Orgasm as Little Death/Le Petit Mort – How We Speak of Orgasms Matters 

One of the most common concerns faced by people who seek the expertise of a sex coach relates to the experience of orgasm. For many, it’s the crème de la crème of sex, it’s what attracts them to have it in the first place. The societal pressure to experience orgasms is constantly present, and our clients may feel that they’re not enough in bed if they don’t climax, or are unable to attend to the needs of their partner(s). At Sex Coach U, we learn tools that we can use to help this type of client, but how often do you consider the language people use to describe orgasms?

This article will take a look at a popular metaphor for orgasm called “the little death” or le petit mort in French. You will learn the possible explanations for this term and how the meanings behind this metaphor are still valid today. Hopefully, by the end of reading this essay, you’ll pay more attention to the language your clients use when they speak of their orgasms and orgasms of their lovers, and how this may influence their sex lives. 

Le Petit Mort – Meaning and Presence throughout Ages

Le petit mort is a French term for “a brief loss or weakening of consciousness,” or, in relation to sex, “the sensation post-orgasm as likened to death,” as described in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The hosts of “Dig: the History Podcast” describe how the term “the little death” has been common in print in the English language since the 16th century. However, this metaphor for orgasm was in use even earlier, for example, in the plays by William Shakespeare. The famous playwright used the concept of the little death in order to entertain the crowd. 

Interestingly, it is not certain that le petit mort derives from French, as the authors of the podcast claim that this particular phrase was not introduced in the French dictionary before the 19th century, even though it was commonly used in the 17th century. It is possible that the English came up with the term but chose to translate it into French in order to sound “fancier” and to veil what they were really talking about—orgasms.

Many explanations exist for the origins of this term, because the concept of sex draining one’s energy is older than this euphemism. One of them is deeply rooted in the belief that having an orgasm removes the life force from the person. This view was common in the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe and relates to a theory by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who stated that the human body consists of four fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The balance of these substances in the body was crucial for health, and any deviation from the norm was a bad sign. No wonder that when a person ejaculated seminal fluid, they believed that their energy had been weakened. 

Another famous Greek physician and philosopher, Aristotle, believed that a woman who had an orgasm was incapable of conceiving. The theme of consumed life energy during sex was present in the medieval times, as well. The concept was also visible in Romanticism with the theme of death from pleasure being represented in paintings as the sea crashing into rocks. 

While, I couldn’t find any information regarding the perception of vaginal fluids and ejaculate in relation to the little death, Deborah Sundahl, a sex educator famous for her in-depth research on and teachings about female ejaculation (and a guest presenter for SCU webinars), says that energy is released in the act of squirting, which may leave a person in a vulnerable and emotional place. 

It is also worth noticing that as we orgasm, not only do we release the fluids from our body but also the tension from our muscles, which is partially responsible for the feeling of relaxation afterwards. 

While science has since evolved past these historical theories, the concept of the little death is still present in the arts, in our minds, and in sexual practice. The Australian Ballet has presented a play titled “La Petite Mort,” and the Neighbourhood, a popular band, released a song called “A Little Death.” As one of the commenters under their music video attentively noticed, the clip depicting two women having sex and bathing together, contains a metaphor for orgasm as one of the women drowns the other in pleasure. 

Dr. Averill Earls from the Dig podcast also recalled that she has “heard male student athletes say that their coaches told them not to have sex before a game because it would ‘sap their strength.’” 

Many people look for the feeling of liberation or even a trance that sex can give them. Tantric practices bind together sex and spirituality, with one of the goals of sex being the achievement of spiritual/energetic contact via the activation of sexual energy. Even though orgasm may not be the most important aspect of Tantric experience, what ties it with the concept of the little death is the feeling of transcendence.

