After an especially mind-blowing session between the sheets, you've probably been asked (or asked your partner), "Was it good for you, too?" Turns out, that's not such a cliched question. Scientific research shows that there are some major differences between male vs female orgasms — or orgasms for people with vulvas and people with penises.
The human body is a pretty cool thing. Not only do we have the ability to produce new life, but we also have the capacity to have a great time while doing it. “The function of orgasm has been posited in more sociobiological terms — body chemistry changes and orgasms shared with a partner can promote bonding, some research suggests,” Carol Queen, Ph.D., sex educator and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations, tells Romper. “Also,” she adds, “we are all the same in utero until differentiation! It makes sense that a basic bodily function can happen in all genders.”
But when it comes to this uniquely human pleasure, there's a lot you may not know. For instance, what happens to our brains during orgasm? Is it true that people with vulvas can ejaculate during climax the way people with penises do (often referred to as “squirting”)? Is frequency in orgasms the same — and what's the secret to more frequent sexual satisfaction?
Here are some fascinating science-based facts about your climaxes. It may give you some insights into what your partner is experiencing in bed, and perhaps help you understand your own body a little better.
Male vs female orgasm: duration
When it comes to the duration of orgasm, vaginas and clitorises typically keep it going longer. The general consensus among current research is that the orgasm stage here can last as long as 20 seconds (or even longer for some), while penis ejaculation lasts from three to 10 seconds, according to Marshall. “Orgasms can vary in length and intensity,” she tells Romper, “and can be both person- and situation-specific (i.e. partnered vs. solo). No particular orgasm is ‘better’ than another, and ideally shouldn't be compared.”
Male vs female orgasm: biological purpose
From an evolutionary and anatomical standpoint, it's easy to understand why penises orgasm; the process helps the sperm-filled fluid reach the uterus and fertilize any eggs that may be waiting there. We rely on this ejaculation to keep humanity going. For people with vaginas and clitorises, things are less clear-cut.
Noted biologist Elisabeth Anne Lloyd, author of The Case of the Female Orgasm, has argued that there's not enough solid evidence to prove that vaginal or clitoral orgasm has a biological purpose. As quoted by the American Psychological Association, Lloyd claims that women's climaxes may simply be similar to men's nipples: "It has a clear function in one sex, but not in the other." However, Marshall points out that “some researchers think that [orgasm] occurs to encourage women to have more sex (orgasms relieve stress and promote bonding/closeness) and increase the success of reproduction.”
Male vs female orgasm: brain reactions
Researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands studied the brain responses of people with penises versus those with vaginas during foreplay and intercourse. Their finding: Different areas of the brain in each type of person showed activity during genital stimulation, but at the point of orgasm, all showed activation in areas of the cerebellum — the lower portion of the brain which is responsible for motor control.
Male vs female orgasm: ejaculation
While a typical climax for someone with a penis includes ejaculation of seminal fluid, the same isn't necessarily true for those with vaginas. A report in the Journal of Sexual Medicine examined various studies on ejaculation for people with vaginas and found that only about 10-55% expel a whitish fluid during sex. But as Queen notes, this can be tough to apply to the entirety of the population, telling Romper, “We don't even know how many could if appropriately stimulated — how could we possibly even do that research?”
Male vs female orgasm: the experience
Despite some seemingly obvious physical differences at surface level, orgasms feel pretty much the same no matter what equipment you’re working with. That’s because said equipment isn’t all that different after all. “All of us humans start out with the same genital anatomy in utero,” Queen explains, “and while it develops under the influence of hormones during gestation, all our parts are homologous, often functioning similarly and developing from the same basic structure and neurology.” What does that mean? The penis and clitoris actually develop from the same thing, “as do prostate and ‘G-spot’ and other genital elements,” Queen adds, explaining that orgasms are very similar. “We're not ‘opposites’ at all, and proof of that is in the anatomy of intersex folks.”
During orgasm, penis owners’ anal sphincter, prostate gland, and penis contract, producing sensations of intense pleasure; for vulva owners, the contraction of the vaginal, uterine, and pelvic muscles create a similar result. Everyone’s brains release the "pleasure hormone" oxytocin as well.
