Women, Orgasm, & Sexuality

“One night, I was lying on my bed with the window open. It was warm, and a delightful, sensuous breeze was wafting over me. I opened my legs to it and felt as if it was actually caressing me. I stayed with the feeling until I came.”

— Anonymous woman’s testimonial, as quoted in When The Earth Moves: Women and Orgasm by Mikaya Heart

Do women experience pleasure differently? Are there “female” and “male” ways of having sex?

Different things arouse men and women, of course. But what about the subjective states of arousal, pleasure, and orgasm — do they feel different from a woman’s point of view?

Susan Levin, "Volcano"

Tantra, Taoism, and other spiritual traditions have long claimed women and men experience sex in unique ways. Today, Western science is finally beginning to investigate, backing up some ancient claims but leaving many others untouched. A number of recent popular books — “Orgasmic Meditation” guru Nicole Daedone’s Slow Sex (2011), Naomi Wolf’s bestseller, Vagina (2012), Daniel Bergner’s blockbuster, What Do Women Want? (2013) — and the proliferation of spiritual sex courses and therapies springing up show there’s a surge of interest in woman-centered sexuality, although much research remains to be done.

Women have a wider variety of sexual experience than we can imagine, ranging from anorgasmia (difficulty with or inability to climax) to heightened states of ecstasy. Women trained in Tantra, orgasmic meditation, extended orgasm, and other adventurous practices may be having sensations that belong in entirely new categories. It is in our best sexual interests to explore some of the lesser-known ways that women can experience pleasure.

How can we better understand what half of human beings feel? Trying to penetrate another person’s subjective state means coming up against an elemental barrier. Philosopher Thomas Nagel illustrated this when he famously asserted that it’s impossible to know what it’s like to be a bat. There is something it is to be this flying, ultrasonically sensitive mammal, and there’s no way for us to understand this mysterious something, the irreducible quality of its lived consciousness. I’d also argue that there is something it is to have an orgasm, something private and inaccessible. Pleasure, especially the indescribable, mind-blanking intensity of climax, is mysterious.

Happily, the walls dividing us aren’t rock solid. There are chinks through which we can peer at one another’s sexual landscapes. Over thousands of years, humans have tried every means available: We have read each other’s sounds, movements, looks, excretions, temperature changes, and other physiological signs; Taoists have made exhaustive lists of the outward indicators of a woman in ecstasy; practitioners of Tantra and meditation have tuned into the subtle energy shifts of others’ bodies; we have used plain language to ask each other questions; finally, we are using the available tools of science to measure cresting hormones and neurotransmitters.

In 1976, researchers Ellen Belle Vance and Nathaniel N. Wagner used language as part of an ingenious experiment. They asked 48 male and female college students to describe their orgasms. The students turned in often lyrical accounts littered with phrases like “euphoria,” “tingling all over,” “oblivion to sensation” and “the most fulfilling experience I have ever had of enjoyment.” After carefully stripping out any words that could reveal gender, Vance and Wagner asked a panel of judges comprising both male and female gynecologists, psychiatrists, and medical students if they could identify the writers’ genders. They could not. Orgasm is, above all, a great unifier.

However, that only covers the seconds-long eruption that is a traditional orgasm. There are practices that differ from the linear, goal-oriented activity that most would identify as sex, and these produce unique experiences. While we normally think of orgasm as synonymous with sexual satisfaction, not all women consider an orgasm necessary to feel satisfied, nor does achieving climax guarantee satisfaction for every woman. With that in mind, some adventurous women explore what we could call non-teleological sex. People have used terms such as “expanded orgasm” and “wave orgasm” to describe what results from this practice.

“Some people call them energy orgasms, or maybe ‘valley’ orgasms,” says Dee Dussault, a San Francisco-based yoga instructor, Tantra teacher, and sexuality coach. “You’re pretty relaxed. You’re not contracting at all. You’re not trying to push in. You’re moving your hips in a really gentle dance. You’re not trying to go into the orgasm — you’re just rolling. I think valley is a good description. If you think of a mountain or a peak as that tension-y climax, the valley’s more like, chill time.”

New York City-based integrative health educator Anita Boeninger, founder of The Embodied Femme salon, practices a meditative form of dance that connects her to the erotic. Doing movement practices for six or seven hours a day when she was younger, she said, she would enter a space of continuous orgasm “rather than a muscle spasm that lasts for four seconds.” She did this without genital contact. She explains:

“It was like becoming an explorer or astronaut of your own body. ‘What if I move my shoulder this way?’ It got so subtle and refined that even the tiniest movement of my foot felt pleasurable. Everything had sensation. Everything was alive. Everything was awake. I could feel with my whole body. It’s not just my nipples feeling something; it’s like, my kneecap. I was turned on everywhere.”

