Science Exposes Society’s Hidden Role in the Orgasm Gap
We need to talk about society's role in the orgasm gap and our sex lives
Let’s face it — sex is pretty important. It’s one of the most basic human desires. Along with survival, it’s the most fundamental Darwinian goal of the human species. And for many of us, it’s a considerable part of our identity.
Which is precisely why I’m a proponent of a little concept called universal sexual rights. Sexual rights can mean many things. The concept encompasses an extensive arrangement of preferences, dispositions, and orientations.
Human sexuality is so broad it encompasses everything from biological sex, to gender identity, from sexual preferences, to our beliefs about life, love, loss, and commitment.
At its core, universal sexual rights are about ensuring that every individual has the freedom and agency to make choices about their sexuality and sexual identity without fear of discrimination, coercion, or violence.
It’s about recognizing that sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human experience, and that every individual is entitled to explore and express their sexuality in a way that feels authentic and fulfilling to them.
To be forced into sexual hiding or sexual roles we’re uncomfortable with is to be inhumanely stripped of a vital part of ourselves. As such, I believe that no conception of human rights is truly complete without sexual rights.
Yet, all too often, society — and it’s unusual ideas of taboo — stand directly in our paths, refusing us entry into the promised land of sane, consensual, healthy, private sexuality.
The War on Sexuality
The war on women’s reproductive rights and contraception are the most egregious instances of this occurrence unfolding right now here in America.
It’s rare that we question the often-benevolent-on-the-surface propaganda we’ve imbibed since we were in diapers.
Things like the romance myth, the idea that every person has to get married and have children, that monogamy is the only path to healthy, fulfilling relationships, and so much more have surrounded us since our earliest memories.
Unbeknownst to us, we augment those ideas and never question them, and they can have profound impacts on our lives, for better or for worse. One of those impacts is now being explored by modern science — the orgasm gap.
The orgasm gap is one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena we understand today. It’s a pity that discussions about the topic have become so politically charged that most of what you read is mere political propaganda rather than legitimate curious inquiry.
I believe the world would be a much better place if more people approached the things we don’t understand with an open mind and a willingness to learn, than we do with scorn and contempt.
This is the orgasm gap in a nutshell: women reach orgasm about 63% of the time during sex, depending on the research, while men reach orgasm between 94% and 98% of the time. When women sleep with other women, this gap lessens, but it never fully goes away.
Heterosexual women have the largest gap, lesbian women have the smallest gap, and bisexual women are somewhere in the middle.
When we compare married couples, people who’ve been coupled for a longer period, orgasm rates are far less, with 87% of husbands consistently experiencing orgasm and 43% of wives consistently experiencing orgasm.
When I first heard of the orgasm gap, I understood the gist of it. Though I was young, knowing a lot less back then than I do now, I knew that America’s sex education downright pitiful.
But still, I couldn’t help but feel that sense of being attacked.
It’s odd how our emotional reflexes can often run counter to our rational understanding.
I think this is the root of the divisive narrative about the orgasm gap. Men feel attacked, women feel neglected. And on some level, they’re both right; but on another level, they’re both painfully wrong.
Let’s get some facts out of the way first.
Teasing Out Fact From Fiction
No, it’s not only a small minority of women who can orgasm from penetration alone. You may have seen that myth permeating all over the internet.
The myth was born out of a misunderstanding of an often-cited study that, strangely enough, says the opposite.
The study says that 18.4% of women report that penetration alone is sufficient for orgasm — every single time. This is where most people stop reading, apparently. But the researchers went on to explain that sex was much more complicated than that.
Hearing that 18.4% number, most people automatically assume that clitoral stimulation is the solution. We’ve all heard a thousand times how sensitive the clitoris is compared to the vagina. But in the same study, only 36.6% of women reported that clitoral stimulation was necessary for orgasm.
There’s still an additional 30% unaccounted for.
And that 30% of women said that, “while clitoral stimulation was not needed, their orgasms feel better if their clitoris is stimulated during intercourse,” with researchers concluding, “Women reported diverse preferences for genital touch location, pressure, shape, and pattern.”
That means the majority of women studied reported having orgasms from penetration alone, the opposite of what’s usually claimed by people reporting on the study.
And the takeaway of “just hammer the clit with all your might,” is the literal opposite of the takeaway the study authors penned in the abstract, which is that sex is individual and personal, defying oversimplification.
I mention all of this because we’re doing the exact opposite of what we should be doing. We’re blaming one another individually rather than stepping back and analyzing society’s role in our sex lives.
These are complex issues that reach far beyond mere individuals, issues that later studies would only serve to further complixfy.
The Plot Thickens
As the idea of the orgasm gap caught on, Dr. Sara Chadwick et al. found that some men were pressuring their partners into orgasm (or faking orgasm) to placate their egos. It should be said, this is a minority of men.
Many of the studies on orgasm rates since have found that adding more clitoral stimulation didn’t close the orgasm gap, either.
If it was all a matter of technique, with males being incompetent brutes, one would assume that lesbians would have virtually zero orgasm gap while the orgasm rates with men would be abysmal. But you’ll recall, that’s not what researchers found.