Male vs female orgasm: the shared eroticism
So why does sex produce the same sensations in everyone? Salt Lake City psychology professor Alan Fogel, Ph.D., explained in Psychology Today that we're neurologically wired to observe, empathize with, and react to human emotions. You know how you and your friends tear up together watching This Is Us? Same concept. Seeing your partner writhe with pleasure cues your body to do the same. "Shared experiences of emotionally intense moments enhance our own and our partner's body sense," Fogel explained.
However, according to Queen, “This isn't the only reason we might appreciate each others' orgasms or find them erotic ... But they are erotic markers for many people, [and] this is pretty clear when you listen to people talk about their impact.”
Male vs female orgasm: the orgasm gap for straight people
When it comes to orgasm frequency, penises tend to have the advantage — particularly for straight, cis men. In a report published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers from Chapman University in California analyzed a large section of sexually active adults and found that an impressive 95% of heterosexual cis men said they almost always climaxed during sex, while only 65% of straight cis women could make that claim.
Male vs female orgasm: the orgasm gap for LGBTQ+ people
The same study showed that gay cis men and lesbian cis women were almost equally likely to report usually or always having orgasms during sex (89% versus 86%). Bisexual cis men also reported a high level of satisfaction, with 88% climaxing nearly every time. However, only 66% of bisexual cis women said they had frequent orgasms — a percentage similar to that of their straight counterparts.
Male vs female orgasms: where the gap comes from
Why the orgasm gap? The Chapman University team discovered one possible reason. People with vaginas of all sexual orientations reported being more likely to climax if their encounter included such factors as oral sex and manual stimulation.
In other words, the vagina isn't always the star player in the orgasm game. Remember how the clitoris and the penis started from the same stuff? Well, during intercourse, the penis is being pretty heavily stimulated the whole time (though not all penis owners orgasm from intercourse). “The homologous organ is the clitoris not the vagina, and clitoral stimulation during intercourse can be too diffused to result in orgasm,” Queen tells Romper. “Plus, intercourse often goes on for too little time to result in orgasm, and many people with vaginas have received such terrible sex education that they don't even know exactly why they are not responding with orgasm.”
In fact, a 2014 report in the journal Clinical Anatomy explained that orgasm can only be reached if the clitoris is stimulated at some point during sexual contact. This partially external organ has thousands of sensitive nerve endings and helps produce the intense sensations of arousal and climax. “The clitoris is not just an external organ, though,” Queen tells Romper. “The majority of it is internal — which might help explain vaginal orgasm, but also does not guarantee a person could have one.” She explains that there generally needs to be a substantial amount of arousal in order to reach climax, which isn’t always possible with short-duration intercourse lacking proper foreplay.
With that in mind, those who have trouble achieving maximum pleasure may want to ramp up the foreplay, give the clitoris more stimulation during intercourse, or try a new sex position to reach orgasm more easily.
While orgasm for people with varying anatomy has its differences, we’re not as divided as it might seem. As Queen put it, we’re not opposites, “Our culture is so dedicated to a binary mindset that it tends to ignore similarities and focus on differences.” At the same time, every human’s sexual experience isn’t going to fall perfectly into a box of “this or that” and certainly isn’t always going to be represented in every study. The bottom line is we’re having a unique, but also shared experience that can be improved with communication and understanding of yours and your partner’s bodies.
Carol Queen, Ph.D., sex educator and staff sexologist at Good Vibrations
Chanel Jaali Marshall, sexologist, HIV educator, doctoral student, and president and founder of Jaali Co.
Georgiadis, J.R., Reinders, A.S., Paans, A.M., Renken, R. and Kortekaas, R. (2009), Men versus women on sexual brain function: Prominent differences during tactile genital stimulation, but not during orgasm. Hum. Brain Mapp., 30: 3089-3101. https://doi.org/10.1002/hbm.20733
Pastor, Z. (2013), Female Ejaculation Orgasm vs. Coital Incontinence. J Sex Med, 10: 1682-1691. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12166
Frederick, D.A., John, H.K.S., Garcia, J.R. et al. Differences in Orgasm Frequency Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Men and Women in a U.S. National Sample. Arch Sex Behav47, 273–288 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-017-0939-z
Puppo, V. and Puppo, G. (2015), Anatomy of sex: Revision of the new anatomical terms used for the clitoris and the female orgasm by sexologists. Clin. Anat., 28: 293-304. https://doi.org/10.1002/ca.22471
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