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What Is an Orgasm, Anyway?

So you think you know what an orgasm is (and isn't)? Think again.
 
 
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The female orgasm: whether you have them, you want to have them, you want to give them, or all of the above – it tends to engender a great deal of application from a great many people. From screaming O-faced portraits and ads to poets waxing eloquent on the exact moment of ethereal delight, it’s official: the female orgasm is a very good thing indeed.

The word ‘orgasm’ comes from the Greek word orgasmos, signifying a certain ‘swelling’, which not only gives us an idea of what's happening to the body, but a clue as to how people feel about them. But does anyone truly understand the ways and means of the orgasm? It might seem simple on the surface, but when you get right down to it, it could be one of the most complex processes we run into.

Assigning Concrete Definitions to the Subjective and the Amorphous

So what is the actual definition of an orgasm?

From a clinical point of view, it can be defined as the series of physical changes (such as lubrication, ballooning of the upper vaginal area, flushed skin) culminating in cycles of contraction occurring within the uterus, vagina, and pelvic muscles, and followed by a flood of signals from the brain triggering euphoria and relaxation.

Psychologists tend to view it more subjectively, basing it on satisfaction, intimacy, release, and emotional factors. There are also several distinct kind of orgasms: vaginal, clitoral, anal, and even breast / nipple stimulation are the most noted. However, there are other sorts which have been reported. This makes things even more complicated in studies, as most only look at the difference between vaginal and clitoral stimulation, and not any of the other myriad ways that a woman can achieve orgasm.

The Pair-Bond Beau Monde

The evolutionary function of the female orgasm is one thing that seems to be on the minds of scientists. After all, a pleasurable orgasm for the male makes perfect sense - if it feels good, then the male is encouraged to have more sex, spreading his seed wherever he can manage it. On the other hand, there are plenty of theories out there as to why women developed the ability to orgasm.

One theory, dating all the way back to 1967 (also known as the Dark Ages), suggests that the female orgasm aids in pair-bonding (Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape), although the presumption with the most evidence is that orgasm increases fertility. There are several ways through which it manages this. One way is that the vagina reduces in size by 30%, which creates more of a vacuum, keeping semen in the vaginal canal and literally sucking it up toward the cervix.

In fact, back in 1994, a Learning Channel documentary actually put a fiber-optic cable-camera inside of a woman’s vagina to see what happens during intercourse. It turns out that during orgasm, the female partner’s cervix continually dipped into the semen, helping to facilitate fertilization. It has also been found that women have an easier time while they are ovulating, which gives a bit more credence to the concept of orgasms as reproductive assistants.

Another fact which rarely bears dispute is duration – a female orgasm lasts much longer than the male counterpart. The average orgasm for a woman clocks in between 7 and 20 seconds, compared to a handful of seconds for men (which makes up for the fact that women generally report a longer time - 12 minutes - to reach orgasm than men). One study by Tim Spector of St. Thomas Hospital indicates there is a possibility that difficulty with attaining orgasm might be linked to genes - namely to get rid of men who are not good matches. Which in and of itself is a pretty fine litmus test, no? Since it takes much longer on average to make a woman orgasm, a man who would spend the time and effort to make it happen could be considered a far more desirable partner than one who just rushes for his pleasure alone. Unfortunately, they did not have much success in pinning down whether the genes affected this selection on a physical level or a psychological one.

 
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