In French, it’s “la petite mort,” or “little death.” Plenty of euphemisms, but not a lot of understanding about what happens to our bodies during a toe-curling orgasm, or how sexuality connects with other body systems, including our brains.
A mini orgasmic industry exists in North American culture, predominantly associated with the male pursuit of sexual pleasure. Whether stuck in a pie or in someone’s hair, Hollywood movies provide a shallow view of sexuality. On television, Fergie wiggles her lady lumps to get you love drunk, and then during commercial breaks, men click their heels in dance, thanking the pharmaceutical gods for the latest erectile dysfunction drug.
The history, especially for women, of orgasms runs from misinformed to bizarre. During the Victorian age, orgasms or “hysterical paroxysms” were considered to be a cure for female hysteria (a catch–all diagnosis treated with manual stimulation by a physician or by a vibrator invented for the cause). Later, we laughed at 1950s sexual ignorance documented in Kinsey, the 2004 biopic of sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey. Although much of what he preached now seems like something your more progressive granny might say (Kinsey bought into Freud’s thinking that women’s clitoral orgasms are an inferior breed), he was responsible, along with other researchers such as Masters and Johnson, for moving the study of orgasms into the scientific realm.
Physically speaking, an orgasm is the conclusion of the plateau phase of the sexual excitement cycle: a reflex that occurs for both men and women when heartbeat is elevated, and pelvic muscle tension and blood flow reaches a peak and is released, resulting in muscular contractions. For men, this usually includes semen ejaculation. Not as straightforward are the health benefits associated with a good romp in the sack. Sally was moaning over what is perhaps the cheapest, and most fun, drug on the market.
Endorphins—neurotransmitters whose pain-relieving qualities are similar to morphine or codeine—are released during sex, increasing our tolerance to pain by as much as 70 percent, according to a Psychology Today article by Dr. Barbara Keesling, an American sex therapist and author. In fact, some women even find sexual play, alone or with a partner, a welcome alternative to Midol. Keesling suggests that sex improves breathing and circulation (look for telltale bright eyes, facial glow and shiny hair), as well as improving muscle tone, strength and flexibility, and cardiovascular conditioning. Plus, sexual arousal activates phenetylamine (PEA), a natural amphetamine that regulates appetite. A healthy way to curb cravings and burn calories!
There are mental benefits too. PEA is also associated with feelings of pleasure and euphoria (it’s the chemical responsible for your decision to stand under someone’s window with a boom box), and an ability to control depression. During sex, the hormone oxytocin is also produced. Originally thought of only as a milk enabler in nursing moms, studies have show that the “love hormone” also induces pair bonding in romantic, friend and family relationships. And let’s not forget how those headboard-pounding muscular contractions melt away the stresses of the day.
Still, you shouldn’t think that you can take two orgasms and call it a cure. Dr. Charlotte Loppie, assistant professor at Dalhousie University’s School of Health and Human Performance, teaches a popular course in human sexuality. She warns against separating the health benefits of orgasms from a broader discussion. “Your body does become hormonally drunk in a way—it becomes high. But it depends on your subjective response,” she says. “We’ve gone this route of treating sex as if it’s just a physical phenomenon. And it’s not. Sexuality is not just about bodies. There’s so much subjective experience in sexuality. You can’t really benefit from arousal and orgasm, unless you’re able to have a healthy arousal and you’re able to achieve orgasm.”
One of Loppie’s biggest areas of study is women’s sexual and reproductive health. And while she advises against gender generalizations, Loppie is discouraged by the number of young female students who talk to her about sexual dissatisfaction. “A lot of it has to do with stimulation and arousal. A lot of it has to do with body image. It’s really kind of sad,” she says. “They do really well when they’re masturbating, but in partnered sex, they have a harder time.”
Shelley Taylor, the owner of Venus Envy, knows all about this issue. Ever since she opened the sex shop and bookstore in 1998, she says her staff—at both the Halifax and Ottawa locations—talk to women daily who struggle with their inability to have an orgasm. One of the biggest misconceptions out there, she says, is that normal, healthy women always have orgasms naturally—just like breathing—and that women don’t need any clitoral stimulation for arousal. In response, Venus Envy developed “I’m Coming!”, an “all talk, no action” two-hour workshop designed for women (and in some cases, their partners) to discuss issues surrounding the elusive orgasm.
“We don’t expect to cure these women, but we want to give them all the information that we can,” says Taylor. The class starts with a discussion about orgasms and the numerous reasons why some women have problems obtaining one. “The list is so long. It’s complicated for women; our bodies weren’t built for us in some ways.”
That list includes psychological and emotional issues such as eating disorders or body image-related concerns. Physiological factors such as medication, damaged nerves, surgery or hormonal imbalances also need to be considered. Then there’s your age, religious and cultural expectations, and how your parents approached the subject. Some women may be gay in a heterosexual relationship, or discover that they’re just not cut out for a monogamous lifestyle: whatever the reason, they’re all deeply personal and subjective.
Loppie also blames North American culture for a lack of open discussion about these issues. “In the way we’ve constructed sexuality, it says, ‘sex, let’s look at it, let’s watch it, let’s put it all over the place, let’s emphasize it, but remember, we still think it’s dirty.’”
According to Taylor, our educational system is also partly to blame. “We talk about penises and vaginas, but no one ever talks about labias or the clitoris or the vulva, and how people actually work. Our sex education isn’t coming from a pleasure background; it’s coming from a ‘don’t get pregnant, don’t get a disease’ format which is not very useful for teaching women how their bodies work.”
And that’s a big part of what Taylor does on a regular basis. She offers many suggestions including a focus on play, rather than outcome. “Once we start having sex with people, we forget how much fun it is to neck with them, to fool around and hang out on the couch with them. We try to encourage people to go back to fooling around and having play where this isn’t going to include intercourse.’”
She also suggests research, either through books, or by asking friends—if you’re comfortable. “Practice is important too,” Taylor says. ”It’s not like ‘now we’ve done the workshop and I’m going to have an orgasm.’ You need to play around.” Stay sober for sex, and try to communicate with your partner in a neutral location, like when walking the dog, or in a place that’s not filled with sexual egos. Men shouldn’t think they’re not doing “their job” if a woman touches herself during penetration. Women should get to know their natural arousal cycle, and most of all, if you’re concerned, don’t be ashamed to make an appointment with a health care professional.
“If you have a healthy sex life, and you don’t have problems with arousal or orgasm, it’s probably a fairly minor part of your life. If it becomes problematic, it becomes really important,” says Loppie. “For a lot of people, it’s the absence of a satisfying state of arousal and orgasm is important, because we say that it’s an important thing. We put a lot of emphasis on sexuality being about erect penises and juicy vaginas and arousal and having an orgasm.
“Issues of sexuality are not that cut and dry. There are lots of people who are sexually active who don’t experience orgasms, and they’re totally satisfied.”