The Science of Orgasm

The last of the orgasmic neurotransmitters is oxytocin, often called the “love” or “bonding” chemical. Experts say oxytocin facilitates trust and bonding with others and have found that oxytocin is released during orgasm and breastfeeding. While there’s more to building trust than a burst of chemicals in your brain, this chemical effect could explain why intense orgasms can foster feelings of love between two people with utterly incompatible personalities.

So that’s what’s going on in your nervous system and brain during an orgasm. But what does an orgasm look like? Socially defined, an orgasm is someone huffing, puffing, ooohing and ahhing at the end of sex, accompanied by ejaculation in men and contorted faces in everyone. This social definition is only partially correct in describing the physical signs of orgasm.

While heavy breathing is certainly an external physical sign of orgasm, loud noises are not. Some people barely make a sound, while others set off car alarms. The truly universal signs of an orgasm are involuntary muscle contractions. Toe-curling, face contorting, fingers clenching and a general shaking all over the body, especially in the pelvic region, are a sure-fire sign of the “Big O”.

This muscular tension can be accompanied by ejaculation, often the case with men and sometimes with women. In men, it’s a common misconception to think that ejaculation and orgasm are the same thing, but ejaculation does not equal orgasm, even though they often happen at the same time. We tend to think of ejaculation in men and orgasm as being the same process, but they are actually two separate events. In fact, men who learn to have orgasms without ejaculating find that they can achieve what is thought to be the exclusive domain of women: multiple orgasms.

You may be wondering, “Wait, men can have multiple orgasms and women can ejaculate?” Yes. Male and female bodies share more similarities than differences. Consider the two largest sexual organs in the human body: the brain and skin. Everyone has a brain and skin, the two points of stimulation and information processing that enable orgasms and ejaculation in the first place. Male and female orgasms are more alike than different because our bodies share more similarities than differences. Even male and female genitals are shaped from the same mounds of flesh.

In the womb, male and female genitals both develop from a structure called the genital tubercule. Depending on whether the fetus is male or female, this structure will develop into either a penis and scrotum, or a clitoris and labia. It will also form some of the glands found in the reproductive system. Even though male and female genitals look very different, each structure of the female anatomy has a corresponding structure in the male. The penis and clitoris are formed from the same tissue, as are the outer labia and scrotum. The prostate gland in men, which produces ejaculatory secretions, also has an analog in women, called the Skene’s gland. Although nobody has been able to pinpoint it yet, it is thought that this gland might be responsible for female ejaculation.

Ejaculation, muscle spasms, neurotransmitter explosions: all parts of the physical, neural and chemical manifestations of orgasm. Considering that human bodies all have these reactions, it is amazing how varied the subjective sexual experience of orgasm can be. We all have the same neural pathways carrying information and the same neurotransmitters being released, yet the types of stimulation and personal descriptions of this experience are so varied that an orgasm is both universal and unique to each person.

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