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One of the most common questions sexologists get, particularly from people with vaginas, involves the ability to have an orgasm during solo or partnered sex. Some people with this issue think there’s something wrong with them and might subscribe to incorrect ideas about how to get there. Or they don’t recognize the role arousal plays in their response.

Without sufficient arousal, orgasm is much less likely. And perhaps even more importantly, sex is much less enjoyable. What is it, though, and how can you amp it up?

In a sexual context, arousal is a physical response that changes the way you experience sensation. Arousal has a mental component, too, and involves hormones and other elements of body chemistry, but one part that’s extra-significant to sex involves blood flow. That’s what’s responsible for erection (penile, clitoral: whatever you got and whatever you call it). The way engorged tissues interact with your nerves changes the feeling of a touch, a kiss, the slide of a finger—and, as kinksters know, a slap or a pinch. When arousal isn’t sufficient, all that can feel pretty mediocre—even irritating or painful. When arousal works its magic, though, sensation opens the door to sexual pleasure.

It takes a certain amount of time for arousal to lead to orgasm. The problem some people have is that they rush it—or their partner does. Arousal-building activities can be the difference between mediocre sex and good sex, OK sex and orgasmic sex. This includes what many people call “foreplay,” a term I don’t favor because it sounds like they are working up to “real” sex. Foreplay is real sex, and many people don’t ever go on to other activities like intercourse, because oral sex and busy fingers and hot make-out sessions are all so satisfying. But skipping these things, or just running the bases without taking much time, doesn’t prepare the body for intercourse, if that’s on the menu. 

 In this context, I encourage solo play with your hands and maybe a dildo, not a vibrator, if what you’re seeking is higher arousal and orgasmic connection with a partner. If you are your own partner, vibe away—technology is a fabulous addition to modern life. But other human beings don’t vibrate; other humans have hands and other body parts. So manual self-stimulation gives you a better sense of how long you take to get very aroused, and to explore what that feels like. 

 The entire body can be an erogenous zone, and even during masturbation, zeroing right in on the crotch bypasses elements of arousal that might be really significant for you. Stroke your skin, do some self-massaging, touch your own neck and throat, stimulate your breasts, chest, or nipples, slide slowly down your belly or up your thighs towards your junk. Take your time. Breathe deeply. Move around a little; clenching your butt muscles or thrusting your hips can unlock arousal, too, alone or with a partner. 

Its role is significant even if we don’t count brain chemistry. Solo or partnered, fantasy can increase arousal—and so can erotic visuals or stories. When partners talk dirty to each other, they’re doing the same thing. 

Brains that are preoccupied with stressful topics are brains that can’t shut down the thoughts that suppress sexual arousal. Stop with the coronavirus and the argument you just had with the noisy apartment-dweller above you. Just let your awareness settle into your body and feel it. And the classic orgasm-killer is obsessing about whether you will have an orgasm this time. Don’t do that. Focus on arousal instead. 

If communicating with your partner isn’t sufficient, sometimes a therapist can help. If your arousal challenges are due to depression, medication (including hormonal forms of contraception), oncoming menopause, or other bodily conditions, a talk with a doc might be advisable. 

But before you assume there’s something wrong with you, explore your arousal. The pilot light of your sexual response might just be cranked down too low. 

Carol Queen’s latest book (written with Shar Rednour) is The Sex & Pleasure Book: Good Vibrations Guide to Great Sex for Everyone.

By Dr. Carol Queen
Illustration by Stephanie Martin
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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