“I can achieve 100 orgasms, even 200,” the anonymous female caller told Dr. Ronny Shtarkshall over the phone. “In effect, I can enjoy an orgasm for hours,” she told the sexologist and sexuality researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Shtarkshall had known about "super-orgasmic" women from the professional literature, but he'd never actually talked with someone who'd experiences it.
After meeting with her, Shtarkshall decided to research the case, along with a post-doctoral student from Harvard, Dr. Becca Feldman. Their study included conversations with her and analysis of texts she wrote about her sexuality. They then decided to write a professional article, co-signed by the “anonymous” woman.
The problem was that it wasn’t easy to find a serious professional journal that would agree to publish an article signed by an anonymous person. In the end, however, it was published about a decade ago in an international scientific journal, The Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.
She wasn't an isolated case. The first unidentified woman sent another woman to Shtarkshall, he told Haaretz during a recent phone interview. She too had the same surprising ability, but in a different way: One woman experienced orgasm as long as her vagina or her clitoris were continually stimulated, but when the stimulation ended, the orgasm stopped. As for the second woman, when she reached orgasm, she had to stop the stimulus for a short while, for between 20 seconds and two minutes, before continuing to climax. Evidently there was more than one mechanism in play behind continuous orgasm, Shtarkshall realized. He wanted to understand what those mechanisms are.
Just before Shtarkshall was about to publish, a senior researcher named Irving Binik, head of the sexuality clinic in the psychology department at McGill University, Canada, visited Israel, and shrugged that he didn't believe such things exist. Shtarkshall arranged for him to meet with the first anonymous woman (in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, that is more usually a matchmaking venue for ultra-Orthodox couples). After two hours of conversation, Binik was convinced, and on the spot he and Shtarkshall decided to study the phenomenon more extensively.
To that end, they drafted a detailed questionnaire in English, Hebrew and French, which was disseminated online.
Serial pleasure, small screen
Here is where Haifa-born Ayelet Rosen, 33, entered the picture. Rosen ended up moving to England with her partner, a doctoral student, and enrolled in a program focusing on media format development at the BBC Academy.
In August 2014, in the context of a story she wrote on the sex habits of millennials – aka Generation Y – Rosen contacted Shtarkshall. They ended up talking about the subject of multi-orgasm; the Israeli researcher told Rosen about his study, in cooperation with McGill University, which had already begun.
Rosen, who meanwhile had joined the content development team in the productions division of Britain's Independent Television News company, realized the potential of the research, and also understood that by means of a TV production on the subject, it might be possible to help obtain funding in the future for the clinical stages of the study. She proposed the idea of making the movie to Britain’s Channel 4 and got a green light.
The 45-minute documentary Rosen produced with ITN, called “The Super Orgasm,” aired in April, brought together women who experience dozens of serial orgasms, sexuality researchers, and neurologists from all over the world, for the first time. Although the project did not involve an official professional study, and dealt with experiments performed at the initiative of the production company and for the purpose of the film – the trials were conducted by leading researchers, in designated labs.
“The first thing I understood," Rosen tells Haaretz, "is that science knows very little about orgasms in general, and multi-orgasms are mentioned only on the level of footnotes in Masters and Johnson," those being the researchers who, in the 1950s, were first to study the physiology of sex.
“From discussions with researchers I realized that they have so few resources – that they prefer first of all to study the isolated orgasm. They know almost nothing about the female orgasm, or what mechanism even causes it. One of the female researchers appearing in the film says that we know more about stars than we know about what happens within a female sexual situation.”
According to Shtarkshall, the most important sexual organ in a woman’s body, as well as in a man’s, is the brain: “All the sex actually takes place in the brain. There are women who experience an orgasm if you tickle their ear. Researchers, beginning with Masters and Johnson, described the cycle of the sexual response: It was customary to believe that there is a stage of passion, then a stage of arousal, then a stage in which the arousal remains more or less fixed – and then the stage of orgasm. The last stage is [called resolution, or] dissipation.”
Fifteen years ago, the Canadian psychiatrist Rosemary Basson, who studied female sexuality, said that this cycle is too linear. "For women, she argued, there doesn't have to be a stage of passion before the stage of arousal – in other words, passion can be aroused at different stages in women. To this day there’s a debate on this subject among researchers. We have no proof, but the assumption is that in women who experience an extreme multi-orgasm, there is some kind of difference, not necessarily structural, but perhaps in the substances that are secreted to their nervous system, for example. But it’s difficult to research.”
After finding suitable women who agreed to be filmed, Rosen and her team approached sexuality researchers. The two senior brain researchers featured in her movie – Prof. Barry Komisaruk and Dr. Nan Wise, of the psychology department at Rutgers University in New Jersey – had studied orgasms and scanned the brain of a woman experiencing them, but had never scanned a super-orgasm.
"They never thought they'd manage to get that data,” says Rosen. She described the excitement when one of the participants, a young British woman named Janet, experienced two serial orgasms while lying inside the MRI machine, and the discovery of the fact that during the second orgasm, her brain activity was stronger than during the first.
The body part that secretes the hormone oxytocin was far more active, and between the first and second orgasms, there was no decline in the subject's brain activity.
The God particle?
The youngest participant in the experiment was Natalie, a 24-year-old bisexual, who doesn’t believe in monogamous relationships and works as a motorcycle mechanic; another was Francesca, 60, who grew up in a devout Catholic home in Portugal and abstained from sexual relations until she was married. In the Canadian study by Binik, too, many of the women who reported multi-orgasms grew up in religious homes.
