Swell's Intimacy Glossary

Welcome to Swell’s Intimacy Glossary! At heart, Swell is about education: demystifying sex, wellness, and relationships in a frank, compassionate, nuanced way. A glossary is education in its purest form. This is a living, breathing resource that we’ll constantly be updating.

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The Basics

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Anal Sex

The insertion of an erect penis into a parter’s anus. Folks of all genders and sexualities participate in anal sex, and there are many kinds of anal sex that may not include a penis, like pegging (which involves inserting a strap on dildo or similar device into the anus of a penis-haver), or anal penetration with toys by folks with vulvas. See also anal play, which can include external stimulation, butt plugs, and fingers. 

Anus

Consisting of two sphincters that open and close to expel waste, the anus also contains a dense supply of nerve endings that may feel pleasurable for folks of all genders. 

Breasts

While the reproductive function of breasts is to provide milk for offspring, breasts can also be integral to sexual pleasure. They consist of fat, ligaments, mammary glands, and milk ducts internally and the nipple and areola externally. Nipples, the protruding tissue on the breasts found in the center of the areola, has a high concentration of nerve endings and can be pleasurable if stimulated for folks across the gender spectrum. Stimulating the breasts can produce a lot of pleasure, and lead to the production of oxytocin, the hormone associated with feelings of love and attachment.

Related: How To Have A Breast Orgasm

Clitoris

The clitoris is considered the epicenter for sexual arousal for folks with vulvas. Since it contains a high concentration of nerve endings, it is exquisitely sensitive to stimulation and pleasure. Located within the vulva, the clitoris is formed from the same embryonic tissue as the penis and consists of the glans clitoris, the clitoral hood, the crura, including the corpora cavernosa. It differs from the penis in one remarkable way: the clitoris’s sole function is sexual arousal and pleasure. 

Erogenous Zone

Any area of the body that has a heightened sensitivity to physical touch, and particularly those that arouse a sexual response. Genitals, nipples, and the neck are common erogenous zones, but any part of the body can be an erogenous zone depending on an individual’s preferences or social context. 

RelatedA Map of 12 Erogenous Zones

Foreplay

Traditionally the word “foreplay” was used to refer to anything that wasn’t intercourse—oral sex, mutual masturbation, hand sex, deep kissing, naked cuddling, etc. But as our definition of sex expands and queer sex is more readily understood, the definition of “foreplay” is up for interpretation. A contemporary definition may be an erotic act—physical, visual, verbal, or digital—that heightens anticipation and arousal and serves as a “preview” of more intense, all-encompassing, orgasm-focused sexual acts.

kissing guide

Related: A Modern Guide to Foreplay

G-Spot

Sometimes referred to as the “female prostate,” the sometimes elusive g-spot is a sexually sensitive area inside the vagina located on the front wall of the vagina between the pubic bone and the cervix. There are many ways to find the g-spot, both with sex toys, partner(s), or by yourself with just two fingers.

Related: How to Have a G-Spot Orgasm

Hand Sex

The stimulation of the genital area with a parter’s hand. Orgasm may or may not be the ultimate goal of hand sex. The two most commonly known types are digital stimulation of the vulva, also known as “fingering,” and the stroking/massaging of the penis, aka a “hand job.”

Related: A Handy Guide to Mutual Masturbation

Intimacy

A close bond or connection with another person that necessitates openness, vulnerability, honesty, and trust. Intimacy can refer to romantic and/or sexual partners, as well as “platonic” partners like friends and family members. It can entail physical and sexual touch, though not always. 

Masturbation

The act of touching, rubbing, or stimulating oneself in order to produce sexual pleasure and/or an orgasm, using hands, fingers, or other objects such as a vibrator or dildo. While masturbation usually refers to genital stimulation, it can mean any self-administered touch that leads to arousal and sexual satisfaction. Masturbation can be done alone or with one or more partners. In the past, masturbation was highly stigmatized and a source of shame, especially in religious communities, but nowadays many experts agree that it’s great for one’s mental and physical health.

Related: Mindful Masturbation | Tantric Masturbation | Mutual Masturbation

Oral Sex

A way of stimulating the other partner’s genitals with one’s mouth or tongue. Since roughly the 1970s (thank you, The Godfather and Deep Throat), oral sex has become a large part of our culture’s popular sexual repertoire. It does, however, have a long practical history, with representations tracing back to ancient Egypt. The two types of oral-genital sex are cunnilingus and fellatio. 

  • Cunnilingus – the stimulation of the vulva with a parter’s mouth and/or tongue. 
  • Fellatio – the stimulation, sucking, licking etc. of the penis with a partner’s mouth. 

