I just finished teaching an undergraduate Psychology of Human Sexuality course, filled with well over 100 interesting and interested college students. The vast majority of these students entered the course with a vast amount of misinformation about sex. In fact, a goal of my course is to help students evaluate the images and messages they have learned through the media (e.g., television, movies, and internet) against scientific information about sexuality.
Nowhere is the gap between media images and reality greater than in the realm of women’s orgasms. Media images (including porn images and mainstream movies) portray women as reaching orgasm through the stimulation provided by a penis in a vagina. It is thus no wonder that one study found that 75% of college women believe that most women orgasm during intercourse. The reality is just the opposite: About 70 to 75% of women have never had this experience.
The first researcher to report this statistic was Shere Hite. The 1974 Hite Report told us that 26% of over 3,000 women said that they experienced orgasm during intercourse when there was no accompanying clitoral stimulation. A more recent study, conducted by Glamour magazine in 2000, found strikingly similar results: Only 28% of women said they could orgasm from intercourse alone. In an anonymous survey of the women in my class who were having intercourse, 26% said they could reach orgasm during intercourse and 74% said they could not reach orgasm in this manner.
But, even this 26% - 28% is inflated. Most women answer yes if they have ever had an orgasm during intercourse. Significantly fewer women consistently have this experience. In line with research reporting that 3 – 10% of women consistently orgasm from penetration alone, when the women in my class were anonymously asked about their most reliable route to orgasm, a mere 3% answered “intercourse alone.”
Instead, the women in my class reported their most reliable route to orgasm was as follows:
While the actual percentages from my class are a little different than the Glamour study (in which 38% said they needed manual stimulation of the clitoris to orgasm and 21% said they needed oral sex), the take-home message is the same: Women reaching orgasm via the stimulation of a penis in a vagina alone is a myth.
The VAST majority of women require clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm.
However, this scientific fact was novel information to my students. As a woman growing up in the feminist era of Betty Dodson and OurBodies OurSelves, I asked my students, “How could you NOT know this?”
"Movies" they said. Look at any movie—mainstream or porn—and you see women reaching orgasm through penetration. They aptly point out that even the movie “Kinsey” that I show in my class features Alfred Kinsey’s wife reaching instant orgasm via penetration.
The women and men in my class tell me that eradicating the myth of easily attainable vaginal orgasms and learning the reality of orgasms achieved through clitoral stimulation is life-altering. My women student say that before learning this, they had been feeling secretly and shamefully abnormal—leading many of them (almost 60%) to fake orgasms during intercourse. The male students tell me it is a huge relief to know their female partner’s orgasm is not dependent on their penis. They resonate with the words of Ian Kerner (author of She Comes First) who says that:
When we know how to recognize and navigate the process of female sexual response, when we understand the role of the clitoris in stimulating that process, then sex becomes easier, simpler, and more rewarding, and we’re impelled to create pleasure with our hands and mouths, bodies and minds. In letting go of intercourse, we open ourselves up to new creative ways of experiencing pleasure, ways that may not strike us as inherently masculine, but ultimately allow us to be more of a man. Sex is no longer penis-dependent, and we can let go of the usual anxieties about size, stamina, and performance. We are free to love with more of ourselves, with our entire self.
Clearly, both women and men benefit from letting go of the myth that women’s orgasms are penis dependent. Both women and men benefit from understanding the importance of clitoral stimulation.Too often we seek statistics to see if we are normal—fueling what writer Marty Klein dubs “normality anxiety.”
But, this statistic -- this 70 - 75% -- this one is different. It has the power to help many women stop wondering if they are normal and instead embrace their most reliable route to orgasm.