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Battle of the Sexes: The Orgasm Edition

As I travel around and talk about the neuroscience of orgasm, there is one question I am consistently asked–usually by a particularly curious and outgoing person of the male persuasion: 

“Is my orgasm the same as my female partner’s orgasm?”

There are questions about whether neuroscience can provide some answers to a few basic questions.  Can only women have multiple orgasms?  (Or, do women really have multiple orgasms at all?) Is what a man feels when he is reaching climax qualitatively (or quantitatively) the same as what a woman experiences? How are we the same?  How are we different?  Do those differences, if they exist, perhaps enhance (or detract) from sexual pleasure?

These are fascinating questions. But let’s stick with the basic one:  is an orgasm the same whether it is experienced by a man or a woman?

Looking at anecdotal evidence, there is a pervasive notion that the male and the female orgasm are different entities altogether.  It’s understandable, I suppose.  They can seem very, very different–from arousal to aftermath.  But, as it so happens, older research looking at the brain at orgasm suggested that the male and female orgasms were more alike than different.

Janniko Georgiadis and colleagues at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands compared cerebral blood flow in both men and women both during genital stimulation and at the point of orgasm 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…)

Of course, PET does not have the resolution or speed of a neuroimaging technique like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  Could it be the lack of differences between the sexes–differences which seem to many of us to be both obvious and innate–might be detected if we had better tools to examine the question?

It’s entirely possible.  And very recently, Nan Wise and Barry Komisaruk, researchers at Rutgers University, decided to take a look.  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.

Wise and Komisaruk presented this work at Neuroscience 2012, the largest neuroscience conference in the world.  The preliminary results suggest that both men and women (whether women were self-stimulating manually or just “thinking off”) showed 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. Think about that–the frontal cortex, an area involved in both planning and inhibition, is projecting back to an area involved with processing sensation.  Does that demonstrate fantasy?  Release?  Control?  Wise and Komisaruk aren’t sure.

Yet, all groups showed this same effect.  So perhaps Georgiadis’ study wasn’t so far off the mark and things aren’t as different on the orgasm front as they seem (though, in terms of full disclosure, Georgiadis never did find frontal cortex activation in any of his orgasm studies). 

Or are they?  When the group looked closer at effective connectivity, they did see slightly different activation patterns, both between the sexes and between individuals.  It’s hard to know what to make of that.  Wise and Komisaruk are quick to point out that they need more participants to make any hard and fast conclusions about sex differences.

So next time I’m asked about the nature of the male vs. female orgasm, I’ll have a little more to add to my explanation.  But my answer will have to be that the scientific jury, at least, is still out.  For now.

What do you think?  Is the male orgasm qualitatively and neurobiologically distinct from the female orgasm?

Photo credit: Vasilchenko Nikita/


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