Orgasm: A high and sharp peak of sexual pleasure that releases tension and produces a rush of endorphins and other chemicals.

Orgasm

A high and sharp peak of sexual pleasure that releases tension and produces a rush of endorphins and other chemicals that make the orgasm-haver feel satisfied and relaxed. Orgasms are usually a result of stimulation of the penis or clitoris, although orgasms can come from other other body parts, too. They’re often accompanied by a sped-up heart rate; dilated pupils; contractions, spasms, or pulses in one’s genitals, even if the orgasm doesn’t come from genital stimulation there; involuntary sounds and movements like toe-curling, back arching, legs flexing, hips shaking, or entire body shivering. 

The nature of orgasms vary, particularly among vulva-havers: There are weaker orgasms and stronger orgasms, ones that last longer, and multiple orgasms. Most penis-haver’s orgasms produce ejaculate, and many vagina-havers’ orgasms do, too. Orgasms have been shown to have physical and emotional health benefits.

Related:  A-Spot orgasm | Blended orgasmAnorgasmia | Breast orgasm | G-spot orgasmNo-touch orgasm | P-spot orgasm

Penis

Attached to the perineum, the penis is the reproductive organ through which semen and urine flow. The body of the penis, also known as the shaft, hangs free when in an unaroused state. It consists of erectile tissue and, when aroused, becomes erect. At the end of the shaft is the head of the penis and at its tip, the urethral opening. Both the head of the penis and the frenulum, a triangular area of sensitive skin on the underside, are particularly important in sexual arousal and pleasure. Folks across the gender spectrum have penises.

Perineum

A diamond-shaped area of soft tissue between the vagina or scrotum and the rectum that covers the muscles and ligaments of the pelvic floor. Perineal tears are one of the most common injuries sustained in vaginal childbirth. 

Prostate

A muscular gland that wraps around the urethra just below the bladder of folks who have penises. It produces about a third of the seminal fluid that houses and transports sperm. Because of its proximity to the rectum, anal stimulation of the prostate can be very pleasing for some, but not necessarily all.

Related: The P-Spot Guide That Everyone Needs

Sexting

The sending or receiving of sexually explicit or erotic material via computers or mobile devices, often while participants are masturbating. Also known as “digital sex.” Sexting can consist of images, text, video, audio, etc.

sexting

Related: A Brave, Bold Guide to Sexting

Sexual Arousal

Also known as sexual excitement, sexual arousal refers to the physiological changes that happen when the brain sends the body signals that it’s time for sex. Penis-havers may experience erections, while vulva-havers may experience vaginal lubrication, erect nipples, and an engorged vulva or clitoris. Often involuntary, especially during puberty, sexual arousal isn’t necessarily correlated with a conscious desire to have sex.

Related: What Is Arousal Non-Concordance?

Sexual Attraction

Sexual desire caused by a specific person—“libido with a target,” as writer Angela Chen wrote in her book, Ace. Someone experiencing sexual attraction might want to have sex with the object of their attraction, or simply find them sexually appealing in a more abstract way. Sexual attraction sometimes goes hand-in-hand with romantic attraction, aesthetic appreciation, or emotional connection, but it doesn’t have to.

Sexual Desire

A conscious and motivated interest in sex or sexual activity, triggered either by outside stimuli or private thoughts and fantasies. Also called “libido,” it’s not a fixed entity and can fluctuate depending on all kinds of external and internal factors.

  • Spontaneous desire – a feeling or craving to have sex even with little or no stimuli; a state of being rather than a response. Spontaneous desire often gets stronger when it’s been a long time since a sexual release. 
  • Responsive desire – More common than spontaneous desire, responsive desire is when the desire to have sex is activated by some kind of physical or mental stimulation.

Related: Sex Educators Explain Spontaneous vs. Responsive Desire

Sexual Health

A somewhat narrower term than “sexual wellness,” “sexual health” generally refers to physiological and medical needs, although there can be a psychological element to sexual health, as well. This can include reproductive health and fertility; safer sex, including sexually transmitted disease prevention; and trauma care, including post-sexual assault and childbirth. Access to information and professional care is key to maintaining sexual health.

