” or “betrayed” by their body, as their orgasm seemed to invalidate just how bad they felt about the experience.
“Assuming that orgasms can only occur when sex is wanted or enjoyed may have detrimental effects on the psychological health of those who have orgasm during [negative sexual experiences],” the researchers write. “For example, having an orgasm may lead individuals to question or doubt their own perceptions of a negative and/or problematic sexual encounter. Again, our findings support the message that orgasm does not necessarily equate to enjoyment; and, continuing to assume that it does risks dismissing people’s lived experiences.”
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Reframing the way we talk about orgasms.
These findings suggest that it’s important for us to avoid talking about orgasms like they’re intrinsically a positive experience. Orgasms can feel very good, but we shouldn’t assume that’s always the case. Having an orgasm doesn’t necessarily mean you wanted the encounter, it doesn’t mean you were aroused, and it doesn’t mean the experience was pleasurable. All it means is that your body had a physical, natural response to a certain set of stimuli.
We need to make space for the wide array of sexual experiences people have. When we’re attuned to these nuances, we create a culture where people don’t make assumptions about each other’s sexual needs or their own, where checking in with each other is the expectation and the norm, and where people are equipped to understand and communicate what we enjoy and don’t enjoy without shame, guilt, or confusion.
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