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Orgasms are the release of built up physical and/or psychological sexual tension and arousal. An orgasm is a powerful feeling of physical pleasure and sensation, and can bring feelings of happiness or wellbeing.
Orgasms are the release of built up physical and/or psychological sexual tension and arousal. Orgasming can also be known as ‘coming’ or ‘climaxing’.
Orgasms are a very personal experience and people have different ways of describing how it feels to orgasm. Generally, however, an orgasm is a powerful feeling of physical pleasure and sensation, and can bring feelings of happiness or wellbeing.
Aside from bringing pleasure, for people with a penis an orgasm serves a biological purpose of expelling semen from the testicles, which can then cause conception if sperm comes into contact with an egg, such as through vaginal sex. For people with a vagina, the orgasm is only for pleasure and is not necessary for conception.
An orgasm is created by the tensing and releasing of certain muscles, and along with the release of feel-good hormones such as endorphins, this is what creates feelings of physical and emotional pleasure.
When a person with a penis is stimulated physically or psychologically, they get an erection. Blood flows into the spongy tissue of the penis, causing it to grow in size and become rigid. The testicles are drawn up toward the body as the scrotum tightens.
As the blood vessels in and around the penis fill with blood, the glans and testicles increase in size. Thigh and buttock muscles tense, blood pressure rises, the pulse quickens, and the rate of breathing increases.
For people with a penis, an orgasm causes contractions in the pelvic floor muscles, prostate gland, seminal vesticles and vas deferens. These contractions push semen, which is a mixture of sperm and seminal fluid, into the urethra, where it is carried out of the body. This process is called ejaculation. The average orgasm for people with a penis lasts 10-30 seconds.
Following the orgasm is a temporary ‘recovery’ phase where further orgasms are not possible. This is known as the refractory period, and its length varies from person to person. It can last from a few minutes to a few days, and this period generally grows longer as people get older.
During this phase, the penis and testicles return to their original size. The rate of breathing will be heavy and fast, and the pulse will be fast.
Find out more about penises and testicles.
When a person with a vagina is stimulated physically or psychologically, the blood vessels within their genitals dilate. Increased blood supply causes the vulva to swell, and fluid to pass through the vaginal walls, making the vulva swollen and wet. Internally, the top of the vagina expands.
Heart rate and breathing quicken and blood pressure increases. Blood vessel dilation can lead to the person appearing flushed, particularly on the neck and chest.
As blood flow to the lower area of the vagina reaches its limit, the area becomes firm. Breasts can increase in size by as much as 25% and increased blood flow to the areola – the area surrounding the nipple – causes the nipples to appear less erect. The clitoris pulls back against the pubic bone, sometimes seeming to disappear.
At the point of orgasm the genital muscles experience rhythmic contractions around 0.8 seconds apart. Orgasms for people with vaginas typically last an average of 13 – 51 seconds.
Most people with vaginas do not have a refractory (recovery) period and so can have further orgasms if they are stimulated again, although this is not possible for everyone. These are known as multiple orgasms.
Find out more about vaginas and vulvas.
Often the starting point is desire (wanting sex or intimacy with another person) but some people find that they start to desire sex only after they have become physically and emotionally excited. This excitement is known as arousal. If someone has a vagina they may start to get wet, and if someone has a penis they may start to get hard.
People experience a wide range of physical signs of arousal including increased heart rate and tingling sensation in the genitals. Becoming aroused is the body’s way of preparing for sex, but is very pleasurable in itself and doesn’t need to lead to orgasm.
If you continue to be stimulated you may get to feeling ‘on the edge’ of an orgasm and most people agree it feels good. You might then experience an orgasm. After orgasm your muscles relax and many people say they experience a sense of wellbeing and peace.
Masturbation and orgasms
Getting to an orgasm can take practice and most people reach their first orgasm through masturbation. It is easier to reach orgasm if you feel relaxed, if you and your partner let each other know what sexual activities you like and dislike, and if you are turned on by each other. Find out more about masturbation.
A lot of people with vaginas can’t have an orgasm through vaginal penetrative sex alone. Most need some kind of stimulation of the clitoris, which contains lots of nerve endings, similar to the head of the penis. Stimulating the clitoris can be a helpful and sometimes necessary way of achieving orgasm during penetrative sex. It is helpful to keep in mind that the clitoris is the main source of pleasure for people with vaginas.
Orgasms can vary according to mood, menstrual cycle, sexual position, communication with partner, situation, and according to many other things too.
This also means that the time it takes to orgasm varies from person to person. However, on average, it takes people with a penis much less time than people with a vagina to have an orgasm.
