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Why He Cares About Your Orgasm

Research sheds light on men’s motivations for giving pleasure.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Remember that delightful scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally, in which Sally demonstrates her ability to fake an orgasm while sitting in a restaurant with Harry? Harry didn’t believe that she could fake an orgasm that well, and had assured her that he could tell if a woman did.

Women fake orgasms mostly for their partners’ benefit. Some report that “if he doesn’t think I had an orgasm, he won’t give up, just keeps at me until I feel pressured. Sometimes I’m tired and just want to go to sleep.” Men often feel disappointed or sad if their partner doesn’t orgasm, and report feeling threatened, “left out,” or “not good enough” if their partner needs to masturbate or use a vibrator to achieve orgasm. Interestingly, recent research found that heterosexual women actually orgasm less than other women, though this can't (entirely) be blamed on the men, and may relate other characteristics of these women.

Modern society has reversed hundreds or thousands of years when female sexuality didn’t matter or was assumed to be nonexistent. A hundred years ago (or less), women who were orgasmic were at risk of being diagnosed as nymphomaniacs. Only recently did some African countries outlaw female genital mutilation, an act which attempted to surgically restrict female sexual pleasure. But now, every magazine at the grocery store checkout counter has headlines celebrating the female orgasm, and teaching both men and women how to achieve it. Now, simple orgasms almost aren’t enough – videos, magazines and sexual cultures such as swinging have moved beyond the simple female orgasm, and now promote female ejaculation as an even greater form of orgasmic pleasure. In many ways, this is a positive, feminist, and empowering change. But when men are focused on “giving” their partners orgasms, it raises questions as to why.

I’ve written about this before, tying men’s focus on their partner’s pleasure to a variety of issues, mostly rooted in the man’s sense of self, confidence, and masculinity. When men and women first go to bed with a new partner, they experience different anxieties: Women worry that their partner might not like the woman’s body, while men worry that the man “won’t be good enough” or won’t be perceived as sexually skilled. It matters to men to be sexually skilled.

New research from one of my favorite sexuality researchers, Sari Van Anders, sheds further light on this. Chadwick and Van Anders explored whether a man's focus on their partner’s sexual experience and orgasms might be tied to his feelings of masculinity. In essence, does giving orgasms make the man feel more manly?

It likely comes as little surprise to most readers that the research affirmed the hypothesis that men felt more masculine, when, in this study, they read a scenario in which they imagined their female partner being orgasmic with them. In this study, 810 men participated in a creative study which invited them to imagine their female partner being orgasmic or not, and then assessed what impact that had on the men’s feelings of masculinity.

More interesting were some of the nuances in these men’s responses:

  • Men who experience greater Masculine Gender Role Stress (MGRS) experienced much greater increase and decrease in masculinity, depending upon whether their imagined partner orgasmed or not. MGRS is a theoretical construct suggesting that some men may have more fragile senses of masculinity, in which their feeling of manliness is more affected by external events or experiences. These men may be more driven to engage in behaviors which can restore, or re-assert their machismo.
  • While there was a significant effect if the female partner in the scenario had a history of fewer orgasms—in other words, the man felt more manly if he was able to “give” an orgasm to a woman who hadn’t had many in the past—the size of this effect was small, contrary to expectations.
  • Men who were more egalitarian vs “traditional” in their gender role attitudes did not differ in their experience of the masculinity-enhancing effect. So even that “Sensitive New Age Guy who cares about your orgasm” still feels more manly when is female partner has an orgasm.
  • Men who were more communal and invested in their partners’ pleasure (vs those men who are more instrumental in their intent—wanting her to experience pleasure so she will reciprocate) also experienced this masculinity-enhancing effect. Whether he wants you to orgasm just for your pleasure, or wants it because he hopes then you will be more willing to satisfy him, didn’t really matter in this study, though it certainly may matter in other ways within a relationship. Both types of men show similar effects in feeling more manly in response to female orgasm.

Chadwick and Van Anders suggest that this research supports theories of sexual scripting, wherein men are portrayed as actors or givers, and women receivers. In this script, men who “give” more sexual pleasure are seen (by themselves) as more in line with this script of the “real man” like James Bond, who is such a skilled lover that he leaves women sweaty, exhausted, speechless, and sated. Unfortunately, when a man’s view of self depends upon the response he evokes in his partner, it may put tremendous pressure on the partner, and ignore the fact that healthy, pleasurable, mutual sexuality involves much more than just the man’s skill.

Wkimedia Commons
Source: Wkimedia Commons

Even as the man is potentially being somewhat self-serving here, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t also care about his partner’s pleasure, nor that the woman isn’t still likely to experience the potential of pleasure. Indeed, all sexuality is, at its core, somewhat selfish, in that partners come together physically in order to experience their own pleasure. Good sex is, by definition, a Win-Win scenario.

Where I think things now get very interesting is to speculate on why men experience this effect so strongly and universally—or at least, universally among the predominantly younger, white, college-student males in this study. It is possible that more mature males in longer-term relationships, with longer lives of accomplishment behind them, or who are nonheterosexual, or come from less dominant, privileged backgrounds, may not show this effect in the same way.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that men may be predisposed to pursue the strategy of giving sexual pleasure to their mates. Some research has suggested that lower-status males may care more about giving sexual pleasure, as a means to try to retain their mate through the bribe of orgasmic sex. Orgasms in the female may serve a role in controlling conception, through mechanisms such as changing the ph balance of the vagina. This may kill or slow sperm already present, increasing the chances of conception with the next man’s sperm. If you’re the man involved in that orgasm, you may guarantee your sperm a better shot at the prize.

Men are seen as more disposable than women. More men die at young ages, and in dangerous high-risk jobs. For millennia, it has been men sent off to battle to die for their group. Throughout history, it is estimated that about 80 percent of women have reproduced, while only around 40 percent of men have. This means that men’s status must be constantly earned and re-earned: “What have you done for me lately?” A man who rests on his laurels gets left behind and discarded. So, giving pleasure and being a good lover is a way for a man to be useful and productive, potentially increasing his chances of being valued enough to be loved, or to have the opportunity for sex.

Men view sexuality differently than most women. Men more often use sex as a means for stress management, recreation, entertainment, masculinity-enhancement, and as a way to be loved. Men rarely receive love and touch, nurturing or closeness, outside of sex. It’s one reason sexuality is so important and powerful for men, and why they may go to such extreme lengths for it. Being a good lover, enough so that your partner has orgasms, increases the chances she will want to have sex with you again, or even that she might brag about your skills to other women. Yes, that’s about sex – but it’s also about all of the other complicated things wrapped up in what sex means.

We can help change the script, and help men reduce the degree to which they pressure their partners, in order to fill that aching fragile fear of being less of a man. But we can only help if we recognize that men didn’t choose to be this way. Understanding that “giving” orgasms is one way men build up their masculinity helps us to better empathize with them. It challenges us to consider the ways we “emasculate” men such that they sometimes become so desperate to rebuild it.