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What is an orgasm?

Alexandra Fine, Credentialed Sexologist, M. Psych | Written by Dame

Definitions are funny things.

Some are easy.

You don’t have to consult a dictionary to describe a “rug” as a piece of material used to cover a floor.  (It could also be a toupée, but that’s another story.)

Other definitions are much more difficult to put into words.

We all know what the sun is, but “that yellow ball in the sky” doesn’t convey the same information as dictionary.com’s definition does: “the star that is the central body of the solar system, around which the planets revolve and from which they receive heat and light.”

Yes, that actually brings us to the subject of orgasms.

Virtually everyone who’s reached sexual maturity understands, on one level or another, the intense sexual satisfaction of reaching orgasm. That doesn’t mean that they’d be able to easily put such a personal experience/feeling/sensation into words.

The dictionary says that an orgasm is “the physical and emotional sensation experienced at the peak of sexual excitation.”

That’s a good summary, on a surface level. But in reality there’s much more to it. Research has indicated that muscles, body tissues and the brain are all involved in the process leading to those moments of intense pleasure we associate with orgasms.

Let’s dig a little deeper, so we can provide a more complete answer to the question “what is an orgasm?”

Are All Orgasms the Same?

It’s obvious that orgasms aren’t exactly the same.

Everyone’s body responds differently to stimuli, of course. So it’s only natural that the characteristics of orgasms, and the types of stimuli that bring them about, are different from person to person.

For example, research has documented that vulva-havers vary greatly in their ability to climax.  And studies regularly show that more than one-third of vulva-owners need clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm, while only about one-fifth can climax just from vaginal intercourse. There’s been a good deal of research implying that the determining factor is the distance between the person’s clitoris and vagina.

Then there are the obvious differences between the “male orgasm” and the “female orgasm.” We don’t need detailed research studies to know that those with vulvas don’t ejaculate in the same way as those with penises, or that few penis owners are able to have multiple orgasms without taking time to “recharge.” That interlude before the penis can become erect again has a name: the refractory period.

Many people believe there are other qualitative and quantitative differences between orgasms experienced by vulva-havers and penis-havers. For instance, there’s a widespread belief that those with vulvas are likely to have more satisfying or longer-lasting orgasms.

Research has shown, however, that’s not really the case.

In fact, the “male orgasm” and “female orgasm” are surprisingly similar.

What Orgasms Have In Common

The first mistaken but popular belief is that vulva owners feel their climaxes more deeply than penis owners.

There’s no method to scientifically measure what people “feel,” but researchers came up with an ingenious way to do a comparison. They asked an evenly-split group of adults to describe their orgasms by answering 48 different questions about their physical and mental experiences during climax. They then showed the questionnaires to a 70-member panel of gynecologists, psychologists and medical students – and asked them to identify the respondents by sex.

The results were startling. The panel was unable to differentiate between the vulva- and penis-havers. Even more surprisingly, the gynecologists couldn’t tell the difference, the psychologists couldn’t tell the difference, even the groups of vulva and penis owners on the panel couldn’t distinguish between the responses.

In other words, the physical and mental feelings associated with orgasms are largely the same, no matter your physical characteristics or sexual identification.

What about the common belief that “women last longer than men?”

A study done back in the 1980s showed that really isn’t true, either. Researchers measured the contractions of pelvic floor muscles in both vulva- and penis-havers as they masturbated and progressed through the physical stages of sexual excitement. They then plotted the intensity and frequency of those contractions and compared the results.

It turned out that there were no gender-specific differences. Orgasm generally occurred over a period of 20-30 seconds, with a series of 6-15 high-intensity contractions. Some individuals continued to have irregular (and usually smaller) contractions for another 30-90 seconds, in what are known as “Type II orgasms,” but there was no substantial difference between penis and vulva owners.

Other studies have confirmed the similarity of orgasms in differently-gendered (and transgender) individuals. One looked at the increases in blood pressure, heart rate and hyperventilation during climax and found no differences. Another measured sexual arousal during masturbation by means of genital temperature, and found no differences. And a third arrived at the same conclusions, while also discovering that levels of oxytocin (the so-called “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone”) increased to similar levels in all genders during orgasm.

Those findings lead to two questions.

First, why would all genders have similar orgasmic reactions to sexual activity? The answer to that one appears to be based in physiology.

All humans, no matter their assigned or expressed gender, have the same basic neurological pathways and brain “modules.” That makes sense, since anatomical sex differentiation only occurs after several months of fetal development. The implication: pleasure signals delivered during sexual stimulation and orgasm are handled by the brain and nervous system in the same way, regardless of genitalia, chromosomes or sexual identification.

The second question is a simple one. Why does it matter that all humans appear to climax in the same way?

That answer is simple as well: it allows us to examine what happens in the body during an orgasm without having to worry about gender differences. (After that, we’ll look at the admittedly-different ways that vulva-havers and penis-havers can stimulate orgasms.)

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What Happens During an Orgasm?

The famed sex researchers Masters and Johnson described a “Sexual Response Cycle” (SRC) in the mid 20th century. The four-stage SRC is still being used today by medical experts and sex therapists to explain the physiology of human sexual function and behavior.

Only one of the stages deals specifically with the physical act of climaxing. However, what happens during all four stages is critical to the orgasm.