Sexual Intercourse

Another term for sexual activity involving the insertion of an erect penis or a sex toy into the vagina or anus. While most commonly used to refer to penile-vaginal penetration, sexual intercourse can also describe penetration of the anus or vagina by sex toys such as dildos, vibrators, strap ons, etc. Sometimes referred to as “coitus,” sexual intercourse has varied definitions among different groups of people. Intercourse is used for both pleasure and reproduction. Here are some common positions:

  • Cowgirl: A position of intercourse where one partner penetrates the other from below, facing one another. The person being penetrated is allowed more mobility and control in this position, as they’re typically straddling and grinding on the partner from above.
  • Doggy-style: this position of intercourse involves one partner penetrating another from behind, while the person being penetrated is positioned either on all fours or leaned over a piece of furniture. This position frees up some room for clitoral digital stimulation and may also be more comfortable for partners who are pregnant. 
  • Missionary: a position of intercourse where one partner penetrates the other from above. Typically, missionary involves the partner on bottom spreading their legs to wrap around either their partner’s waist or shoulders.
  • Spooning: spooning sex involves two partners laying on their sides with one partner backed up in a spooning position against the other. The penetrating partner then enters the other from behind either anally or vaginally. This position is also popular among folks who are pregnant or otherwise more comfortable laying on their side, and frees up room for nipple and clitoral stimulation. 
  • Reverse cowgirl: Similar to the cowgirl, but the partner being penetrated from above is facing away from the partner on bottom. This position is popular because, in addition to allowing for lots of clitoral stimulation, it allows the bottom partner to receive sexual pleasure while also having an anal visual stimulation. 

Sexual Pleasure

The physical and/or emotional satisfaction that comes from an erotic experience, whether alone or with another person (or more than one person). Sexual pleasure can mean an orgasm, but can also include any combination of arousal, excitement, euphoria, or relaxation. It can be spurred by anything from touch and physical stimulation to fantasies and dreams.

Sexual Wellness

A holistic term meant to address one’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing when it comes to sexuality. Sexual wellness can refer to factors that both directly and indirectly affect libido, reproductive health, and the ability to conduct healthy, meaningful relationships. Pleasure, not discipline, is at the heart of this concept.

pleasure activism
from Pleasure Is a Form of Resistance

Vagina

With its opening located near the center of the vulva, the vagina is a flexible, muscular structure that extends 3 to 5 inches internally from the vaginal opening. It is the passageway for menstrual flow to pass from the uterus during a menstrual cycle and the birth canal for a human infant. It can be self-lubricating and encompasses the penis and/or other objects during sexual activity. 

Vulva

An area of human external genitalia consisting of the mons pubis, the clitoris, the labia majora, and the labia minora. This area of genitalia is often colloquially referred to as the vagina, but the vagina is technically internal whereas the vulva is the more general external genital region. Folks across the gender spectrum have vulvas.

Sexual Health

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Abortion

The termination of a pregnancy as a result of the deliberate removal of a fetus from the uterus. While miscarriage is considered “spontaneous abortion,” people usually mean the elective type when they use this word. Although abortions have been performed since ancient times with things like herbs or sharp implements, modern abortion is usually done by a doctor and is a very safe procedure. In the last 200 years or so, abortion has become intertwined with the law and religion, and therefore highly politicized. Feminists fought for the right to abortion in the United States, resulting in the 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal. But in the last few decades, conservative movements have eroded abortion access considerably in certain states.

  • Surgical abortion: Can refer to either an aspiration abortion or a dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion, both of which are done at a doctor’s office or clinic. The former can be performed up to around 15 weeks of pregnancy, and the latter is usually for later-term pregnancies. Aspiration abortions are done by inserting a tube in the dilated cervix, which is attached to a suction device that will empty the uterus. A D&C (dilation and curettage) also uses suction, but afterwards a doctor will use a metal loop-shaped tool called a curette to make sure there isn’t any excess tissue lining the uterus. The process is similar for a D&E (dilation and evacuation), but since they’re usually performed in the second trimester, the doctor may use other instruments like forceps.
  • Medical abortion, also known as the abortion pill, is a series of two pills taken a day apart which facilitate the termination of a pregnancy. It can be taken up to 10 weeks in pregnancy. The first pill is called mifepristone, which blocks the production of progesterone, and the second pill is misoprostol, which induces contractions needed to expel the pregnancy. In places where abortion is inaccessible, pregnant people will often self-manage medical abortions by taking a dose of just misoprostol.

Related: A Complete Guide to Your Abortion

Birth

Also known as childbirth or labor, birth is the process by which a fetus passes through the uterus and out of the body, either through a vaginal birth or a Cesarean section. It can happen anytime during a person’s pregnancy, but a fetus usually has to be at least 24 weeks gestated in order to survive with considerable support from a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Historically birth took place in the home, but in the modern United States more than 98% of babies are born in a hospital. 