To others, even “traditional” versus “expanded” orgasm is restrictive. According to followers of Quodoushka, a New Age group of sexual practices with its own idiomatic classification system, a woman can experience no less than five kinds of orgasm. Depending on factors such as whether her G-spot or the clitoris is being stimulated and what the woman’s state of mind is, she can have a “hawk” orgasm —mind-clearing and intense, clitoral, triggered by fantasy — or an “owl” orgasm — begins in the G-spot but ends in the clitoris and is profoundly emotional.

It goes without saying that neither an owl nor a hawk orgasm has been observed in a lab setting. Maybe they should be.

Women often approach sex in a less goal-oriented way than men do.

For decades, however, the primary model of normal sexual behavior patterns used by psychiatrists has been linear — beginning with desire, continuing through arousal, and culminating in climax. Experts are now arguing that it should be changed or replaced entirely by circular, less goal-oriented models that better reflect the female experience.

Can men enter non-linear orgasmic states, too? Of course they can. Sex therapists Steve and Vera Bodansky, pioneers of a technique vividly dubbed “extended massive orgasm,” teach women and men how to send their partners into a heightened orgasmic state. It isn’t that men can’t have, and aren’t having non-goal-oriented sex, nor that many women don’t love having linear, goal-oriented sex. It is that for hundreds of years, sex revolved around the explicit goal of procreation, so the acts that lead quickly to male ejaculation have come to define sex.

Is there anything else that’s special about the way women experience sex, beyond micro-variations in pleasure? Some argue that on a macro level, women tend to approach sexuality in a more holistic way, as something that’s embedded in the totality of their lives. While we may simplistically view sex as a set of desires, physical movements and muscle spasms, as acts with beginnings and endings, women tend to experience sex as a place to be inhabited.

“Sex is all of life — it’s life as the lover,” says Boeninger. “It’s not an act. It’s a realm. It’s a space. It’s a state. I think that’s what more feminine culture can bring back into this culture.”

What does neuroscience have to say about women’s sexuality? What does the female brain look like during orgasm? Although pioneering research has been done, the picture remains piecemeal and at times even contradictory. A few intriguing studies over the past decade have used PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to show that areas of women’s brains (including the prefrontal cortex, the area involved in reason and judgment) go quiet during climax. These studies have been used as evidence that high-level orgasms may have the power to raise women into a spiritual trance state in which they may connect to a greater “oneness” and lose the sense of a separate self.

Such research is tantalizing, but complicated by multiple factors. Rutgers psychology professor Barry R. Komisaruk, author with Carlos Beyer-Flores and Beverly Whipple of The Science of Orgasm, has done repeated studies using fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) that show just the opposite effect of other studies — that climaxing women’s brains light up like Christmas trees.

“In fact, the pattern over time that we see is a widespread increasing activation throughout the brain reaching a peak at orgasm in the frontal cortical regions and elsewhere,” says Komisaruk (who says he thinks often about the problem raised by Nagel and his bats). Other than slight variations, such as differing patterns of the release of oxytocin (a neurohormone thought to play a role in the intensity of climax, among other things), he says women’s and men’s brains look pretty much identical during climax. But we won’t know for sure until new studies are funded that resolve the discrepancy.

What does the brain look like when its owner is in the throes of an hour-long orgasmic state rather than a seven-second climax? No one has yet put a skilled, Bodansky-trained tantrika into an fMRI scanner to find out. But research has been done in Komisaruk and Whipple’s lab on women who can have orgasms merely by thinking, without touching their genitals — a feat more common in women. They have found that the physiological responses produced by a thinking orgasm were similar to those triggered by a regular orgasm with touch.

This isn’t all to argue in favor of dividing between female and male pleasure. Orgasm is a great unifier, and it should stay that way. In any case, sexual and gender difference is better thought of as a wide, protean spectrum than a reductive binary, and the broad category “woman” encompasses straight, gay, bisexual, queer, intersexed, and transgendered women, all representing deliciously varied shades of sexual experience. That being said, there is a value to noticing the differences, both learned and inborn — differences that have been elided and suppressed for thousands of years in a culture that has placed a low value on female sexuality, if it hasn’t sought to deny or vilify it entirely. Marking difference is a key step toward allowing women to appreciate their gifts.

Women’s more holistic approach to sex deserves more attention from science, sex education programs, and popular culture at large. Until we study the heightened sensual states experienced by women with more rigor, we’ll have an impoverished idea of human experience as a whole.

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