James M Sherlock

Great (Ape) Expectations

Sex

Should Women 'Expect' to Orgasm During Sex?

The mysterious case of the missing O and some possible clues to its whereabouts.

Posted May 09, 2016

When it comes to women, it seems that the orgasm is a lot like magic in the Harry Potter universe: some have it and some don’t.

Across multiple different studies from the last several decades of research, scientists have consistently observed that between 60 and 80 percent of women will not orgasm during sex, and that a further 10 percent won’t orgasm at all in their lifetime [1]. While this thankfully means that 90 percent of women will orgasm at one time or another, it raises an interesting and important question: should women expect more orgasms during sex?

 David Clow/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: David Clow/Flickr Creative Commons

Before we delve into this complicated and no doubt controversial question, it’s important to make two key distinctions:

The first distinction is what is meant by ‘sex’ in this context. For the sake of this question, sex refers just to penile-vaginal intercourse, and none of the numerous other fun activities that take place before, after (or during if you’re particularly coordinated), or those that are practiced by same-sex couples. Of course, the importance of these factors can't be overstated, so we will come back to them!

The second distinction relates to the use of ‘should’ in this context. Of course, all women should be having orgasms all over the place, any time they choose, alone or with a partner of their choice. But, based on what we know is that a reasonable expectation?

We know that in any given bedroom rendezvous most women won’t climax, but there are a number of reasons that could be.

For one, we could all be lousy in bed or completely ignorant of what it is that women are after. There’s no denying that this is the case at least some of the time. For example, in one study, over 40% of Pakistani men were completely unaware that females could even achieve orgasm [2].

 Sam Catanzaro/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Sam Catanzaro/Flickr Creative Commons

A lack of attention to detail is almost definitely part of the story, but even in long-term relationships where partners ought to have worked out what they’re doing, the elusive orgasm is no more likely to appear [3].

On the other side of the coin, there’s a lot of biology that gets overlooked here that could explain why no matter how hard you try or how skilled your partner is, you just might still fall short of the finish line.

First of all, women simply take much longer on average to reach orgasm than men, which presents immediate obstacles to mutual satisfaction during intercourse.

 Julian Lim/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Julian Lim/Flickr Creative Commons

Furthermore, recent studies have revealed that a large part of the difference in orgasm rates between women can come down to their genes: as much as 40% of the variation in orgasm frequency between women is genetic [3-5]. In fact, genes account for as much as 45% of this difference even when masturbating [3, 5].

Yet there seems to be a discord between diagnostic practice, stigma and the complex reality of the female orgasm. In fact, failure to orgasm is seen as such an abnormality that it has been given it’s own entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, termed Female Orgasmic Disorder [6]. More concerning is the prevalence of these diagnoses, with between 4 and 28 percent of women meeting the criteria for FOD across 11 studies [7]

 Marit & Thomas Hinnosaar/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Marit & Thomas Hinnosaar/Flickr Creative Commons

Through a combination of well-intentioned sex-positivity in media and a number of biologically unfounded assumptions, failure to achieve orgasm has unfortunately become mislabeled as an abnormality that is far from the truth [1]. For the mast majority of women, orgasms are to sex what the cherry on top is to a banana split—a welcome addition, but not always guaranteed.

It’s not all doom and gloom though: in one of the largest surveys of sexual activity ever conducted, the single largest predictor of a women reaching orgasm during their last intercourse was the number of activities other than sex that the couples had engaged in immediately prior to having sex (I told you we'd come back to this) [8]. This is also a handy bit of data to pull out if your partner has been slacking in the boudoir of late.

Richard Foster/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Richard Foster/Flickr Creative Commons

So where does this leave us? Should women expect to orgasm? When it comes down to meat and veg intercourse, the odds aren’t in their favor. But that doesn’t mean their partners are off the hook.

The more other fun stuff you do beforehand increases that likelihood substantially, to the point that 69% of Australian women reported experiencing an orgasm during their last sexual encounter [8].

And even though you should try your very best, don’t be so hard on yourself if you don’t get there (alone or with a friend). Orgasms are great but they’re only one piece of an incredibly erotic puzzle. More importantly, they are but one part of a healthy, loving relationship.

References

1. Lloyd, E.A., The case of the female orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution. 2005, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2. Qidwai, W., Perceptions about female sexuality among young Pakistani men presenting to family physicians at a teaching hospital in Karachi. The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, 2000. 50(2): p. 74.

3. Zietsch, B.P., et al., Female orgasm rates are largely independent of other traits: Implications for “Female Orgasmic Disorder” and evolutionary theories of orgasm. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2011. 8(8): p. 2305-2316.

4. Zietsch, B.P. and P. Santtila, Genetic analysis of orgasmic function in twins and siblings does not support the by-product theory of female orgasm. Animal Behaviour, 2011. 82(5): p. 1097-1101.

5. Dunn, K.M., L.F. Cherkas, and T.D. Spector, Genetic influences on variation in female orgasmic function: a twin study. Biology Letters, 2005. 1(3): p. 260-263.

6. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Vol. 4th, text revision. 2000, Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

7. Hayes, R.D., et al., What can prevalence studies tell us about female sexual difficulty and dysfunction? Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2006. 3(4): p. 589-595.

8. Richters, J., et al., Sexual practices at last heterosexual encounter and occurrence of orgasm in a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 2006. 43(3): p. 217-226.