Orgasms are thought of as the final destination of every sexual encounter. Ironically, the pressure we put on ourselves to have orgasms can seriously get in the way of us having them. If we spent less time worrying about orgasms and more time learning about them (that’s hands on and hands off learning) chances are we’d all be closer to having the kind of sexual pleasure, including orgasms that most of us crave for.
What is an orgasm?
What is an orgasm? Most people who have had orgasms would probably respond to this question with a resounding "duh! You'll know it when you've had it". But this response is little help to those of us who have never had an orgasm before, or aren't sure if we've had an orgasm before, and in truth, we might respond to our hypothetically obnoxious friend by asking "if you think you've had an orgasm, how do you know for sure?"
Our friend might be surprised to know that the answer isn't a simple one. Whether it lasts for two minutes or two days, sex play is a busy, complicated enterprise, and defining what part is exactly the orgasm is tricky:
Despite its almost universal appeal, orgasms have, until very recently, received relatively little attention in the scientific literature, leaving us with a murky understanding of what an orgasm is. As a result, over the years how orgasm gets defined has been determined largely by who is defining it.
Medical/Physiological Definition of Orgasm
Medical researchers have tried to define orgasm based on what happens in our bodies. They've measured increase in heart rate, body temperature, skin flush, hormonal changes, changes in sensitivity, muscle contractions, ejaculation, and more. Research can tell us the "average" measurements for orgasm, but there are no universally agreed upon limits for these. Nonetheless, all of these things have been used to "prove" that an orgasm has occurred. By these definitions, if you're body responds in a certain way, you've had an orgasm.
Psychological Definition of Orgasm
Psychologists and psychiatrists define orgasm based on subjective experiences of satisfaction, release, and other emotional and/or cognitive changes. Freud (who distinguished vaginal from clitoral orgasms) considered one kind to be proof of psychological health and the other to be a sign of psychosocial development that has stalled. By Freud's definition a good orgasm came from vaginal penetration, and a bad one from clitoral stimulation. Most psychologists and psychological researchers have abandoned this concept and by most of these definitions either you've had an orgasm when you say you've had an orgasm, or you've had one when what you describe matches what some expert proposes orgasm to be.
Cultural Definition of Orgasm
A much longer tradition of defining orgasm comes from artists and writers, who often define or illustrate orgasm by its transcendent, mind altering effects. These definitions are far and away the most colorful, but obviously don't offer any standardized definitions of what an orgasm is. The term "la petit mort" which the French use to describe the semi-conscious post-orgasm experience is a good example of a definition which is more experiential than scientific.
As you might guess, in the absence of a clear orgasm definition winner, some propose that to define orgasm we have to consider all three elements.
Two researchers from McGill University have proposed a model of orgasm that encompasses all three of the above elements:
This model is recommended for at least three reasons. First, this definition focuses on the experience and not the sexual behaviors. It doesn't refer to what body part is stimulated, or how it is stimulated. This makes sense since we don't all have the same bodies, and we don't all get sexual pleasure in the same way. Second, this definition of orgasm complicates matters. Most traditional models of orgasm have been based on Masters and Johnsons sexual response cycle, which is a useful but overly narrow definition of orgasm. Finally, this model doesn't favor one aspect of orgasm over another.