fbpx The Anatomy of an Orgasm: Before, During and After

Sex - Orgasms | December 17, 2021, 6:14 CST

The Anatomy of an Orgasm: Before, During and After

You may know how to reach your best climax, but what's actually happening from start to finish?
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Written by

Rachel Crowe
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Photography by David Heisler

As pleasure seekers, most people are more concerned with the how of reaching orgasm rather than understanding what an orgasm actually is. But it never hurts to know more about our bodies, especially the sexy stuff. And sure, "neural entrainment" isn't the sexiest-sounding phrase, but these are the words to know for the process of sexual trance, which eventually leads to orgasm.

The neurological rhythm of orgasms

On its own, entrainment refers to the act of drawing in and transporting any substance. This can be as literal as water through pipes or something more subtle, such as our body coordinating internal circadian rhythms with external cues. Neural entrainment is the synchronicity of mind and body in attaining orgasm, relying heavily on rhythm.

"Neurologically, orgasm can be thought of as a neurotransmitter dump," said Sheldon Zablow, M.D., a psychiatrist based in Southern California. "Orgasms are responses to rhythmic sexual stimulation [which] builds neural rhythms. One of the first regions that is involved as entrainment builds is a reduction in the frontal cortex that controls judgment. Function of the thalamus increases, which improves coordination of information coming in from the outside and the emotions produced on the inside. The amygdala also activates, reducing the influence of past memories on current behaviors, facilitating the opportunity for pairing."

As for the best way to get this process going, sex therapist Martha Kauppi, founder of the Institute of Relational Intimacy in Madison, Wisconsin, said that when it comes to arousal, more is more.

"Anything that enhances senses enhances arousal," Kauppi said. "A critical factor is that arousal is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. So that's like rest, digest, relax, rebuild and arousal and anxiety."

This is an expansion on the common phrase "fight or flight." While the fight/flight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, arousal is dictated by the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for "resting and digesting." The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems cannot be active simultaneously, making anxiety one of the ultimate buzzkills.

The orgasm gender gap

Neural rhythms encourage orgasm by cultivating a dreamy tunnel vision of physical and mental sensitivity. As opposed to multitasking, which fractures our attention, all of these functions work toward the singular goal of orgasm.

A gender gap does exist: Studies have found different parts of the brain are activated to varying degrees during arousal in men and women. Interestingly, there's no part of the brain specifically dedicated to sexual arousal because almost all of the brain is engaged in the lead-up to orgasm.

However, the four basic phases of an orgasm remain the same.

"Of the four parts of sexual arousal—excitement, plateau, orgasm and resolution—the one that seems to have the same nervous system responses in women and men is the orgasm, with both sexes having the same hormones released and the same brain activations," Zablow said. "The excitement and plateau phases are usually longer in women, and the resolution phase is longer in men. If the arousal cycle is interrupted midway, there is a gradual unwinding and the hormones and physiologic responses return to baseline."

Of course, the female orgasm is far more mythic in our culture than the male orgasm—and this extends to scientific findings.

While you likely won't remember the four phases of orgasms the next time you're in bed, it might be worth remembering the importance of rhythm.

"Climax is associated with eight to 12 reflexive, rhythmic contractions across the pelvic musculature," said Nicole Prause, a California-based neuroscientist who focuses on the female orgasm and its components. "The external clitoris has been documented to increase over 100 percent in volume, but there is tremendous variability. The external clitoris varies in its level of attachment. Some clitoral bodies are very free, while others have quite a lot of attached skin [which] may impact orgasmic capacity."

Clitoral differences aside, all women enjoy the fourth stage of orgasm—resolution—for longer than their male counterparts. This comes down to anatomical differences. Both types of genitals fill with blood, but the penis is able to flush out blood much more quickly than vestibular bulbs (part of the vulva) can empty. This can be good or bad: If there has been an orgasm, that momentum can be harnessed into additional orgasms because the blood hasn't left the genitals; without the release of orgasm, women report aches and feelings of heaviness.

Not only is the penis designed to flush out blood after ejaculation, but post-orgasm, men's brains are less receptive to stimulation than women's. Women's minds and bodies work together to delay resolution, which may work toward facilitating multiple orgasms.

Orgasms rely on rhythms, both physically and mentally. As erogenous zones are scattered all throughout the body, these neural rhythms take place in multiple brain zones. While you likely won't remember the four phases of orgasms the next time you're in bed, it might be worth remembering the importance of rhythm.

The best advice is to find one you like and stick with it.

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Written by

Rachel Crowe