Ever since 1948 when Alfred Kinsey launched modern sex research, one finding has been confirmed and re-confirmed over and over again. Compared with men, women are considerably less likely to have orgasms. Men report orgasms in approximately 95 percent of heterosexual encounters, but for women, depending on the study, the figure ranges from only 50 to 70 percent.
Why? Two possibilities. Something about the women, or something about the sex.
Psychologists and sociologists have focused on the women. They’ve found that four variables make modest differences in women’s rates of orgasm:
• Demographics. As age, education, and income increase, the likelihood of orgasm increases somewhat.
• Beliefs. Compared with women who embrace religious fundamentalism and traditional sex roles (woman as homemaker), those who espouse more liberal religious and social views are a little more likely to have orgasms.
• Relationships. As happiness with the relationship increases, women’s likelihood of orgasm increases modestly.
• Sexual trauma. Compared with women who have experienced incest, other sexual exploitation, and/or sexual assault, women free from sexual trauma are somewhat more likely to have orgasms.
Meanwhile, sex researchers have focused on what happens in bed. They’ve found that the quality of couples’ lovemaking makes a major difference in women’s rates of orgasm, much more difference than psychological or sociological factors.
Recently a large Australian study confirmed the sexological view. Ability to have an orgasm has less to do with differences among women than with the erotic stimulation they receive.
Demographics Have Little Impact
Australian researchers asked 5,118 men and women age 16 to 59 about the four factors mentioned above, and then asked them to describe what had happened during their most recent partner-sex encounter, and if they’d had an orgasm. Overall, 95% of men reported orgasms, but only 69% of the women.
The women’s demographics, beliefs, relationships, and histories of sexual trauma made some difference in their rates of orgasm—but not much. The only demographic factor that really mattered was the level of commitment in the relationship. In a committed relationship, 70 percent of the women reported orgasm. But with casual partners, the rate was just 49 percent.
The researchers concluded: “Demographic and relationship characteristics were associated with frequency of orgasm, but the differences were not as dramatic as the associations with sexual practices.”
The Key to Women’s Orgasms: How Men Pleasure Women in Bed
During their most recent partner-sex experience, in addition to kissing and hugging, the study participants reported six genital sexual activities:
• Vaginal intercourse. 96% of men said their lovemaking had included this. 94% of women.
• Hand massage of the penis by the woman. 81% of men said they’d received this. 76% of women said they’d provided it.
• Hand massage of the vulva/vagina by the man. 81% of men said they’d provided. 76% of women said they’d received.
• Fellatio. 26% of men said they’d received. 24% of women said they’d provided.
• Cunnilingus. 30% of men said they’d provided. 24% of women said they’d received.
• Anal play. 1% of men said they’d provided. 1% of women said they’d received.
For the vast majority of these couples, the erotic dance involved three moves: Vaginal intercourse—almost universal. Mutual genital hand massage—about 75%. And oral sex, around 25%.
For men, rates of orgasm varied only slightly based on how many of these three moves they’d reported:
• One (just intercourse): 96% of the men had orgasms.
• Two (hand massage and intercourse): 95%.
• Three (hand massage, fellatio, and intercourse): 98%.
But for women, rates of orgasm varied considerably based on the number of moves:
• One (just intercourse): 50% of the women reported orgasms.
• Two (hand massage and intercourse): 71%.
• Three (hand massage, cunnilingus, and intercourse): 86%.
For reproduction, sex is all about intercourse. But for pleasure, especially women’s pleasure, it’s about men providing all three moves.
In men, the head of the penis (glans) contains the largest concentration of orgasm-triggering nerves. Intercourse stimulates these nerves a great deal, which is why, among men whose sex involved only intercourse, 96% had orgasms.
But in women, orgasm-inducing nerves are located not in the vagina, but in the clitoris, the little nub of tissue that sits a few inches north of the vaginal opening nestled under the upper junction of the vaginal lips. Intercourse provides some women with enough clitoral stimulation to elicit orgasm, which is why half of the women in this study reported orgasms from just intercourse. But intercourse—even extended, vigorous intercourse—provides only a little direct clitoral stimulation, which is why half the women didn’t have orgasms from just the old in-out.
