What Is an Orgasm?

Defining Orgasm

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What is an orgasm? Most people who have had orgasms would probably respond to this question with a resounding "duh! You'll know it when you've had it". But this response is little help to those of us who have never had an orgasm before, or aren't sure if we've had an orgasm before. And we might be tempted to respond to our hypothetically obnoxious friend by asking "if you think you've had an orgasm, how do you know for sure?"

Our friend might be surprised to know that the answer isn't a simple one. Whether it lasts for two minutes or two days, sex play is a busy, complicated enterprise, and defining what part is exactly the orgasm is tricky:

  • Is orgasm that brief feeling you get of "going over the top", just after the building up of excitement and tension, and just before the release and relaxation?
  • Is orgasm the physical things that happen to our body, changes in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, skin color, is it the muscle contractions?
  • Is orgasm the same thing as ejaculation?
  • Is orgasm a psychological or emotional or spiritual experience that happens to us when these other things are going on in our body?

Despite its almost universal appeal, orgasms have, until very recently, received relatively little attention in the scientific literature, leaving us with a murky understanding of what an orgasm is. How orgasm gets defined has been determined largely by who is defining it.

Medical/Physiological Definition of Orgasm

Medical researchers have tried to define orgasm based on what happens in our bodies. They've measured increase in heart rate, body temperature, skin flush, hormonal changes, changes in sensitivity, muscle contractions, ejaculation, and more. Research can tell us the "average" measurements for orgasm, but we always need to remember that these are only "average" for people who can get into a lab and have an orgasm.
Even though there are no universally agreed upon measurements or limits for orgasm all of these measurements have been used to "prove" that an orgasm has occurred. By these definitions, if you're body responds in a certain way, you've had an orgasm.

Psychological Definition of Orgasm

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals and researchers define orgasm based on subjective experiences of satisfaction, release, and other emotional and/or cognitive changes. By these measurements, someone has had an orgasm either when they say they have or when they describe an experience that matches what some expert proposes orgasm to be.

Cultural Definition of Orgasm

A much longer tradition of defining orgasm comes from artists and writers, who often define or illustrate orgasm by its transcendent, mind altering effects. These definitions are far and away the most colorful, but obviously don't offer any standardized definitions of what an orgasm is. The term "la petit mort" which the French use to describe the semi-conscious post-orgasm experience is a good example of a definition which is more experiential than scientific.

As you might guess, in the absence of a clear orgasm definition winner, some propose that to define orgasm we have to consider all three elements.

Two researchers from McGill University have proposed a model of orgasm that encompasses all three of the above elements:

  1. Sensory. This refers to all the physiological experiences in our body, including feeling heat, muscle tension and release, heart rate, blood pressure, etc…
  2. Evaluative. This is the way we experience and evaluate what's happening; does it feel good or bad, pain or pleasure, intense or mild?
  3. Affective. Or our emotional response during and after orgasm; do we feel intimacy or distance, transcendent or grounded, happy or sad.

This model may be recommended for at least three reasons. First, this definition focuses on the experience and not the sexual behaviors. It doesn't refer to what body part is stimulated, or how it is stimulated. This makes sense since we don't all have the same bodies, and we don't all get sexual pleasure in the same way.

Second, this definition of orgasm complicates matters. Most traditional models of orgasm have been based on Masters and Johnsons sexual response cycle, which is a useful but overly narrow definition of orgasm. Finally, this model doesn't favor one aspect of orgasm over another.


Levin, R.J. "An Orgasm Is...Who Defines What An Orgasm Is?" Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Volume 19, Number 1 (2004): 101-107.

Mah, K. & Binik, Y.M. "The Nature of Human Orgasm: A Critical Review of Major Trends" Clinical Psychology Review. Volume 21, Number 6 (2001): 823-856.