Sexual Health

Here's what happens during the female orgasm.
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Here's What Happens To Your Vagina As You Orgasm

The sensations are intense.

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It's no secret that many people are in pursuit of orgasms — though it isn’t and definitely shouldn’t be the only end goal of sex. Still, the big "O" is one of life's most wonderful pleasures, like a cool breeze on a hot day or a plate full of delicious food. Experiencing an orgasm can send shockwaves through your entire body, even though the center of action is happening downstairs. Besides all of those fuzzy feelings, you may wonder what exactly happens to a vagina during an orgasm.

Orgasms for people with vulvas are something that many people are (rightfully) fascinated by — this topic has quite literally been studied at length. Still, there are plenty of things we don’t know. “The orgasm is a reflex, meaning it is a cascade of events that will always occur one after the other,” Nicole Prause, Ph.D., a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, tells Romper. “We do not know how orgasms are triggered.”

Doctors and researchers have figured out some things, though. As you become more and more aroused, it’s clear that your body may elicit this sexual response. "There is more blood flow to the vagina, clitoris, [and] labia minor (inner lips), and they all begin to swell," Stacy Rybchin, founder and CEO of adult toy shop My Secret Luxury, tells Romper. "Your own natural vaginal lubrication increases as well."

The Scientific Process Of Orgasm

When your pleasure continues to increase through the excitement phase and into the plateau, your vagina swells, your breathing and pulse quicken, and your muscles tense. Then you get to the climax of the sexual response phase: the orgasm. However, the in-between is what Prause finds compelling.

“We believe there is a unique state between ‘excitement’ and ‘orgasm’ that we are currently working to characterize,” Prause says. “It appears that this state involves a decrease in sympathetic tone and increase in alpha brain wave activity, which may indicate a separation from effortful attention towards the brain state that ultimately allows orgasm to occur.” In other words, you’re having somewhat of an out-of-body experience as you approach climax.

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The orgasm is the angels-singing, clouds-parting moment you've likely been waiting for and working toward. It's true that it's the shortest phase of your body's sexual response cycle, but it's also the pinnacle of total and complete erotic pleasure for many people. During an orgasm, your vagina will likely feel like it's pulsing, with the intensity varying for everyone.

"At orgasm, the pelvic musculature contracts rhythmically,” Prause says. "Usually, these are eight to 12 contractions that start .8 seconds apart, then become further and further apart until they stop." She explains that it's not so much the vagina that's doing anything special at the time of orgasm — it's the muscles that surround it and support it doing all of the contracting.

Additionally, Prause says that women who've gone through pregnancy and delivery may have weakened orgasms for a while. "With events that damage these muscles (or their support structures) such as during childbirth, some women report that these contractions feel less strong," she notes.

The experience of an orgasm differs greatly between individuals and, according to a 2016 study in Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology, can also change throughout your lifespan. For Prause, who is currently studying female orgasms at her research institute Liberos, one of the biggest challenges is women misreporting orgasms. “Our main challenge at the moment is that about half our female sample reported having orgasms when we could not document it occurring physiologically,” she says. “It may be that some women misreport their climax, even in the lab when they know we are measuring, so it is not clear why that is happening.”

According to Planned Parenthood, one out of three women have trouble reaching climax through sex. As a scientist, Prause says, this is important to measure, and she cares very much about whether contractions actually physically happen. However, she is also a therapist. “I care 100% about whether you are enjoying what you experience as a climax,” Prause says. “Science is a wonderful mystery and source of curiosity, which I hope will not be used to [cause] shame or worry about the nature of what women enjoy!”

Getting to orgasm can sometimes be a mystery — after all, everyone is turned on by different things. What makes you orgasm might not make the next person climax, and the next person might hardly orgasm at all. If reaching the big "O" is something that you like to achieve during sex, there's no denying that you’ll know when it’s happening because you can quite literally see and feel the orgasm in action.

Study referenced:

Pfaus, J. G., Quintana, G. R., Mac Cionnaith, C., & Parada, M. (2016). The whole versus the sum of some of the parts: toward resolving the apparent controversy of clitoral versus vaginal orgasms. Socioaffective neuroscience & psychology, 6, 32578. https://doi.org/10.3402/snp.v6.32578

Experts:

Nicole Prause, Ph.D., sexual psychophysiologist, neuroscientist, and founder of Liberos

Sources interviewed:

Stacy Rybchin, founder and CEO of My Secret Luxury

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