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Female Orgasmic Disorder

Female Orgasmic Disorder



Causes and symptoms








Female orgasmic disorder (FOD) is the persistent or recurrent inability of a woman to have an orgasm (climax or sexual release) after adequate sexual arousal and sexual stimulation. According to the handbook used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , fourth edition, text revision (also known as the DSM-IV-TR), this lack of response can be primary (a woman has never had an orgasm) or secondary (acquired after trauma), and can be either general or situation-specific. There are both physiological and psychological causes for a woman’s inability to have an orgasm. To receive the diagnosis of FOD, the inability to have an orgasm must not be caused only by physiological problems or be a symptom of another major mental health problem. FOD may be diagnosed when the disorder is caused by a combination of physiological and psychological difficulties. To be considered FOD, the condition must cause personal distress or problems in a relationship. In earlier versions of the DSM. FOD was called “inhibited sexual orgasm.”


FOD is the persistent or recurrent inability of a woman to achieve orgasm. This lack of response affects the quality of the woman’s sexual experiences. To understand FOD, it is first necessary to understand the physiological changes that normally take place in a woman’s body during sexual arousal and orgasm.

Normally, when a woman is sexually excited, the blood vessels in the pelvic area expand, allowing more blood to flow to the genitals, as also occurs in men. This effusion is followed by the seepage of fluid out of blood vessels and into the vagina to provide lubrication before and during intercourse. These events are called the “lubrication-swelling response.”

Body tension and blood flow to the pelvic area continue to build as a woman receives more sexual stimulation; this occurs either by direct pressure on the clitoris or as pressure on the walls of the vagina and cervix. This tension builds as blood flow increases. When tension is released, pleasurable rhythmic contractions of the uterus and vagina occur; this release is called an orgasm. The contractions carry blood away from the genital area and back into general circulation.

It is normal for orgasms to vary in intensity, length, and number of contractions from woman to woman, as well as in a single individual from experience to experience. Unlike men, woman can have multiple orgasms in a short period of time. Mature women, who may be more sexually experienced than younger women, may find it easier to have orgasms than adolescents or the sexually inexperienced.

In a woman with FOD, sexual arousal and lubrication occur. Body tension builds, but the woman is unable or has extreme difficulty reaching climax and releasing the tension. This inability can lead to frustration and unfulfilling sexual experiences for both partners. FOD often occurs in conjunction with other sexual dysfunctions. Also, lack of orgasm can cause anger, frustration, and other problems in the relationship.

Causes and symptoms

With FOD, a woman either does not have an orgasm or has extreme difficulty regularly reaching climax. It is normal for women to lack this response occasionally, or to have an orgasm only with specific types of stimulation. The occasional failure to reach orgasm or dependence on a particular type of stimulation is not the same as FOD.

The causes of FOD can be both physical and psychological. FOD is most often a primary or lifelong disorder, meaning that a woman has never achieved orgasm under any type of stimulation, including self-stimulation (masturbation), direct stimulation of the clitoris by a partner, or vaginal intercourse. Some women experience secondary or acquired FOD. These women have had orgasms, but lose the ability after illness, emotional trauma, or as a side effect of surgery or medication. Acquired FOD is often temporary.

FOD can be generalized or situation-specific. In generalized FOD, the failure to have an orgasm occurs with different partners and in many different settings. In situational FOD, inability to reach climax occurs only with specific partners or under particular circumstances. FOD may be due either to psychological factors or a combination of physiological and psychological factors, but not due to physiological factors alone.

Physiological causes of FOD include:

  • damage to the blood vessels of the pelvic region
  • spinal cord lesions or damage to the nerves in the pelvic area
  • side effects of medications (i.e., antipsychotics, anti-depressants, narcotics) or illicit substance abuse
  • removal of the clitoris (also called female genital mutilation, a cultural practice in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia)

Psychological causes of FOD include:

  • past sexual abuse, rape, incest, or other traumatic sexual experiences
  • emotional abuse
  • fear of becoming pregnant
  • fear of rejection by partner
  • fear of loss of control during orgasm
  • self-image problems
  • relationship problems with partner
  • life stresses, such as financial worries, job loss, or divorce
  • guilt about sex or sexual pleasure
  • religious or cultural beliefs about sex
  • other mental health disorders such as major depression

Recent studies of twins suggest that genes play a large role in the development of orgasmic dysfunction in women. Researchers have found a level of genetic involvement in this disorder that is similar to that for age of onset of menses or menopause, or presence of depression or anxiety.


