New study sheds light on the dark side of orgasms

New research highlights the fact that sex isn’t necessarily good just because it resulted in an orgasm. The findings indicate that an orgasm can sometimes be an entirely negative experience even during consensual sex.

The new study has been published online in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

“There seems to be a widespread assumption that orgasms during consensual sex are always positive, but research had never explored the possibility that they might be negative and/or non-positive under some circumstances,” explained study authors Sara B. Chadwick and Sari M. van Anders, a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan and a professor at Queen’s University, respectively.

“We got interested in exploring whether ‘bad’ orgasms could exist, since we’ve found in other research that orgasm can be a lot more complex than people tend to think.”

The researchers used online advertisements to recruit a sample of 726 adult participants to examine orgasm experiences during coerced sex, consensual but unwanted sex, and while feeling pressured to have an orgasm. A subset of 289 participants also provided qualitative descriptions of their bad orgasm experiences.

So what were the key takeaways?

“First, people should not assume that their partner’s orgasm meant that they wholeheartedly enjoyed the experience,” Chadwick and van Anders told PsyPost.

“Second, people who have had orgasms during unwanted or undesirable encounters should note that their orgasm does not mean they liked it or secretly ‘wanted’ what was happening — it is okay to have mixed or even entirely negative feelings about a sexual encounter where you had an orgasm.”

An analysis of the qualitative descriptions revealed several themes. Many participants described their sexual experiences in negative ways despite having an orgasm.

For example, one bisexual man explained: “I wasn’t really attracted to her, but I was in a dry spell and she came onto me. She made me feel pressured because she eventually started crying and asked why I couldn’t orgasm. That really killed the mood, not a good experience. [The orgasm was] much less pleasurable. More like relief than pleasure.”

Participants also reported that their orgasms were less pleasurable or even physically painful compared to their ordinary experiences. Many suggested that their orgasm had left them feeling upset, frustrated, emotionally detached, or betrayed by their body. A few religious participants said that orgasms had resulted in feelings of shame or guilt.

The authors’ previous research has indicated that some men view their partner’s orgasm as a masculinity achievement — and that appeared to play a role in their current study as well. Many women described feeling pressured to have an orgasm to protect their male partner’s ego.

Sexual orientation and gender identity also played a role in some cases.

For example, multiple bisexual participants told the researchers that they felt pressured to orgasm with partners of different genders to ‘prove’ that they were really bisexual. For some transgender participants, having an orgasm served as a “reminder of being in the wrong body.”

“The bad orgasm experiences we assessed included encounters when people had an orgasm during coerced sex, compliant sex, and/or when they felt pressured to have an orgasm. These are only a few of the ways that orgasm experiences might be ‘bad’ – there could be others that we did not assess in this study,” Chadwick and van Anders noted.

“Also, we are interested in learning more about how these kinds of experiences impact people. Our participants suggested that bad orgasm experiences negatively affected their sexuality, relationships, and psychological health. We would like to study these effects more systematically to better understand the degree of impact and potential disparities in impacts among different individuals.”

Some participants reported that bad orgasms led to positive outcomes, such as increased communication with their partner — highlighting an important point.

“For good sex, people should listen carefully to their partner’s explicit needs and desires but also the unstated things they communicate (e.g., nonverbally, with gestures, etc.). Consider questions like: Did your partner turns away from you or not respond when you tried to initiate sex? Did they say they were finished with a sexual encounter even though they did not orgasm?” the researchers told PsyPost.

“Pushing someone to have sex or continue sex until orgasm when they do not want to be having sex can make your partner feel coerced, ignored, and/or generally negative about the encounter, even if they end up having an orgasm.”

“People can have orgasms during unwanted sex, sex that has complicated, mixed-feeling moments, or even just mediocre/boring sex. Orgasm does not automatically make the sex ‘great’ and it does not invalidate negative feelings about certain parts of the encounter or the encounter in general,” Chadwick and van Anders said.

The study, “When Orgasms Do Not Equal Pleasure: Accounts of ‘Bad’ Orgasm Experiences During Consensual Sexual Encounters“, was authored by Sara B. Chadwick, Miriam Francisco, and Sari M. van Anders.