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When Sex Research and Sex Therapy Clash

Why Google may not be the answer to your sex questions.

Key points

  • Researching different aspects to sex has historically been difficult.
  • Now that sex research is happening and is easily accessible via Google, people are curious.
  • But what happens when your lived experience does not align with research findings?

Sex has been a taboo subject for so long that only in the last few decades has there been an ability to research different aspects of it. Comments abound, such as, “Why would you want to research that?” or on finding grants and funding, “Who is going to fund that?” and even personal attacks on the researcher, “Why would you want to study that?” have been barriers. Thankfully, all this is changing. But sex research can create clinical complications for us sex therapists.

I was asked recently, “How long does it take a woman to orgasm?” And I sighed. Because, while this may appear to be a straightforward question to answer from a sex research perspective, it is not a simple or straightforward question to answer from a sex therapy perspective.

Castleski/Shutterstock
Source: Castleski/Shutterstock

It turns out the person who asked me “How long does it take a woman to orgasm?” did what most people their age do now when they have a question: they typed that question into Google’s search box and then clicked Enter. And, of course, a bunch of articles came up in their search and they found an answer to their question. Interestingly enough, science has indeed studied this question, but as the researchers acknowledge, there is a lot still to determine even within this seemingly singular question.

For example, the sex-savvy critical thinker reading this will instantly say we need to define what an orgasm is. What exactly are we measuring? When I, your friendly sex therapist, ask about my female clients’ orgasms, they each describe orgasms somewhat differently from one individual to the next. In her book Come As You Are, author Emily Nagoski makes a great point that female orgasm can happen from clitoral stimulation, vaginal stimulation, nipple/breast stimulation, thigh stimulation, no physical stimulation, etc. You can begin to see how complicated a question this really is.

That’s issue number one. Issue number two is typically what follows. The person who asked me the orgasm question and then consulted Google had a profound emotional and psychological reaction to what she found. She became critical of herself because it took her longer than what that piece of research said. As a result, she concluded she “was not normal.” She described herself as “outside the meaty part of the bell curve” on this issue and how that made her feel "less than."

Yikes. This piece of research data brought up all kinds of emotions and even memories of sexual shame not associated with her ability to orgasm. So she and I went to work on her thoughts and feelings about her body, her sexuality, her sexual “performance,” as well as the tangled relationship dynamics between her and her partner that initiated this question. Why does this question even matter to her and/or her partner at all?

I get how the curious mind really wants to know how long it takes a woman to orgasm. Again, sex is still taboo to a certain extent, and asking a question like that seems reasonable. But this experience reminded me that when a client asks "How long does it take a woman to orgasm?" the one-size-fits all explanation Google might return can come with problems. Turning to external research may provide an answer that is unrelated to the individual’s own body, or pleasure, or the context of their sexual encounter or sexual relationship.

Instead, the better answer to the question, "How long does it take a woman to orgasm?" is, in fact, "However long it takes you.” And then, in sex therapy, we work together to help the client manage their spectatoring, anxiety, frustration, any possible relationship dynamics, and so on.

In this case, the problem was obviously not the research findings. The problem was my client’s (and possibly her partner’s) reaction to the research findings. We need to create a culture where a person can be “not normal,” or exist outside “the meaty part of the bell curve” and not experience negative consequences.

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