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The Science Behind The Orgasm

by | Oct 31, 2023 | SEXUALITY

a person grabbing bed sheets during an orgasm

The big O. While you don’t need to experience orgasm during intimacy for it to be pleasurable, it can be the pièce de résistance of the whole experience. We know that orgasms feel amazing, but what makes them so amazing? By looking at the science behind them, we can better understand what the orgasm is and why it can be an essential part of pleasure.



Physiological Factors



As it turns out, with all the psychological and medical advancements, experiencing orgasm remains a bit of a mystery. What research does know about experiencing one is that they characteristically occur as a part of the sexual response cycle. In 1966, William Masters and Virginia Johnson discussed a linear four-stage model of female and male orgasm, including excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.



During the first phase of excitement, several physiological responses happen in the body, including increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. In the excitement phase, muscle tension will increase and increased blood flow goes to the genitals and nipples. Vulva owners will have increased blood flow to the walls of the vagina, causing swelling and wetting of the clitoris, labia majora, minora, and uterus. Penis owners experience a rush of blood to the penis, causing an erection and enlargement of the testes. The excitement phase causes the genitals to be sensitive or uncomfortable to touch making foreplay essential due to increased blood flow.



The plateau phase is when the excitement phase kicks into overdrive, preparing the body for climax. Muscle contractions may be experienced in other body areas, including feet, hands, anus, and other body regions. With vulva owners, the vagina will fully expand as the uterus elevates. The penis owner’s testicles are drawn further into the scrotal sac. During this phase, some penis owners may experience the release of seminal fluid.



The third phase, the orgasm, is the peak of sexual excitement. However, many may experience the early stages of the sexual response cycle but not to completion. It’s during this phase that muscle contractions happen throughout the body, followed by sexual tension release. Vulva owners will experience muscle contractions lasting around 20-35 seconds in the vagina and uterus. Penis owners experience muscle contractions around 18-22 seconds in the pelvic floor region, prostate gland, and seminal vesicles. The contractions of the pelvic floor muscles will expel semen externally. Female ejaculation may also happen during this phase when flood is released from the urethral opening.



During the last phase resolution, the body will return to its rhythmic baseline. The swelling of the genitals will decrease and breath will slow down. There is a noted longer refractory period with penis owners than vulva owners. This allows for vulva owners to climax multiple times in a shorter period of time.



Types Of Orgasms



While penial and clitoral stimulation is a common way people seek to achieve arousal, climax is also achieved by stimulating the erogenous zones, which include much more than just the genital and vaginal penetration/vaginal stimulationNipple orgasms, which is a common erogenous stimulation area, are highly sensitive and, when stimulated, send signals to the area of the brain which activates the area of the brain responsible for sexual arousal called the genital sensory cortex.


Sex therapist and neuroscientist Dr. Nan Waise cheekily calls this function of the mind “brain crotch.” Dr. Nan Waise explains in a 2018 study that when you stimulate areas of the body, such as the anal or nipples, it sends singles to your brain to feel sexual arousal. Therefore, the more erogenous zones stimulated, the more pleasure waves are sent to your “brain crotch”, maximizing your ability to climax and allowing your body to access many different types in different areas of the body.


Moreover, there are several subcategories of the big O. Anal orgasms help to stimulate other erogenous zones helping both penis and vulva owners experience orgasm. When stimulated, the anus’s proximity to the vaginal wall or prostate causes nerve endings to fire rapidly, allowing individuals to experience climax.



There are blended orgasms, which are various erogenous zones reaching peak pleasure simultaneously. This type stimulates at least two pleasure points simultaneously versus one singular source—multiple climaxes where numerous orgasms are achieved in a short period such as a vaginal and clitoral orgasm. Vulva owners more commonly reach multiple orgasms due to a shorter recovery period. However, penis owners may achieve multiple orgasms through non-ejaculatory multiple orgasms and prostate orgasms.



Another type of orgasm is the pressure orgasm, where applied pressure stimulates an erogenous zone for some time. A pressure orgasm may happen indirectly through applying pressure on pleasurable areas. Tension orgasm is achieved when stimulating an area of the body that is tense. It also causes a buildup and release of tension, leading to orgasm. Lastly, a nocturnal orgasm or “wet dreams” happens during REM sleep when your body increases blood flow to your genitalia, causing sensitivity to physical and psychological stimulation.



Orgasm On The Brain


Science shows that during arousal, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex (the logical part of our brain) shows less activity, thus why we feel more inhibited during sex. If this region of the brain becomes active, it can lead to a reduction of arousal, increasing performance anxiety. To gain a deeper understanding of what happens in the brain during the sexual response cycle, researchers have used MRI machines and PET scans to measure neuron activity in the brain during arousal.


A host of chemicals and hormones are released in the brain, allowing for pleasure peak pleasure levels to be reached both physically and emotionally. A surge of dopamine and oxytocin is released during orgasm. Dopamine, known as “pleasure hormone”, allows you to feel satisfaction and motivation. Oxytocin, also called the “cuddle hormone,” is released from the hypothalamus, promoting feelings of attachment. Oxytocin is also accompanied by melatonin which is why some people feel sleepy after achieving orgasm. Other chemicals such as endorphin and vasopressin are released in the pituitary gland that increase feelings of closes with person to person contact and reduce pain levels in the body.



Reaching Orgasm


Orgasms, while they can feel incredible, are just a piece of the pleasure pie. By exploring various pleasurable areas of the body, one can heighten their chance of achieving multiple types of the big O. If you are struggling to achieve orgasm, you are not alone, with 10% to 15% of women having never achieved which hints at the orgasm gap. This is not to say that it is not achievable, but it can be achieved with more knowledge, practice, and patience.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Brooke Brownlee, APCC is an Associate Professional Clinical Counselor at Modern Intimacy under the supervision of Dr. Kate Balestrieri. Brooke is passionate about helping clients heal from trauma, feel more empowered sexually, and repair relationships. Brooke is continuing her education and working towards becoming a Certified Sex Therapist.



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1 Comment

  1. Chris

    Thank you for your article on The Science Behind The Orgasm


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