index - sex facts - orgasms



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This page aims to answer the following questions: What is an orgasm? How do different people experience their orgasms? How do you know you've had one?


What is an orgasm?

In everyday speech people talk about the orgasm as "coming" or "climax". It is a physiological response, a reflexive release of sexual tension. Orgasm follows on from two preceding phases of sex - the initial excitement phase, and a plateau phase during which people are highly aroused, but haven't gone into orgasm yet. Having an orgasm is often portrayed as the main goal of having sex, however there is a lot more to sex then just coming as quickly as possible!


Men and women's bodies react differently during an orgasm, but there are also similarities. Lets start with the similarities.

One bodily aspect of an orgasm is the release of built-up muscle tension. This tension may be located mostly in the muscles in the pelvic floor and vagina for women and in the muscles of the pelvic floor, prostate and urethra for men, but it can also involve release of muscle tension all over the body.

Some people experience their orgasms as very localized in their pelvis, whereas for other people it is a whole body orgasm experience. Additionally, an orgasm involves a reduction of control in your voluntary muscles, i.e. a sensation of letting go of the muscles you normally use to move your body. Some people experience the carpopedal reflex, which is a muscle spasm in the foot, where the big toe is held straight and the other toes bend back while the foot arches. Also, the muscles around your anus may contract.

An orgasm also often involves pleasurable sensations or even euphoria. This is due to a sudden release of neurotransmitters in the brain, which give us an experience of happiness. An orgasm typically lasts less than 1 minute. After an orgasm the body goes into a refractory period, during which another orgasm is not possible. 

Sexual tension which results in an orgasm can be built up in different ways. This can be through foreplay or genital intercourse, but sexual tension can also be build up through masturbation, oral or anal sex, or even just through sexual fantasy. The quality of your orgasm isn't related to how the energy is built up, although often people experience orgasms through masturbation as the most intense ones. However, if one style of sex turns you on more, you may experience the resulting orgasms as stronger. The intensity of your orgasm often depends on how long you've been in sexual play. The longer your excitement and plateau phase, the longer your body has to fill your sexual organs and your pelvis with blood and produce sexual fluids: this all increases the intensity of your orgasm.

Also, it's important that your pubococcygeal and pelvic floor muscles are in good shape as this will also contribute to the quality of your orgasms. You can train those muscles with the Kegel exercises.


Orgasms in women


During the excitement and plateau phase the tissues in and around the vagina and the G-spot enlarge and thicken in women due to increased blood flow to the area. This is a bit like a man's penis becoming erect. This results in the so-called the orgasmic platform, a swelling and thickening of the sexual tissues, which then hold the penis more tightly during intercourse.

The muscles which contract during orgasm are around the uterus, resulting in uterine contractions, and in the pelvic floor, as well as the pubococcygeal muscles and other muscles in the pelvic area. Female orgasms tend to consist of 3 to 15 rhythmic muscle contractions.

Traditional sexologists divide female orgasms into clitoral ones, which get triggered - not surprisingly - by the clitoris, and vaginal ones, which may be triggered by the G-spot and may involve uterine contractions. Some female writers, such as Deborah Sundahl, subdivide the latter into G-spot orgasm and uterine orgasms. However, women can experience a mixed type or blended orgasm, as well as some women only having one type of orgasm.

The refractory period is a lot shorter in women then it is in men, which means some women can have multiple orgasms, i.e. a string of orgasms, which occur very close together, one after the other. Some women also ejaculate a clear fluid during orgasm. This phenomenon is called female ejaculation.

Fewer than 1 in 3 women can reach a climax from intercourse alone, which means that the vast majority of women need other stimulation (foreplay, manual or oral stimulation, caressing, and so on) to come.


Orgasm in men


For men orgasm and ejaculation are often seen as the same, but actually they are different physiological responses. They do not necessarily need to occur together.

In men, as is the case for women, sexual tension is built up in the pelvis during the excitement and plateau phases of sexual arousal, resulting in increased muscle tension and the swelling of sexual tissues through engorgement with blood - most obviously in the penis.

In men the vas deferens (a duct which leads semen from the testicles to the prostate), the prostate itself, and the seminal vesicles (glands which produce some of the fluid for semen) contract, which forces semen into a holding area in the urethra (to read more on male sexual anatomy click here).

