Orgasm

 

Note: While this article refers to biological sex when describing human anatomy, we acknowledge that not everyone may identify with their own biological sex.

An orgasm is the intensely pleasurable physical and emotional sensations experienced at the climax of sexual arousal.1 It is the third and shortest phase of the Masters & Johnson sexual response cycle.1 It involves the rapid rhythmic contractions of the vaginal muscles in females and contractions of the muscles at the base of the penis in males. After the orgasm occurs, the muscles relax and are accompanied by a sense of intimacy, well-being, and fatigue.1 The sexual response cycle has four main phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.1 Both men and women experience similar bodily reactions during an orgasm, but the length and intensity varies between individuals and sexual experience. Orgasms arrive at the peak of sexual pleasure and feel like a release of built-up tension. This is followed by a feeling of calm euphoria, where blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration return to normal levels.2 Sometimes, a sexual response cycle may not include an orgasm or ejaculation. Additionally, a person may still feel sexually satisfied even without experiencing an orgasm. However, others who struggle to orgasm may experience discomfort or disappointment. To achieve thrilling orgasms, we encourage you to become familiar with how orgasms work to increase sexual pleasure. Both masturbation and sex are great ways for people to explore what leads them to more intense orgasms.

The general characteristics of orgasms experienced by both males and females include:

  • dramatic increase in heart rate and blood pressure
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • the appearance of flush (redness) in the face and/or the body
  • involuntary muscle contractions, including spasms of the feet
  • facial grimacing and involuntary vocalizations 3
  • sudden release of muscle tension
  • intense, euphoric, and pleasant psychological feelings

However, male and female orgasms can differ in various ways.

 

Male Characteristics

In males, we must first distinguish between an orgasm and ejaculation, because these are two separate bodily processes.3 An orgasm is the intensely pleasurable sensation at the peak of sexual arousal where males experience pleasurable pelvic muscle contractions and euphoria, among the general characteristics listed above, whereas an ejaculation is the pulsating expulsion of semen via the urethral opening of the penis.3 Both processes usually occur simultaneously and work together, but some males may experience orgasms without ejaculation, or ejaculate without experiencing an orgasm.3Male ejaculation consists of two stages: the emission stage and the expulsion stage.3 During the emission stage, semen builds up in the urethral bulb. This accumulation of semen is accompanied by a feeling of tension in the wall of the prostatic urethra (the segment/section of the urethra that passes through the prostate gland) that signals inevitable ejaculation.4 The emission stage lasts about 2 to 3 seconds.1 Next is the ejaculation stage, when the accumulated semen is released through the urethral opening. A ‘pumping’ feeling arises and the semen is then propelled by pulsating muscle contractions which occur every 0.8 seconds in the pelvic muscles surrounding the urethral bulb and the urethra.1,4 This process lasts approximately between 10 to 15 seconds.1 Males generally experience intense sensations during the first few muscular contractions of an orgasm, which begin to subside during subsequent contractions. After an orgasm, males generally enter a refractory period, the next stage of the sexual response cycle, where they experience a release of tension and the temporary inability to orgasm, ejaculate, or achieve an erection.5 Most, if not all, males require a rest period before being able to orgasm again.3 There are few anecdotal examples of males being able to naturally achieve multiple orgasms, where ejaculation did not occur and the male had a reduced refractory period, but these cases are rare and require further research.5 This suggests that the refractory period is a nearly universal phenomenon in males.5 The intensity of a male’s orgasm varies, because orgasms caused by a short and fast buildup are less intense than orgasms caused by a long and slow buildup.3 Check out our article on male masturbation to learn more!

 

Female Characteristics

Females also experience muscular contractions and intense sensations during an orgasm.1 Although the female orgasm and female ejaculation may occur simultaneously in some cases, they are also different bodily processes (as shown with males). During an orgasm, females experience between eight to ten contractions that occur once every 0.8 seconds in the pelvic muscles surrounding the vagina.1 Uterine and anal contractions may also occur at the same time.4 These intense muscle contractions are followed by weaker and slower contractions as they begin to subside. Females generally do not have a refractory period and are more likely to experience multiple orgasms in a row (multiorgasmic).6 These subsequent orgasms may be even stronger than the first one.6 Female orgasms also tend to last longer in comparison to male orgasms, since the average duration of a female orgasm is between 10-20 seconds.1 Stimulation of the clitoris is the easiest way to spark sexual arousal that leads to orgasm.6 Some, but not all, females may expel fluid out of their urethra during an orgasm, which is referred to as squirting, or female ejaculation. There appear to be two kinds of these fluids.1 The first kind of fluid collects in the bladder and resembles urine.1 It ‘squirts’ out in high-volume via the female urethra.1 The second kind of fluid is low-volume and appears to be a secretion from the paraurethral glands (Skene’s glands) that looks like a milky discharge.1Female ejaculation may occur more easily if adequate pressure is placed on the G-spot.4 The location and existence of the G-spot have been contested by researchers, but it’s said to be situated within the anterior (front) wall of the vagina.4

