―Kirstie Collins Brote, Beware of Love in Technicolor
Our culture is replete with messages about orgasms; some more accurate than others. One common message is that orgasms are easy for men and difficult for women. Indeed, there would, at first glance, appear to be some hard science to back up this notion, often referred to as the "Orgasm Gap." For example, Laumann and colleagues1 found that men reported experiencing orgasm during 85-95% of their partnered sexual experiences. Not bad. Other research has reported that the numbers are not as high for women, with women in heterosexual relationships reporting that they experience orgasm in only 40-65% of their partnered sexual encounters.2 Is it truly that much more difficult for women to experience orgasm? Are female orgasms just an elusive "sometimes" experience compared to the nearly sure-thing male orgasm?
In response to the Orgasm Gap, some have tried to argue that we should not be as orgasm-centric in evaluating our sex lives, and there is merit to this argument. Your ability to connect with and enjoy sexual activity with another person should not be valued only based on the occurrence of orgasm, such that any sexual encounter with an orgasm is deemed a success and any encounter without one is deemed a failure. To evaluate our sex lives in such a way would ignore the multi-faceted experiences of sexuality and intimacy.
Yet, at the same time, when we tell women that "orgasms aren't everything," we must be careful in assessing precisely why we are sending that message—and why we are sending it to women, in particular, far more often than we send it to men. Are we telling women that orgasms aren't everything because we want to empower women to enjoy all of the other sensual aspects of their sexuality, or are we just trying to convince them to go on with their orgasm-less sex lives as though that's all they can really ever expect?
To really understand what kind of advice we should be offering to women who experience difficulty achieving orgasm or who experience it less frequently than they would like to, we need to know a little bit more about orgasms.
If you've had two orgasms, you probably already know that one orgasm does not tell you everything there is to know about all of the possible orgasms that you might experience in your life. Orgasms seem to come in many varieties and yet research has rarely stopped to ask people which orgasms they enjoy the most.
That is until recently when my colleagues and I conducted a study on not only the frequency of orgasm experiences but also the satisfaction derived from orgasms resulting from a plethora of different sexual activities. As it turns out, not all orgasms are created equal, and not all sexual activities generate equally satisfying orgasms.
One of the key features that set this study apart from others on orgasms and sexual satisfaction was that it included the perspectives of individuals in same-sex relationships as well as the more commonly studied perspectives of those in mixed-sex relationships. As such, we were able to compare women's experiences of orgasm based on the gender of their partner: a man, or another woman.
This turned out to be a crucial piece of information, as the experience of sex without orgasm was only common for women in relationships with men, not women in relationships with other women. Not only that, but by also examining orgasms that result from different kinds of sexual activities, we also learned that women are equally capable of experiencing satisfying orgasms when they masturbate—regardless of the type of relationship that they are in. In other words, it doesn't seem that heterosexual women have anything physically holding them back from experiencing satisfying orgasms, but rather, it seems that women in relationships with men are less likely to engage in sexual activities that produce the most satisfying orgasms for women.
What are these "most satisfying orgasms" you ask? In general, women rate the orgasms that they experience as a result of receiving oral sex as being the most satisfying. Indeed, heterosexual men were the only group of participants in the study who highly rated the satisfaction of orgasms derived from vaginal penetration!
The type of relationship a participant was in (same-sex or mixed-sex) was also associated with the satisfaction they reported from different types of orgasms. For example, even though all women tended to report that orgasms from oral sex were the most satisfying, women in same-sex relationships still reported greater satisfaction with such orgasms than women in mixed-sex relationships.
We are not entirely sure what the cause of this difference may be, but some possible explanations include varying levels of comfort with one's body and genitals, a lack of desire among women in mixed-sex relationships to "return the favor" of oral sex (as women in mixed-sex relationships reported very low satisfaction with giving oral sex), the shorter duration of time that mixed-sex couples spend having sex compared to same-sex couples,3 or good ole' adherence to heterosexual scripts that tend to prioritize the male orgasm.
However, before you conclude that things are looking rather dim for women in mixed-sex relationships, there are some silver linings worth highlighting. One is that men in mixed-sex relationships reported high satisfaction with giving oral sex, as well as a desire to do so more frequently. You read that right: Men want to go down on their female partners more. This seems like a win-win situation, but perplexingly, women in mixed-sex relationships didn't report wanting to receive more oral sex. This may relate back to social norms about women's sexual roles and the expectations of women to be passive, rather than active agents who seek out and ask for the activities (i.e., oral sex) that will bring them the greatest sexual satisfaction.
Thus, while orgasms don't need to be the only focal point of all sexual activity, we should also be wary of discouraging people from seeking out activities that might increase their likelihood of experiencing more satisfying orgasms, especially if we feel that we might be motivated to provide such advice on the faulty assumption that orgasms are more difficult for women than they are for men. In addition to learning more about the variety of orgasms in general, this study provides a great example of how using LGBTQ-inclusive research methods can help shed light on everyone's experiences and well-being, both within and beyond the LGBTQ community.
Want to learn more?
Check out the Video Abstract below.
1: Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
2: Haning, R. V., O’Keefe, S. L., Randall, E. J., Kommor, M. J., Baker, E., & Wilson, R. (2007). Intimacy, orgasm likelihood, and conflict predict sexual satisfaction in heterosexual male and female respondents. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 33(2), 93–113. doi:10.1080/00926230601098449
Blair, K. L., Cappell, J., & Pukall, C. F. (2018). Not all orgasms were created equal: Differences in frequency and satisfaction of orgasm experiences by sexual activity in same-sex versus mixed-sex relationships. The Journal of Sex Research, 55(6), 719-733.
3: Blair, K. L., & Pukall, C. F. (2014). Can less be more? Comparing duration vs. frequency of sexual encounters in same-sex and mixed-sex relationships. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 23(2), 123-136.