Unfortunately, many men believe that women “should” have orgasms during intercourse. This belief often comes from the sexual mis-education men receive from pornography. In porn, the women look like they have orgasms during intercourse. Actually, they don't. I've interviewed several women involved in porn. None of them ever had orgasms on camera no matter how long the intercourse lasted. However, they had orgasms at home during lovemaking in their private lives—thanks to receiving direct clitoral caresses by their lover's hand or mouth, or a vibrator.
Compared with intercourse, hand massage of the vulva and cunnilingus are considerably more likely to stimulate the clitoris, which is why lovemaking that included them made such substantial differences in women’s rates of orgasm.
Most women’s need for direct clitoral stimulation also explains some of the demographics of women’s orgasms:
• As age and education increase, so do women’s rates of orgasm—because older and better educated women are more likely to speak up and ask for direct clitoral touch.
• And as women move from traditional roles into the labor force and from fundamentalism toward religious liberalism, their rates of orgasm also increase—again because they are less likely to feel cowed by convention and more likely to assert their needs.
Over my 40+ years as a sexuality journalist and counselor, I’ve heard many psychologists insist that women’s sexuality is so complicated and individual that the “cookbook” advice found in “sex manuals” is simplistic and largely beside the point. Perhaps. But with all due respect to women’s emotional complexity, this study shows that the key to women’s erotic satisfaction and orgasm is the sex itself, specifically direct clitoral stimulation.
I’m not dismissing the pleasure of intercourse. Many women insist they love it. They say they enjoy the special closeness it provides and the marvelous sensations involved in holding their lover inside them.
But when it comes to women’s orgasms, intercourse often falls short. So, guys, if you want to give her the gift or orgasm, listen to what dozens of surveys—from The Hite Report (1976) to a recent study English study of partner satisfaction (2015)—have revealed about how women prefer to make love:
• More kissing, cuddling, and sensual whole-body massage.
• Slower pace. Don’t rush into intercourse. Don’t try to imitate pornography.
• And when she feels ready for genital play, direct, gentle, loving caressing of her clitoris.
For more suggestions on helping women have orgasms, read my previous post, Six Ways to Help Her Have Orgasms.
And if you’d like to increase her chances of having orgasms during intercourse, check out my post on the Coital Alignment Technique.
Finally, for women who are orgasm-challenged, vibrators often help. Read my post, Vibrators: Myths Vs. Truth.
Andersen, B.L. and J.M. Cyranowski. “Women’s Sexuality: Behaviors, Responses, and Individual Differences,” Journal of Counseling Psychology (1995) 63:891.
Fisher, W.A. et al. “Individual and Partner Correlates of Sexual Satisfaction and Relationship Happiness in Midlife Couples: Dyadic Analysis of the International Survey of Relationships,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2015) 44:1609.
Haavio-Mannila, E. and O. Kontula. “Correlates of Increased Sexual Satisfaction,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (1997) 26:399.
Hite, S. The Hite Report: A Nationwide Study of Female Sexuality. Macmillan, NY, 1976.
Kinsey, A. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1948.
Kinsey, A. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1953.
Laumann, E.O. et al. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994.
Masters, W. and V. Johnson. Human Sexual Response. Little Brown, NY, 1966.
Masters, W. and V. Johnson. Human Sexual Inadequacy. Little Brown, NY, 1970.
Moynihan, R. “The Making of a Disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction,” BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) (2003) 326:45.
Richters, J. et al. “Sexual Practices at Last Heterosexual Encounter and Occurrence of Orgasm in a National Survey,” Journal of Sex Research (2006) 43:217.
Salisbury, C.M.A. and W.A. Fisher. “’Did You Come?’ A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrence During Heterosexual Sexual Interactions,” Journal of Sex Research (2014) 51:616.
Wade, L.D. et al. “The Incidental Orgasm: The Presence of Clitoral Knowledge and the Absence of Orgasm for Women,” Women and Health (2005) 42:117.