By Mia Abrahams
When I asked our team Slack group what our next WHW topic should be (seriously, hit me up in the comments with your ideas), two comments caught my interest. “I’ve heard talk of squirting,” and “also, I just learned that the clitoris extends, like, 5 inches into your body...twenty-nine is too late for that fact!” This was followed by the fidget spinner emoji (bc, yes, we’re very much having this conversation in 2017).
So, obviously, we’re gonna talk about the female orgasm! Like, we all *knowwww* about it, but for whatever reason (patriarchy, taboo, a lack of recognition of the importance of women’s sexual pleasure, shame associated with sexuality, insert your own reason here) orgasms have taken on a unicorn-like form in pop-culture. It’s unattainable, or mysterious, or you’re doing it all wrong; and all you need is like five hours, 12 scented candles, and a vintage bathtub to get there.
So in the interest of getting through the smoke (from sultry cigarettes) and (handprints on steamy) mirrors, we’re going to unpack what actually happens when you have an orgasm. The body is a pretty cool thing, y’all.
So what happens during an orgasm?
Basically, an orgasm is an involuntary muscle contraction — really, tiny, fast rhythmic muscle contractions of the muscles inside the vagina, anus, and uterus that reverberate through the body. Then, release. Your heart rate increases, your skin looks and feels flushed, your blood flows to your genitals, and your clitoris becomes erect the same way that a penis does (it’s made of similar tissue).
It will probably come as no surprise to many of you reading this that the clitoris is a pretty important part of the orgasm equation. OK, yeah yeah yeah — but did you know, the clitoris is the only organ that exists solely for pleasure?! Helloooo! For more amaze clitoris facts (en français, no less, check out this super cute 3 min animated doco)
The tip of your clitoris contains thousands of nerve endings, but it’s only the beginning — the rest extends back and down both sides of the vagina, about 5 inches in length. A poll conducted by sexual pleasure org OMGYES found that 36.6% of women surveyed found that clitoral stimulation is necessary for orgasm. Another 36% said they can orgasm through intercourse alone, but it feels better with clitoral stimulation. Your labia (external parts of your vagina, aka bits you can see) will also get puffier and darker, and your uterus will tilt during orgasm.
When you orgasm, your brain releases oxytocin and dopamine (aka — feel-good chemicals). Oxytocin causes uterine contractions, but has also been suggested to promote “bonding”. Dopamine is also a pain reliever, which is why some people recommend orgasms as a natural pain relief method for period cramps.
What’s the biological point of an orgasm? (And does there need to be one?)
Obviously for dudes with penises, the biological point of of an orgasm is to get sperm up in there and fertilize an egg. For women, the answer isn’t as straightforward. Some research suggests that the muscle contractions that occur during orgasms help move sperm up the vagina. Other scientists note that perhaps it helps increase bonding with a mate. Recent research by some evolutionary biologists argue that the female orgasm first evolved as a reflex to help females become pregnant. However, Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, a philosopher at Indiana University, isn’t buying any of these theories, instead arguing that it serves no evolutionary purpose at all — the orgasm to women, she believes, is as nipples are to men. Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel told Teen Vogue, in her opinion, the most important reason is that “it feels good.”
The female orgasm, like I said, is treated like a magical unicorn, but the reality is that it’s an important part of individual sexuality (and a pretty fun one, at that), and many women struggle to achieve them on a regular basis. Even though there are a million different places selling you better orgasms, it can be tough to work out the science from the pseudo-science. For the many women who struggle to orgasm, there’s so much more research to be done in this space, as Jimi Cullen found out when she attempted to undertake research on anorgasmia (difficulty or inability to orgasm) while in college. As she writes in The Guardian: “Unfortunately, it didn’t come to fruition – partly because almost nobody is doing research on it, and I couldn’t find an appropriate supervisor.” There is a clear lack of research on both the biological, cultural, and psychological effects on orgasm — and Cullen argues that it’s time for the scientific community to take orgasms and anorgasmia seriously.
Don’t think I forgot about female ejaculation! OK. According to Planned Parenthood — people with vulvas have tissue surrounding their urethra, called the urethral sponge, which is part of the clitoral tissue. When you’re turned on, this swells, and becomes more sensitive. There are tiny glands in and next to the urethra (called Skene’s or paraurethral glands) and they can fill with fluids while you’re getting down to business. Ejaculation happens when that fluid is expelled from the urethra and glands during sex. So, yes, squirting is real; not everybody can do it; and it’s definitely not pee!