“My eyes were closed, and I started to see a light pinkish-orange oval shape in front of me, like a sunrise,” says Connie Arlanda, a 33-year-old from Vermont. “The oval was swelling and expanding like a balloon being slowly inflated…a few seconds later, the oval shape burst and I had a powerful orgasm. My vagina clamped down on his dick hard enough to push him out. And I saw an explosion of colors as I rode out the orgasm.”
Arlanda experiences sexual synesthesia, a rare phenomenon in which sexual stimulation triggers sensory perceptions, including visuals, scents, smells, and tastes. Sexual synesthesia is just one form of synesthesia—the umbrella term for a range of experiences whereby stimulation of one sense induces automatic, involuntary sensory perceptions elsewhere.
Synesthetes—the name for people with the condition—most commonly experience grapheme-color synesthesia, where letters and numbers are strongly associated with specific colors; other forms include chromethesia (the association of sounds with colors) and lexical-gustatory synesthesia (the association of words with tastes).
“To be clear, it's not a condition that needs treatment,” says Clare Jonas, a UK-based researcher and science communicator with a focus on the psychology of synesthesia. “For most synesthetes I've spoken to, synesthesia is neutral or enjoyable, and it's associated with benefits like better memory and increased creativity.”
Although a 2006 study using a random sampling method found no significant gender differences, Markus Zedler, assistant medical director at the Hannover Medical School in Germany, tells me that, professionally, he knows more women synesthetes than men. Estimates of how many people experience synesthesia vary, but that same study showed a 4.4 percent prevalence. This number may be higher, as many synesthetes don’t realize that their experience is any different until it’s specifically pointed out to them.
“I didn't learn about what synesthesia was until my early 20s, and I had been seeing colors during my orgasms for years before then,” Arlanda says. “I just thought it was normal, that everybody had colorful orgasms.”
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To date, there is no scientific consensus on what the basis for synesthesia might be. “No one really knows why it happens, but there are several theories,” Jonas says. “For example, that synesthetes' brains have different patterns of neural connections than other people, that synesthetes have more serotonin in their brains than other people, and that we're all born synesthetic but most of us lose it over time.”
This sense of mystery, along with the phenomenon’s harmlessness and its association with creativity, perhaps explain synesthesia’s enduring popular appeal—it’s used to explain Remy the rat’s culinary prowess in Pixar’s Ratatouille; it’s also used to shade Rust Cohle’s nihilistic genius in HBO’s True Detective.
It’s perhaps surprising then that we don’t hear more about sexual synesthetes. Ms. Jones, a 32-year-old teacher from Virginia who prefers not to use her full name in case her students read about her colorful orgasms, first started to notice synesthetic sexual experiences a few years ago. After a twin pregnancy where she used visualization and meditation techniques to connect with her children and ease abdominal pains, sex also became a more meditative act.
“I really got in touch with the way my body was reacting to my partner and, in turn, my partner would get on this groove with me,” she says. This connection made Jones literally feel electric, a sensation that would begin during sex and get stronger as she climaxed. “I felt the flow in all parts, bringing pain relief, and my mouth tasted like I'd just licked a 9-volt battery.” A year ago, she began to see colors while orgasming, and she also experiences a number of tastes. “It can range from sweet to salty—the smell of ocean air is there a lot,” Jones explains. “The flavor usually hits me at the highest point of orgasm and sticks around while we unwind.”
These sorts of intense sensory experiences appear to be typical of sexual synesthesia. This thread on the synesthesia subreddit encapsulates its variability and sheer pleasure. One user said that “when [my orgasm is] long-lasting and deep…I'm enveloped in a lusty dark red haze.” Another described how “recently while being fingered, I pictured a band of soft shapes that slightly mimicked a tuba, a clarinet, etc.,” while someone else stated that their orgasm “looks and tastes something akin to dark chocolate.”
Such accounts of sexual synesthesia led one group of researchers to investigate the relationship between sexual synesthesia, sexual satisfaction, and altered states of consciousness (ASCs; the feeling you have of "losing control" during orgasm, also known as sexual trance or absorption). In their 2013 study, researchers found that sexual synesthetes scored significantly lower on sexual satisfaction than the control group, but higher on ASCs—specifically the subscales "oceanic boundlessness" and "visionary restructuralization."
Visionary restructuralization refers to visual hallucinations and/or synesthesia. “The experience of oceanic boundlessness during sex can be characterized by a sense of oneness in which there is a disappearance of the psychological borders between self and other,” says Rui Miguel Costa, a researcher at the William James Center for Research, Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, Portugal. Concurrently, an individual’s perception of time can undergo a considerable change into an intense sense of timelessness. “This is accompanied by states of profound pleasure and peace,” Costa adds. “In the moments following sex, insights, original ideas, and novel connections of thoughts can emerge.”
Sexual synesthetic experiences seem to transcend the regular emotions that we feel during sex, and this is mirrored in synesthetes’ accounts of their most memorable experiences. Jones describes a day when the kids were at school, and she had plenty of alone time with her partner. After having sex a few times, they switched positions and Jones began to feel pleasantly light-headed.
“Pink and white started swirling in my eyesight and my arms got heavy,” she recounts. “There began the feeling that something was inflating inside me…Then the swirls came together to form something of a pink orb and white swirly lights surrounded it. The brighter the colors got, the more I needed to come…Then I felt his penis throbbing and felt a rush flowing through him into me. A heart-like organ that was being filled with white light formed in my vision, and I could see he was the light and I was the heart…All I could smell was the ocean.”
Although this sort of experience can initially be positive for a synesthete, Zedler, one of the 2013 study’s co-authors, suggests that it might have a caveat. “A woman enjoying deeper sex is very close to herself,” he says. “But maybe this could cause the little disadvantage that they are sometimes not sufficiently aware of their partner who is not in a synesthetic trance. This could cause the result that we found—though the synesthete feels a deeper connection with sex, for the couple it could be less satisfying.”
This doesn’t entirely line up with Arlanda's and Jones’ experiences. For Jones, synesthesia may have actually benefited the mutual sexual satisfaction between her and her long-term partner. “I've noticed that when my orgasm is building up, I can see/feel a pink donut of pressure inside me getting larger and larger,” she tells me. This acts as a visual meter, enabling her to better judge when she’ll climax. “This visualization has helped me in controlling my orgasm so that I can wait until my partner is ready so we can come together.” Nonetheless, Jones is keen to emphasize that the strength and intensity of sex with her partner predates her synesthetic experiences.
Arlanda tells me that synesthesia doesn’t really affect her sex life, although she tends not to mention it to sexual partners. “It's hard to explain to people who haven't experienced it for themselves. It has crossed my mind that it would be really cool to find a partner who also experienced orgasms this way,” she says. “But apparently this is a pretty rare phenomenon, so I guess those are long odds…until someone creates a dating app for synesthetes, that is.”
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