If you were to base your understanding of casual sexual experiences on the lyrics of Top 40 chart songs, you would probably imagine that no-strings attached sex is mutually enjoyable, and that men are skilled and determined to bring a girl to orgasmic bliss. The results of a recent study by Dr. Elizabeth Armstrong and her colleagues, then, might seem somewhat "anticlimactic".
In an ambitious effort to shed light on what's actually going on behind bedroom doors (or in dormitory showers, laundry rooms, the library...etc.), Armstrong's team collected self-report measures from over 12,000 college students across the country assessing their sexual encounters and orgasmic experiences. The researchers found that as the degree of the relationship progressed (eg, from first hook up, to repeat hook up, to committed relationship), the more likely it was that both sex partners were to orgasm. However, this was not equal for men and women: women orgasm close to 80% as often as men do in close relationships, but only 32% as often in first hook ups.
This finding raised several questions for me:
1) Why are orgasms more balanced among men and women in relationships than in hookups?
2) How might alcohol play into this?
3) What are the implications of this finding, both in terms of how we understand men and women's experiences of hooking up, and how (or if) we should involve ourselves as scientists and educators?
To begin to untangle these questions, I'll discuss this finding in the contexts of existing literature on hookups, and use alcohol myopia theory to explore a possible contributing factor.
1) Why does the gendered orgasm gap exist for hookups?
Simply put, men aren't doing the same things in the bedroom with their hook up partners as they are with their girlfriends...particularly, oral sex. Interviews with male and female students revealed that while men feel entitled to receive oral sex, and females feel obligated to give it, the reverse is not true. As a result, while men receive fellatio more or less equally across all relationship contexts, cunnilingus increases dramatically as the relationship becomes more committed. Thus, it seems that men feel that it is important to please their girlfriends, but are not as interested in the pleasure of a casual hook up.
Yet as consensual sex requires two partners, this finding also suggests that women either do not feel assertive enough to request oral sex, or are not as interested in achieving an orgasm. My belief is that both of these mindsets are at play for different women in different situations, and that this makes the distinction between a hook up that's a psychologically maladaptive attempt at intimacy, or an empowering act of gratification. Sexologists-and hook up researchers in particular-- have found that achieving orgasm is more commonly a goal of sex for men than it is for women, with women reporting alternative reasons for having sex such as feeling attractive in the eyes of a desirable male, or because it seemed exciting.
2) How might alcohol play a role in the orgasm gender gap?
Armstrong and her colleagues also provide some statistics that may alarm alcohol researchers: male students reported a mean consumption of 6 drinks prior to their most recent hook up, and females averaged approximately 4 drinks. Given that the criteria for binge drinking is 5 drinks for men and 4 drinks for women in a drinking episode, it's clear that students are reporting an elevated, risky level of drinking prior to hooking up.
I mentioned in my last post that college students often use alcohol in an attempt to achieve the state of disinhibition necessary for initiating a hook up. If alcohol is really leading to generalized disinhibition, why wouldn't college women be unabashedly telling their hook up partners exactly what to do to give them orgasms?
The answer may lie in alcohol myopia theory. As I discussed earlier, men and women often enter a hook up with different goals about what makes sex enjoyable. Alcohol myopia theory posits that alcohol does not actually lead to a blanketed disinhibition; rather, it limits one's attentional capacity to whatever is most salient in the environment. So, if a woman is most focused (and deriving enjoyment from) feelings of being desirable or attractive, the general pleasure of being physically close to someone, or the possibility of forming a connection with a man of interest, alcohol would theoretically make it more difficult for the woman to orgasm. Further, she might not even be interested in asking her partner for oral sex or providing him guidance.
On the flip side, alcohol may narrow a woman's attention to an assortment of fears and insecurities that are particularly salient in the hook up context. I have not yet come across scientific studies investigating the particular types of insecurities a college girl typically experiences during hook ups, so I'll sum up the fears articulated in girls' nights conversations and in women's magazines: the appearance of her body, her sexual prowess, how her sexual prowess compares to that of a known ex-girlfriend or ex-hook up partner, how her sexual prowess compares to that of the porn star featured in the poster above his mini-fridge....etc. Oral sex is a particularly daunting experience for women with sexual insecurities because of all the ever-increasing standards surrounding vaginal appearance and hygiene. If self-presentation and performance goals are particularly salient to a woman, alcohol will lead to an increased attentiveness to these goals. Resultingly, she would experience difficulty concentrating on being in the moment and reaching orgasm, or telling her partner what to do to help her climax.
3) What are the implications of this finding?
To start, I'm not going to say that all women should enter committed relationships so that they'll orgasm at the same rate as men, or that all women should stage an abstinence protest until guys agree to even out the oral sex rate in hookups. The fact is, there are indeed some women who don't want relationships, and there are some women who are unconcerned about receiving oral sex and orgasms. However, I speculate that there are at least as many women out there who are too tied up in self-presentation to focus on sexual gratification or articulate their desires. This group would include those who are determined to do everything right in bed with the hopes of winning a boyfriend from the sexual encounter. The prevalence of these women, as well as the large number of men who report being unconcerned with the sexual pleasure of their hook up partners, suggests a need for opening a dialogue surrounding this issue.
While I offered a hypothesis about a mechanism through which alcohol might contribute to the orgasm gap, scientific research is needed to better understand the exact role of drinking in college men and women's sexual experiences during hook ups. Diary studies can provide us with women's own accounts of their experiences surrounding alcohol and sexual pleasure, and experimental studies can be used to determine whether alcohol differentially affects self presentation-focused and pleasure-focused women's responses to hypothetical sexual scenarios.
Finally, it would be interesting to move this finding out of academia and bring it to college campuses. Would hook up culture shift towards an egalitarian equilibrium? Would men be receptive to changing their vested interest in their hookup partners' satisfaction, as well as bedroom behaviors? Or would both genders say: "Leave us alone, scientists. Don't mess with a good thing!"?
Armstrong. E. A., England, P. and Fogarty, A. (2010). "Orgasm in College Hookups and Relationships." Pp. 362-377 in Families as They Really Are, edited by Barbara Risman. New York: W. W. Norton.
Paul, E. L. & Hayes, K. A. The casualties of `casual' sex: A qualitative exploration of the phenomenology of college students' hookups. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 19, 639-661.
Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia, its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist. 45, 921-933.