As regards nomenclature, please note that all three types have occasionally been referred to (questionably) as "extragenital orgasms." And note also that—at least as far as I could determine—the basic distinctions between types have yet to be elucidated in the (relatively scant) literature on autoeroticim.
1. The least positive, as well as the most medically and psychiatrically worrisome, type of spontaneous orgasm
, is also the only one that carries an official designation: namely, Persistent Genital Arousal Disorder
(or PGAD). Earlier, the malady was called Persistent Sexual Arousal Syndrome
(PSAS), as well as Restless Genital Syndrome
(RGS). And, because of its similarly vexing nature
, it’s sometimes been compared to Restless Legs Syndrome—
a far less rare, though perhaps equally tormenting, affliction.
Writing for The Daily Beast, Lizzie Crocker observes that while the terms “arousal” and “orgasm” are almost always associated with sexual pleasure and fulfillment, PGAD is more like a biological itch that when scratched only subsides temporarily. To this author, the end result is “an intractable ache often compounded by burning, throbbing, and swelling.” Certainly, no great joy here—though people unfamiliar with the syndrome routinely imagine that the condition must be an enviable one.
Wikipedia defines the ailment as “a spontaneous, persistent, and uncontrollable genital arousal in women, with or without orgasm or genital engorgement, [and] unrelated to any feelings of sexual desire.” There’s also a genital counterpart to this syndrome in men. But though men are increasingly reporting it, it appears to occur much less frequently for them (despite its end result being much more difficult to hide!).
The limited literature on this disorder is inconclusive as to whether it’s related to high testosterone levels, which would naturally be associated with higher libido. But it doesn’t appear linked to hypersexuality, and those who suffer from it typically report feeling embarrassed, ashamed—even mortified—when it occurs.
The best overall summary of its symptoms (most of which I’ve seen presented elsewhere, though piecemeal) is provided by Wikipedia. So, with some editing, I’ll quote from this convenient Internet source:
“Physical arousal caused by this syndrome can be very intense and persist for extended periods, days or weeks at a time. Orgasm can sometimes provide relief, but within hours the symptoms return. . .Failure or refusal to relieve the symptoms often results in waves of spontaneous orgasm in women and ejaculation in men. The symptoms can be debilitating, preventing concentration
on mundane tasks. Some situations, such as riding in an automobile or train, vibrations from mobile phones, and even going to the toilet can aggravate the syndrome unbearably, causing the discomfort to verge on pain. . .Some sufferers have said that they shun sexual relations, which they may find to be a painful experience. The condition may last for many years and can be so severe that it has been known to lead to depression and even suicide.”
At this point, no single cause has been found for the affliction. Physicians generally agree, however, that its origins are neurological, and it’s recently been linked primarily to pudendal nerve entrapment. They also report that it’s most commonly found in post-menopausal women and in those who have hormonal imbalances or undergone hormonal therapy.
Treatments that have shown some success (typically in controlling, not eradicating, the symptoms) include antidepressants, antiandrogenic agents, regional nerve blocks, anaesthetizing gels and, in certain instances, surgical procedures. On their own, women have sought relief through applying ice or heat packs to their genitalia, yoga, and a variety of other trial-and-error type remedies—not to mention joining support groups of fellow sufferers to ameliorate distressing feelings of isolation and being misunderstood.
2. Similar to the third type of spontaneous orgasm, the second type has no official classification—other, that is, than the catchall phrase “spontaneous orgasm.” Yet this second type can be clearly distinguished from the third (which is also “hands-free”) by its being (a) associated with nocturnal emissions (or “wet dreams”) and (b) totally unprompted or unprovoked consciously.
Here, from support group postings on WebMD, are some first-hand descriptions of this experience— which, when they’re not embarrassing, are generally enjoyable:
“Just recently, I think I experienced a spontaneous orgasm. I’m 47, female. No erotic dreams, no touching, nothing. But absolutely feeling vaginal contractions and pleasure . . .”
“I’m a 46 year old woman with a high sex drive—although I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it. . .[The orgasms] are not as strong as [those] I experience during intercourse but they are still there. It can be a bit unnerving if I’m not expecting it . . .”
“I have it happen to me during my sleep
sometimes. I won’t even be having a sexual dream and it happens. . .I’ve never had it while I was awake.”
“I was driving, and was running late to work due to really bad traffic. . . I re-routed, and got lost. Long story short, my drive was a little intense, and I was already stressed out. All of a sudden, I got so intensely anxious, and felt like I needed to get OUT of the car, and get air. A few seconds following that, I quickly realized I am about to have an orgasm. It was the strangest feeling. So intense, and my whole body felt it for what seemed like a long time. I felt all the blood pumping in my body, and I was throbbing. Very freaky, and I felt almost embarrassed about it. I have recently started some new meds, and upped dosage on another. . .” [Two things that might be pointed out here: (a) spontaneous orgasms have at times been linked to elevated stress and anxiety levels, and (b) such orgasms have also been identified as a side effect of certain medications—as, additionally, has priapism (i.e., prolonged, unwanted erections in males).]
