Do men and women experience orgasms differently?

It's something that many of us think about from time to time: Is an orgasm the same whether it is experienced by a male or a female? It's a fair question given that men and women tend to follow different arousal patterns during sex — and by virtue of the fact that we have different parts. But as the science is increasingly showing, there may be more similarities to our orgasms than we have supposed — particularly as far as the brain is concerned. But just how this translates to the actual subjective experience of orgasms across the two genders remains a mystery.

Indeed, as Kayt Sukel notes in Big Think, brain scans are finally giving neuroscientists a way to study orgasms at the cognitive level. Like any physical sensation, it's the brain that generates those feelings.

Sukel points to an older study by Janniko Georgiadis at the University of Groningen in which he compared the cerebral blood flow in both men and women both during genital stimulation and at the point of orgasm by using positron emission tomography (PET):

They found significant differences in activation patterns during arousal but not orgasm itself. And they concluded that those differences were likely due to differences in our anatomical equipment—which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense. What works on arousing a penis may not be quite as magical when applied to a clitoris. (Though, different strokes for different folks...)

Other studies have measured the intensity, frequency, and durations of pelvic muscle contractions (measured with a pressure sensitive anal probe) of males and females during masturbation. The results showed considerable similarities in the pattern of these contractions between males and females.

According to psychologist Alan Fogel, there may be a very good reason why men and women evolved near-identical orgasms:

Shared experiences of emotionally intense moments enhance our own and our partner's body sense. When we observe someone crying, we feel sadness for and with them. When we observe someone else having an orgasm, regardless of gender, it enhances the desire, readiness for, and experience of our own orgasms. If orgasms were radically different in males and females, this would be much less likely to happen.

More recently, however, scientist have turned to higher resolution scanning, namely fMRIs — and interestingly, while they're once again showing similarities in male and female orgasms, they're also revealing some subtle differences. Sukel describes a recent study by Nan Wise and Barry Komisaruk:

As part of their series of studies on the time course of orgasm—that is, the chain of activation of brain components leading up to, during, and after orgasm—they compared men and women participants self-stimulating to orgasm. Using fMRI and then a graphical causal modeling analysis technique, they compared effective connectivity, or how blood flow traveled between key areas of the brain like the cerebellum, the paracentral lobule, the nucleus accumbens and the frontal pole (areas that had been identified as important to orgasm in previous studies), as individuals self-stimulated to orgasm.

Their preliminary results showed that both men and women experience significant activation of the frontal pole feeding back to the paracentral lobule, an area that processes sensorimotor signals from the lower extremities at the point of orgasm. In other words, the frontal cortex (what is involved in planning and inhibition) is channeling back to an area that's responsible for processing sensation. Wise and Komisaruk aren't entirely sure what that means, as it could imply a connection to emotional release, control, and even fantasies.

But that said, the researchers did observe slightly different activation patterns, both between sexes and individuals — a possible indication that qualitative and quantitative differences may exist at the individual level. So, while the preliminary evidence points to more similarities than differences in the male and female orgasm, it's fair to say that more research in this area clearly needs to be done.

You can read Kayt Sukel's entire article at Big Think.

Top image via andrea michele piacquadio/shutterstock.com.