Female sexual turn-on begins, ironically, with a brain turn-off. The impulses can rush to the pleasure centers and trigger an orgasm only if the amygdala—the fear and anxiety center of the brain—has been deactivated. Before the amygdala has been turned off, any last-minute worry—about work, about the kids, about schedules, about getting dinner on the table—can interrupt the march toward orgasm.
The fact that a woman requires this extra neurological step may account for why it takes her on average three to ten times longer than the typical man to reach orgasm. So girls, tell your man to slow down and be patient, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant. Research has shown that the biological reason for males coming more quickly is that females who orgasm after the male has ejaculated are more likely to conceive.
It’s a delicate system, but the connection to the brain is about as direct as it gets. Nerves in the tip of the clitoris communicate straight to the sexual pleasure center of the female brain. When those nerves are stimulated, they boost electrochemical activity until it hits a threshold, triggers a burst of impulses, and releases bonding, feel-good neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins.
One of the main factors of the successful orgasm is oxytocin, the "hormone of love" as it has been called. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter synthesised by the hypothalamus at the base of the brain and stored in the posterior pituitary, from where it pulses out when required, which is during sexual activity and in childbirth, after which it prompts the desire to nuzzle and protect infants. Oxytocin induces feelings of love and altruism, warmth, calm, bonding, tenderness and togetherness, of satisfaction during bodily contact, sexual arousal and sexual fulfilment. It is during orgasm in both men and women that oxytocin floods through our bloodstream. Oxytocin released by female orgasm helps women lie still for a while afterwards. This increases the likelihood of conception, as well as making it probable that women will seek further coitus because they enjoyed it so much.
Men and women get pleasure from oxytocin, but otherwise there are fundamental inconsistencies between the two genders' orgasms. The most glaring in heterosexual intercourse is that men's orgasms are practically essential for reproduction, whereas women's do not have any obvious function other than to be pleasurable.
If stimulation of the clitoris is cut off too soon, if the clitoral nerves aren’t sensitive enough, or if fear, stress, or guilt interferes with stimulation, the clitoris is stopped dead in its tracks. If you’re not relaxed, comfortable, warm, and cozy, it’s not likely to happen. In a brain-scan study of female orgasm, researchers discovered that the women needed to be comfortable and have their feet kept warm before they felt like engaging in sex. For many women, being relaxed—thanks to a hot bath, a foot rub, a vacation, or alcohol— improves their ability to have an orgasm, even with partners they don’t feel completely comfortable with.
Women deeply in love and in the early phases of passion, who feel that their partners desire and worship them, are more likely to have easy orgasms. For some women, the state of security offered by a committed relationship or marriage can allow the brain to reach orgasm more easily than with a new person. As the orgasm subsides, waves of oxytocin cause a woman’s chest and face to ﬂush because the blood vessels expand. A glow of contentment and satisfaction surrounds her. Fear and stress are blocked out. But how this all happens remains a mystery to the men around us. Every woman has had the experience of lying in bed with a guy who asks, “Did you come?” Often, it’s just hard for him to tell.
Because of the delicate psychological and physiological interconnection, female orgasm has been elusive to confused male lovers—and to scientists. For decades women have volunteered to be prodded, ﬁlmed, tape-recorded, interviewed, measured, wired, and monitored by scientists. The shortened breath, arched back, warm feet, grimacing face, unintentional vocalizations, and jumping blood pressure of women’s orgasm have all been measured. And now, because of MRI scans that show the activated and deactivated areas of the brain, we know much more about the female brain’s control of orgasm.
For a man, orgasms are simpler. Blood has to rush to one crucial appendage for sexual climax to take place. For a woman, the neuro-chemical stars need to align. Most important, she has to trust who she’s with. Since the male model of arousal is basic hydraulics—blood ﬂows to the penis, leading to erection—researchers have looked endlessly for the same simple mechanism in women. Doctors have surmised that women’s arousal problems stem from low blood ﬂow to the clitoris. There’s never been any evidence, however, that this is true—and no researchers have ever found ways of measuring physical changes in the clitoris when it’s aroused. Instead, they’ve groped for other indicators, such as lubrication, using clumsy methods such as weighing tampons before and after female research subjects watch erotic movies.