  • Stage One: Excitement – Blood flow to the genitals begins; that induces the start of vaginal lubrication for vulva-havers and erection for penis-havers.
  • Stage Two: Plateau – Genital tissues swell with blood, causing more lubrication and full erection (as appropriate). The increases in blood pressure and heart rate which began during stage one intensify, as does rapid breathing; muscles tense throughout the body and may spasm.
  • Stage Three: Orgasm – Heart rate, breathing and blood pressure reach their peak. In vulva owners, vaginal walls and muscles in the uterus contract rapidly (with contractions occurring at least once per second). Seminal fluid builds in penis owners, and semen is ejaculated with each muscle contraction.
  • Stage Four: Resolution – Muscles relax and the swelling of genital tissues eases, as the genitals return to their natural state. Some with vulvas may quickly respond to additional stimulation with additional orgasms. Those with penises require a refractory stage before the cycle can begin again.

That’s just the physical activity that occurs. You may remember that we mentioned the involvement of the brain as well; that certainly makes sense, since the brain is where our “pleasure centers” are located. And as the body responds to the physical stimulation which leads to orgasm, the brain and nervous system are also important players.

Researchers have discovered a number of different brain and neurological mechanisms which occur simultaneously with orgasm. Some have called this process which contributes to climax the “sexual trance.”

Areas of the brain which are involved include the thalamus, which controls functions like memory and movement; the hypothalamus, which senses arousal and also produces oxytocin (the “love hormone”); the genital sensory cortex, which detects contact with the genitals; the substantia nigra, which releases dopamine (known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter); and the frontal lobe and cerebellum, which control the body’s movements during sexual activity. The central nervous system and pituitary gland also release endorphins during orgasm, increasing pleasure and lowering pain levels.

The actual sequences of these brain and neural activities during sexual experiences are not yet fully understood, but imaging studies clearly show all of them “lighting up” – denoting increased activity – as the body approaches and achieves orgasm.

These functions occur primarily during stimulation of the external genitals in penis-havers, although anal stimulation can also induce orgasm and the associated activities in both the body and brain. In vulva-havers, this activity takes place during both clitoral orgasm and vaginal orgasm, as well as orgasms experienced primarily as a result of anal sexual pleasure.

There are additional details to explore, though, when it comes to those with vulvas.

Orgasms and Vulva Owners

Although sensations and bodily functions during climaxes are very similar between all genders, the frequency with which they experience orgasm differs greatly.

Surveys have shown that penis owners regularly experience orgasm more than 90% of the time they have sexual intercourse, while that number is only around 50-60% for vulva owners. The latter group only reaches that 90% level when other types of sexual stimulation of their erogenous zones, such as oral sex or masturbation with sex toys, are included.

Nearly 47% of vulva-havers report having had multiple orgasms, a number that far exceeds the wildest dreams of penis-havers. And as we’ve mentioned, the majority of vulva owners need clitoral stimulation (or stimulation of other areas like the labia) to reach orgasm.

You don’t have to look further than the human anatomy to understand many of these differences. The penis has approximately 4,000 nerve endings, but there are many fewer inside the vagina – and most of them are concentrated near the vaginal opening. By contrast, the glans clitoris (the “button” that most people refer to simply as the clitoris) has more than 8,000 nerve endings. That’s makes it the most sensitive human sexual organ.

One-third of vulva-havers who are able to climax through intercourse still prefer dual stimulation. Not only is it more pleasurable because it can produce so-called blended orgasms, but it can also lead to g-spot orgasms. What does the clitoris have to do with the g-spot? Even though the g-spot is located on the vaginal wall, it’s actually part of the clitoral network, a vast network of nerves and tissues. The glans clitoris is just the external portion of the clitoral network, and it’s actually “connected” to the g-spot.

The clitoris is involved in another type of orgasm as well. The legs of the clitoris (that’s an actual medical term) reach all the way to the anus. So when vulva owners have an anal orgasm, it’s thanks (at least in part) to sensations experienced through the clitoris. By contrast, penis owners’ anal orgasms are due to the proximity of the prostate gland, which can be stimulated to produce a climax via anal penetration.

Many of those details have been known for quite some time, and have been explained in articles detailing “women’s experiences” or “sex and women’s health.” Here’s one that hasn’t received as much attention: the stories you may have heard about vulva-havers experiencing orgasm during exercise are actually true.

Experts have known of a few cases for decades. But Dr. Debby Herbenick, a renowned sexual health researcher at Indiana University, has documented the phenomenon through a large survey of vulva owners. The phenomenon is now known to medical experts as exercise-induced orgasm (EIO), but has also been described as “coregasm.” 

Herbenick says that EIO isn’t common, but she doesn’t have statistics just yet on the percentage of those with vulvas who have experienced these orgasms. Initial estimates are that 10% may have had at least one EIO.

The most common activities leading to “coregasm” include abdominal exercises, climbing, and weightlifting. Herbenick says some people with penises do experience EIO as well, but apparently less often. This is one type of orgasm in which the feelings differ slightly between genders, with vulva-havers comparing them to vaginal orgasms and penis-havers comparing them to anal/prostate orgasms.

What’s most interesting is that those who report exercise-induced orgasm are rarely having sexual thoughts and fantasies when they climax. Many experts believe this is evidence that orgasm is not solely a sexual function; they think EIO may occur due to the stimulation of pelvic floor muscles (or the prostate, in those with penises.)

Bottom line: There’s no single, complete answer to the question “what is an orgasm?” There’s always more to learn – and researchers are hard at work expanding and refining the definition.