An orgasm is the pleasurable release of the neuromuscular tension generated and exacerbated by sexual activity. It is usually spoken of as the climax of a sexual encounter, although the existence of multiple female orgasms tends to undercut the progressive linear model implied by the word climax. It has been suggested that males are also capable of multiple orgasm, a proposition that requires that full ejaculation not be considered the definitive element in the male orgasm.
Linguistically, sexual activities leading up to and including orgasm have inspired an extremely disparate collection of slang terms, euphemisms, and poetic metaphors, including to die, to know, le petit mort (the little death), nothing, coming, going, pleasuring, joying, boffing, porking, banging, getting off, making love, getting it on, jumping bones, jerking off, the big O, slapping the monkey, lifting belly, having a boner or a stiffie or a hard-on, having a cow, feeling the earth move, and getting the money shot. From William Shakespeare to stand-up comedy to popular music, an enormous amount of energy has been expended in attempts to name the essentially indescribable experience of achieving, reaching, or arriving at orgasm. Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 is as modern as any rap song in its complex ambivalence about the pursuit of orgasm:
The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof,—and prov'd, a very woe;
Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell
The twisted braids of contradictory emotions and reactions anatomized by this famous poem are as illuminating and as obfuscatory as any of the contemporary scientific, cultural, and moral theories about the definition, nature, and proper role of orgasm in human sexual behavior.
Orgasm is achieved via a complex amalgam of neurophysiological, psychological, and emotional pathways and circuitries, at any point in which obstacles to climax may be interposed. Visual, aural, olfactory, imaginative, and emotional stimulation are paramount, albeit difficult to measure and quantify. Body contact of various kinds—kissing, stroking, sucking, biting, rubbing, and licking are some possibilities—creates increasing blood flow, and simultaneous vein constriction results in the filling of erectile tissue (breasts, penis, clitoris, testes, labia) with blood, as well as increased muscle tension. As sexual activity continues, vaginal lubrication occurs, the outer portions of the vagina are vasoconstricted, the inner portions expand, and the uterus elevates. In men, penile erection is produced by blood flow to the erectile penis tissue, while parasympathetic nerves provide vasodilator input and also stimulate secretion from seminal vesicles and the prostate and Cowper's glands. Breathing and pulse rates increase progressively as a result of stimulation from the autonomic nervous system. Orgasm, when reached in the male, occurs in two stages: emission (when semen enters the urethra) and ejaculation (when semen is propelled outward). Men typically have one orgasm per sexual session, though some men are multiply orgasmic. Studies have shown that during women's orgasms, some of the vaginal and perineal muscle fibers undergo contraction; stimulation of the clitoris plays a major role in both the excitement and the orgasm stages.
Orgasmic disorders, defined as sexual dysfunctions consisting of absence of or inhibited or delayed orgasm, can befall both women and men. A glance at the criteria outlined in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2000) indicates that for both sexes, the diagnosis must be made in the context of the subject's age and degree of distress—where a normal phase of sexual excitement is not followed by a proportionately timed and experienced orgasm, an orgasmic disorder is suspected.
William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, in their landmark 1966 study, Human Sexual Response, proposed that there are four stages in human sexual activity: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution, with orgasm being both the shortest and most intense stage. Both psychogenic and direct physical stimulation contribute to orgasmic resolution. The male physiological response involves an increase in blood flow that results in penile erection. Further stimulation results in the emission and expulsion of semen. Women experience rhythmic contractions of the uterus and vaginal muscles; some may also experience a more or less forceful female ejaculation.
The popular culture sex-advice industry has been far more prolific on the subject of the female than the male orgasm. Unimaginable amounts of earnest ink have been spilled in "vaginal versus clitoral" debates. Women have been lectured about their orgasms for decades, if not centuries. Concomitantly, men are culturally conditioned to value their sexuality only if it is expressed via penile erection followed by semen expulsion.
Unsurprisingly, a visit to the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Medical Encyclopedia Web site (part of MedlinePlus) yields a discussion of orgasmic dysfunction written on the assumption that it is strictly a female problem. "Orgasmic dysfunction" is there described as "inhibited sexual excitement," and the pronouns deployed for the presumptive sufferer thereof are all feminine, despite a cursory acknowledgment that certain drugs "are a very common cause of lack of orgasm, delayed orgasm, or unsatisfying orgasm in both women and men." The "prevention" section speaks to the "vital" importance of "taking responsibility for one's own sexual pleasure"—an admonition directed both explicitly and implicitly at the partner who by definition cannot provide the reassuringly visible "money shot" even when she is not anorgasmic. The anorgasmic male partner in a heterosexual engagement is, by contrast, taking responsibility but experiencing an "erectile problem," the MedlinePlus entry for which is addressed to "you." While psychogenic factors are mentioned here among the many physiological causes, "you" will find nowhere in this entry an admonition to take personal responsibility for "your" own pleasure.
Popular knowledge, as attested in numerous Web sites turned up by a Google search, posits that about a third of women arrive at orgasm via vaginal intercourse, a third with the addition to intercourse of "extra stimulation," and the final third coming to climax only via manual and/or oral stimulation of the clitoris. Here again, admonitions to take responsibility for one's own sexual pleasure abound. Interestingly, the equation of sexual pleasure and orgasm is rarely acknowledged, much less questioned.