  • Obstetrician: a doctor specially trained to care for pregnant people and facilitate childbirth.
  • Midwife: a trained professional who helps pregnant people during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and after the birth of their babies. Midwives are best for people with no pregnancy complications and who want very little medical intervention.
  • Doula: A birth doula provides undivided support to a pregnant person while giving birth, as well as pre- and post-partum. A doula will help that person advocate for their needs, navigate the choices that come up during the pregnancy process, and assist with managing pain during labor through breathing, position changes, and much more.

Related: A Guide to Having a Doula-Supported Birth

Breathwork

The conscious control of one’s pace and/or depth of breathing. There are several methods, but all are rooted in ancient healing practices, known to reduce stress and induce states of bliss. Conscious breathing increases the amount of oxygen that the body and brain can access, which stimulates the release of hormones like oxytocin that are linked directly to pleasure, stamina, and whole-body relaxation. Breathwork is often highly connected to arousal and libido for precisely these reasons.

Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Breathwork and Sex

Colposcopy

A procedure done by gynecologists to examine the cervix, vagina and vulva. A doctor may recommend a colposcopy after an abnormal Pap smear to check for signs of cervical cancer. If a doctor spies an unusual area of cells during a colposcopy, they might take a small sample of tissue back to the lab, also called a biopsy.

Conception

The moment when sperm travels from the vagina into the uterus, and fertilizes an egg that has traveled to the fallopian tube during a uterus-haver’s ovulation. A fertilized egg can lead to a pregnancy, but only if it successfully implants in the uterus.

Contraception

Also known as birth control, contraception is the act of deliberately preventing a pregnancy through any combination of medication, physical barriers, or charting techniques. Like abortion, birth control use has been recorded since ancient times; the ancient Egyptians used extended breastfeeding for contraception, while the ancient Greeks used the silphium plant. More than 99% of sexually active American women ages 15 to 44 have used some form of contraception at one point in their lives. 

  • Hormonal: This type of birth control comes in many forms, from the Pill to a shot to an implant in the arm. They all use some combination of estrogen and progestin to stop your ovaries from releasing eggs. Some people experience mild side effects, especially in the first few months, like nausea, sore boobs, or mood swings.
  • Barrier: a way of physically blocking sperm’s path to the uterus. Condoms are the classic choice: They’re worn by penis-havers, are 98% effective at preventing pregnancy and also the best option for preventing STIs. Other barrier methods include the diaphragm, the cervical cap, and internal condoms, all of which are worn by vagina-havers and don’t protect against STIs.
  • Emergency: Also known as the “morning-after pill,” emergency contraception consists of two pills taken up to 72 hours after sex. Plan B (as well as Next Choice One Dose, Take Action, My Way, AfterPill) contains levonorgestrel, which is a progestin hormone that prevents ovulation. It also makes your cervical mucus thicker to block sperm, and it changes the lining of your uterus so it’s harder for implantation to occur. It’s available over the counter. Ella, a prescription brand, uses ulipristal acetate to delay or stop ovulation and also makes it more difficult for a fertilized egg to implant in the uterus.
  • IUD: This 99% effective T-shaped device is inserted into the uterus, preventing sperm from reaching your eggs. Like the implant or injection, you can just insert it and forget about it, often for years. Hormonal IUDs release small amounts of progestin into the body and can make your period lighter. It can last up to five years depending on the type. The non-hormonal copper T IUD alters how sperm cells move so they can’t reach an egg during ovulation. This one can cause heavier periods, especially at the beginning, and can last up to 10 years.
  • Cycle Tracking Apps: New fertility apps track things like your past periods, sleep patterns, heart rate, basal body temperature, and cervical fluid to predict when you’re likely to be ovulating (and therefore fertile). They’re a little controversial as a primary method of birth control, because the apps are only as accurate as the quality of info you give them, and because things like stress and PCOS can make menstrual cycles irregular. If you do try this method, consider reading up on Fertility Awareness Method, which teaches you how to chart effectively. 

Related: Your Complete Guide to Birth Control | What You Need to Know About Emergency Birth Control | What Is the Fertility Awareness Method?

fertility awareness method

Dyspareunia

Simply a fancy word for painful sex. It affects around 10% to 20% of American women. It can be caused by a whole host of things, like vaginismus, endometriosis, hormonal changes, a lack of foreplay, or any type of vaginal infection. Dyspareunia is not something you should have to live with, and is usually treatable with medication, therapy, or topical lubes.

Related: Swell’s Guide to Easing Pain or Discomfort During Sex

Ejaculation

The act of semen shooting out of an aroused, usually erect penis. Most of the time, ejaculation happens during an orgasm, but it’s possible to ejaculate without having an orgasm.

