The Science of Orgasms, Part Two – The female orgasm

In part one of our series, we covered the science and anatomy of the male orgasm. In part two we will dive into the science of the female orgasm. This might go without saying but women are bit more complicated… hence, the female orgasm is more complex.

The basics of nerve stimulation are the same in men as they are in women. So, let’s recap. First, the stimulus, which sometimes is the most challenging part in women sexual arousal can be less about touch and more about feeling, thought, and fantasy. Regardless, once the initiation has begun the neurons in the brain (hypothalamus region) travel down to the pelvic plexus and that’s when it starts to differ due to anatomical differences.

The pelvic nerve is responsible for pleasurable sensation in the vagina, cervix, rectum, and urinary bladder. Ever noticed that sex is sometimes better if you kind of have to pee? Well, there’s a scientific explanation for that. The pressure put on the nerves can enhance sensation. The hypogastric nerve stimulates the uterus and cervix. And the clitoris, this important female pleasure structure is innervated by the pudendal nerve and provides a different quality of sensory input than the pelvic or hypogastric nerves.

What about the breasts? Well, the nipples have nerves that give back sensory information into the brain, releasing more oxytocin, thus activating an enhancement of arousal response.

So why should you care about all this anatomy? Well, if you want to talk about pleasure, you can stimulate all three nerves simultaneously for an incredible body-shattering orgasm.

Let’s recap – the pelvic nerve supplies nerve input for the vagina/rectum, the pudendal nerve for the clitoris, and the hypogastric nerve for the cervix. Yes, IT IS possible to stimulate all at once.

Sexual response models have been evolving for 60+ years from the Masters and Johnson (Masters and Johnson., 1966) work in the 1960s of 4 stage model:

  • Excitement phase
  • Plateau phase
  • Response and orgasm phase
  • Resolution phaseThis progressed to the 1970s Kaplan model (Kaplan, 1979) to include a desire stage and breaking down the cycle to differentiate between psychologic and physiologic responses:
  • Desire (psychological)
  • Excitement (physiological)
  • Orgasm (physiological)

Finally, in the mid 2010s we were given a model that complexly and likely more accurately, depicts the female sexual response model, however it can be applied to men as well:

Female Response Model(Basson, R., 2015)

 

 

If we lend ourselves to the more simplified Kaplan model, we can see that once sensory nerves have been inundated with neurotransmitter stimuli, the female genital sexual response is an orchestra of events involving vascular changes to the labia, periurethral glans, urethra, and endopelvic/halbans fascia leading to vaso congestive and dilatory changes ending in climax.

So, what does that mean in real-talk? First the erectile tissue of the clitoris, labia minora, and vagina becomes engorged in blood. YES, women get erections. This is called ‘vaso congestion’. Then the periurethral and bartholin glands of the vagina release lubrication fluid while the vaginal opening widens. Orgasm occurs when stimulation of one or all sensory nerves stimulates rhythmic, pleasurable contractions in the pelvic floor muscles and/or the uterus.

The orgasms originating from stimulating of the pelvic and hypogastric nerves from the vagina and cervix may elicit a deeper “full body or supernova” effect vs a pudendal or clitoral orgasm results in a more external or “shooting star” orgasm. However, more study is needed on this area. Ejaculation, or release of fluid, in females is less common than males, but does occur. When it does, it is an expulsion of fluid from the periurethral (skene’s glands).

Lastly, women have the added benefit of no refractory period so multiple orgasms are possible for women who learn to explore, embrace, and enjoy their sexual prowess in an intimate setting.

So there you have it—the science of orgasms!

While the male orgasm is relatively straightforward, caused by autonomic nervous system activation in response to an image, scent, or touch; the female orgasm is more complex as sexual arousal for women can be less about touch and more about feeling thought, and fantasy than it is for men.

Female pelvic innervation is complex but allows for no downtime required between orgasms, allowing for multi-orgasm potential. With such different responses between genders when it comes to sexual climax, there’s bound to be questions that you have about your own sexual health.

If you have questions related to this blog post or anything else involving sexual health, don’t hesitate to reach out to me, a sex therapist, or another health care provider who is “cliterate” in topics related to health.

In the meantime, check out my library recommendations for ways to educate yourself and empower your own sexual health journey.

 

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References

Basson R. Human sexual response. Handb Clin Neurol. 2015;130:11-18. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63247-0.00002-X. PMID: 26003236.

Hoch Z. Vaginal erotic sensitivity by sexological examination. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 1986;65(7):767-73. doi: 10.3109/00016348609161498. PMID: 3811850.

Komisaruk BR, Beyer C, Whipple B. The Science of Orgasm. Johns Hopkins University Press; 2006.

Masters WH, Johnson VE. Human sexual response. Boston: Little Brown; 1966 .

Puppo V. Embryology and anatomy of the vulva: the female orgasm and women’s sexual health. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2011 Jan;154(1):3-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ejogrb.2010.08.009. Epub 2010 Sep 15. PMID: 20832160.

Puppo V. Anatomy and physiology of the clitoris, vestibular bulbs, and labia minora with a review of the female orgasm and the prevention of female sexual dysfunction. Clin Anat. 2013 Jan;26(1):134-52. doi: 10.1002/ca.22177. Epub 2012 Nov 21. PMID: 23169570.

Writer: Michelle Leary
Writer: Michelle Leary
January 4, 2023

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