Inability to have an orgasm, discontent with the quality of orgasms, and the ability to have orgasms only with one type of stimulation are common sexual complaints among women. Some studies have found that about half of all women experience some orgasmic difficulties, but not all of these difficulties are considered FOD. About 50% of women experience orgasm through direct clitoral stimulation but not during intercourse, thus not meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of FOD. About 10% of women never experience an orgasm, regardless of the situation or stimulation. These women are more likely to be unmarried, young, and sexually inexperienced.


FOD is diagnosed through a medical and psychological history, and history of the conditions under which orgasm fails to occur. It is especially helpful for the clinician or sex therapist to understand how long the problem has persisted, and whether it is general or situational. FOD is sometimes found in conjunction with sexual aversion disorder and female sexual arousal disorder , making the diagnosis complex. To be diagnosed with FOD, the lack of orgasmic response must occur regularly over an extended period of time; based on the clinician’s judgment, it must be less than would be reasonable based on age, sexual experience, and the adequacy of sexual stimulation. The lack of orgasm must cause emotional distress or relationship difficulties for the woman and be caused either only by psychological factors alone or by a combination of psychological and physical factors. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), a diagnosis of FOD is not appropriate if failure to climax is due only to physiological factors. FOD is also not diagnosed if it is a symptom of another major psychological disorder, such as depression.


When failure to reach orgasm is caused by a physical problem, the root problem is treated. In other cases, a combination of education, counseling, psychotherapy , and sex therapy are used—often along with directed exercises to increase stimulation and decrease inhibitions.

Sex therapists have special training to help individuals and couples focus on overcoming specific sexual dysfunctions. In couples’ therapy, therapists often assign “homework” that focuses on relaxation techniques, sexual exploration, improving sexual communication, decreasing inhibitions, and increasing direct clitoral stimulation. Individually, a woman might be encouraged to masturbate either through self-stimulation or with a vibrator. In addition, Kegel exercises, which improve the strength and tone of the muscles in the genital area, may be recommended.

Traditional psychotherapy, or talk therapy , alone or in conjunction with sex therapy, can be effective in resolving psychological causes of FOD, especially when those causes are rooted in past sexual or emotional exploitation or cultural taboos. Psychotherapy


Cervix —The neck or narrow lower end of a woman’s uterus.

Clitoris —The most sensitive area of the external genitals. Stimulation of the clitoris causes most women to reach orgasm.

Uterus —The hollow muscular sac in which a fetus develops; sometimes called the womb.

Vagina —The part of the female reproductive system that opens to the exterior of the body and into which the penis is inserted during sexual intercourse.

is also helpful in resolving relationship tensions that develop as a result of frustration from FOD.

Experts Jennifer and Laura Berman found that a patient who took a synthetic form of testosterone found some improvement with her condition. These same experts also recommend that women do Kegel exercises—contraction and release of the muscles of the pelvic floor, the same ones women use to stop a urine stream—to improve their orgasmic experiences.


Many women with FOD can be helped to achieve orgasm through a combination of psychotherapy and guided sexual exercises. However, this does not mean that they will be able to achieve orgasm all the time or in every situation, or that they will always be satisfied with the strength and quality of their climax. Couples often need to work through relationship issues that have either caused or resulted from FOD before they see improvement. This process takes time and requires a joint commitment to problem solving.


There are no sure ways to prevent FOD. However, reducing life factors that cause stress can be effective. Seeking counseling or psychotherapy for past trauma, or when problems begin to appear in a relationship, can help minimize sexual dysfunction problems.



American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed., Text rev. Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

Berman, Jennifer, MD, and Laura Berman, PhD. For Women Only: A Revolutionary Guide to Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction and Reclaiming Your Sex Life. New York: Henry Holt, 2001.

Sadock, Benjamin J., and Virginia A. Sadock, eds. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 7th ed. Vol. 2. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2000.


Dunn, Kate M., Lynn F. Cherkas, and Tim D. Spector. “Genetic Influences on Variation in Female Orgasmic Function: A Twin Study.” Biology Letters 1 (2005): 260–63.

Everaerd, Walter, and Ellen Laan. “Drug Treatments for Women’s Sexual Disorders.” Journal of Sex Research 37 (Aug. 2000): 195–213.

Phillips, Nancy. “Female Sexual Dysfunction: Evaluation and Treatment.” American Family Physician (July 1, 2000).


American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). P.O. Box 238, Mount Vernon, IA 53214-0238. Telephone: (319) 895-8407. <>.

Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). West 42nd Street, Suite 350, New York, NY 10036-7802. <>.


Berney, Karen. “Female Orgasmic Disorder: ‘I’m not able to climax’.” Discovery Health. <>.

Tish Davidson, A.M.
Emily Jane Willingham, PhD

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