Erection

An erection is when lots of blood flows into a penis, making it bigger and harder than when it is flaccid. It may curve up, down, to the side, or stick straight out at a right angle. Erections can happen at any age, but they start happening a lot during puberty. An adult penis-haver will usually experience an erection if they’re sexually aroused, but sometimes they show up in one’s sleep, first thing in the morning, or at a random time for no reason at all. Erections usually go away shortly after ejaculation.

  • Erectile dysfunction: The inability to get or keep an erection firm enough to have sexual intercourse or achieve an orgasm. There are lots of mental and physical causes for erectile dysfunction, such as stress, age, hypertension, diabetes, depression, anti-depressants—the list is long. Erectile dysfunction can often be treated with drugs such as sildenafil and tadalafil, testosterone therapy, or talk therapy.

Related: You Don’t Need an Erection to Have Good Sex

Intimacy Therapy

Any kind of therapy relating to one’s emotional and physical wellbeing when it comes to sex, sexual health, and romantic relationships.

  • Sex therapy: A form of psychotherapy or mental health therapy that focuses on sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. Can address a variety of issues including mismatch of needs with your partner, low desire issues, trauma recovery, and anorgasmia.
  • Relationship or couples therapy: Usually focuses on the dynamics within a specific relationship. It may be with a couple, with the family, or even with an individual. There’s a focus on communication and understanding yourself in relation to others.
  • Hands-On Intimacy Coaching: This focuses on the physical aspects of sex. This will most likely be with a sex coach, a surrogate partner, a sexual embodiment worker, or tantra worker.
  • Somatic Sex Therapy: A form of psychotherapy that focuses on the bodily symptoms in relation to the mind. Integrating both talking and touching, it’s a more holistic form of psychotherapy and is gaining more popularity in the mental health community. It can be done alone or with a partner.
  • Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy: a rehabilitation service to help patients manage conditions related to the pelvic floor, like painful sex or incontinence, through treatment sessions, exercises, and education.

Related: All the Different Kinds of Sex and Relationship Therapy | What Is Somatic Sex Education?

Mindfulness

A state of being fully present and aware of one’s body and place in the world, and of not reacting to external stimuli. The concept of mindfulness can be invaluable during sex or masturbation, in order to achieve a heightened, more embodied sense of pleasure.

Related: What Is Mindful Masturbation? | A Somatic Sex Therapist on How to Stay Present During Sex

two people touching and staying present during sex

Menopause

The period of a uterus-haver’s life when they are no longer ovulating or having periods. Many people say “menopause” or “going through menopause” when they actually mean “perimenopause”—the transition from being fertile to no longer being fertile. This is the period of time where your period gets irregular and you might experience mood swings, hot flashes, and other side effects of estrogen and testosterone dropping as your body gets ready for a new phase of life. Menopause also comes with other physical changes that can alter people’s sexual function, with symptoms like vaginal dryness, pain with intercourse, or lowered libido.

Related: Let’s Talk About Sex After Menopause

Menstrual Cramps

Menstrual cramps are abdominal cramps and pelvic pain that occur during menstruation, or your period. Causes can include normal uterine contractions to expel its tissue, heavy bleeding, digestive upset, and pelvic and gynecological health issues such as uterine fibroids and endometriosis. 

Related: Alternative Period Pain Solutions 

Pelvic Exam

A quick, few-minute process during which a doctor checks out your reproductive organs. The doctor will check the vulva, vagina, cervix, ovaries, uterus, rectum and pelvis for any abnormalities. A Pap test is often performed during a pelvic exam. The current recommendation is to get a pelvic exam once every three years, although yearly checkups could be useful for some people wanting to closely monitor their sexual health.

  • Pap Test: a type of cervical cancer screening, usually done during a pelvic exam. The screening is meant to spot abnormal cells on the cervix that may eventually lead to cervical cancer. The test is conducted by swabbing or brushing the surface of the cervix to collect cells, which are sent to a lab for testing.

Related: What We Miss By Not Having Annual Pelvic Exams

Pelvic Floor

A vital part of your “core,” pelvic floor muscles are an important group of muscles located in the underside of the pelvic area, extending from the top of the pubic bone (above the clitoris or penis) to the anus. The pelvic floor connects to and supports the spine, abdominals, diaphragm, and deep back muscles. Helping support bladder and bowel control aren’t the pelvic floor’s only job—it also plays an important role in sexual sensation and function for people with all types of sex organs! 

Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Exercising Your Pelvic Floor

Irregular periods may be caused by a hormonal imbalance, uterine fibroids, and stress, among other reasons. 

