Orgasms Teach Us to Empathize

In heterosexual relations, they evolved to bring men and women together through a shared experience.

One of the most widespread — and false — assumptions about orgasms is that what cis-women feel is fundamentally different from cis-men — women’s orgasms are seen as more lip-biting, toe-curling, mind-blowingly intense than guys’. But whether on a physical, neurological or psychological level, the opposite is true: men and women actually have very similar experiences of the big-O. The differences are far more important between individuals than between the genders.

So why does the myth persist that women’s orgasms are better than men’s? Part of this could be Porn — because women start to moan and cry out as soon as they see a penis within a 50-metre radius. Despite the fact that the sex acts that place women’s pleasure at the centre (oral sex, or stimulation of the clitoris with or without penetration) are severely underrepresented in mainstream porn.

It could also be linked to the fact that women feel the need to fake orgasms — and so often replicate the reactions of porn-stars, sounding like their mind is being blown, disregarding the actual level of pleasure they feel. It is also likely that we feel the need to justify to ourselves the fact that women have orgasms far less frequently than men — 69% of the time, compared to 95% of the time for guys. We sense that is unfair, and convincing ourselves that women have far more intense orgasms when they do come makes this inequality appear more bearable.

Whatever the reasons, what is certain is that we continue to believe something which flies in the face of all scientific evidence on the matter.

Explosive, Amazing, Tingly

Studies showed that scientists could not reliably determine gender when reading descriptions of orgasms with all anatomical references removed. Everyone used similar vocabulary: magical, explosive, tingling…

Many studies show the physical similarities between male and female orgasms. Increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and hyperventilation are the same, and PET scans show that the same parts of the brain are activated during climax — although for sexual arousal, the parts of the brain which light up are different. Plus, the increase in levels of Oxytocin — the hormone that induces feelings of affiliation and love — is similar in males and females during and after orgasm, according to a Stanford study.

Women describe a sense of suspension at the beginning of an orgasm, followed by a feeling of pleasure that begins at the clitoris and spreads. Genitals become warm, electric or tingly, and the same sensations spread through part of the body. Men describe a similar trajectory: a sensation of warmth or pressure corresponding to ejaculatory inevitability, the point when ejaculation cannot be stopped. This is followed by sharp, pleasurable contractions of the rectum, genitals and perineum until ejaculation comes as a warm rush of fluid — although, a minority of male orgasms happen without ejaculation. And some women — between 10 and 54 per cent — do experience the secretion of a white fluid at orgasm. (Female ejaculation remains taboo, though. The UK has actually banned female ejaculation from being shown in porn.)

Since male orgasm can happen outside of ejaculation, men are also capable of multiple orgasms, since the only physical limit is the refractory period which makes it impossible to orgasm for a while after ejaculation. Men who practise Tantric sex try to slow down — or prevent — ejaculation so that sexual encounters can last longer, and they can enjoy multiple orgasms.

One notable difference is in the duration of the orgasm — female orgasms can last 20 seconds or more, while male orgasms typically last about 3 to 10 seconds. And of course, the frequency. Researchers found that during heterosexual sex, men orgasm 95 per cent of the time while women only orgasm about 69 per cent of the time. This is very much linked to the type of sex that is had. In heterosexual couples, the conventional sexual scripts centre on the man’s pleasure. A study investigating orgasms experienced by a group of American participants aged 21 to 26 found that while gay and straight men experienced a similar rate of orgasm, this rate changed dramatically for women depending on their sexual orientation. On average, lesbians experienced around 12 per cent more orgasms than straight women.

Women are still often presented as “more complicated than men”, but the clear difference between orgasms of homosexual encounters and heterosexual shows that it is possible for women to find pleasure most of the time. I mean, every individual has their own preferences, man or woman, and having sex with someone is about finding out which act, rhythm, and position works for them. This isn’t harder for women than for men. Despite the fact that the clitoris is extremely hard to find — you know, hidden there, right in the middle, at the front.

The evolutionary purpose of sharing orgasms

The reason women climax less than men in heterosexual sex isn’t that women are “more complicated than men”, but because we’re not having the right kind of sex. This means we’re letting nature down because the shared experience of orgasm serves the evolutionary purpose of bringing sexual partners closer.

When we see someone cry or smile, our mirror neuron system enables us to understand what they are going through because we experience the same manifestations of emotions. This helps us be more empathic, share experiences, and know when and how to assist others. When we observe someone crying, we feel sadness for and with them. When we observe someone else having an orgasm, it enhances our desire, readiness for orgasm, and their intensity. This would be less likely to happen in heterosexual sex if orgasms were radically different between cis men and cis women. Orgasm being a similar experience means we can understand what the other is going through, and our bodies are more likely to echo it, making climax a shared moment, which creates a bond between partners.

Orgasms are, in fact, nature’s way of promoting understanding between sexual partners. They bring people together over a shared experience. Like humour, or a cheese fondue. But better.

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