Sex researchers consistently find that men are having far more orgasms than women when it comes to heterosexual sexual encounters. It’s known as the orgasm gap. There are many myths and assumptions about why women orgasm less: women take too much time to reach orgasm, they don’t actually care about having one, they are harder to please. But are women’s orgasms really too much work – and if not, why is this belief so prevalent?
To find out, I conducted a study in Canada alongside sociologists Tina Fetner and Melanie Heath, and the results challenge many assumptions. Our data showed it’s true there is a gender gap: 86 per cent of cisgender men reported having an orgasm in their most recent heterosexual sexual encounter, compared with 62 per cent of cisgender women. What reduced the gap among our sample? Oral sex.
The notion that women generally require some form of clitoral stimulation in order to reach orgasm has been documented by a number of researchers, but what’s unclear is why the gap persists – despite knowing the importance of clitoral stimulation for women.
In our Sex in Canada project, we interviewed adult men and women to find out what deters couples from sexual activities that make it more likely for women to reach orgasm.
One of the reigning myths is that there are inherent gender differences for why men and women have sex. It is expected that women desire emotional connection. As for men? Physical release.
If we took these “gender essentialist” views at face value, it would seem that women simply don’t want to orgasm since they prioritise emotional connection over sexual pleasure. But our research suggests that these beliefs have less to do with women’s inherent inability or lack of desire to orgasm and more to do with the way gender norms shape and limit expectations.
The orgasm gap is also about heteronormativity. Our participants defined “regular sex” as penile-vaginal intercourse, meaning our participants see sex as being centred on stimulation of the penis, rather than the clitoris.
Our study shows that heteronormative conception of “regular sex” results in other practices that prioritise clitoral stimulation – such as oral sex – as alternatives to the main event.
It also means that they feel like extra work: separate, time-consuming and challenging, despite supporting women’s likelihood of achieving orgasm.
A consequence of the belief that sex is about “emotional connection” for women, and defining what it means to “have sex” as penile-vaginal intercourse, is that it limits the practices women engage in, and shapes the feelings women have about other practices.
For instance, some of our participants described oral sex as unnatural or bad. One participant, Kathy, said: “I don’t do oral sex. It can be very pleasurable, but it feels wrong. It just makes me feel dirty.”
Women’s bad feelings about engaging in the types of sex that might bring them more physical pleasure shows the strength of the double standard, in which women are judged more harshly than men and taught to self-regulate their desires and behaviours.
Beliefs about women’s bodies, what women want from sex, and what it means to have sex in the first place, all help justify why women aren’t reaching orgasm.
Fights for equality have tackled and refuted many gender essentialist beliefs, and yet the orgasm gap shows how these views still have a strong hold in heterosexual sexual encounters. It highlights how inequality emerges even in the most private and personal encounters.
Like other discrimination against women, it is important to continue pushing past individual explanations and understand the gender gap in orgasms as a form of gender inequality.
Nicole Andrejek is a researcher in the Sex in Canada Project at McMaster University based in Hamilton, Ontario. Read her full article at TheConversation.com
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