“I don’t know what that means,” says Rosen. “Janet [also] said that she grew up in a religious home and believes in God, and she was taught that God wants us to be happy, so as far as she’s concerned, her sexuality doesn’t contradict any belief or any religion, it’s part of her. Her whole house is full of pictures of Jesus. We always see religion and sexuality as contradictory, but she has resolved this conflict.”
Another experiment conducted in the context of the Rosen's film for ITN, which involved testing both in laboratory and home settings, was examining alpha waves during orgasm. When the brain is working hard, as when solving a mathematical problem, the level of alpha waves is low. On the other hand, when the brain is at rest, alpha waves are high.
Past studies showed that when men and women are trying to achieve orgasm, alpha waves are high most of the time; in other words, the brain is at rest. But in a different study, American neuroscientist Nicole Prause discovered that a moment before the orgasm itself, alpha waves diminish and the brain is working hard: that is, it is concentrated and active. And that is the usual neurological situation during orgasm.
They saw a different pattern of activity in super-orgasmic women, Shtarkshall says. “If usually we see an increase in alpha waves and a decline right before orgasm, in their case, the level of waves remains high all the time. It’s possible that these women don’t need the sort of specific concentration that other women achieve at the moment of orgasm. In their case, the brain is always in a state of relaxation. The significance of this finding isn’t clear yet, but the difference compared to other women is clear.”
To examine the level of physical arousal of the super-orgasmic women, Rosen and her production team approached Dr. Gerulf Rieger of the psychology department of the University of Essex. Rieger built an “arousal chamber” to examine the physiological consequences of sexual arousal. The women sit inside this closed space, with a device called a vaginal photoplethysmograph inserted inside them that directs light into the vagina. Based on the amount of light that is refracted, the researcher can determine how much blood is flowing into the area.
The perception is that during arousal, blood vessels in the sexual organs expand.
During the experiment, the women watched porn films, and in order to “balance” their sexual arousal, between those clips, they were shown nature films narrated by David Attenborough. The findings, says Rosen, amazed Rieger: “Already while observing the small sampling of super-orgasmic women he saw that they become stimulated more quickly than ordinary women and that the intensity of their arousal is greater – in other words, much more blood flows to the area. It was twice as fast and twice as intense.
"From speaking to these women, he reached the conclusion that they came in in advance with a more open attitude to the option of sexual arousal, they’re very interested in it and permit themselves [to enjoy it], to the point where they are much quicker to identify what it is that stimulates them.”
The last element examined was the level of oxytocin in the bodies of the super-orgasmic women. Oxytocin, aka the “love hormone,” is secreted during breast-feeding, birth and sexual relations – and also when you meet someone you like.
So that the oxytocin levels wouldn’t be affected by the proximity of women to their partners, they were asked to isolate themselves an hour before the experiment.
Oxytocin levels can be sampled in saliva. A sampling was taken an hour before the experiment, then again after the women isolated themselves, and again after they masturbated and achieved as many orgasms as they wished, in their home environment, which was comfortable for them. A fourth sample was taken about an hour after the orgasm. In addition, during one evening when they didn’t experience anything sexual, they gave another sampling.
“We found that the moment they knew that they were going to experience something sexual, even an hour beforehand, their levels of oxytocin were already high," says Shtarksall. "When you know that you’re going to have sex, you come to it more stimulated and involved. Suddenly sexting and non-physical foreplay sound very logical, because the brain is getting ready for sex and as a result, so is the body. Somehow you’re more involved."
Also, the stronger the orgasm, the more oxytocin was secreted. "It’s not the number of orgasms but the quality of them. It makes no difference if there were 100 boring ones earlier: The one or two powerful ones produce more oxytocin and it remains high longer," he says. "It’s interesting, because oxytocin is related to calm and calm is a very healthy thing. In addition, there’s a chance that you’ll have a stronger relationship with a man who gives you the higher quality orgasms. Mother Nature was thinking about you here!"
Hopefully, with better understanding of the mechanisms of extreme orgasm, non-orgasmic women can be helped, Shtarkshall suggests. “If, for example, we discover that inability to experience an orgasm stems from a shortage of a certain substances, we’ll be able to administer this substance. If we discover that the inability stems from a surplus of a certain substance, we’ll be able to administer something that will block this substance.”
He goes on to mention a phenomenon similar to the extreme multi-orgasm, but far less pleasant: women who suffer from a constant stimulation of the sexual organs. Research on the multi-orgasm should help to solve this problem, too, according to Shtarkshall.
“The American researcher Sandra Leiblum explained the defect and began to study it. When she visited Israel we talked about the idea that there may be a connection between the two phenomena – multi-orgasms and constant stimulation – although the women in one group enjoy themselves while the others suffer immensely. We thought of studying the connection between the two things. Unfortunately, three months later she was hurt in a bicycle accident and died. I don’t have a budget to study these things, because I’m actually retired."
If you ask Prof. Nicole Prause, who also participated in the film, she’ll tell you that the health advantages of sexual arousal have never been researched, says Ayelet Rosen. "Many women will say that it relaxes them, increases their confidence, and they’ll say that they masturbate in order to sleep better – and nobody has studied that. She’s trying to research it, because her vision is that a few years from now, you’ll go to a doctor because you’re suffering from sleeplessness and he’ll recommend masturbation as a cure.”