A lot of people approach sex in a goal-oriented fashion, thinking that there are certain things they need to do or “achieve” every time. High on this list is the idea that everyone is “supposed” to have an orgasm each time they have sex. So pervasive is this idea that some people do not even categorize certain sex acts as sex unless an orgasm occurs. Moreover, some people see a lack of orgasm (even if it only happens once or on rare occasions) as an inherent sign of sexual dysfunction.
This view of orgasm as essential not just to the definition of sex, but also to people’s idea of successful sex creates something sex therapists have termed the orgasmic imperative. This refers to the enormous sense of pressure and obligation so many of us feel to reach orgasm each time we have sex—and the pressure we put on our partners to make sure they always orgasm, too .
Sex therapists have long argued that the orgasmic imperative is destructive and can potentially create sexual problems. Why is that? Because it causes people to approach sex as an activity in which something needs to be achieved, rather than an act pursued for fun, pleasure, and enjoyment.
William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the founders of the modern sex therapy movement, believed that one of the keys to resolving sexual difficulties is getting clients to stop thinking about sex in this achievement-oriented way and, instead, to just relax and have fun . This is important because the orgasmic imperative is one of those things that takes us out of the moment during sex. Rather than thinking about how good sex feels, we get lost in our heads thinking about what we need to do next.
And when we start to worry than an orgasm might not happen, this can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, we may very well not have an orgasm because we convinced ourselves that it wouldn’t happen. It’s precisely because of this that the goal of many sex therapy programs is to change the way patients approach sex by replacing feelings of anxiety with relaxation.
Although the expectation of mutual orgasm is common, it is important to avoid getting caught up in the idea that an orgasm has to happen every time you have sex. Good sex is not about putting pressure on yourself or a partner to achieve something.
So how can you avoid succumbing to the orgasmic imperative? For starters, dump the script and try being more “in the moment” during sex—pay attention to the sensations and feelings you’re experiencing rather than thinking about what’s “supposed” to happen next. Having trouble with this? Consider trying mindfulness exercises (learn more here and here).
Also, think about what you say to your partner during sex. For example, as a form of dirty talk, some people seemingly demand an orgasm (such as when they repeatedly say things like “cum for me, baby”). However, while this may be a well-intentioned effort to enhance arousal, dirty talk like this can sometimes backfire and have the paradoxical effect of making an orgasm less likely by amping up the sense of pressure and expectation.
Think, too, about how you react when one of you doesn’t have an orgasm. If an orgasm doesn’t occur, rather than ending the encounter in despair and disappointment or prolonging the encounter to the point where it becomes physically uncomfortable and unenjoyable for all, focus instead on the fun and pleasure that you had together. When you start to obsess about what didn’t happen during sex, it can increase the odds that you’ll enter your next sexual encounter feeling stressed an anxious, which can lower the odds of your next orgasm.
So just relax. Remember that everyone can still enjoy sex a great deal regardless of whether orgasms happen all around.
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 Frith, H. (2013). Accounting for orgasmic absence: Exploring heterosex using the story completion method. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(3), 310-322.
 Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston: Little, Brown.
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