 

Pelvic Ultrasounds

Types of ultrasound imaging that help your healthcare provider see the organs and structures in the area between your hip bones. This includes the bladder, reproductive organs, rectum, and the bottom of the spine and tailbone. There are three main types of pelvic ultrasound: transvaginal, transabdominal, and transrectal. The type you will have depends on which organ your provider needs to see and the reason, which could include things like pregnancy, abdominal pain, or IVF.

Period

Also known as “menstruation,” the period is the last of four phases of the ovarian cycle in which the lining of the uterus is shed in the form of blood and/or blood clots that pass through the cervix and vagina. 

  • Irregular period: The average ovarian cycle lasts approximately 28 days, with anything between 22 and 32 days being considered “normal.” Since the period of menstruation marks the end of the ovarian cycle, periods that consistently occur outside of this window are considered irregular. While not always a cause for concern, irregular periods may be caused by a hormonal imbalance, uterine fibroids, and stress, among other reasons. 

Related: A Complete Guide to Period Sex | Reasons Why You Missed Your Period

Premenstrual Syndrome

Commonly referred to as PMS, premenstrual syndrome is a group of physical and psychological symptoms that may occur 7 to 14 days before a menstrual period and can last until the period finally comes. These can be all over the place, anything from depression and angry outbursts to irritability, poor concentration, insomnia, and anxiety. Physical changes can include thirst and appetite changes, breast tenderness, bloating, headache, fatigue, and changes to libido.

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder

Far less common than PMS is premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). What makes PMDD distinct from PMS is that PMDD is more severe, with more intense symptoms, and is persistent, occurring during most menstrual cycles and over a period of a year. PMDD can interfere with a person’s daily life function and relationships. 

Related: What Is PMDD?

pH Balance

The vagina has a carefully regulated ecosystem that consists of a pH balance. A normal vaginal pH level is between 3.8 and 4.5, which is moderately acidic. But what constitutes a “normal” pH level can vary slightly based on your stage of life. An acidic vaginal environment is protective. It creates a barrier that prevents unhealthy bacteria and yeast from multiplying too quickly and causing infection.

Related: A Guide to Your Vagina’s pH Balance

Pleasure Chemicals

A cocktail of chemicals and hormones that show up in the human body during arousal, sexual activity, masturbation, orgasm, and post-orgasm.

pleasure chemicals

  • Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” is released by the pituitary gland when we’re physically affectionate with another person. It plays a major role in person-to-person bonding and possibly during orgasm. It also promotes milk let-down in nursing parents and stimulates uterine contractions during childbirth. 
  • Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness and impacts your entire body. Serotonin helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion. If the brain doesn’t have enough serotonin, it may lead to depression. 
  • Adrenaline: Evolutionarily necessary and essential for survival, adrenaline triggers our fight-or-flight response and can show up during sexual activity, especially BDSM. Overexposure to adrenaline, however, can be damaging both physically and emotionally. 
  • Prolactin is released when a newborn baby suckles at their parents’ chest/breast, causing the production of milk. We’re starting to understand that prolactin also has a whole host of other functions, like regulating behavior, the immune system, metabolism, reproductive systems, and many different bodily fluids.
  • Dopamine: Dopamine is another type of neurotransmitter. Dopamine plays a key role in how we feel pleasure. It’s a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting! 
  • Norepinephrine: Together with adrenaline, norepinephrine increases heart rate and blood pumping from the heart. It also increases blood pressure and helps break down fat and increase blood sugar levels to provide more energy to the body. In the brain, norepinephrine plays a role in the sleep-wake cycle, helping you to wake up, in increasing attention and focusing on performing a task, and in memory storage. It is also important for emotions.

Related: A Guide to Your Body’s Pleasure Chemicals

Pregnancy

The state of carrying a developing embryo or fetus within the uterus. This condition can be indicated by positive results on an over-the-counter urine test, and confirmed through a blood test, ultrasound, detection of fetal heartbeat, or an X-ray.

Related: Let’s Normalize Sex During Pregnancy

Reproductive Hormones

  • Estrogen: Promotes maturation of reproductive organs, development of secondary sex characteristics, and growth spurt at puberty; regulates menstrual cycle; sustains pregnancy; maintains libido. Sometimes referred to as the “female hormone,” estrogen is actually present in varying levels in people of all genders. 
  • Testosterone is the dominant sex hormone found in penis-havers. The testes (testicles) make testosterone. Vulva-owners have testosterone, too, but typically in much smaller amounts. It contributes to hair production, muscular production, sex drive, and bone density. 
  • Progesterone prepares the endometrium for the potential of pregnancy after ovulation. It triggers the lining to thicken to accept a fertilized egg. It also prohibits the muscle contractions in the uterus that would cause the body to reject an egg. While the body is producing high levels of progesterone, the body will not ovulate. Progestin, a synthetic form of progesterone, can also be used to treat menopause symptoms such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Progestin can also be prescribed to treat amenorrhea, endometriosis, and irregular periods.