 

Orgasms and the Brain

The neurological (involving the brain and nervous system) and endocrinological (involving the glands that produce hormones) aspects of an orgasm are still an area of debate. More research is needed, but these studies may offer glimpses into future pathways for research. For instance, studies examining the effects of dopamine on anesthetized rats suggest that this neurotransmitter plays a significant role in eliciting ejaculation.3,5 A Dutch group in 2003 used brain-imaging techniques to study males who were being stimulated by their female partners.1 They found that the midline of the brain is very active during an orgasm.1 This area contains many neurons that use dopamine as a neurotransmitter and may suggest that the activation of dopamine during an orgasm is involved with the pleasure and reward system in the brain.1 Also, prolactin and oxytocin levels rise in both men and women following an orgasm, which may be correlated with the refractory period (particularly in males), because they may inhibit further sexual behavior.5 Oxytocin, which is a hormone released by the pituitary gland in the brain following orgasm, may also contribute to the smooth contractions (like muscles in the uterus), and the pleasurable feelings during an orgasm.1 As shown by a 2004 study done in Emory University, oxytocin may have a role in pair bonding within sexual relationships because its injection into the brain of sexually promiscuous voles facilitated pair bonding.1 Therefore, oxytocin may affect our emotional bonds in sexual relationships. However, one study believes that it is unlikely that oxytocin causes the refractory period in the sexual response cycle because a 2008 double-blind placebo-controlled clinical study showed that intranasal oxytocin had no effects on sexual behavior.3,5 Therefore, more research is still needed.

Serotonin is believed to have an inhibitory effect on ejaculation/orgasm when activated via the brain stem in male rats.5 This belief originates from studies on SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which are antidepressant medications to treat depression or anxiety. The long-term use of SSRIs has side effects that may cause sexual dysfunction and impair ejaculation.3,5 Although serotonin may inhibit sexual behavior, this study is overly reductive because it does not account for studies that demonstrate exceptions. For instance, in another study, the activation of various serotonin receptors may stimulate erections/ejaculation when it is activated in the spine of male rats.5 Which is to say, serotonin may either activate or inhibit ejaculation/orgasms depending on where it is activated in the central nervous system.3 In sum, these studies give us insight into the way that orgasms are influenced by the brain, but more research is needed because some of these results are taken from studies that use animal trials and cannot be accurately equated with results from human trials.5

 

Orgasmic Difficulties

Not all sexually active people have had an orgasm and even fewer people have experienced an orgasm the first time they had sex. Also, females generally have more difficulty in reaching orgasm than males.7 Reports of female orgasm difficulty range from 10% to 40% according to a 2018 study.8 One reason for female orgasm difficulties is the lack of knowledge and skill in producing orgasms through no fault of their own. This is because the clitoris can be easily neglected in sexual education classes and during sexual encounters. In addition, some partners may not take an interest in helping to stimulate their female partner and, in some cultures, they may even discourage female sexual exploration.1 Some women don’t find the clitoris, and other genital structures, as easily as other women. So, this may delay their sexual exploration and their ability to orgasm.1 In addition, a 2016 study conducted in Finland demonstrated that having negative feelings surrounding one’s sexual behavior influences one’s ability to orgasm. It examined what factors made female orgasms more common and found the correlation that females did not have more frequent orgasms by increasing their masturbatory experience or having sex with more partners, but rather by having an emotionally healthy and sex-positive sexual relationship where their partner had good sexual technique and initiated sexual encounters at an equal rate.7 Other negative feelings that create female orgasmic difficulties are anxiety or general distress.9 Research published in 2016 by The Journal of Sexual Medicine used a survey that studied predictors of orgasmic difficulty in partnered females and found the correlation that women who were distressed about their difficulty in reaching orgasm had a harder time reaching orgasm and also reported less satisfaction in their sexual relationships.9 Males may also experience difficulty orgasming if they have anxiety or experience being distracted easily during sexual activities. Your sexual self-esteem matters, so if you’re interested in combatting negative feelings you may have surrounding sex, check out our articles on female orgasm difficulty, male orgasm difficulty, and body image.

