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What Science Has Discovered About the Female Orgasm

Working to close the "orgasm gap" one sex research study at a time.

The finding that women, particularly heterosexual women, report having significantly fewer orgasms than men has been receiving some much-needed attention in the media. The phenomenon has been coined the “orgasm gap.”

While the relative lack of orgasms women report experiencing is unfortunate, the good news is that the field of sex research has seen an influx of studies on women’s orgasm this year. The findings not only help us better understand where women’s difficulties in reaching orgasms may lie, but they also shed light on what women who experience more consistent and pleasurable orgasms are doing, should others want to learn to enhance their orgasmic capacity.

Here are some of the biggest findings on women's orgasm that came out of sex research in 2019:

Body movement appears to be associated with orgasm during vaginal intercourse

In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Sex Research, researchers explored what factors may be related to more consistent orgasms in a sample of 1,239 women. The researchers were particularly interested in the role of direct clitoral stimulation and certain body movements that often occur during vaginal intercourse.

Specifically, the authors investigated women’s reports of "back-and-forth swinging movements of the pelvis and trunk" as well as the presence of more direct or "precise" rubbing of the clitoris.

The researchers’ findings suggested that women experienced more frequent orgasms during vaginal intercourse when they incorporated direct clitoral stimulation whether or not they reported body movement or body immobilization.

However, the back and forth body movement previously described, as opposed to body immobilization, was also associated with a higher frequency of orgasm during vaginal intercourse even without simultaneous, direct clitoral stimulation.

Pursuing an orgasm increases women’s chances of having an orgasm

You may be familiar with the advice that putting too much pressure on having an orgasm can work against us, perhaps even making orgasms less likely to occur. That’s because, by making orgasm the main focus of sexual activity, we can end up putting so much weight on where we’re going that we don’t relax enough to enjoy the ride.

However, new research suggests that due to women’s tendency to devalue their sexual pleasure, particularly with a male partner, not prioritizing orgasms or making orgasms a goal of sexual activity may be working against us.

Across two studies, Gusakova and colleagues explored the degree to which women pursued an orgasm when having penetrative sex with a male partner. Then they looked to see to what degree this might impact orgasm frequency.

The researchers found that women who reported that having an orgasm was a goal they had in mind when having sex were more likely to say that they had an orgasm in their most recent sexual encounter.

The findings suggest that while we may not want to make having an orgasm the only goal of sexual activity, making it a priority (versus not thinking about having an orgasm at all) makes it more likely to occur for women.

Faking an orgasm isn’t necessarily bad—it just depends on why women are faking

Socially speaking we’ve become pretty unanimous in the opinion that faking orgasms is not a good thing. The rationale is that if we fake an orgasm our partner has a false understanding of what we like or what techniques work for us rather than knowing what we truly find pleasurable.

However, researchers at the University of Texas have recently published findings suggesting the connection between faking and orgasms may not be so straightforward.

Using a sample of 998 young adult women, authors asked not just whether women faked an orgasm, but about their motivation for doing so. Specifically, they were interested in partner-focused reasons (i.e., faking for their partner’s benefit) and self-focused reasons (i.e., faking enjoyment as way to potentially elevate women’s own sexual arousal).

The authors finding suggest that, both when receiving oral sex and during sexual intercourse, women in this study who indicated they faked an orgasm in order to elevate their own sexual arousal had greater orgasm consistency. In contrast, women who reported faking orgasm out of fear or insecurity with their partner had lower orgasm consistency.

In other words, if you’re faking orgasm for your partner, consider stopping and instead talking to them about what actually turns you on. But if you’re faking and it’s a turn on for you (i.e., you find it exciting to make noise and be loud) then keep it up.

Not all orgasms are good orgasms

Given the importance we place on helping women achieve orgasms, it makes sense to assume that orgasms are positive and pleasurable experiences.

However, new research coming out of the University of Michigan suggests that there can be some negative experiences of orgasm as well.

Using an online sample of 726 participants representing diverse genders and identities, researchers Chadwick, Francisco and van Anders asked participants whether they had ever had an orgasm during coerced sex or compliant sex and if they ever felt pressured to have an orgasm. They analyzed results from the 289 participants who described having a bad orgasm and responded to an open-ended question asking them to describe their experience.

Based on the analysis, the authors concluded that orgasm experiences can, in fact, be bad.

Specifically, the reasons participants characterized an orgasm as unpleasant or bad included: 1) having an orgasm after being pressured into unwanted sex by a partner, 2) having an orgasm after agreeing to have sex even when participants did not want to, 3) having an orgasm after feeling pressured to have an orgasm (the authors note this could be either putting pressure on oneself or feeling pressure from one's partner).

When orgasms occurred in these circumstances participants often described the orgasm as less pleasant and even uncomfortable and suggested that their orgasm experiences had negative impacts on their relationships, sexuality, and even their psychological health.

In other words, orgasms were only enjoyable and pleasurable if they occurred during consensual sex that was enthusiastically wanted and free of any pressure or coercion.

Take Away

There is no single best way to reach orgasm. However, the research findings from this year suggest that when women prioritize their sexual pleasure—by making their orgasm a goal during sex, using direct clitoral stimulation and certain body movement during sexual penetration, approaching sex with their own needs and desires at the forefront, and avoiding trying to simply appease their partner—it may increase their orgasm capacity and ultimately decrease the orgasm gap.

Facebook image: B-D-S Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock


Annette Bischof-Campbell, Peter Hilpert, Andrea Burri & Karoline Bischof (2019) Body Movement Is Associated With Orgasm During Vaginal Intercourse in Women, The Journal of Sex Research, 56:3, 356-366, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2018.1531367

Gusakova, S. Conley, T. D., Piemonte, J. L., Matsick, J. L. (2019). The role of women's orgasm goal pursuit in women's orgasm occurrence. Personality and Individual Differences.

Michael D. Barnett, Idalia V. Maciel, Samuel Van Vleet, & Arthur D.Marsden III. (2019) Motivations for faking orgasm and orgasm consistency among young adult women. Personality and Individual Differences Volume 149, 83-87.

Chadwick, S.B., Francisco, M. & van Anders, S.M (2019). When Orgasms Do Not Equal Pleasure: Accounts of “Bad” Orgasm Experiences During Consensual Sexual Encounters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48: 2435.

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