Art by Emma Olswing

Many of us have woken up from a sexy dream, throbbing with excitement. Some of us are even luckier, and can climax from nipple stimulation, or dry humping, or even intense genital-free makeouts. Sex worker, artist, sexologist, and world-famous sex legend Annie Sprinkle details seven types of female orgasm on her website, including some that happen without touch. But when my friend—an everyday, sex-positive lady—told me she could have orgasms without touching herself, I had to learn more.

There’s a well-worn cliche about chocolate being orgasmic (“It’s so good you’ll cum,” bonbon ads basically tell us), so when this friend of mine mentioned that getting stoned and eating Nutella actually made her orgasm, I thought it was just a figure of speech.

“No,” she said. “I mean real orgasms. Genital and all-body.”

Being the intrepid journalist that I am, I had to get to the bottom of this. Is it possible to orgasm without genital contact? And if so—how could I get in on it?

When Beverly Whipple learned some women could have no-touch orgasms, she was as amazed as me. A pioneering sex researcher and professor emerita at Rutgers University, Whipple designed a study.

“We had women come to my human physiology laboratory at Rutgers University, and had them experience orgasm from genital self-stimulation and also from imagery alone,” Whipple says. “We found there was not a physiological difference between orgasm from genital stimulation and orgasm from imagery.”

The women who came without genital touch experienced the same increased heart rate, the same pupil dilation, and same increased pain tolerance as when masturbating. The same parts of their brains lit up.

But Whipple couldn’t figure out exactly what the women were getting off to. “I tried to get the women to tell me what they were imagining, but they just couldn’t do it,” Whipple says. “Either I wasn’t good at getting them to talk, or they just couldn’t tell me about it.”

“Orgasmic experiences brought on by breath don’t feel exactly the way genital orgasms do.”

For answers, I called up Barbara Carrellas. A sex coach, writer, and speaker, Carrellas turned to tantric sexual practices in the late 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Tantra is a set of practices and beliefs that are part of the broad, diverse cultural sweep of Hinduism. In South Asia, it historically advocated the breaking of dominant taboos around the body — including eating meat, having taboo sex, interacting with dead bodies, and breaking ritual caste taboos — to achieve spiritual awareness.

In the contemporary West, tantra is often reduced to its sexual aspect, and has been largely commercialized. But in the late 1980s, tantric sexual practices represented a much-needed connection to physical and spiritual pleasure for a community ravaged by stigma and disease. Carrellas studied tantra as part of a support group for people with AIDS and those who loved them. “We were all trying to find the answer to the question of how to have healthy, ecstatic sex without spreading the virus,” she says.

That’s how she learned about breath and energy orgasms. They use a combination of breath, sound, visualization, and movement to move energy through the body and achieve ecstatic experience without direct genital contact. “Orgasmic experiences brought on by breath don’t feel exactly the way genital orgasms do,” says Carrellas. “They’re more full-bodied. They happen everywhere except your genitals.”

Carrellas has been using this technique to facilitate sexual pleasure and healing for decades. She leads workshops with people who have spinal cord injuries, cliteredectomies, or other conditions that present a challenge to clitoral orgasm. Her sessions with college students, sexual assault survivors, and people with gender dysphoria that have brought participants to tears, evoked ecstatic laughter, and even inspired one attendee to dump her date. “I was about to make a big mistake,” the woman explained. Carrellas says, “She walked off alone and happy.”

One sunny November day, Carrellas worked the same magic with me.

Well, not directly. We chatted on the phone for a while, and then she passed along a set of written instructions so I could try them out. (You can purchase a guided meditation if you want to try it yourself.) Mid-morning in my empty apartment, I went for it.

Carrellas says to begin by lying flat on your back with your knees up, and breathe in seamless cycles. Each inhale should begin where the last exhale finishes, so that the breath is connected in a continuous stream. With the inhale, you’re supposed to fill your belly like a balloon. With each exhale, you press your lower back directly to the ground and squeeze your PC muscles.

The energy was climbing, my breath speeding, my heart pounding, waves of pleasure sizzling.

As you breathe, you allow energy to climb up your chakras, focusing on each place step by step — first your perineum, then your lower abdomen, then your solar plexus, all the way up to your third eye.

Most people, Carrellas’ instructions say, don’t make it to the third eye. They’re already too busy having full-body orgasms.

I didn’t make it to the third eye, either. I was on track by the time I got to my solar plexus. I rocked and rolled, I breathed in waves, I pressed my lower back to the floor. Moans came and I went with them. Things started heating up. The energy was climbing, my breath speeding, my heart pounding, waves of pleasure sizzling, and then — I reached for my vibrator.

Some may call this a failure of the method. But I think this is a sign of the method’s success. It turned me on. It connected me to my body. It didn’t matter how exactly I felt good or whether it was the sole reason for my orgasm. What matters is that I felt good and had an orgasm.

Beverly Whipple had beat me to this realization by several decades. “Each woman is different, each woman is unique, and each woman needs to know what is pleasurable to her,” she says. When it comes to orgasm, she says, “I never use the word ‘achieve.’ I use the word ‘experience.’”

In some ways, Carrellas’ method is simply a more conscious enactment of the movements many of us make in sex — the fast breath, the rocking pelvis, the giving yourself permission to experience pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Touch-free orgasm is not some esoteric, out-of-reach, super-secret technique. It’s something we all have access to.

And there was something different about the orgasm I had that morning. I’m a freelancer, so mid-morning orgasms are kind of de rigueur. But they’re not a great pre-work preparation method because frankly, coming makes you sleepy as hell. After this one, though, I felt charged up. Awake. Focused.

It wasn’t the most earth-shattering thing I’d ever felt, but it was something. It was a reminder that (and forgive the cliche) whatever magic we seek from sex is already in ourselves.

“We all live under a glass ceiling of possibilities,” Carrellas says. “These techniques shatter that ceiling and reveal a higher ceiling.”

Most of the time — especially in the brutal rat race of patriarchal capitalism — we try to break that ceiling by striving. We think that if we only push, force, exert, will, or do more, we can experience more pleasure, better love, a better version of ourselves.

But sex, really good sex, with ourselves and others, isn’t the result of an efficient workout routine or an effortful self-help regimen. It requires letting go. “Sex or sexual energy isn’t something you do,” says Carrellas. “It’s something you learn to allow.”

That may just be the secret of coming without genital touch: allowing yourself to have pleasure.

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