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Sex, Bodies, and the Anatomy of an Orgasm

Love it or hate it, have it or don’t, sex is an integral part of our society whether people like it or not. For those of us who are sexually active, it is safe to say that everyone’s sex life is different. You could be doing it with one other person or multiple or, given the recent circumstances, over a phone or video call. For you, sex could contain a high level of kink or be just plain reliable vanilla, but what links all of these is the fact that they are forms of sexual activity.

Despite all of these differences however, our bodies generally all experience the same functions and biological outcomes from sex, and there is much more to it than just foreplay and orgasm. Sex and sexual activity have been broken down by the experts (Sexperts) into what is today referred to as the Sexual Response Cycle, and this is typically defined as the emotional and physical series of reactions that your body goes through during sexual arousal and sexual activity, including both sexual intercourse and masturbation. Something that is important to stress here is that there is no right way to have sex. Everyone is different and this piece is in no way a guideline or standard for you to live up to. So, relax, enjoy yourself and let your body and your instincts take over. They’re going to do it anyway.

Let’s dive right in. Phase One of this cycle is referred to as Desire or Libido, and this phase is characterised by the arousal of the body through various stimuli. Basically, it’s like your body waking up in order for you to have sex. Stimuli can include kissing, watching porn or the
stimulation of an erogenous zone – such as your ears, your scalp, the lips, or the nipples.
During this phase your heart rate rises, your breathing accelerates, and your body prepares itself for sexual intercourse. The vagina and the penis both begin to excrete natural lubrication liquid, and an increased blood flow begins to go to the genitals. Various parts of the body may also become flushed, and this “flushing” is physiologically referred to as vasocongestion. You know when you push yourself at the gym too hard, and your face goes red for a while after? It is similar to that. The body stays flushed generally until after orgasm, but in certain people the flush may be present after a longer period, such as hours or days after, depending on the part of the body.

Phase Two, or the “Excitement” phase is an extension of Phase 1. The flushing of various parts of the body continues; muscles in the hands and feet may begin to spasm, and the increased blood flow around the body may lead to more drastic physical changes, specifically to the genitalia. If you have a vagina, your vaginal lips may swell or puff up during this phase, and your clitoris may become extremely sensitive and the clitoris begins to retract. If you have a penis, it becomes fully erect during this phase and your testicles retract into the scrotum. The penis may not always stay hard during this phase and that is perfectly normal. Both the vagina and penis during this phase begin to release natural lubrication as well, as your body is preparing for penetration – whether you engage in penetration/penetrative sex or not. For the people who suffer from Anorgasmia or can’t orgasm for a myriad of reasons, this is your peak and your body will either move into Phase 4 or simply retract. Both Phase 1 and 2 can last for various periods of time, depending on the pace which you or you and your partner(s) are moving at. What is happening here might seem a bit strange – almost as if your body is moving unconsciously. To an extent, it is. What your body is experiencing here is the same primal instinct that your ancestors, all the way back to prehistoric times, experienced during sexual intercourse. Your body is changing from manual to autopilot, and the autopilot is trying to ensure the survival of your genes.

Phase Three is referred to as the “Orgasm” phase and it doesn’t take a detective to find out what happens here. This is generally the shortest phase and only lasts up to a few seconds.Blood pressure, breathing and heart rate all rise because of the stimulation, ulminating in a release of sexual tension and the orgasm of one, both or however many participants depending on your preference. During orgasm, the muscles of the vaginal walls and the uterus contract rhythmically and release more lubrication. The penis experiences similar muscular contractions within the pelvic region, and releases the semen that has been collected during the first two phases in the urethral bulb. A general sense of pleasure is achieved here, and following the ejaculation of the penis, less and less semen is released and less pleasure is attained.

Finally, we reach Phase Four, or Resolution. During this phase, the body begins to return to its regular resting state. People who have reached this period may experience fatigue, muscle relaxation and their genitals begin to return to a normal state. For people with vaginas, the cycle can begin once more and orgasm can be achieved quite quickly once again with more stimulation, but for people with a penis orgasm cannot be achieved again for a longer period. This is referred to as the refractory period, and in order for the cycle to begin again the person must be entirely out of this interval, and the “bounce back” times can often vary per person.

Focusing on Phase 3, the orgasm stage may be the shortest of the group, but physiologically it is so much more than what has already been described. For most of us having sex, orgasm is the goal. But while orgasms aren’t essential for “sex” to occur, this in-depth analysis of what happens during an orgasm could help you and your partner to achieve either an orgasm (hopefully numerous) or even just understand them more. Again, having an orgasm is not the be-all and end-all of sex, and pleasure can still be achieved with no orgasm; so don’t let anyone make you feel bad if you can’t or don’t orgasm, odds are it’s happening to more people than you know. The type of orgasm that occurs generally depends on what gentials you have. For people with a penis, you may have standard orgasms, pelvic orgasms, or whole body orgasms. For people with vaginas, you could have clitoral, vaginal, and again, whole body
orgasms. Anal orgasms are also available to everyone alongside combo or blended orgasms.

But aside from this physical aspect of orgasm, the biological aspect also allows for more a common understanding of what you experience during the short-lived Phase Three. During orgasm, various areas of your brain link up in order to achieve sensation. Regions such as the Genital sensory cortex, which relays sensory stimuli to the brain, the Hypothalamus and the Thalamus, which dictate hormone release and regulation, and motor and sensory signals respectively, and various motor regions all come together to aid the process of orgasm. Your brain also creates and releases two very important chemicals into the prefrontal cortex during this process, Dopamine and Oxytocin. Dopamine, the “Happy Hormone” is released and promotes positive feelings within a neurological reward system. Oxytocin, the “Love Hormone” promotes intimacy and strong romantic feelings for sexual or romantic partners once it has been released, and has also been given the nickname of the “Cuddle Hormone” due to the way it makes people feel.

For many people, the release of these two chemicals during the orgasm phase makes the connection between partners feel more intense, which may lead to greater feelings of attachment. Interestingly, despite the clear uniqueness of the human orgasm cycle, our brains cannot tell the difference between orgasmic stimulation and other pleasurable activities. The main reason for this is because both Dopamine and Oxytocin are also released during other seemingly pleasurable activities, like listening to music or eating chocolate.

And there you have it, a breakdown of the human sexual response cycle. Something that I really want to stress is that everyone has sex differently and this piece is in no way a guideline for what you have to do. The different phases can be achieved differently, and it
doesn’t always have to be what you imagine it to be. The purpose of this piece is to detail some of the more clandestine operations that your body enacts within a sexual situation, and give insight into what’s going on beneath the surface. Obviously, there is more to this topic than what I’ve said in this piece, and maybe a little research can help you with your sex life. Got any more questions? Check in with me via email at sexpress@uccexpress.ie, and I will do my best to help you!