Sex Tips

The Danger of the Orgasmic Imperative

January 7, 2016 by Justin Lehmiller

Many people are under the impression that all of us are “supposed” to reach orgasm each and every time we have sex. Indeed, when an orgasm does not occur, some people do not even categorize what just happened as sex, because sex without orgasm is often viewed instead as foreplay or “messing around.” As some evidence of this idea, research finds that college students are less likely to classify a given act as “sex” to the extent that orgasm doesn’t occur. That said, others may interpret a lack of orgasm very differently, with some seeing it as a “dysfunction” or a sign of a sexual problem in need of fixing.

This view of orgasm as essential not just to the definition of sex, but also to successful sex creates what has been dubbed the orgasmic imperative. The orgasmic imperative refers to the tremendous sense of pressure and obligation that so many people feel to reach orgasm during sex (and to help their partners reach orgasm as well) [1].

Sex therapists have argued for years that this orgasmic imperative is destructive and can potentially create sexual problems by causing people to view sex as an activity in which something needs to be achieved, rather than an act pursued for 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 approaching sex in this achievement-oriented fashion and, instead, relax [2]. This is important because not only can the orgasmic imperative lead to distraction and take us “out of the moment” during sex, but it can also set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In other words, if you start to worry that an orgasm will not happen, it may very well come true as a result of your mindset. The goal of many sex therapy programs is therefore to restructure the way that clients approach sex so that feelings of anxiety are replaced with pleasure.

In summary, although the expectation of mutual orgasm is certainly 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. Just relax—and remember that you can still enjoy sex a great deal regardless of whether you or your partner have orgasms.

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[1] Frith, H. (2013). Accounting for orgasmic absence: Exploring heterosex using the story completion method. Psychology & Sexuality, 4(3), 310-322.

[2] Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston: Little, Brown.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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