Many people regard the orgasm as the peak of sexual excitement. It is a powerful feeling of physical pleasure and sensation. There is still more for researchers to know about the orgasm, and over the past century, theories about the orgasm and its nature have shifted.

This article explains what an orgasm is in people of different sexes. It also looks at why orgasms occur and explains some common misconceptions.

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According to the American Psychological Association, an orgasm is when a person reaches peak pleasure. The body releases tension, and the perineal muscles, anal sphincter, and reproductive organs rhythmically contract.

Males will usually ejaculate when reaching an orgasm and females will experience vaginal wall contractions. Females may also ejaculate during sexual activity or when experiencing an orgasm.

Learn more about female ejaculation here.

Orgasm models

Sex researchers have defined orgasms within staged models of sexual response. Although the orgasm process can differ greatly between individuals, several basic physiological changes tend to occur in most incidences.

The following models are patterns that occur in all forms of sexual response and do not solely relate to penile-vaginal intercourse.

Master and Johnson’s 4-phase model

In 1966, researchers named William Masters and Virginia Johnson came up with a four-phase model:

  1. excitement
  2. plateau
  3. orgasm
  4. resolution

Kaplan’s 3-stage model

Kaplan’s model differs from most other sexual response models by including desire — most models tend to avoid including nongenital changes. It is also important to note that desire does not precede all sexual activity. The three stages in this model are:

  1. desire
  2. excitement
  3. orgasm

During an orgasm, people may experience an intense feeling of pleasure in the genitals and throughout the body. Orgasms can feel different for each individual.

After an orgasm, the face, neck, or chest may flush. People may also feel sleepy, relaxed, or happy afterwards due to a release of endorphins.

For females

For females, the muscles in the vagina and anus may contract roughly once per second, for around five to eiht times. Heart and breathing rates may increase.

Before and during an orgasm, the vagina may become wet, and it may even ejaculate this fluid. Research suggests the percentage of females who ejaculate can range from 10–70%.

Directly after an orgasm, the clitoris may feel more sensitive or uncomfortable to touch.

For males

For males, the muscles in the penis and anus may contract around once every second, between five to eight times. Heart and breathing rates may increase.

The penis may release around 1–2 tablespoons of semen. People may not ejaculate during an orgasm, but both usually occur simultaneously.

Directly after an orgasm, the head of the penis may feel more sensitive or uncomfortable to touch.

According to a 2016 article, research suggests that female orgasms may last for around 20–35 seconds.

Orgasms can help people to sleep better. Research from 2019 finds that orgasms achieved with a partner resulted in good sleep outcomes. Orgasms achieved through masturbation resulted in better sleep quality and reduced the time taken to fall asleep.

The body releases a hormone called oxytocin during an orgasm. Oxytocin may have a variety of health benefits, such as:

In addition, there is some evidence that frequent ejaculation in males might reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Research finds that healthcare professionals diagnosed prostate cancer less frequently in those who had high ejaculation rates.

There are many different types of orgasms, some of which are detailed below:

  • Clitoral orgasm: This is when an orgasm occurs due to stimulation of the clitoris. A 2019 article notes that 60% of female orgasms occur due to clitoral stimulation.
  • Vaginal orgasm: This is when an orgasm occurs vaginal stimulation. The American Psychological Association states that vaginal orgasms are related to the indirect stimulation of the clitoris during sex.
  • Blended orgasm: This occurs when clitoral and vaginal orgasms occur together.
  • Anal orgasm: Some females experience orgasms during anal sex.
  • G-spot orgasm: An orgasm can occur as a result of stimulation of the G-spot.
  • Multiple orgasms: A person can experience a series of orgasms over a short time. Masters and Johnson note that females have a shorter refractory (recovery) period, which allows them to experience multiple orgasms in a shorter period of time.
  • Imagery-induced: Orgasms can occur as a response to imagery without physical stimulation. Research from 1992 states that orgasms can occur as a result of self-induced imagery. Newer research from 2016 notes that mental imagery activates the brain regions connected to orgasm, reward, and bodily stimulation.
  • Nipple orgasm: A person may reach an orgasm due to stimulation of the nipples alone. Stimulation of the nipples can activate the part of the brain that also activates with genital stimulation.

The above list is not exhaustive, and research is ongoing regarding the types of orgasms people can experience.

Can males experience multiple orgasms?

According to a 2016 literature review, males can experience multiple orgasms.

However, this is not common. Less than 10% of people in their 20s and less than 7% of those age 30 or over can experience them.

The researchers note two types of male multiple orgasms: sporadic and condensed.

Sporadic multiple orgasms will have intervals of a few minutes. Condensed multiple orgasms consist of two to four orgasmic bursts in the space of a few seconds to 2 minutes.

More research is required to understand what factors can affect a person’s ability to experience multiple orgasms.

The following description of the physiological process of female orgasms in the genitals will use the Masters and Johnson four-phase model.

Excitement

During female stimulation, either physically or psychologically, the blood vessels within the genitals dilate. Increased blood supply causes fluid to pass through the vaginal walls, making the vulva swollen and wet. Internally, the top of the vagina expands.

During this phase, heart rate and breathing quicken, and blood pressure increases. Blood vessel dilation can lead to the person appearing flushed, particularly on the neck and chest.

Plateau

As blood flow to the introitus (vaginal opening) reaches its limit, it becomes firm. Breasts can increase in size, and increased blood flow to the areola causes the nipples to appear less erect. The clitoris pulls back against the pubic bone, seemingly disappearing.

Orgasm

The genital muscles, including the uterus and vaginal opening, experience rhythmic contractions around 0.8 seconds apart. The female orgasm typically lasts longer than the male orgasm, at an average of around 20–35 seconds.

