I have this friend with benefits. He’s incredible with his hands — better than anyone I’ve ever hooked up with — and can stimulate me for what feels like hours without cramping or tiring (or so he claims). But while his eagerness to please is great — like, really great — it also means I often get to a point of “too much.” Basically, I hit a wall where I’ve felt enough significant and consistent pressure on my clit that I become sensitive to the slightest touch, and I can’t orgasm again.
Overstimulation — the point where sexual pleasure turns into discomfort or pain — can happen for various reasons, including the clit being rubbed too hard for too long, a penis being stroked too fast or too rough or a person being stimulated after they’ve already orgasmed. Likewise, it can be exacerbated for people who live with chronic pain or conditions like lichen sclerosus in the genital region, vulvodynia (pain on the vulva), phimosis (tight foreskin) or a sexually transmitted infection. And if psychological desire is low, it can become even easier to feel the numbing sensation of overstimulation on the nerves.
But what exactly is happening inside a person’s body that would transform pleasure into pain, and why is it keeping me from cumming on an indefinite loop?
To answer that question, it’s helpful to look at one pleasure organ at a time. Let’s start with the clit: We know that it contains about 8,000 nerve endings, which is four times more than just the head of an average penis, and more than any other organ in the human body. That obviously means it’s intensely sensitive, and explains why, for someone with a clitoris, varying levels of pressure can result in pleasure and, occasionally, overstimulation.
A lack of vaginal lubrication, which is maintained by the hormone estrogen, is also to blame. “Hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone play an important role with our arousal response,” says Reece Malone, a Winnipeg-based sex therapist and sexuality educator. “Without lubrication, penetration can be painful or going too long can result in irritation and micro-tearing.”
Meanwhile, estradiol — the predominant form of estrogen — is essential for erectile function in people with penises. If hormone synthesis isn’t functioning well and estradiol levels are off, it might be harder to maintain arousal, and any attempt to increase it might not be effective. After ejaculating, too, it can take longer to feel aroused and ejaculate again. Efforts to get an erection after orgasm, then, can lead to physical overstimulation.
Renee Lanctot, a Vancouver-based sexologist, spares no dramatics, calling overstimulation “the point of no return,” which can absolutely be every bit the horror-tragi-comedy it sounds like (maybe with a little sci-fi mixed in).
As it turns out, when nerve cells are first stimulated, “a refractory period” — a kind of resting state — sets in. If you were to restimulate these cells, Lanctot says, they wouldn’t be able to fire again until time has passed and the refractory period concludes. And that’s true for any set of genitals, despite conflicting opinions over the years.
For people with clits and vaginas, the refractory period is significantly shorter, though. That’s why we’re able to quickly feel pleasure again after orgasming (and why many of us can experience multiple orgasms). Technically, some women can orgasm again right after they cum, but they don’t always want to due to the feeling of overstimulation, which creates this sort of resting, “give me a break for a minute” state.
People with penises can also experience multiple orgasms, but most often, they have to wait it out after ejaculating in order to be able to orgasm again. All the while, men’s sympathetic nervous systems are busy, producing and releasing the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormones prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin is the key cock-blocker at work here, lowering dopamine in the body, which is released during arousal, along with testosterone, all of which results in a rather flaccid no-cum period. For their part, the oxytocin and serotonin make men drowsy and less focused, essentially turning them off sexually and making it so that any attempt to arouse themselves again is gonna hurt.
“The more prolactin you have, the longer the refractory period can be,” says Lanctot. “That’s when the discomfort arrives, and that period is saying, ‘Do not touch me.’ It’s like a protection mechanism — your body doesn’t want you to waste your time.”
How long the refractory period lasts for penises depends — if you’re an eager 17-year-old, maybe just a few minutes, but if you’re a 60-something, maybe a day or two. For clits and vaginas, the research is less extensive, but it can be as little as seconds to minutes. It’s worth noting here that the latter two often take longer to orgasm than dicks do, so snapping back won’t be as quick for everyone. Either way, it’s the body’s warning sign, screaming at you that it’s tired and to leave it alone — it needs to recharge.
In the meantime, Malone suggests considering other ways to experience sexual pleasure. “We tend to forget we have an entire body to consider rather than just our genitals,” she says. Role-playing, using toys, talking dirty and stimulating other erogenous zones can help bridge the gap between orgasms so you don’t have to go too long without the sensations you’re craving.
In other words, get crafty. Refractory periods and wonky hormones may take you out of the game for a minute, but don’t give up that easily — you’ve got a whole body left to overstimulate. Why not use it?