Studies have consistently shown that males experience orgasms more frequently than females. One study shows that approximately 90% of males usually experience an orgasm during sex, whereas females may experience orgasms through sex only 50% of the time.7 That is, females usually need the extra help of manual stimulation, oral stimulation, or sex toys. Most females reliably report to have more orgasms from masturbation, or with simultaneous clitoral/G-spot stimulation during sex, when compared to sexual intercourse alone. For instance, a study published in 2018 in The Journal of Sexual Medicine sent questionnaires regarding orgasmic latency (the time delay before an orgasm) to 2,304 female participants and found that the orgasmic latency during partnered sex is significantly longer than during masturbation.10 This may show that sexual intercourse may not be as sexually stimulating as masturbation, where the female may incorporate other highly sensitive zones, like the clitoris, into their masturbation session.

Males who have difficulty in achieving or maintaining erections, or reaching an orgasm, may benefit from looking at 26 FDA sexual enhancement treatments. Women, however, do not have many available FDA approved sexual enhancement treatments for them. One FDA approved device to treat female sexual dysfunction is the EROS CDT (clitoral therapy device).11 This is prescribed to women who suffer from female sexual arousal disorder symptoms such as: reduced sensation, reduced lubrication, and the inability to orgasm.11 This device consists of a vacuum pump placed over the clitoris that increases blood flow to the region, thus increasing sexual arousal.11 Another FDA approved treatment is Addyi (Flibanserin), which is an orally ingested drug used to treat hypoactive (low) sexual desire disorder (HSDD).12 Addyi works by targeting a chemical imbalance in a female’s brain by enhancing the release of chemicals (like serotonin) to stimulate sexual interest.13 As always, we recommend that you talk to your doctor before taking any medications or starting any non-FDA approved treatments. Although women may not have many easily available treatments for orgasm difficulties, there are plenty of other ways to treat an orgasm deficit. One may also try to stimulate their non-genital erogenous zones, which are pleasurable areas of the body that contain many sensitive nerve endings capable of producing sexual arousal.14

 

Stimulating Areas

To pleasure yourself and your partner, you can learn more about how to effectively provide positive stimulation. Although intercourse alone usually brings males to orgasm, vaginal stimulation and penetration alone does not always work for females.7 There are many parts to a female’s external genitalia that vary in their levels of sexual sensitivity. Because of this variety, there are multiple ways in which a female can reach orgasm. Females may reach orgasm more easily through the stimulation of various structures like the labia minora, the clitoris (and its internal structures), the vagina, the g-spot, and sometimes the cervix.6

The most sexually stimulating area of a female’s body is the clitoris. The clitoris is located at the top of the vulva and contains many nerve endings, which makes it a highly sensitive area that is the most reliable way to help a female orgasm.1 Because of its location, it is not always stimulated with vaginal sex alone.6 The clitoris is often best stimulated manually, orally, or with sex toys. Females can experiment with different kinds of stimulation to discover what feels best. Different patterns of stimulation can also be explored, including: circular, up and down (vertical), and back and forth motions to rhythmically stimulate the clitoris.1 One can also vary the pressure of stimulation by transitioning from gentler to stronger stimulation, especially as one nears orgasm.1 One may also stimulate multiple areas of their genitalia at once by inserting a finger or two into the vagina while simultaneously stimulating the clitoris with another finger. Also, partners may stimulate the clitoris with their tongue. Try masturbating on your own to explore your body. You may also let your partner watch, so they can learn what you like.

 

The Grafenberg spot, also known as the G-spot, is also another very sensitive area of the vagina. It is located about 2 to 3 inches up on the anterior wall of the vagina.1 Although the existence of the G-spot has not been proven, many females report feeling enhanced pleasure and orgasms from the stimulation of this area.4 To locate the G-spot, insert a finger or two into the vagina, curl the fingers upward, and move your finger in a “come here” motion.1

For males, the most sensitive zones include the frenulum and the glans. The frenulum is a small band of tissue on the underside of the glans. The glans, or head, is the cone-shaped structure at the tip of the penis that is connected to the shaft. Both the frenulum and the glans are believed to be one of the most sensitive regions.

