The orgasm is widely regarded as the peak of sexual excitement. It is a powerful feeling of physical pleasure and sensation, which includes a discharge of accumulated erotic tension.
Overall though, not a great deal is known about the orgasm, and over the past century, theories about the orgasm and its nature have shifted dramatically. For instance, healthcare experts have only relatively recently come round to the idea of the female orgasm, with many doctors as recently as the 1970s claiming that it was normal for women not to experience them.
In this article, we will explain what an orgasm is in men and women, why it happens, and explain some common misconceptions.
Fast facts on orgasms
Orgasms have multiple potential health benefits due to the hormones and other chemicals that are released by the body during an orgasm.
Orgasms do not only occur during sexual stimulation.
People of all genders can experience orgasm disorders.
An estimated 1 in 3 men have experienced premature ejaculation.
Trans people are able to orgasm after gender reassignment surgery.
Medical professionals and mental health professionals define orgasms differently.
What is an orgasm?
Orgasms can be defined in different ways using different criteria. Medical professionals have used physiological changes to the body as a basis for a definition, whereas psychologists and mental health professionals have used emotional and cognitive changes. A single, overarching explanation of the orgasm does not currently exist.
Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) sought to build “an objectively determined body of fact and sex,” through the use of in-depth interviews, challenging currently held views about sex.
The spirit of this work was taken forward by William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson in their work, Human Sexual Response (1986) – a real-time observational study of the physiological effects of various sexual acts. This research led to the establishment of sexology as a scientific discipline and is still an important part of today’s theories on orgasms.
Sex researchers have defined orgasms within staged models of sexual response. Although the orgasm process can differ greatly between individuals, several basic physiological changes have been identified that tend to occur in the majority of incidences.
The following models are patterns that have been found to occur in all forms of sexual response and are not limited solely to penile-vaginal intercourse.
Master and Johnson’s Four-Phase Model:
Kaplan’s Three-Stage Model:
Kaplan’s model differs from most other sexual response models as it includes desire – most models tend to avoid including non-genital changes. It is also important to note that not all sexual activity is preceded by desire.
Potential health benefits of orgasm
The male orgasm may protect against prostate cancer.
A cohort study published in 1997 suggested that the risk of mortality was considerably lower in men with a high frequency of orgasm than men with a low frequency of orgasm.
This is counter to the view in many cultures worldwide that the pleasure of the orgasm is “secured at the cost of vigor and wellbeing.”
There is some evidence that frequent ejaculation might reduce the risk of prostate cancer. A team of researchers found that the risk for prostate cancer was 20 percent lower in men who ejaculated at least 21 times a month compared with men who ejaculated just 4 to 7 times a month.
Several hormones that are released during orgasm have been identified, such as oxytocin and DHEA; some studies suggest that these hormones could have protective qualities against cancers and heart disease. Oxytocin and other endorphins released during male and female orgasm have also been found to work as relaxants.
Unsurprisingly, given that experts are yet to come to a consensus regarding the definition of an orgasm, there are multiple different forms of categorization for orgasms.
The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud distinguished female orgasms as clitoral in the young and immature, and vaginal in those with a healthy sexual response. In contrast, the sex researcher Betty Dodson has defined at least nine different forms of orgasm, biased toward genital stimulation, based on her research. Here is a selection of them:
Combination or blended orgasms: a variety of different orgasmic experiences blended together.
Multiple orgasms: a series of orgasms over a short period rather than a singular one.
Pressure orgasms: orgasms that arise from the indirect stimulation of applied pressure. A form of self-stimulation that is more common in children.
Relaxation orgasms: orgasm deriving from deep relaxation during sexual stimulation.
Tension orgasms: a common form of orgasm, from direct stimulation often when the body and muscles are tense.
There are other forms of orgasm that Freud and Dodson largely discount, but many others have described them. For instance:
Fantasy orgasms: orgasms resulting from mental stimulation alone.
G-spot orgasms: orgasms resulting from the stimulation of an erotic zone during penetrative intercourse, feeling markedly different to orgasms from other kinds of stimulation.
The female orgasm
The following description of the physiological process of female orgasm in the genitals will use the Masters and Johnson four-phase model.
When a woman is stimulated physically or psychologically, the blood vessels within her genitals dilate. Increased blood supply causes the vulva to swell, and fluid to pass through the vaginal walls, making the vulva swollen and wet. Internally, the top of the vagina expands.
Heart rate and breathing quicken and blood pressure increases. Blood vessel dilation can lead to the woman appearing flushed, particularly on the neck and chest.
As blood flow to the introitus – the lower area of the vagina – reaches its limit, it becomes firm. Breasts can increase in size by as much as 25 percent and increased blood flow to the areola – the area surrounding the nipple – causes the nipples to appear less erect. The clitoris pulls back against the pubic bone, seemingly disappearing.
The genital muscles, including the uterus and introitus, experience rhythmic contractions around 0.8 seconds apart. The female orgasm typically lasts longer than the male at an average of around 13-51 seconds.
Unlike men, most women do not have a refractory (recovery) period and so can have further orgasms if they are stimulated again.
The body gradually returns to its former state, with swelling reduction and the slowing of pulse and breathing.