“. . . It happens a lot while I’m sleeping, but only once while I was awake. . . With [me], I’m almost certain [that at night] it’s because of a full bladder.”
“I am 67 years old. Recently I was undergoing a medical examination. I was fully clothed, lying on an examining table on my back. . .While [the doctor was at his desk writing], I began feeling a lot of tension throughout my entire body. Then I started experiencing sexual arousal, to my astonishment. That lasted about a half a minute while I wondered how this had happened. [When the doctor told me I could sit up, I immediately had] a very strong climax (vaginal contractions and extreme pleasure included) [which] tore through my body, head to foot, and I actually screamed out loud! Nothing close to this uninitiated, spontaneous experience has ever happened to me ever before. . . This was the [biggest] sexual surprise of my life, and because of the circumstances under which it occurred, I can’t say it was a welcome surprise.”
Complementing these highly selected remarks are additional ones on Reddit.com. And when this social networking site covered the topic, the commenters weighing in described the phenomenon in similar ways, their reactions ranging from weirdly pleasing, to bewildering, nerve-wracking, and alarming. In any case, it’s certainly not an experience taken lightly by its recipients. There’s also a thread devoted to “unstimulated spontaneous orgasms” on Women’s-Health.com. And, for a full-blown description of one woman’s totally unanticipated ecstatic episode, readers might wish to click here..
3. With some people (and again, apparently far more in women than in men), solely engaging in erotic thoughts and images can culminate in orgasm. Even though such climaxes (similar to the second type) are physically unassisted, they’re undeniably fostered by one’s sexual imaginings. That is, there’s conscious intent involved here—not generally to induce orgasm as such, but to take pleasure in erotic fantasy; to turn oneself on.
In a recent New York Times article by William J. Broad, humorously titled “I’ll Have What She’s Thinking” (09/28/13), the author discusses the progress scientists have made in determining not only the prevalence of spontaneous orgasms but their neurophysiological basis. Although matters of space prevent my going into detail here on the various research findings Broad reports, it’s still worthwhile to note the most important of them.
In one study at Rutgers University, brain
scans of volunteers focusing on an erotic fantasy of their choice revealed that the pleasure centers of their brain lit up in ways indistinguishable from normal orgasms. And the author notes that there now exist an abundance of YouTube how-to videos claiming to show its viewers how they might, for instance, use controlled breathing and erotic reflection to accomplish such climaxes—which are evocatively characterized by such terms as “thinking off,” “energy orgasms,” “the i Shakti technique,” and “Tantric sex” (and clicking here
will direct you to such videos).
Surveying the subject historically, Broad traces scientific investigations of spontaneous orgasms all the way back to the 19th century, where the curious term psychic coitus was originally employed to describe the phenomenon. Referring to the work of such luminaries in the field as Havelock Ellis, Alfred C. Kinsey, and Masters and Johnson, the author observes that the “stigma” of such occurrences has faded over time as researchers have increasingly come to recognize such autoeroticism as a natural part of human sexuality.
Citing a 1980 talk given by Gina Ogden, then working on a doctoral dissertation on women’s spontaneous orgasms, Broad describes how at this conference half the audience “stampeded” the speaker after her presentation to volunteer themselves for interviews. And, astoundingly, of the fifty women Ogden talked to, no fewer than 32 (or 64%) reported having orgasms solely through their carnal imagination.
Ogden—later joining forces with Barry R. Komisaruk, a biologist at the Newark campus of Rutgers specializing in orgasm research—observed that even in a laboratory setting the ten women in their study were able to reach sexual climax by indulging in erotic imagery alone. And that, whether through self-stimulation or mere sexual fantasy, these women experienced similar rises in blood pressure, heart rate, and tolerance for pain—telltale signs of orgasm. In a 1992 paper, the two scientists were obliged to conclude that the whole nature of orgasm was due for reassessment.
Much more recently, in 2010, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Dr. Komisaruk and his Rutgers team reported a surprise research finding suggesting that the scientists were honing in on the derivations of the phenomenon. Scans on a dozen women demonstrated that their simply thinking about their breasts and genitals being stimulated lit up their brain’s corresponding sensory areas—a discovery directly challenging the traditional view of the sensory cortext. This study, as Ogden (not actually part of it) noted, is “likely to expand the accepted definition of female sexuality.”
But even more than this, what I think present-day research is suggesting is that our erotic imagination—and for both genders—plays a far more crucial role in physical arousal and orgasm than had previously been appreciated. And this helps explain not only the prodigious popularity of today’s so-readily-available erotica and pornography, but also why, historically, “solo sex” has always been such a strong competitor with (equally normal) couples sex.
NOTE 1: In certain respects, this post might be seen as a companion piece to my earlier post on autoeroticism, entitled “Are You Your Own Sex Object?”
NOTE 2: If you found this post interesting and/or informative, please consider sending its link to others. Additionally, if you’d like to check out my other writings for Psychology Today (on topics sexual or otherwise), click here.
© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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