It is in the arena of the emotions that the gap between male and female orgasmic expectations and feelings widens still further. Whether this was the case for our preliterate ancestors is a matter for conjecture, but the evidence from surviving primitive tribes suggests that there has always been such a gulf. Generally, human males tend to have a high interest in orgasm, placing less importance on relationships, coupling, security and monogamy, while females tend to prioritize relationships, coupling, security and monogamy over mechanical orgasmic satisfaction per se.
Scientiﬁc understanding of female sexual response is still decades—if not centuries—behind research on male erections, and the progress remains frustratingly slow. Even a recent anatomy textbook completely omitted a description of the clitoris while giving a three-page description of the penis. Medical doctors still feel that if a man can’t get an erection, it is a medical emergency, but no one seems to feel the same urgency about sexual satisfaction for women.
There are several existing scientific theories explaining gender difference in orgasm. Stephen Jay Gould believed the clitoral orgasm is a paradox for Darwinian biology. Evolutionary theory, Gould argued, dictates that the female orgasm should be a clear incentive for attempting to reproduce. "How can our world be functional and Darwinian if the site of our orgasm is divorced from the place of intercourse? How can sexual pleasure be so separated from its functional significance in the Darwinian game of life?" he wrote.
In the few decades that such matters have been a suitable subject for serious discourse, three distinct theories have been put forward to explain the central problem that Gould articulated. The first, classical theory, advanced by Desmond Morris, is that the female orgasm has evolved to enhance the monogamous pair bond and make family life more rewarding. This is because only a long-term, stable male partner will know how to make a particular woman climax properly.
The cultural, learned aspect of female orgasm is amplified by our propensity for love at an emotional and intellectual level. Anthropologist Helen Fisher points out that, despite its name, the missionary position is not a western imposition but the preferred copulatory posture in most cultures. So, argues Fisher, it seems that the peculiar human arrangement of forward-tilting vagina and face-to-face sex may have evolved as it has to encourage social copulation, where partners can see each other and communicate with intimacy and understanding.
The second theory, advanced by many feminists, also holds that the female orgasm is an evolutionary adaptation, but that it is triggered by nothing more elaborate than straight intercourse; if it is not, there is either something abnormal about the woman - or inadequate about the man. The female's ability to multi-orgasm without the subdued "refractory" period the male goes through after ejaculation is additionally, to this school of thought, evidence of an almost insatiable sexual desire in women. For these theorists, monogamy is an unnatural instrument of political repression.
The third view of the female orgasm, proposed by the postmodern voice of Symons and heartily backed by Gould, is that a whole nexus of anatomical, social, cultural and emotional factors make female orgasm the subtle phenomenon it is. They propose that female orgasm is the happy coincidence of an existing, but minor, bodily quirk resulting from the physiological similarity of the sexes in the womb - an echo, in other words, of the male orgasm - and a cultural artifice no more adaptive than a learned ability such as writing.
The view of female orgasm Symons favors is that the phenomenon is a relic, a kind of echo of the male orgasm. As Gould elaborated: "The reason for a clitoral site of orgasm is simple - exactly comparable with the non-puzzle of male nipples. The clitoris is the homologue of the penis - it is the same organ, endowed with the same anatomical organization and capacity of response."
According to the Morris et al theory, the female orgasm is a natural process that can only work by the non-instinctive, learned application of fingers, toes, noses, mouths, whatever, to the clitoris, and by males making a determined effort to think of the previous week's football results in an attempt to avoid ejaculating too early. If this all sounds a little "unnatural", it might explain the taboos that have surrounded such forms of manually and mentally assisted sex.
But the nature of the female orgasm can now be seen in a new light: as a selective mechanism for women to choose mates not as an animal would - by body size, ferocity and aggressiveness - but by qualities such as intellect, sensitivity, kindness and popularity, plus not a little dexterity. No wonder Darwin said: "The power to charm the female has sometimes been more important than the power to conquer other males in battle."
Since Viagra’s explosive debut in 1998, scientiﬁc interest in sex differences has heated up. Drug companies have been falling over themselves trying to find a pill or patch that can reliably kindle female desire. So far their efforts to discover a pink Viagra for women have been a bust. In 2004, Pﬁzer ofﬁcially ended its eight-year quest to prove that Viagra boosted blood ﬂow to the clitoris and therefore increased sexual enjoyment in women.
There is still much to learn, but all we now know for sure that, just as the female brain is not a smaller version of the male brain, the clitoris is not a little penis.
Sources and Additional Information:
The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, 2006