This is experienced by the man as the "point of no return", when an orgasm becomes inevitable. After this point the prostate and urethra contract and the man has an orgasm - and most likely an ejaculation at the same time. Additional contractions occur in the rectal sphincter and the neck of the bladder.

A man may make rapid, involuntary pelvic thrusts just before orgasm, and he may instinctively hold on tightly to a partner.

The refractory period in men is always present - and it stops more orgasms happening until a certain time has elapsed. What that time may be depends on age and how often a man has sex.

(There is a condition called inhibited orgasm, which basically means that a man cannot reach orgasm and ejaculate during sexual intercourse. If you're one of the many men who experience this condition, it's probably worth having a look at some more information and engaging in a process of self-help therapy or counseling.)


 How do different people experience orgasm?


Different people have different experiences during orgasm. There is no single right way to have your orgasm, in fact it is perfectly OK not to experience one at all!

Your orgasm will very much be influenced by things like how relaxed you are, your relationship with your partner, your level of arousal and how much stimulation you had before you came. Of course, your orgasm also depends on who you are as a person and your history - such as previous sexual experiences.

To reach orgasm you have to let go to some extent and let your body take over, which is very difficult for some people. Having an orgasm is actually a learned response and often people get better at it with age, as they get to know their sexual responses better. What's more, culture and gender roles affect your orgasm: for example, if sexuality was deemed taboo in your family when you were a child, this may still influence your sexual experience today. To develop your own sense of sexual freedom read up on psychology such as the ego state model.

Your orgasm will also reflect to some extent how you live within your body. To reach orgasm you need to be able to focus on your physical sensations and to let them take up your full attention. You also need to feel relaxed and at ease with your body - at least to some extent. Looking after your body and cherishing it is important for the quality of your sex life! To improve the condition of your pelvic floor muscles consider doing the Kegel exercises.

There are plenty of other things which can affect your orgasms, including medication, illness and illegal drugs. Bernie Zilbergeld gives a long list of medications which can adversely affect male sexuality in his book, The New Male Sexuality (Bantam Press, 1999). Unfortunately, I am not aware of a similar list for women.

So how do people experience their orgasms? They really can range from intense physical and emotional events over the whole body to much more subtle releases of tension. But because an orgasm is made up of so many components - release of muscle tension, emotional feelings, sensations in various parts of your body, perhaps ejaculation - it's actually normal for people to have different orgasmic experiences at different times. For example, some people will experience an emotional release without much muscle contraction while others may experience physical sensations without much emotion.

But whatever your orgasm feels like, enjoy it, develop it and cherish it! It is yours the way it is, even if it's different to what you think other people are experiencing.


How do you know you've had an orgasm?


For men that question is fairly easy to answer. Normally, a man ejaculates when he comes, unless he's trained himself not to do so (which takes quite a bit of effort). So men tend to know when they've had an orgasm, even if the sensations are not so strong.

Women have a harder time here. Their sexual parts are much more hidden, and sexual norms for them are, even now, much more restrictive. For a lot of women this means they haven't had the sexual experimentation that men have - after all, their penis is clearly on view and fun to play with from day one!

All in all, while some women have strong physical and emotional signs of an orgasm, others have a much more subtle experience. But even if your sensations are more subtle, and you're not sure whether you're having an orgasm or not, an orgasm will generally produce some contractions in your vaginal muscles or your pelvis. So if you're still not sure if you're having an orgasm, here's how you can tell: masturbate until you think you're coming, then put your finger inside your vagina and continue as usual. You should experience the muscles of the outer third of your vagina contracting.

To develop your orgasmic response practice the Kegel exercises, maybe do a bit of exploration on your psychological issues, or get guidance through books like Female Ejaculation and the G-spot, by Deborah Sundahl, published by Hunter House Publishers , 2003.



Francoeur, R. (ed.) (1995) The Complete Dictionary of Sexology. Continuum Press

Sundahl, D. (2003) Female ejaculation and the G-spot, Hunter House Publishers

Zilbergeld, B. (1999) The New Male Sexuality. Bantam Press

Written by Anna 29.04.07

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