The perineum has lots of nerve endings and is sexually stimulating for both males and females when pressure is applied. The perineum is the area between a female’s introitus and anus, and between a male’s testicles and anus. When manually or orally stimulating a partner, one may gently press on their perineum to increase pleasure as well. This is also a great way to give male partners an even better orgasm. While giving males a blowjob, or when riding a male in reverse cowgirl, one can lick one’s fingers to provide some lubrication, and gently press on the male’s perineum when they’re about to climax.

The testicles are also sexually stimulating for males. Lightly cupping their testicles during oral or penetrative sex, as well as lightly sucking and licking them, can increase pleasurable sensations. Because testicles are very sensitive, do not grab, bite, or suck on them too hard. One may also simultaneously stimulate the different erogenous zones for males. When they are about to climax during penetrative sex, one may lightly cup their testicles and press on their perineum, which effectively stimulates all three points at once (their penis, testicles, and perineum).

Anal stimulation can also be sexually arousing for both males and females and it is a wonderful way to spice up one’s sex life. Some males and females who feel comfortable engaging in anal stimulation with their partner report being able to achieve stronger orgasms. The primary source of pleasure for females and males within the rectum is the anus, or the sphincter itself, which contains many highly sensitive nerve endings.1 Males may experience prostate stimulation via the anus. The prostate, sometimes referred to as the male G-spot, is a walnut-sized gland located below the bladder. This gland secretes a fluid that helps sperm to survive outside of the body and comprises 30% of the male’s ejaculate.1 The best way to stimulate the prostate is to slowly insert a well lubricated finger into the anus, facing the bladder, and move the finger in a “come hither” motion. Some sex toys are designed to apply stimulation to the prostate. For instance, an orgasm that’s induced by massaging the prostate differs from an orgasm that’s caused by penile stimulation. A prostate induced orgasm has been shown to produce approximately 12 contractions, whereas a penile induced orgasm produces between four to eight contractions.3 These prostate induced orgasms may be significantly stronger for males as the sensations ripple over larger areas of the body, but they require practice and may not be pleasurable for all males.3 Whenever engaging in anal stimulation, it is important to always remember to be clean, go slowly, use protection, listen to your body, communicate with your partner, trim your nails, and use appropriately sized sex toys with a flared base. Additionally, use lubrication because the walls of the rectum may tear more easily since the anus doesn’t provide natural lubrication.1 Your feelings toward engaging in anal sex, just like with any sexual activity, can affect how enjoyable it is for you.

 

Sex Positions

Aside from manual and oral stimulation, sexual intercourse is another fantastic method for experiencing exhilarating orgasms. Both female and male same-sex couples can also explore these thrilling sex positions. Although manual and oral stimulation are the most effective techniques for stimulating the clitoris, it can also be stimulated simultaneously while having intercourse. Explore different sex positions with your partner to provide more clitoral stimulation. The female on top position gives the female or male receptive partner the ability to control the speed and range of their movements when they are being penetrated, while their insertive partner can simultaneously access their erogenous zones (like a female’s breasts or a male’s nipples).1 By sitting on their partner, a female may either rub their clitoris against their partner’s abdomen or manually stimulate it, which provides added stimulation/pleasure. For male same-sex couples, this position may also take advantage of the curvature of the penis, when it is angled toward the bladder, to stimulate the male receptive partner’s prostate. Doggy style (or penetration from behind) is a commonly used sex position that may stimulate the clitoris and the G-spot. Due to the curvature of the penis, and the angle in which it enters the vagina, it is more likely to hit the G-spot.

Standing doggy style may also direct the male’s penis at an even better angle to stimulate the G-spot. While in this position, the male may use one of their hands to manually stimulate their partner’s clitoris, or the female may manually stimulate their own clitoris. When having sex with a female, female insertive partners may also take advantage of this technique by using a strap-on dildo (and penetrating their partner). Always make sure to clean dildos well, use plenty of lubrication, and use the appropriate size sex toy for you. If one is exploring the missionary position, one may try placing a few pillows beneath the receptive partner’s butt to align their pelvis into a better position for their partner’s penis to hit either the female’s G-spot or the male’s prostate. Females have described that G-spot orgasms resemble the need to urinate. Similarly, to stimulate a male partner’s prostate, the insertive partner may also approach their male receptive partner (who is lying down on their back) from the front. These are just a small number of sex positions that can better stimulate the clitoris, G-spot, and prostate.1 Feel free to explore a variety of sex positions with your partner to find out which ones provide the most pleasurable orgasms.

