Nature designed the mechanism of erection for procreation. The reflex of ejaculation follows erection.
However, ejaculation is not to be confused with male orgasm, even though the two usually, but not always, go together.
What’s the difference?
Orgasm refers to the intense feeling of pleasure and release felt at the climax of sexual excitement, and is mainly neurological in nature. It is an electrochemical event centered in areas of the brain that govern pleasure.
In our laboratories, we can trigger an orgasm in animals by stimulating the brain in the right way—no other bodily contact required.
Most of the time, men have orgasms when they ejaculate. This is referred to colloquially as “coming.” However, most men at some point have had the disconcerting experience of ejaculating without the pleasurable sensation of orgasm. This may have happened when, as adolescents, they were so overwhelmed by excitement and anxiety that they “came” in their pants.
Conversely, some men have experienced the reverse: orgasm without ejaculation. Some esoteric Oriental sex practices can accomplish this. Many of my elderly patients have also experienced it, to their considerable chagrin. Orgasm without ejaculation is not uncommon in the elderly age group.
Ejaculation And Sperm: An Anatomy Lesson
Ejaculation is discharge of semen through the penis. This discharge occurs through a reflex action involving a number of body parts.
Let’s begin with an explanation of the production of the semen, or ejaculate. The sticky, milky-white ejaculate fluid is not produced exclusively in the testicles. It is the contribution of three different organs: the testicles, the seminal vesicles, and the prostate.
The testicles provide the smallest, but most important fluid—sperm. In a normal man, anywhere from 80 to 600 million sperm cells accompany each ejaculation in search of a fertile egg to impregnate. However, those millions of sperm cells constitute only a miniscule percentage of the total volume of ejaculate.
On its journey to ejaculation, sperm travels from each testicle through a pair of tubes called the vas deferens. The sperm is then stored in the seminal vesicles. These vesicles are two pouches that stick out like pennant flags in a stiff wind, behind the prostate. They are located near the point where the urethra emerges from the bladder.
In the seminal vesicles, the sperm is mixed with the rest of the seminal fluid, which is a medium to transport the sperm. Some of the fluid is manufactured in the seminal vesicles themselves. The remaining portion is produced in the prostate gland. This gland is an oval-shaped organ about the size of a plum, located at the neck of the bladder and surrounding the urethra.
Only men have prostates. The prostate not only contributes to the content of the semen, but also facilitates the process of ejaculation itself. It helps shut off the flow of urine from the bladder, so that semen alone enters the penis.
The complex products of the testicles, prostate, and seminal vesicles form the final composition of the fluid that is ejaculated at the climax of the sex act.
There is, however, another secretion that is actually the first to emerge. That honor belongs to a clear, sticky fluid manufactured in the bulbourethral glands. These glands are called Cowper’s glands (named after the seventeenth century English surgeon, William Cowper). The Cowper’s glands are about the size of peas and are located just under the prostate.
Small drops of the Cowper’s fluid typically appear at the tip of the penis during the arousal stage.
Some men confuse this with ejaculate, causing them to panic. They believe that they are ejaculating too quickly. Other men know better, but do not make the mistake of assuming that the fluid contains no sperm cells. This fluid might contain some sperm cells, and only one sperm cell is needed to fertilize an egg. The purpose of the fluid from the Cowper’s gland is to help lubricate the vagina. As you can see, this masterfully designed system does not miss a trick.
The Point of No Return: Ejaculation and Orgasm
With sufficient stimulation to an erect penis, the reflex action of ejaculation is eventually triggered. The amount of time it takes for this to occur depends on the individual and on the circumstances.
The sensation of pleasure involved also may vary with different encounters. A man might experience fireworks and ejaculate very quickly, or he might require an extended period of stimulation in order to achieve climax.
The differences in the intensity and pleasure of orgasm are mediated in the brain. These differences entail psychological and emotional factors such as love, romance, fantasy, physical chemistry, and the level of physical and emotional passion that precedes the orgasm.
What takes place physically during ejaculation is always the same. This is true with minor variations—whether a man is masturbating in a closet or making love under a tropical waterfall with the partner of his dreams. When a certain level of excitement is reached, a complex chain of nerve impulses signals the muscles in the pelvic floor to contract. These muscles are located in the perineum, the area between the back of the scrotum and the bottom of the rectum (often referred to as the “’tain’t,” as in “’tain’t in the front and ’tain’t in the back”). These contractions close the neck of the bladder and open the ejaculatory ducts. Sperm and seminal fluid can then enter the urethra, where the components are combined.
These pelvic contractions are accompanied by muscle contractions in other parts of the body (such as the lower back and abdomen). They are accompanied by an increase in the heart and respiratory rates, making ejaculation a whole body phenomenon.
It is at this point, when the contractions of the perineal muscles forcefully start to move the semen on its route through the penis, that men feel the sensations that tell them they are about to ejaculate. From this point on, ejaculation is inevitable. It is a pure reflex that cannot be stopped. Any effort to delay ejaculation has to be made prior to this point of no return.
