We have sex and make it our ultimate goal – the orgasm. Yet virtually no one is actually able to describe what goes on in our bodies when we are having one. Even scientists struggle. But what do we know about the mystery that is the orgasm? What exactly is an orgasm, and what sensations do men and women experience?
What is an orgasm – the definition
Linguistically speaking, the word orgasm comes from the Greek and means passion or desire. An orgasm is the climax of sexual pleasure. In men, we often talk about ejaculation rather than orgasm. Yet it’s not that easy to pinpoint exactly what goes on in our bodies.
What scientists tells us about the orgasm
Ask ten people to describe what an orgasm feels like and you’ll probably get ten different descriptions. Everyone experiences sexual climax differently. It’s not unlike our perception of pain, which differs so much from one person to the next. The same is true of the orgasm. Scientists have tried to describe the way it develops: arousal is followed by further sustained and intense arousal, then the orgasm and, afterwards, a release of tension. The orgasm is not as easy to pin down as all that, though. Women in particular even find that each orgasm is slightly different.
What is certain is that, once someone is aroused, their blood vessels dilate and their erectile tissue becomes engorged with blood.
The male climax
In men, the penis becomes erect and they start to breathe faster. The more a man becomes aroused, the more physical signs become noticeable. For example, as he becomes increasingly aroused, his testicles will also become swollen and his scrotum will tighten. Besides accelerated breathing, he will also have elevated blood pressure and an increased heart rate. When a man has an orgasm, the seminal gland, the spermatic duct, the prostate gland, the urethra, the root of the penis, and the penis all contract rhythmically. The sperm is transported along the urethra and is ‘fired’ out of the opening in the glans as he ejaculates.
The female climax
When women are aroused, the genital area becomes wet, the clitoris becomes swollen and the vagina dilates. Women also start to experience muscle spasms during this stage. As they are aroused further, women also start to breathe faster and their heart rate and blood pressure increase. Women then also unconsciously tense their pelvic floor muscles, which helps to increase arousal. Although this all happens unconsciously, women can influence it, too, of course. That’s why regular pelvic floor exercise can also result in more intense female orgasms. Just before a woman climaxes, the muscles in the pelvic floor region contract very powerfully. When a woman has an orgasm, this tension is released so to speak, resulting in intense spasms. This response in the female body starts in the outer third of the vagina and the contractions then spread to the entire pelvis.
Even if the processes are different in the male and female body, the result is the same: an indescribable sensation, the orgasm. Both men and women lose conscious control of their own movements. Instead, arousal results in spasmodic twitching. In both men and women, the entire body is involved. The heart rate increases. After an orgasm, the body needs to settle back down again. This can take several minutes in women. Yet women are also capable of having another orgasm immediately afterwards. When this is the case, we talk of multiple orgasms. Men, on the other hand, have a so-called refractory period, during which another orgasm is initially impossible. Although they may feel arousal, this does not reach the brain and therefore cannot result in an orgasm in men. Besides the many physical processes going on during arousal, the brain also plays a crucial role when we have an orgasm.
What the brain has to do with it all
Our brain plays a central role in our orgasms. It is rarely as active as it is during an orgasm. A flood of messenger substances is released, which is partly responsible for the indescribable feeling we get. First, the brain releases dopamine. The body feels in a euphoric state. Thanks to this messenger substance we then go in pursuit of an orgasm. Endorphins are then released as well. However, rather than inducing a euphoric state, endorphins should encourage relaxation instead. This is particularly important in women, since they also need to help women temporarily forget the stresses of everyday life. Unfortunately, unless they are completely relaxed, most women are unable to climax. Another hormone that plays a central role in orgasms is oxytocin. Also known as the ‘love hormone’, it is responsible for the sense of wellbeing that we get when we have an orgasm. It is also responsible for our increased blood pressure and heart rate.
For women in particular, female orgasms can be a whole lot of work, and most women don’t have an orgasm every time. Yet unfortunately, a dogged determination to have an orgasm is completely the wrong approach. Women especially need to switch off and relax. But when we do have an orgasm, it doesn’t matter if we are a man or a woman – we are overcome with a feeling that virtually none of us can truly describe.