London - For years a taboo subject, orgasm has also been one of the more elusive areas for scientists to research. Nonetheless, there have been tantalising revelations recently about just what goes on in the body and brain during orgasm.
Scientists are also discovering its health benefits: the resulting rush of blood to the head is better for the brain than doing a crossword, one US researcher recently claimed.
It’s also thought to act as a stressbuster, reduce pain and ease depression, while one study even suggested the greater the frequency of orgasms, the longer you’ll live.
Yet only a third of women say they regularly experience one, and one in ten reports never having had one at all.
This month, the latest attempt at a treatment was launched. The dietary supplement Lady Prelox has been dubbed the “female Viagra” and has a pine bark extract said to improve a woman’s “sexual pleasure” by boosting blood flow.
But why do so many women apparently struggle to experience orgasm? Here, experts reveal the latest thinking...
Ironically, the contraceptive pill has been found to have a dampening effect. A study published last year by Indiana University involving 1 101 women, found that women using the Pill or a contraceptive patch had fewer orgasms and also reported lower levels of arousal and frequency of sex than those who used non-hormonal contraception such as condoms.
But Dr Cynthia Graham, a senior lecturer in health psychology at the University of Southampton and a leading sex researcher, says this is more likely to be down to the Pill’s effect on libido rather than on arousal - so the link might be simply because women are having less sex generally, rather than fewer orgasms.
The most revealing research in this area is from scanning people’s brains. In one study, researchers at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands, found that key areas of the brain switch off during orgasm.
“We found a marked deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain we know is important for self control,” says neuroscientist Janniko Georgiadis, who carried out the research. “It indicated that to become really aroused you need to have a feeling of not caring what’s going on around you, of letting go.”
Dr Georgiadis suggests this might have an evolutionary explanation. “Think about animals who are biologically driven to have sex while there are predators around. Arousal is important because it decreases the sense of fear.”
This fits with anecdotal evidence that distractions and worries make orgasms more difficult to achieve, especially for women. Denise Knowles, a sex counsellor at the charity Relate, says: “Men can be aroused much more quickly and they have what we call the point of inevitability, where there’s very little that can stop them having one.
“Women seem to have this fine hair trigger that means the smallest disturbance can turn the process off. Once they have children, they are even more alert to noises and things going on in the house because they’re so conscious of the kids.”
Millions of Britons take medication for depression - 50 million prescriptions for antidepressants are given out each year in England alone - but many may not realise the drugs can have a depressing impact on their sex lives.
“Antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs have a very powerful inhibitory effect on orgasm,” says Barry Komisaruk, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Rutgers University, and a leading expert in the science of orgasm.
As he explains, the most commonly prescribed group of antidepressants - selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) - work by increasing levels of the brain chemical serotonin. But this has a “notorious” effect on sexual response and orgasm in men and women, as serotonin inhibits the action of dopamine, another brain chemical important in arousal.
Serotonin also reduces sensation in the nerves and lowers levels of nitric oxide. This is thought to help widen blood vessels and help blood flow to the genitals. Some drugs are said to combat this effect, but one recent piece of research posits a more natural solution: exercise.
The study, published last December by the University of Texas, looked at 52 women suffering sexual side-effects from antidepressants. The researchers found regular exercise - 30 minutes of strength training such as weight lifting, and cardiovascular exercise such as running three times a week - improved the women’s ability to experience orgasm.
As Tierney Lorenz, who led the study, explains, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors dampen down the sympathetic nervous system.
“This system is your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, and activating this system is very important for increasing blood flow, getting your heart racing, and feeling aroused.’
But while medication inhibits this system, exercise boosts it. “So exercise can increase the chances of strong sexual arousal once a woman taking antidepressants is presented with a sexual cue - e.g., her partner,” she adds.
Could it be that women have evolved to take longer to reach orgasm to help them find the best partner? That was the conclusion of a major study published in 2005 on 4 000 women. About half were identical twins, sharing their genes, and half were non-identical, and had some different genes. This allowed researchers to find patterns that must be down to genes.
After asking them questions about their sex lives, the researchers, from St Thomas’ Hospital, London, found that between 34 and 45 percent of the variation in ability to orgasm is explained by genes.
They suggested the female orgasm has a biological function - if a man doesn’t take the time to make it possible, he may be unreliable in other ways.
“The theory is that the orgasm is an evolutionary way of seeing if men can prove themselves likely to be good providers or dependable, patient and caring enough to look after the kids,” says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at St Thomas’, who led the research. “Perhaps women who had orgasms too easily weren’t very good selectors. It paid to be more fussy.”
It’s well established that erectile problems in men are linked with furred-up arteries reducing blood flow, but some experts think the same could be true of orgasm problems in women.
After the success of Viagra - which boosts blood flow - a number of doctors and pharmaceutical companies have turned their attention to whether something similar could be done to help women. Like the penis, the clitoris seems to need adequate blood flow.
“We know that in men sexual dysfunction is mainly a vascular problem,” says Dr Graham Jackson, chairman of the Sexual Advice Association and a cardiologist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals, London. “I suspect there may turn out to be a link in women, too, but we don’t have any concrete evidence of this yet.”
As well as a lack of robust evidence, many experts say female sexuality is strongly linked to psychological factors, so cannot be narrowed down to simply circulation. But if the theory is proven, it could have implications not just for sexual medicine, but for heart health, too.
Impotence in men can be an early sign of heart disease - because both are caused by blocked arteries - and experts such as Dr Jackson speculate the same link may one day be found in women with orgasm problems.
Many experts say the most common reason for women struggling to orgasm is lack of knowledge. “There’s a lot of evidence women need to learn how to have an orgasm,” says Dr Graham.
“There are women and men who don’t know anything about the clitoris and think the orgasm should occur during intercourse. This is why it’s not uncommon to hear of women in their 50s having an orgasm for the first time with a new partner.”
Women’s levels of testosterone fall with age, and this is thought to be why many older women experience a major drop in the number of orgasms and a decrease in their intensity. “Testosterone really is the orgasm hormone,” says Dr Maupin, author of a new book, The Secret Female Hormone: How Testosterone Replacement Can Change Your Life.
“It’s not the only hormone involved, but it stimulates certain important hormones, for example oxytocin which we require for orgasm. It also increases dopamine and nitric oxide which boosts blood flow to the pelvis.”
She believes more middle-aged women should be offered testosterone replacement.
Weight gain changes the levels of hormones in the body involved in sexual pleasure.
“Weight gain can lead to an overproduction of a protein called sex hormone binding globulin, which reduces testosterone levels and therefore libido and orgasm,” says Nick Panay, consultant gynaecologist at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea and Chelsea and Westminster Hospitals in London.
“Also, obesity can lead to cardiovascular problems and diabetes which reduce blood flow to genitals and stimulatory centres in the brain and can damage the nervous pathways which channel sexual arousal and orgasm.”
Ironically, some experts believe society’s great interest in the female orgasm hasn’t been all good news for women. Many report feeling that if they don’t orgasm they are letting their partner down - some surveys suggest as many as 70 percent of them have faked an orgasm at some point.
“We set up this amazing protection racket that’s not helpful at all,” says therapist Denise Knowles. “Once you’ve faked it once, he’ll do the same thing over and over because he thinks that’s what works, and then you’ll never orgasm.” - Daily Mail