Male and Female Orgasm: Not So Different?
The experience of orgasm for men and women is very similar.
Posted Apr 16, 2010
Women are from Venus and men are....well, let's not go there.
These and other metaphors point out what's thought by many to be a common truism: that men and women are different when it comes to love and sexual response. According to these people, women like to be cuddled and men like sex. Women like to talk and men want to have sex. Most women take longer to achieve orgasm than most men. A common sexual dysfunction in women is inability to achieve orgasm, while the corresponding dysfunction in males is premature orgasm.
Here's what you may not know, though: The actual orgasm, for both men and women, is very similar. This is the case both for the timing and duration of pelvic muscle contractions during orgasm as well as the body sense—the felt experience—of orgasm.
This is not exactly new information. The research on this goes back to the late 1960's. I want to review these findings to make a few points about the erotic dimensions of body sense, points that lead to important implications about enjoying and improving one's sex life by cultivating your body sense.
Two studies done at the University of Minnesota Medical School and published in the early 1980's measured the intensity, frequency, and durations of pelvic muscle contractions (measured with a pressure sensitive anal probe) of males and females during masturbation. There was basically no difference in the pattern of these contractions between males and females.
As shown in the diagram, taken from one of these studies, orgasm begins as a series of 6 to 15 regular contractions of high intensity occurring over about 20 to 30 seconds. There are individual differences (but no gender differences) in what occurs after this series of regular contractions. For some men and women, these regular contractions are the primary orgasmic experience. These Type I orgasms are the most frequent. Other men and women, however, may continue to experience irregular contractions (shown in the diagram) for another 30 - 90 seconds, so called Type II orgasms. Relatively few people have mixed patterns of regular and irregular contractions.
Two things are important about these data. One is that the individual differences were reliable: People who had Type I orgasms on one occasion were more likely to have Type I orgasms on subsequent occasions, and similarly for Type II. The other important conclusion is that not only were there no gender differences, but the same types of individual differences occurred in males and females. Some women and some men are Type I climaxers and some are Type II.
So, while there may very well be different needs, expectations, and behaviors in males and females leading up to orgasm (according to the Mars and Venus tropes), the orgasmic experience is almost identical in both sexes. Orgasm is also likely to be similar in transgender and intersex individuals.
A couple of other studies confirm the male-female orgasmic similarity. A study done in London in 1969 found no significant gender differences in observed increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and hyperventilation during orgasm. A more recent study, from Stanford in 1994, replicated both the Minnesota and London studies. The Stanford study, in addition, found similar levels of increased oxytocin in males and females during orgasm. Oxytocin is the hormone that induces feelings of affiliation and love. Other research, done in 1977 at Reed College in Oregon found no differences in the types of words used by male and female college students to describe their experiences of orgasm (removing, of course, words for the specific genitalia).
Why might males and females have this similar orgasmic response? One reason is basically physiological. The neuromotor pathways for orgasmic contractions are similar in males and females in all mammals. Nature likes economy, so why use different pathways for the same function? Another is that during the first trimester of fetal development, in all mammals, there are no gender differences in the genitalia (another example of natural economy). We are all genitally female at this early age. In the third prenatal month in humans, male fetuses begin to produce more testosterone, which signals their genes to begin creating the structures for male genitals.
The other reason why there are no significant gender differences in orgasm, and I admit to some speculation here, is the need to bring males and females together for the purpose of procreation on the one hand, and stable family formation on the other, both with the goal of creating a healthy psycho-bio-social environment in which to rear the next generation. How would similar orgasmic function promote this? For the same reason we all have similar emotional expressions, such as smiling and crying. Our mirror neuron system guides us to observe behavior in others that is like our own and more potently, to use that observation for shared and mutually empathic experiences that serve to bring us closer together.
Here's the bottom line. Shared experiences of emotionally intense moments enhance our own and our partner's body sense. When we observe someone crying, we feel sadness for and with them. When we observe someone else having an orgasm, regardless of gender, it enhances the desire, readiness for, and experience of our own orgasms. If orgasms were radically different in males and females, this would be much less likely to happen.
If you've followed any of my other posts in this blog, you'll realize that body sense only works its neuropsychological wonders if we cultivate our attention to it. As I wrote in a previous post, premature ejaculation in males and orgasmic dysfunction in females is related to reduced body sense awareness, suggesting that open and healthy sexual communication requires awareness of and emotional engagement with one's own, and one's partner's, body sensations.
When judgments, evaluations, and expectations are in bed with people, they will feel less of themselves and their partners' experiences. These forms of conceptual self-awareness lead to doubt, fear, and shame, effectively cutting ourselves off from our ability to fully feel our embodied experience, in bed or anywhere else. If we have a habit of drifting into these states and away from being in the present moment with our body sense, it may take a lot of practice, exercise, and even coaching to bring us back home to ourselves.
I've written in this blog and elsewhere about the many different forms of education and treatment that return us to the body sense. Marsha Lucas and Debby Herbenick, in their Psychology Today blogs, have also written about practical ways to enhance the body sense during love making.
Given at least a certain level of mutual erotic attraction, feeling all the sensations of a shared partner orgasm—arousal, breathing intensity, vocal calls, mutual gazes, warmth, touch, and pleasure of feeling our own and our partner's deep pelvic muscle contractions—is likely to intensify and prolong the experience for both people. The oxytocin provides the melty feeling and it activates neural centers in the prefrontal cortex and insula that tune us into our own body and to our partner's body. Shared body sense in all aspects of co-living, including sexual engagement, promotes lasting attachments, deepening love, and long term commitments.