The ejaculate is powerfully propelled from the back of the urethra through the penis and out the tip. It squirts out in several jelly-like clumps, which quickly liquefy into an opaque fluid allowing the sperm to swim to the ovary.
Exactly how much is ejaculated varies with factors such as age. There is less semen produced the older you get. Ejaculation is also influenced by the length of time since the previous ejaculation; the longer it has been since the last ejaculation, the greater the amount of semen.
Statistically, the amount of seminal fluid per ejaculate ranges from one-and-a-half to five cubic centimeters and averages about three ccs, which is about a teaspoon. The volume ejaculated decreases with age because the body simply produces less. The forcefulness of ejaculation also decreases with age due to a natural decline in muscular strength and changes in the vascular system. A young man might project five ccs of ejaculate halfway across the room, while an older man might just dribble a few drops. The mechanism is exactly the same.
It’s Not About Volume
It is important to understand that there is no real correlation between the volume of ejaculate and the amount of pleasure that is experienced. Some men actually allow themselves to feel disappointed if they do not produce barrels of the stuff. They mistakenly link their masculinity to the volume of semen they produce.
Some men complain to me that their sex lives are lousy because they do not ejaculate as much as they used to. When I tell them that everyone produces less semen as they age and that it has nothing to do with their level of sexual pleasure, one of two things happen: they either start enjoying sex again because they are relieved of this self-imposed psychological burden, or they are forced to focus on the real problem, which can be anything from a conflict with their partner to a correctable medical condition.
I must emphasize this important point: any difference in the satisfaction of one ejaculation as compared to another is centered overwhelmingly between your ears, not between your legs or in your perineum.
A particular orgasm might feel especially satisfying because of the intensity of the emotions involved, or the partner’s sexual skills, or the circumstances surrounding the experience. It is not because of the volume of seminal fluid.
If an orgasm that is accompanied by a large amount of semen does feel unusually intense, it is for a good reason. The most likely reason is that the man has gone a long time between ejaculations. The more extended this time gap is, the more fluid builds up in the seminal vesicles. The overdistension of these storage pouches creates the heightened sexual “tension” that is released in an “explosive” orgasm. When you finally ejaculate, you relieve that built-up volume.
That is why it feels so good.
The Refractory Period (A.K.A., “I Want to Be Alone Now.”)
As soon as ejaculation is completed, the process is reversed. Heartbeat, blood pressure, and respiratory rate gradually slow down to resting levels. You feel sated and relaxed, and perhaps sleepy.
The scrotum, which reflexively contracts during sexual arousal, and the testes, which rise up within the scrotal sac, relax into their usual positions. The penis, as the blood drains out, reverts to its flaccid state. It is as if the penis, having worked so hard, wants to retreat into solitude and not be seen.
The head of the penis becomes extremely sensitive. It does not want to be touched. It does not want to be sucked. It might even burn or hurt if it makes contact with anything. It is as if, after ejaculation, the penis dons a neon sign that reads “Leave me alone!”
This is a time of rest, when the male body restores its energy before it can once again become aroused. This is called the refractory period. No amount of stimulation will produce an erection or ejaculation.
Exactly how long it takes for your sexual function to be restored varies considerably from one man to another. Any man will notice distinct variations in his refractory period depending on his partner, the circumstances of the sexual encounter, and other physical factors such as fatigue and general health.
The two main variables that determine the length of the refractory period are age and the length of time since the previous ejaculation. Generally speaking, men need more time to rest the older they are. This means a longer refractory period.
The same man who, at nineteen, was ready to go five minutes after ejaculating might need an hour at age forty or a full day at age sixty.
Conversely, a man who has gone without sex for a long period of time will be restored much more quickly than if he has just ejaculated for the tenth time in two days.
The refractory period is nature’s way of making sure men do not waste their energy when they have no semen to contribute. It is during this rest phase that the seminal vesicles are refilled.
These vesicles act like a reservoir with a feedback system. When they are empty, or the volume of seminal fluid is low, the body starts producing more. During that period of time, a man will feel little, if any, desire and will not respond to any efforts to arouse him.
As the supply of semen is replenished, the seminal vesicles become distended. When they are filled up with fluid again, seminal production is curtailed. The refractory period is over.
The distended seminal vesicles trigger a neurological signal that produces a sense of pressure in the perineum. That is what produces the common feeling of being “frisky.” Now that the refractory period is over and the gates are open, the penis perks up, raises his head, and starts calling attention to himself once again.
Dudley S. Danoff, MD, FACS is the attending urologic surgeon and founder/president of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Tower Urology Group in Los Angeles, California. He is the author of Penis Power: The Ultimate Guide To Male Sexual Health (Del Monaco Press, 2011) and Superpotency (Warner Books).
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