We all know the iconic, “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally, but do you know how orgasms work?
An orgasm is the intense feeling of sexual pleasure, along with contractions of the genital muscles, heavy breathing and an increased heart rate. Often referred to as climaxing, an orgasm is not simply a physical experience. They leave you feeling relaxed, relieve pain such as headaches and menstrual cramps, and are sumptuously satisfying.
Studies have found that oxytocin levels increase after female sexual stimulation and are attributed to nipple/areola stimulation (similar to that when a baby is being breast fed) and genital stimulation. When sexually aroused, oxytocin levels increase significantly, a main factor in achieving an orgasm, which in turn, causes the release of more oxytocin. The benefits of oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain which makes you feel good and creates a sense of well being and happiness are huge.
There have been many studies conducted concerning the physical effects of an orgasm, but the most wildly accepted understanding is the Human Sexual Response Cycle. This concept was put forward by William H Masters and Virginia E Johnson in their book Human Sexual Response (1966), which consists of four stages.
The initial stage of orgasm is excitement caused by erotic stimulation, and can be either physical or visual. In women, the uterus elevates, and the labia lubricates and swells. The vagina also becomes lubricated, expanding to prepare for penetration. The clitoris begins to swell, and some women may find that their nipples come erect. For men, the penis begins to become erect, and, like women, some may find the nipples stiffen. Both sexes will experience an increase in heart rate and breathing.
In the second stage, the reactions experienced in the first stage become intensified as stimulation continues. Some may experience a reddening of the skin and muscle spasms. If the plateau stage goes on for too long without achieving orgasm, it can be incredibly frustrating.
The penis will become fully erect at this stage, causing the testicles to pull up tightly in the scrotum. The urethral sphincter contracts to avoid any urine mixing with the semen, and pre-ejaculate may appear on the head of the penis.
Women will experience a tightening of the pubococcygeus muscle, more commonly known as the PC muscle, which forms the pelvic floor. As the labia continues to swell, the clitoris may retract its hood and become increasingly sensitive.
The orgasm is the resolution of the plateau stage. Both men and women experience short bursts of muscle contractions in the pelvis, and involuntary reflexes such as muscle spasms and vocalisations are not uncommon. Blood pressure, vessel engorgement, muscle tension and heart rate are all at increased levels.
Prior to ejaculation, men experience “ejaculatory inevitability”, and may feel like they are physically about to burst! For women, the vaginal walls rhythmically contract of on average one-eighth of a second.
After orgasms, the muscles relax as they return to their pre-arousal state. This can take a little longer for women, as they are capable of achieving multiple orgasms as they can recover from an orgasm more quickly than men.
Depending on age and health factors, the “refractory period” for recovery differs from man to man. During this period, a man is incapable of becoming aroused and achieving an erection, and cannot reach an orgasm again until this period has finished.
The genitals are packed full of nerve endings, which send impulses to the brain. Each nerve perceives stimulation differently, depending on where you’re being touched. This is why clitoral and vaginal orgasms don’t feel the same. The clitoris has over 8000 nerve endings, which is why it can get so sensitive!
There are four main nerves in the genitals. The pelvic nerve is found in a woman’s cervix, and in the rectum of both sexes. The vagus nerve is located in a woman’s uterus, cervix and vagina, and is unique, as it is the only nerve that doesn’t travel up the spine. The pudendal nerve is found in the clitoris in women and also in a man’s penis and scrotum. The hypogastric nerve is found in a woman’s uterus and cervix, and in a man’s prostate.
The male and female brain work almost identically during stimulation and orgasm. When orgasms occur, the part of the brain called the lateral orbifrontal cortex shuts down entirely, meaning you physically let go of your inhibitions. For a few moments, you completely lose control!
No wonder why we all want what she’s having!
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