Definitions of Orgasm

Although many may prefer that orgasms remain indescribable and undefinable, some have proposed a definition:

“[From the Greek meaning] to swell as with moisture, be excited or eager” (Oxford English Dictionary, Simpson & Weiner, 2002a)

“The expulsive discharge of neuromuscular tensions at the peak of sexual response” (Kinsey et al., 1953)

“A brief episode of physical release from the vasocongestion and myotonic increment developed in response to sexual stimuli” (Masters & Johnson, 1966)

“The zenith of sexuoerotic experience that men and women characterize subjectively as voluptuous rapture or ecstasy. It occurs simultaneously in the brain/mind and the pelvic genitalia. Irrespective of its locus of onset, the occurrence of orgasm is contingent upon reciprocal intercommunication between neural networks in the brain, above, and the pelvic genitalia, below, and it does not survive their deconnection by the severance of the spinal cord. However, it is able to survive even extensive trauma at either end.” (Money, Wainwright & Hingburger, 1991)

“An explosive cerebrally encoded neuromuscular response at the peak of sexual arousal elicited by psychobiological stimuli, the pleasurable sensations of which are experienced in association with dispensable pelvic physiological concomitants” (Kothari & Patel, 1991)

“A peak intensity of excitation generated by: (a) afferent and re-afferent stimulation from visceral and/or somatic sensory receptors activated exogenously and/or endogenously, and/or (b) higher-order cognitive processes, followed by a release and resolution (decrease) of excitation. By this definition, orgasm is characteristic of, but not restricted to, the genital system.” (Komisaruk & Whipple, 1991)

“A variable, transient, peak sensation of intense pleasure, creating an altered state of consciousness, usually with an initiation accompanied by involuntary rhythmic contractions of the pelvic striated circumvaginal musculature, often with concomitant uterine and anal contractions, and myotonia that resolves the sexually induced vasocongestion and myotonia, generally with an induction of well-being and contentment.” (Meston, Levin, et al., 2004)

What exactly is an orgasm? Almost everyone would agree that orgasm is an intense, pleasurable response to genital stimulation: penile physical stimulation in males and clitoral or vaginal physical stimulation in females. Although orgasm characteristically results from genital stimulation, there are many reports that other types of sensory stimulation also generate orgasms, stimulation perceived as both “genital” and “nongenital.”

For example, there are documented cases of women who claim they can experience orgasms just by thinking—without any physical stimulation. Their bodily reactions of doubling of heart rate, blood pressure, pupil diameter, and pain threshold bear out their claim (Whipple, Ogden & Komisaruk, 1992). Men and women with spinal cord injury have described that the skin near their injury is hypersensitive to touch—painful and intensely aversive to touch if accidentally brushed, but when stimulated in the right way, by the right person, capable of producing pleasurable orgasmic feelings that may be perceived as emanating from the genitals. A woman with a complete spinal cord injury at the upper thoracic level, whose area of hypersensitivity was the neck and shoulder, claimed to have orgasms from stimulation of the skin of her neck. In the laboratory, her heart rate and blood pressure increased markedly during self-application of a vibrator to her neck-shoulder junction, and she described experiencing an orgasm accompanied by a “tingling” sensation in her vagina (Sipski, Komisaruk, et al., 1993).

In reports by Kinsey et al. (1953), Masters and Johnson (1966), and Paget (2001), women stated that they experienced orgasms from breast or nipple stimulation. Paget (2001) also described orgasms produced by stimulation of the mouth or anus in women and men. Women with spinal cord injury described experiencing orgasm from stimulation of the ears, lips, breasts, or nipples (Comarr & Vigue, 1978). Xaviera Hollander (1981), author of The Happy Hooker, said she experienced an orgasm when a police officer placed his hand on her shoulder. In the world of fiction, the heroine of the novel Kinflicks, on realizing she has just had an orgasm when her lover held her hand, says she can experience orgasms from stimulation anywhere on her body (Alther, 1975).

The occurrence of orgasms stimulated from many different parts of the body is also reported by persons using marijuana. And cocaine users claim that the rush they feel just after injecting the drug feels orgasmic (Seecof & Tennant, 1986).