Orgasms in porn
Porn is generally not representative of real sexual experiences or how most people’s bodies function. It often gives the impression that people with penises can last a long time before orgasming, and that people with vaginas can have orgasms very quickly and easily. In reality, like all film productions, there are breaks, re-takes and clever editing tricks that take place behind the scenes. It’s important to remember that porn actors are working when they are filming. People tend to reach orgasm faster when they are turned on. The set of a porn shoot is a place of work with lights, a production crew and pressure to perform, which might make it difficult for the actors to feel aroused. It is not a natural, intimate moment between people who are physically or emotionally attracted to each other. Often the actors pretend to have orgasms and use staging tricks to create the visual impression of an orgasm. The way people feel and look when having an orgasm is often very different from how actors in porn appear to have orgasms. Find out more about porn.
When talking about ejaculation in relation to sex, people are generally referring to when semen (usually containing sperm) is discharged from the penis as the result of an orgasm.
Premature ejaculation is when this happens earlier in sex than is wanted, either by the person or their partner(s). Most people with penises will experience premature ejaculation at some point in their life, and this is nothing to be ashamed of or worried about.
However, if you find it is happening a lot and you or your partner are unhappy about it, you may want to go to your GP or a sexual health clinic for help and support.
Find out more about premature ejaculation.
Is it only people with penises who ejaculate?
People with vulvas can also ejaculate, though it’s not something that everyone with a vulva will necessarily experience and isn’t always linked to an orgasm. This is commonly referred to as “female ejaculation” or “squirting”.
Orgasms are fun, but if that is your only aim it can take the fun out of sex. Putting pressure on yourself or your partner to have an orgasm can actually make it harder to do, and can encourage performance anxiety rather than enjoyment. Also, you or your partner having an orgasm doesn’t mean sex has to finish there if you don’t want it to!
Our advice is to let go of any ‘scripts’ about how sex should be and go with the flow! Taking the pressure off certain activities and being flexible with your expectations can help you relax and enjoy being intimate with someone. Read more about how to have great sex safely.
There are various reasons people choose to use drugs or alcohol, and one of them is to lose inhibitions and make it feel easier to engage in sexual activity. For example, some people may drink in order to relax and gain confidence to flirt or hook up with someone they fancy.
Using drugs or alcohol may make engaging in sexual activity feel easier, however, it is important to know that while it may help with lessening inhibitions and instigating sexual activity, it comes with downsides and risks.
There is a common misconception that drugs and alcohol can mentally and physically help you have sex that is better and lasts longer then when you are sober. In reality, these drugs can actually make you want sex less. You might feel mentally turned-on but your body might not respond.
It can be more difficult to have an orgasm while high or drunk, partly because sexual sensation is reduced. While an orgasm doesn’t need to be the point of sex, and there is lots about sex that makes it enjoyable beyond physical sensation, it can be frustrating and much less fun than sex when you are sober.
Alcohol, drugs and consent
The sexual offenses act is very clear about the impact of alcohol & drugs on someone’s ability to consent: “If they are drunk or high, then they may not have the capacity to consent to sex and this includes any kind of sexual activity, like kissing or fondling”. Someone should be fully coordinated and responsive before you engage in any kind of sexual activity with them. If you are unsure if they are drunk or high, be cautious and wait until they have sobered up to check for consent. Read more about giving and getting consent. If someone forces you to do something you do not want to do of a sexual nature, it is never your fault and it is not OK. You should speak to someone you trust so that you can get help and support.
Alcohol and drugs can affect people’s ability make decisions, and this includes decisions about contraception and safe sex. Loss of inhibitions as a result of substance use can affect a person’s judgement and result in them doing and saying that put them at risk. This includes risky sexual behaviour, such as not using contraception or going home with someone without telling trusted friends. Carrying condoms is a great idea to make sure you are prepared for a sexual encounter and can make safer choices about sex. Remember: condoms are the only type of contraception that also protects against STIs, so even if pregnancy isn’t a concern, they are still important! Find out more about condoms.
Find out more about alcohol.
Find out more about drugs.
A person’s ability to have an orgasm can be affected by their mental health. When someone is under a lot of stress, or their mental health is poor, they might find it difficult to have an orgasm.
What is mental health?
Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel, and act. Mental health is important at every stage of life, and helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.
What is stress?
Stress is a general term that refers to feelings of being under too much emotional or mental pressure. It can be caused by any number of things (known as ‘stressors’), including school, college or work, relationships with family or friends, and money. When it becomes too much, it can affect how you think, feel or behave, and can make it hard to think clearly about things.
Hormonal changes can have an impact on someone’s ability to reach orgasm. This can particularly be the case for people with vaginas, whose hormones change regularly with their menstrual cycle. Hormones can be affected by certain medications, such as anti-depressants, and can result in things like:
More broadly, hormones are constantly affecting people’s sex drives and experience of sex, and this isn’t always a bad thing. It is totally natural for your sex drive and body to fluctuate and change, and not something you need to worry about. However, if you are finding that any aspect of your mood (including your sex drive) is regularly changing in ways that you find difficult to manage, then you may want to seek help. If you are concerned, you can speak to your GP, a counsellor or a trusted adult.
Read more about mental health and stress.
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