Many of the early studies on the orgasm gap suffered from flawed study designs. Many were studies that handed college students questionnaires. They weren’t vigorous and definitely didn’t represent all demographics.
Of course, college kids are going to have orgasm issues! So much of the sex is casual and with partners with whom they lack any kind of emotional connection.
But further studies, like one of my favorites, the FINSEX study, still found a gap. The FINSEX study is a survey sent out to women across Finland portraying every age group and from every background.
The study asked a barrage of questions and while they still found an orgasm gap, they also found that technique didn’t mitigate the orgasm gap. Whether partners chose penetration alone or clitoral stimulation didn’t matter much.
Researchers found that the simple act of prioritizing orgasm in sexual encounters helped diminish — but not eliminate — the orgasm gap.
Rethinking Society’s Role in Sex
A 2017 study titled Not All Orgasms Were Created Equal: Differences in Frequency and Satisfaction of Orgasm Experiences by Sexual Activity in Same-Sex Versus Mixed-Sex Relationships had much to say about orgasms.
First, they found that, contrary to the portrayal of men being lazy, most men actively wanted to give their partners oral sex.
The study also found that stimulating the clitoris during penetration simultaneously made the orgasm gap “disappear.”
But the most impactful facet of the study has to do with the myths about human sexuality that are passed along, from parent to child, from person to person.
One weird finding, that exemplifies society’s nebulous role in our sex lives, lies in the fact that while women may have an easier time reaching orgasm through non-penetrative sex, the majority of women prefer to reach orgasm through penetration:
Women report that they are more likely to experience orgasm during nonpenetrative partnered activities, specifically those that directly stimulate the clitoris. For example, Fugl-Meyer, Oberg, Lundberg, Lewin, and Fugl-Meyer found that 83% of their female sample reported orgasms from manual genital caressing and 69% reported orgasm from receiving oral sex. Despite the higher frequency of orgasm from nonpenetrative activities, the Janus Report on Sexual Behavior found that only 18% of women have a preference for achieving orgasm through oral sex, whereas 69% prefer to reach orgasm through penetration.
Why is that?
How does this make any sense?
It makes sense when we consider those little tidbits of propaganda I mentioned earlier. Each one of us has been raised to believe certain types of sex are “proper” and others are “improper” sexual behaviors.
Until the last century, sodomy — oral, anal, or other types of sex that isn’t for procreation only — was illegal.
Through most of modern history, it’s been punishable by death. The notorious writer Marquis de Sade was sentenced to death for sodomy (and blasphemy) in the late 1700s. Thankfully, he escaped.
These beliefs we harbor about sex are called “sexual scripts” and they impact our lives in ways we often don’t recognize. As the researchers pointed out:
These self-reported preferences may be highly influenced by what women believe to be “normative” sexual experiences, rather than based on their actual objective comparison of experiences of orgasms during different sexual activities. Women’s preferences for penetration-derived orgasms may also be a function of sexual scripts placing a greater emphasis on the male orgasm, such that a woman’s orgasm experience during, or while facilitating, male orgasm may be viewed as a more “proper” form of sexual activity, emphasizing the frequent conflation of sex and male orgasm.
In other words, the orgasm gap isn’t just about technique or discrepancies of the male and female experience — it runs much deeper than that, impacting people of all sexes, genders, and backgrounds.
Many women are carrying around sexual baggage from their childhoods. Hell, all of us are. We didn’t choose this baggage and yet, we suffer and trudge under its weight.
But women have a special kind of baggage that I, as a man, could never begin to understand.
One of the most emphasized ideas in the study was the idea that women are taught by society from a very young age to view sex as something to be done for men’s pleasure and not for mutually shared pleasure.
This is an extension of the idea that’s told to youth to scare them away from sexual behavior, the idea that sex is “dangerous” and must take place in a “meaningful” context; otherwise, it’s morally abhorrent.
This isn’t an education problem but a propaganda problem.
If we grant that we’re all entitled to our sexuality without coercion, then these narratives about what sex must be like have got to go. There’s a clearly delineated through line between sexual propaganda and sexual expectations and habits.
Rethinking Sexual Priorities
A lot of fear is instilled in young girls that borders on abuse. They’re told it will ruin their bodies, or reputations, and that if sex doesn’t further solidify relationship commitments, it should be shunned or that it’s somehow a moral failure on their part.
The science is showing clearly that we should be teaching kids the opposite. We should be teaching children about safe, responsible sex without the necessity of marriage or commitments, and that sex is a healthy, natural component of human life.
It’s obvious by now that abstinance-only sex education and scare tactics not only do not work, but produce the opposite results from the ones intended.
And until we start viewing these kinds of propagandistic teachings as truly damaging, which it appears they are, future generations of adults will continue to experience great discomfort in adulthood through no fault of their own.
Lastly, while I think we should prioritize orgasm, we shouldn’t focus on it exclusively. Orgasm isn’t the benchmark of good, healthy, happy, consensual sex either. It’s just one component in a larger, much more beautiful whole of human connection.
Let’s live in love and not fear — in unity and not antipathy.
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