It is certainly worth asking oneself why a set of physiological responses has acquired such an enormous tonnage of cultural baggage. Why does the concept of sexual climax lend itself so readily to seemingly endless cultural and theoretical troping? Why does a search on Amazon.com yield dozens of books with the word orgasm in their titles? From "more bang for the buck" to "the money shot," orgasm is troped into ordinary discourse on a daily basis—why are so many peculiar and degraded slang terms needed for what is after all a fairly basic physical activity?
Just where a female orgasm should properly occur is still a bone of much contention in the "vaginal versus clitoral" orgasm wars. The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) has been vilified as the author of the theory he perhaps too thoughtlessly relied on—that only vaginal orgasms can be truly womanly. (It must be admitted that he is guilty of referring to the clitoris, at least in English translations, as a "real little penis.") Is there such a thing as a vaginal orgasm? Is it sexist or feminist to insist there is one? Is it sexist or feminist to advocate for the role of the clitoris in female sexual satisfaction? What would advocacy mean in that context? Virtually every position in these debates derives from a single problem: No one but the woman knows whether she has had an orgasm, and even she is not necessarily sure why or how it happened (or did not).
Freud famously remarked that three things in life are uncertain—death, the afterlife, and paternity. The genuineness, or lack thereof, of a woman's orgasm is, in an important way, a kind of cultural homonym to the problem of paternity ("mama's baby, papa's maybe"). In this sense, female orgasm must to some extent be taken on trust, and it would seem that this necessity provokes much cultural anxiety. In 2005, research at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found significant differences in brain activity during the female and male orgasm. Deploying PET scans (and socks—giving the test subjects a pair of socks to wear increased the number who achieved orgasm under the test conditions from 50 percent to 80 percent), the study showed that while areas in the brain associated with anxiety and fear (the amygdala) shut down during orgasm for both sexes, the male orgasm depended more on sensory input from the genitals than did the female orgasm. These are fairly weighty observations with significant implications for further neurological research, yet what caught the attention of the popular media was that the researchers had also been able to distinguish between a genuine and a faked female orgasm with the aid of PET scan technology. Until a home PET scan device is marketed, however, the ordinary sexual partner must take it on trust that he or she is party to or witnessing an experience and not a performance—provoking much cultural anxiety and potent grist for all kinds of comedic mills.
In the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, for instance, Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) and Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) put their cards on the table, as it were. Sitting across the table from Sally, Harry declares no woman has ever faked an orgasm with him; Sally replies that "all men are sure it never happened to them and all women at one time or other have done it so you do the math." One thing leads to another, and the scene culminates with Sally's tour de force fake orgasm. Her final pants are punctuated by a nearby customer declaring to the waitress: "I'll have what she's having."
Cultural theory has impressed the orgasm into complex and arguably productive use. The French word jouissance, in Jacques Lacan's rereading of Freud, for example, came to denote the human struggle against the very symbolic order that makes being human possible. Feminist theoretical use of jouissance points to the kind of nonlinear ways of knowing typically ascribed to specifically feminine ways of engaging the body, the physical world, and language. The so-called French feminist reading of feminine jouissance (performed by thinkers as disparate as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva—for each of whom some part of the phrase French feminism is a self-described misnomer) is a reclamation project that aims to rescue such devalued forms of knowledge and acknowledge their inherent superiority to what Virginia Woolf described as the basic patriarchal grammar of human language and epistemologies (or, as Catharine A. MacKinnon famously put it: "Man fucks woman: subject, verb, object."). Similarly, Irigaray (1985) argues that the phallogocentric economy through which people come to subjectivity privilege sight over other ways of knowing, having, and being because it is based on the binary of something versus nothing and modeled by the very visible male sexual organ versus the nonvisible mysterious reaches of feminine sexuality.
In his twentieth seminar (1975), Lacan takes up the issue of feminine jouissance (and whenever this word is used, it means both "literal" orgasm and a unrealizable state of plenitude that can be troped but not spoken, felt but not seen), asserting that it is of necessity supplementary, not phallic, but elsewhere and other. Insofar then as women have on a literal level the kind of orgasm (not phallic, not visible) that the term jouissance embodies on an epistemological one, perhaps it is no wonder that women's actual orgasms have provoked so much controversy, contention, and prescription masquerading as analysis.
For it remains an intractable fact that however many scientific words it becomes entangled in—neurophysical, vasoconstriction, parasympathetic, vaginal, clitoral, and all other such verbal prestidigitation—we certainly remain unable in our current paradigms, to account for, to take account of, female orgasm. This might raise suspicions about our apparently thorough understanding of the male one as well. If, that is, a man really can have a multiple orgasm, how can that ability be explained in the context of a linear, driven, progressive concatenation of physical tensions leading to an ultimate and final release? And if that standard, against which female orgasms are measured and found wanting or not found at all, can be that fluid, might it not be the case that the study of and theorizing about jouissance will be found to be more informative about (because it informs against) our definitions of, standards for, and proscriptions relating to that ultimate of physical bodily expressions, the orgasm—in all its glory, violence, discovery, secrecy, shame, and just plain fun?
American Psychiatric Association (APA). 2000. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV-TR. 4th edition, text revision. Washington, DC: Author.
Irigaray, Luce. 1985. Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Lacan, Jacques. 1975. Le séminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre XX: Encore. Paris: Seuil.
Masters, William H., and Virginia E. Johnson. 1966. Human Sexual Response. Boston: Little, Brown.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Medical Encyclopedia." Available from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/encyclopedia.html.