What Happens During Orgasm?

Orgasm is a complex, mysterious process. But that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to learn as much as they can. In fact, some volunteers have brought themselves to orgasm inside an MRI machine in the name of science.

Here’s some of what experts have learned:

  • The brain plays a huge role in orgasm. We might think orgasm is localized to the genitals, but it really affects our entire body, starting with the brain. Orgasm triggers activity in brain areas involved with touch, memory, emotions, and judgment. And the process is similar for both men and women, even if their anatomies are different. Brains are such a powerful force in orgasm that some women are able to achieve it simply by thinking, with no bodily stimulation at all. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be true for men.
  • The brain and genitals communicate through a system of nerves. Such nerves connect the penis, prostate, clitoris, vagina, uterus, and cervix with the brain. This is why, for women, a clitoral orgasm may feel different from a vaginal one.
  • The brain releases chemicals that increase pleasure. For example, the neurotransmitter norepinephrine helps blood flow to the genitals during sex, which makes the stimulation feel even better. And during orgasm, the brain releases a hormone called oxytocin, which brings about feelings of intimacy and trust.
  • Women’s orgasms usually last longer. On average, a woman’s orgasm lasts 20 seconds. For men, it’s about 10 seconds.

What can you do if you have trouble with orgasm?

Unfortunately, these moments don’t happen to everyone. Many people have trouble reaching orgasm. For some, it’s a lifelong situation. For others, it happens with certain partners or in certain situations. No matter when it occurs, it can be frustrating. What can you do?

  • See your doctor. Some people feel embarrassed discussing their sexual health with a healthcare provider. But sex is important for your overall well-being. There could be something physical interfering with your ability to reach orgasm, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, or high blood pressure. It’s also possible that certain prescription medications, or recreational use or drugs or alcohol, may be the culprit.
  • Be honest with yourself. Think about the reasons why you might be having trouble reaching orgasm. Consider your upbringing, your feelings about sex, and your overall health. Is there anything in your background that could be inhibiting you? Do you feel that sex is “bad” or “dirty”? Do you feel guilty for wanting sex? Do you fear giving up control? Is there a trust issue with your partner that keeps you from letting go?
  • Be open with your partner. If you’re not reaching orgasm, your partner has probably noticed, even if you “fake it” well. He or she may feel inadequate. Chances are, your partner genuinely wants to make sex better for you. It could just be a matter of telling your partner what you like or don’t like. You might need more time, more stimulation, a gentler touch, or more variety in your sexual repertoire.
  • See a sex therapist.  You may choose to do this alone or with your partner. The idea of describing your sex life to a professional may seem daunting. But sex therapists are trained to put you at ease and help draw out what’s troubling you. With a therapist, you might be able to work through issues that occurred long ago, like sexual abuse during childhood. Or, you might focus on resolving problems in your relationship.
  • Try masturbating. Sometimes, people don’t reach orgasm because they just don’t know how. If you can, try to find some private time alone when you can relax and explore what excites you sexually. Go somewhere comfortable and let your mind wander into your deepest fantasy. Don’t worry about whether your thoughts are practical. Just run with them. Let your hands follow suit and try pleasuring yourself in different ways to see what you like. You might consider using a sex toy as well.

Try to relax

As mentioned earlier, many couples see orgasm as the main goal of a sexual encounter. It doesn’t have to be. You can still enjoy intimacy with your partner even if orgasm doesn’t happen. Try to put your focus on that closeness.


Elite Daily

Haltiwanger, John

“Having An Orgasm Has More To Do With Your Brain Than Your Body”

(April 9, 2015)



Berman, Laura, PhD

“Anatomy of a Climax”

(Last updated: October 31, 2014)


International Society for Sexual Medicine

“How is anorgasmia treated?”


“What causes anorgasmia in men?”


“What is anorgasmia?”


Medical Daily

Borreli, Lizette

“Brain On Sex: How The Brain Functions During An Orgasm”

(April 2, 2014)


Psychology Today

Firestone, Robert W., PhD

“7 Factors Affecting Orgasm in Women”

(April 28, 2014)



Stromberg, Joseph

“This is what your brain looks like during an orgasm”

(April 1, 2015)


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