Reproductive Conditions

Conditions that affect the functioning of the reproductive organs; we outline a few that affect vulva-havers below: 

  • Endometriosis is a disorder in which the endometrium (lining of the uterus) grows outside the uterus. It is one of the most common gynecological disorders. Sufferers of endo report pain, spotting or bleeding, and infertility. Most lesions or patches of endometriosis occur in the pelvic cavity, either on or under the ovaries, on the fallopian tubes, behind the uterus, or on the bowels or bladder. Though there is no cure for endometriosis, there are ways to minimize the symptoms caused by the condition, including hormonal birth or surgery. For some, the painful symptoms of endometriosis improve after menopause.
    Related: The Painful Truth About Sex and Endometriosis
  • Fibroids: Uterine fibroids are growths that develop on the wall of your uterus. They’re also called leiomyomas or myomas. They can be smaller than a pea or bigger than a grapefruit, and you can have many fibroids or just one. Uterine fibroids can grow slowly over many years, or they can grow quickly. Uterine fibroids are almost never cancerous, and they don’t increase your risk for getting other types of cancer. But they can cause pelvic pain, heavy period bleeding, bleeding between periods, back pain, and in some cases, infertility or miscarriages. However, many people with fibroids don’t have any symptoms at all.
  • PCOS stands for polycystic ovary syndrome. The exact cause of PCOS is unknown. What is known is that PCOS has to do with hormone imbalances. With PCOS, your body may have high amounts of two hormones: androgen and insulin. These hormonal issues can cause changes in your body’s ability to release an egg (ovulate) and can lead to irregular periods, ovarian cysts, trouble getting pregnant, and other symptoms.
    Related: What Is PCOS?

Sexual Dysfunction

Any persistent, recurrent difficulty with sexual response, desire, orgasm, or pain. There are many physical and psychological causes of sexual dysfunction, including depression, PTSD, substance/tobacco use, physical and sexual trauma, heart conditions—you name it. Sexual dysfunction can often be treated with therapy, medication, wellness strategies, or a combination of these.

Sexual Response Cycle

A pattern of physiologic events occurring during sexual arousal and intercourse. In 1966, when sex studies were in their infancy, researchers William H. Masters and Virginia Johnson pioneered research in human sexuality and the sexual response cycle. In folks all along the gender spectrum, these events may be identified as occurring in a sequence of four stages: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. The basic pattern of these stages is similar in all sexes, regardless of the specific sexual stimulus.

Sexual Trauma

Any event or events that have interfered in a healthy, autonomous, and consensual regulation of one’s sexuality and expression. This can include sexual assault, physical trauma caused by surgery or childbirth, or larger traumatic or repressive attitudes toward sexuality that can lead to a trauma response. Healing is possible and can take the forms of psychotherapy, meditation, medication, pelvic floor physical therapy, and sex-positive sex education. 

Related: How to Reclaim Your Sexuality After Trauma

sex after trauma

Sexually Transmitted Infections

Also known as STIs. Refers to more than 25 infectious organisms passed from person to person primarily through sexual contact. STIs were once called venereal diseases (VDs), a term derived from Venus, the Roman goddess of love. More recently, the term sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) replaced venereal diseases. Actually, many health professionals continue to use STD. However, some believe that STI is a more accurate and less judgmental term. 

There are two general types of STIs: those that are bacterial and curable (such as chlamydia and gonorrhea), and those that are viral and incurable—but treatable (such as HIV infection and genital herpes). Happily, there is no known STI that isn’t treatable. Here are a few common STIs:

  • Chlamydia: The most common bacterial STI and most commonly reported infectious disease in the United States. It’s caused by an organism called Chlamydia trachomatis. Chlamydia can be transmitted during unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex from someone who has chlamydia and from an infected pregnant person to their baby during vaginal childbirth. Chlamydia is known as the “silent disease,” as it is often asymptomatic. When early symptoms do occur in vulva-havers, they are likely to include unusual vaginal discharge, a burning sensation when urinating, frequent urination, and unexplained vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods. Penis havers’ symptoms may include unusual discharge from the penis, a burning sensation when urinating, itching and burning around the urethral opening (urethritis), pain and swelling of the testicles, and a low-grade fever.
  • Gonorrhea: The second most commonly reported notifiable disease in the United States. Popularly referred to as “the clap” or “the drip,” gonorrhea is caused by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium. The organism thrives in the warm, moist environment provided by the mucous membranes lining the mouth, throat, vagina, cervix, urethra, and rectum. Gonorrhea is transmitted through sexual contact with the penis, mouth, or anus of an infected person. Ejaculation does not have to occur for gonorrhea to be transmitted or acquired. 
  • HPV: Genital human papillomavirus infection, or genital HPV, is a group of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains; over 40 are sexually transmitted and can infect the genitals, rectum, mouth, and throat. About 79 million people in the United States are infected with HPV as of 2018, with 14 million new infections reported each year, accounting for one third of all new STIs. According to the CDC, 43% of all Americans, aged 18 to 59, have some strain of HPV. You can get HPV by having oral, vaginal, or anal sex with someone who has the virus. It is most commonly spread during vaginal or anal sex. Sometimes, certain types of HPV can cause genital warts. Other HPV types can cause cervical cancer and less common cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus, and penis. 
  • Herpes: A common sexually transmitted infection marked by genital pain and sores. Caused by the herpes simplex virus, the disease can affect folks of all genders. It spreads by having unprotected vaginal, anal, oral, or hand sex and also by parent to baby by pregnancy, labor, or nursing. Symptoms include pain, itching, and small sores that appear first. They form ulcers and scabs. After initial infection, genital herpes lies dormant in the body. Symptoms can recur for years.
  • HIV: HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that causes AIDS. It damages your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick. HIV is spread during sex, but condoms can help protect you. It’s a virus that breaks down certain cells in your immune system (your body’s defense against diseases that helps you stay healthy). When HIV damages your immune system, it’s easier to get really sick and even die from infections that your body could normally fight off. Treatment and testing is really important. Without treatment, HIV can lead to AIDS. But with medicine, people with HIV can live long, healthy lives and stop the spread of HIV to others.

Related: How to Talk About STIs With Your Partner

Urinary Tract Infection

A bladder infection that affects mainly vulva-havers, cystitis, or a UTI, is often linked to sexual activity, although it is not transmitted from one partner to another. It’s characterized by painful, burning urination, a nearly constant need to urinate, and sometimes fever and lower back pain. It often occurs at the beginning of a sexual relationship, when sexual activity is high (hence the nickname “honeymoon cystitis”). Peeing after sexual activity can help prevent UTIs in vulva-havers. 

Related: Burning Questions About Urinary Tract Infections

Vaginal Discharge

Any fluid produced by the body and expelled through the vagina. Most vaginal discharge is a normal and healthy part of the ovarian cycle, but some, especially if it causes foul odor or discomfort, can be cause for concern. 

Vaginal Infection

Any bacterial and/or fungal infections that occur in the vagina and can affect the vulva as well. 

  • Bacterial Vaginal Infections, referred to as bacterial vaginosis (BV), is the most common vaginal infection in vulva-havers aged 15 to 44. Any person with a vagina can get BV, although some activities can upset the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina and put folks at risk, including a new sexual partner or numerous partners and douching. Even though bacterial vaginosis sometimes clears up without treatment, all people with symptoms of BV should be treated with antibiotics, so that the bacteria that cause BV do not infect the uterus and fallopian tubes. BV may return even after treatment. 

Vaginismus

A sexual function difficulty characterized by involuntary muscle spasms around the vaginal entrance, preventing the insertion of a penis, tampon, or sex toy. It’s considered uncommon and the cause isn’t exactly known, but there are often links to physical, sexual, and emotional trauma involving the genital or pelvic area. Folks with vaginismus often find that it interferes with their sex lives, but it can be treated with vaginal dilators, sex therapy, and/or pelvic floor physical therapy. 

Vulvodynia

Chronic pain or discomfort of or around the vulva (opening of the vagina) for which there is no definable cause and which lasts at least three months. The pain or burning can be so intense that sitting for long periods or sexual penetration is impossible. We don’t quite know why people get vulvodynia, but  it tends to be diagnosed when other causes of vulvar pain, such as infections or skin diseases, are ruled out. It can be caused by injury or irritation of nerves in the pelvic region, pelvic floor muscle weakness or spasm, and sometimes elevated levels of inflammatory substances in the vulvar tissue. Unfortunately, because many folks with the condition struggle to seek help or find answers, they may find it difficult to maintain the sex life they desire. Thankfully, though, a variety of treatment options are available, including topical medications; drug treatments, including pain relievers, antidepressants, or anticonvulsants; physical therapy to strengthen pelvic floor muscles; and surgery to remove the affected skin and tissue in localized vulvodynia.

Related: Unexplained Pain During Sex? It Might Be Vulvodynia

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