Unlike males, most females do not have a recovery period and so can have further orgasms with repeated stimulation.

Resolution

The body gradually returns to its former state. Swelling reduces while the pulse and breathing slow.

The following description of the bodily process of male orgasms in the genitals uses the Masters and Johnson four-phase model.

Excitement

Male stimulation, either physically or psychologically, can lead to an erection. Blood flows into the corpora (spongy tissue running the length of the penis), causing the penis to grow in size and become rigid. The testicles draw up toward the body as the scrotum tightens.

Plateau

As the blood vessels in and around the penis fill with blood, the glans and testicles increase in size. In addition, thigh and buttock muscles tense, blood pressure rises, the pulse quickens, and the rate of breathing increases.

Orgasm

Semen enters the urethra by a series of contractions in the pelvic floor muscles, the prostate gland, the seminal vesicles, and the vas deferens.

Contractions in the pelvic floor muscles and prostate gland also force the semen out of the penis in a process called ejaculation.

Resolution

The male now enters a temporary recovery phase. This is the refractory period, and its length varies from person to person. It can last from a few minutes to a few days, and this period generally grows longer as a male ages.

During this phase, the penis and testicles return to their original size. The breathing may be heavy and fast, and the pulse will be elevated.

Orgasms typically occur as part of a sexual response cycle. They often take place following the continual stimulation of erogenous zones, such as the genitals, anus, nipples, and perineum.

Orgasms occur following two basic responses to continual stimulation:

  • Vasocongestion: This is the process in which body tissues fill up with blood, swelling in size as a result.
  • Myotonia: This is the process in which muscles tense, including both voluntary flexing and involuntary contracting.

According to a 2017 article, people can experience an orgasm from stimulation other than in the genital area, such as the ears or nipples. Even mental stimulation can produce an orgasm.

Orgasmic disorders can lead to distress, frustration, and feelings of shame, both for the person experiencing the symptoms and their sexual partner.

Although orgasms occur similarly in all genders, healthcare professionals tend to describe orgasm disorders in gendered terms.

Female orgasmic disorders

Female orgasmic disorders center around the absence or significant delay of orgasms following sufficient stimulation.

Doctors refer to the absence of having orgasms as anorgasmia. This term can either refer to when a person has never experienced an orgasm (primary anorgasmia) or when a person who previously experienced orgasms no longer can (secondary anorgasmia). The condition can occur generally or in specific situations.

Female orgasmic disorders can occur as the result of physical causes, such as gynecological conditions or the use of certain medications, or psychological causes such as anxiety or depression.

Male orgasmic disorders

Male orgasmic disorder (male anorgasmia) involves a persistent and recurrent delay or absence of orgasm following sufficient stimulation.

Male anorgasmia can be a lifelong condition or one that happens after a period of regular sexual functioning. The condition can occur generally or in specific situations.

Male anorgasmia can occur as the result of physical conditions such as low testosterone, psychological conditions such as anxiety, or through the use of certain medications such as antidepressants.

Premature ejaculation

Ejaculation in males is closely associated with an orgasm. Premature ejaculation, where a male ejaculates sooner than they would want to, is a common sexual complaint.

Premature ejaculation may be due to a combination of psychological factors such as guilt or anxiety and biological factors such as hormone levels or nerve damage.

The importance that society places on sex — combined with our incomplete knowledge of the orgasm — has led to several common misconceptions.

Sexual culture has placed the orgasm on a pedestal, often prizing it as the only goal for sexual encounters.

However, orgasms are not as simple or as common as many people would suggest.

In a 2016 study, 14% of women under the age of 35 had never experienced an orgasm from sexual intercourse. The same study reports that 9% of women surveyed, regardless of age, had never experienced an orgasm from sexual intercourse.

Other data in the study reported that only 38% of young women usually had an orgasm during intercourse, while 43% reported infrequent orgasms.

In the United States, as many as 1 in 3 males 18–59 years old report having problems with premature ejaculation at some point in their lives.

Research has shown that orgasms are also not widely considered the most important aspect of a sexual experience. According to the Kinsey Institute, reports of sexual satisfaction from both males and females were more likely when they experienced:

  • frequent kissing and cuddling
  • sexual caressing from partner
  • higher sexual functioning
  • more frequent sex

Another misconception is that penile-vaginal stimulation is the main way for people to achieve an orgasm. While this may be true for many people, many more females experience higher sexual arousal following the stimulation of the clitoris.

Orgasms can occur in many ways. Orgasms do not necessarily have to involve the genitals, nor do they have to link with sexual desires, as evidenced by examples of exercise-induced orgasm.

Another common misconception is that transgender people cannot orgasm after gender reassignment surgery.

A 2018 study looked at the effects of gender affirming surgery (GAS) on orgasm.

In participants who had undergone GAS with penile inversion vaginoplasty and then had sexual intercourse, 55.8% reported their orgasms to be more intense than before the surgery. Of the participants, 20.8% reported no difference.

A 2014 study focused on 97 people who underwent single-stage metoidioplasty. The researchers found that none of those who had the surgery had any problems achieving an orgasm.

Johns Hopkins states that achieving an orgasm is possible after phalloplasty.

The journey to an orgasm is a very individual experience that has no singular, all-encompassing definition. In many cases, experts recommend avoiding comparison with other people or preexisting concepts of what an orgasm should be.

Orgasms can be different for each individual and do not only occur through sexual stimulation.

People of all genders can have orgasms, and transgender people can orgasm after gender affirmation surgery. Orgasms can release endorphins, which may cause an increased feeling of relaxation or happiness afterward.

People of any gender may also experience orgasm disorders, such as premature ejaculation or an inability to orgasm. If people have any concerns regarding their orgasms, they can speak with a doctor or sex therapist.

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