Although it seems simple enough, the male orgasm is actually a complex process.
Men achieve orgasm through a series of steps involving a number of organs, hormones, blood vessels, and nerves working together. The typical result is ejaculation of fluid that may contain sperm through strong muscle contractions.
A Look Behind the Scenes of the Male Climax
The fuel for the process leading to orgasm is testosterone, a hormone produced in steady supply by the testicles. The testicles also make millions of sperm each day, which mature and then are mixed with whitish, protein-rich fluids. These fluids nourish and support the sperm so they can live after ejaculation for a limited time. This mixture of fluid and sperm, known as semen, is what is moved through the urethra and out the penis during orgasm.
The testosterone flowing through a man’s body, along with psychological factors, determines the strength of his desire for sex.
The Role of Testosterone and Sexual Desire in Male Orgasm
Testosterone is the primary factor which drives sexual desire, says Michael Ingber, MD, a physician in urology and female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery at the Atlantic Health System in Morristown, New Jersey, and a fellow of the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health.
This sexual desire, or libido, is key in kicking off the process that will lead to orgasm. If a man has no sex drive — for example, if he has clinically low testosterone or is suffering from depression — his body may not respond to sexual stimuli and he may not be able to experience orgasm.
The Male Orgasm: Steps to Ejaculation
The steps that lead a man to successful orgasm include:
- Arousal The man perceives something or someone that prompts sexual interest. That perception prompts the brain to send a signal down the spinal cord to the sex organs, causing an erection. The penis becomes erect when blood fills spongy tissue inside its shaft, brought by arteries that have expanded to allow blood to race in at up to 50 times its normal speed. The veins in the penis that normally drain blood out squeeze shut so that more blood remains inside, producing a firm erection. The scrotum pulls toward the body, and muscles throughout the body increase in tension.
- Plateau The male body prepares for orgasm in this phase, which can last from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Muscle tension increases even more and involuntary body movements, particularly in the pelvis, begin to take over. The man’s heart rate increases to between 150 and 175 beats per minute, says Ingber. A clear fluid may begin to flow from the urethra. This pre-ejaculatory fluid is meant to change the pH balance of the urethra, to improve the chances of sperm survival.
- Orgasm The orgasm itself occurs in two phases, emission and ejaculation. In emission, the man reaches ejaculatory inevitability, the “point of no return.” Semen is deposited near the top of the urethra, ready for ejaculation. Ejaculation occurs in a series of rapid-fire contractions of the penile muscles and around the base of the anus. Involuntary pelvic thrusting may also occur. The nerves causing the muscle contractions send messages of pleasure to the man’s brain.
- Resolution and refraction After ejaculation, the penis begins to lose its erection. About half of the erection is lost immediately, and the rest fades soon after. Muscle tension fades, and the man may feel relaxed or drowsy, according to Ingber. Men usually must undergo a refractory period, or recovery phase, during which they cannot achieve another erection. This period is variable in men, says Ingber. In an 18-year-old, this is typically less than 15 minutes. In elderly men, it can be up to 10 to 20 hours. The average refractory period is about half an hour. Men differ from women in that men usually are satiated after one orgasm. Women can experience more than one orgasm with no loss of sexual arousal, and do not have to undergo a refractory period.
Male Orgasm: When There’s a Problem
Some men can have problems reaching orgasm. These most often stem from psychological factors; for example, they are still affected by a traumatic event or a restrictive upbringing, or they have fallen into masturbation patterns that could have conditioned the body to take longer to orgasm. However, the problem also can be caused by certain medications or by a neurological or cardiovascular disease, or by having surgery where nerves are cut, says Beverly Whipple, PhD, RN, professor emerita at Rutgers University in Newark New Jersey, and past president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).
A short-term way to address problems with orgasm involves stimulation of the penis with a vibrator or some other type of sex toy. However, to really make meaningful changes, a man may need to go through some form of sex therapy. Therapy usually involves “homework” in which a couple engages in sexual activities that reduce performance pressure and focus on pleasure.
If you are consistently experiencing problems with orgasm and ejaculation, contact your doctor. A thorough medical exam and history may reveal the reason why.