What Research Has To Say about the Little Death

waves crashing onto a cliff representing orgasm as little death

Photo by Polina Kovaleva from Pexels

So, what does contemporary science have to say about “losing consciousness“ during the sexual peak? According to research, an orgasm can be defined as “a variable, transient peak sensation of intense pleasure, creating an altered state of consciousness.” (Cindy M. Meston, et al., ‘Women’s Orgasm’, Annual Review of Sex Research 15 (2004): 173) A partial explanation can be that this state is caused by the rush of hormones, especially oxytocin that is released in the brain at that time. Researchers have also found that the altered state of consciousness may happen during orgasm as the person may experience a lack of physical and conscious control over the body. However, these altered states can also happen independently of orgasm. 

In his article on sexual trance, Adam Safron pays attention to the fact that orgasm usually happens via rhythmic sexual stimulation. Whether it is the movement of the body or the rhythm of spanking or flogging, it can induce a trance state in the brain responsible for the otherworldly feelings during and post orgasmic experience. In short, the little death metaphor depicts both the physiological and psychological aspects of orgasm.

People around the world use a variety of metaphors to describe their sexual experiences. Anita Yen Chiang and Wen-yu Chiang studied how people speak of orgasm in 27 different languages. This research from 2016 found that other metaphors for orgasm included orgasm as a peak, as a fire, and as a destination.

Among the languages from the study, 24% of them portrayed the concept of orgasm as a peak/high point of sex. As explained by the model of sexual response by Masters and Johnson that we learn at Sex Coach U, the excitement and plateau phases could be perceived as a build-up before the big finale. It’s during these two stages that our circulation, heart rate, and perspiration increase, and the muscles tense up. Only after reaching orgasm does the body start to relax. The orgasm as a peak concept is also reflected in other languages that name this experience—as “the climax” in English and Indonesian, “high” in Burmese, and “sexual peak” in Korean. In Chinese, the term “high tide” is used, which, as the authors of the study claim, may be related to the rush of hormones during sex and the release of bodily fluids. 

The metaphor of orgasm as fire is present in other languages. In Finnish, when a person is close to experiencing an orgasm, they say that they’re “now (the) fire.” This metaphor pays attention to the uncontrollable nature of orgasm and the heat that a person may feel at the peak of pleasure.

In 57% of the languages they studied, the term “I’m coming/going” was used by participants to announce their orgasm. Many people may be familiar with the phrase “I’m coming,” which we can possibly attribute to its popularity in mainstream porn. This metaphor relates orgasm to a destination; for many people, the most awaited moment of the sexual journey is the climax. Interestingly enough, in Japanese, this term suggests that the person will die, and ascend to heaven, similarly to the concept of orgasm as death.

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As you can see, the little death is only one of many meanings that people may assign to their orgasmic experiences. As a sex coach, you may want to reflect on how people speak of it in your language, and how it can influence their perception of orgasm.

In your practice, you may meet a client who believes that climax is as uncontrollable as fire and is looking for ways to ignite the spark with their partner(s). There will also be individuals crossing your path who seek transcendence in sex, which is related to the concept of orgasm as little death, and who may be interested in exploring the world of Tantra or who want to learn new ways to experience stronger orgasms. Others may feel the pressure to experience an orgasm, or multiple orgasms, every time they engage in sexual activity. The orgasm as a destination concept may be the one that they relate to the most. For this kind of client, reframing sex as an activity during which a person focuses on the pleasurable sensations in their body may be helpful.

The words we choose to use are important. They have the power to influence how we think about whatever it is we’re referencing. Our words reveal our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values. Evaluating the words our clients use for their body parts and various aspects of sexuality—including orgasm—can give us valuable insight and help us create the roadmap for our client’s sexual healing journey. 

In the case of orgasms, our clients’ word choice can indicate if they’ve put climaxing on a pedestal, which may mean they’ve put a lot of pressure on themselves to experience orgasm, to give their partners orgasms, or to orgasm in a certain way or number of times per sexual encounter. It’s important to consider if and how we might help our clients choose new language that can begin to shift their relationship to their bodies or their sexuality in ways that empower them to have the sex life they so deeply desire.