 

Negative Emotions

One of the biggest obstacles preventing men and women from reaching orgasm, is the presence of negative emotions, including fear, anxiety, or guilt. With the long history of taboos against women enjoying sexual pleasure, it is not uncommon for women to feel guilty for engaging in sexual acts. It is important to let go of guilt and realize that it is normal and healthy to enjoy masturbation and sex. Both men and women may feel scared or anxious when having sexual intercourse for a variety of reasons, including first time sex worries and performance anxiety. These worries, however, distract you from sexual pleasure and make it more difficult to reach orgasm. The best way to achieve an orgasm is to relax and not worry about the outcome. When exploring yourself, turn off all distractions and try to clear your mind of any anxious feelings by focusing on the present sexual pleasures. Looking at your partner as they stimulate you, or closing your eyes and focusing on the bodily sensations, can keep your mind grounded during sex. Ask your partner for feedback on what you are doing and reassure them if you like what they are doing too. Pay attention to the physical reactions and vocalizations from your partner to improve your techniques. These physical signs can give you some insight into what they like. Essentially, trust and honest communication with your partner can make orgasms more enjoyable.

 

Concluding Remarks

If you or your partner have difficulties reaching orgasm, trying different stimulation techniques and promoting a positive environment during sex can help you and your partner reach orgasm. Even if you do not have problems achieving orgasm, explore new techniques and sex positions to make your orgasms even more pleasurable. Regardless of your expectations, it is important to remember that sex is more than just reaching orgasm. Not having an orgasm during every sexual encounter is not a sign of a personal inadequacy. Sex can still be a highly pleasurable and satisfying experience even without orgasms. Enjoy all the physical sensations that come with sex and celebrate the physical and emotional intimacy that it may bring between you and your partner. It certainly transforms sex into an exhilarating experience!

References

  1. LeVay, Simon, et al. Discovering Human Sexuality. Third ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2015. Print.
  2. Levin, Roy J. “An Orgasm Is…Who Defines What an Orgasm Is?” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Volume 19, Issue 1, 101-107. Feb. 2004. Web. 14 May 2019.
  3. Alwaal, Amjad, et al. “Normal Male Sexual Function: Emphasis on Orgasm and Ejaculation.” Fertility and Sterility, Volume 104, Issue 5, 1051-1060. Nov. 2015. Web. 14 May 2019.
  4. Levin, Roy J., Alan Riley. “The Physiology of Human Sexual Function.” Psychology, Volume 6, Issue 3, 90-94. Mar. 2007. Web. 14 May 2019.
  5. Seizert, Curtis A. “The Neurobiology of the Male Sexual Refractory Period.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 92, 350-377. Sept. 2018. Web. 14 May 2019.
  6. Levin, Roy J. “The Pharmacology of the Human Female Orgasm: Its Biological and Physiological Backgrounds.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, Volume 121, 62-70. June 2014.  Web. 14 May 2019.
  7. Kontula, Osmo, Anneli Miettinen. “Determinants of Female Sexual Orgasms.” Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, Volume 6. Oct. 2016. Web. 14 May 2019.
  8. Rowland, David L., et al. “Women’s Attributions Regarding Why They Have Difficulty Reaching Orgasm.” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Volume 44, Issue 5, 475-484. Feb. 2018. Web. 14 May 2019.
  9. Rowland, David L., Tiffany N. Kolba. “Understanding Orgasmic Difficulty in Females.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 13, Issue 8, 1246-1254. Aug. 2016. Web. 14 May 2019.
  10. Rowland, David L., et al. “Orgasmic Latency and Related Parameters in Women During Partnered and Masturbatory Sex.” The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 15, Issue 10, 1463-1471. Oct. 2018. Web. 14 May 2019.
  11. Josefson, Debbie. “FDA Approves Device for Female Sexual Dysfunction.” British Medical Journal, Volume 320, 1427. May. 2000. Web. 14 May 2019.
  12. “FDA Orders Important Safety Labeling Changes for Addyi.” FDA. Apr. 2019. Web. 14 May 2019.
  13. Addyi (Flibanserin) | Official site, Addyi. Web. 14 May 2019.
  14. Nummenmaa, Lauri, et al. “Topography of Human Erogenous Zones.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 45, Issue 5, 1207-1216. July 2016. Web. 14 May 2019.

Last Updated: 7 June 2019.