Is the sensation of orgasm different in women and men? Vance and Wagner (1976) performed a carefully controlled study in which college students taking a course in the psychology of sexual behaviour wrote descriptions of their own orgasms, and a group of judges tried to guess which descriptions were written by men and which by women. The judges were female and male obstetriciangynecologists, psychologists, and medical students. Before submitting the descriptions to the judges, Vance and Wagner substituted gender-neutral words for specific words in the students’ written descriptions (e.g., genitalia for penis or vagina) to intentionally conceal the sex of the writers. The study authors built additional clever and appropriate safeguards into the experimental design, a model for this type of research.

Vance and Wagner’s statistical analysis showed that no type or gender of judge was better than any other at discerning the sex of the writer. They concluded that “individuals are unable to distinguish the sex of a person from that person’s written description of his or her orgasm . . . Furthermore, neither sex was more adept at recognizing characteristics in descriptions of orgasm that would serve as a basis for sex differentiation, if, indeed, there are factors in such descriptions which can be differentiated.”

The students’ descriptions are vivid, as demonstrated by quotations selected at random from nine of the forty-eight participants in the study. In each instance, as noted above, the judges could not correctly identify whether the writer was male or female (we don’t know, either).

A sudden feeling of lightheadedness followed by an intense feeling of relief and elation. A rush. Intense muscular spasms of the whole body. Sense of euphoria followed by deep peace and relaxation.

Feels like tension building up until you think it can’t build up any more, then release. The orgasm is both the highest point of tension and the release almost at the same time. Also feeling contractions in the genitals. Tingling all over.

There is a great release of tensions that have built up in the prior stages of sexual activity. This release is extremely pleasurable and exciting. The feeling seems to be centred in the genital region. It is extremely intense and exhilarating. There is a loss of muscular control as the pleasure mounts and you almost cannot go on. You almost don’t want to go on. This is followed by the climax and refractory states!

The period when the orgasm takes place—a loss of a real feeling for the surroundings except for the other person. The movements are spontaneous and intense.

A heightened feeling of excitement with severe muscular tension especially through the back and legs, rigid straightening of the entire body for about 5 seconds, and a strong and general relaxation and very tired, relieved feeling.

Basically it’s an enormous build-up of tension, anxiety, strain followed by a period of total oblivion to sensation then a tremendous expulsion of the build-up with a feeling of wonderfulness and relief.

The feeling of orgasm in my opinion is a feeling of utmost relief of any type of tension. It is the most fulfilling experience I have ever had of enjoyment. The feeling is exuberant and the most enjoyable feeling I have ever experienced.

A building of tension, sometimes, and frustration until the climax. A tightening inside, palpitating rhythm, explosion, and warmth and peace.

A complete relief of all tensions. Very powerful and filled with ecstasy. Contraction of stomach and back muscles.

These characterizations of orgasm emphasize the physical feeling. A more abstract characterization was reported in a study of more than four hundred male and female university students by Mah and Binik (2005): “orgasmic pleasure and satisfaction were more consistently related to the cognitive-affective characteristics of the subjective orgasm experience than were the sensory characteristics. [The findings support the] salience of the overall psychological intensity of the orgasm experience over the perceived anatomical location of orgasmic sensations.”

About the authors

This fascinating and comprehensive book is the first to explore the complex biological process leading to orgasm. Here, sexuality researcher Beverly Whipple, coauthor of the international best-selling book The G Spot and Other Discoveries about Human Sexuality, joins neuroscientist Barry R. Komisaruk and endocrinologist Carlos Beyer-Flores to view orgasm through the lenses of behavioral neuroscience along with cognitive and physiological sciences.

The authors explain how and why orgasms happen, why they fail to happen, and what brain and body events are put into play at the moment of orgasm. No topic is left unexplored, as the book describes the genital-brain connection, how the brain produces orgasms, how aging affects orgasm, and the effects of prescription medication, street drugs, hormones, disorders, and diseases.

Covering every type of sexual peak experience in women and men from intense to phantom, this informative and entertaining work illuminates the hows, whats, and wherefores of orgasm.

Barry R. Komisaruk is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University.

Carlos Beyer-Flores is Professor at CINVESTAV and Director of CIRA at the Autonomous University of Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Beverly Whipple is Professor Emerita at Rutgers University.

For more information, click here

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