We humans

We need to talk about the orgasm gap — and how to fix it

Jun 6, 2019 /
A Black woman takes a selfie where she smiles wryly at the camera. She is not wearing clothes and covers her chest with her hand. She has dark brown curly hair which frames her face, and is lying in a bed with white sheets.

Women are slowly moving towards parity in the boardroom, but not in the bedroom. Why are straight women having less satisfying sex than men? And what can we do about it?

The world is supposed to be improving for women. Incrementally, work is being done to combat sexual harassment, improve maternity-leave, and close the pay gap.

But what about the pleasure gap?

While it may sound more like innuendo than issue, the research says otherwise: when it comes to sexual pleasure, straight women are getting less of it than … well, anyone.

In a 2017 survey of sexual behavior among 52,000 adults in the US, just 65 percent of heterosexual women reported that they usually or always orgasmed during sexual intimacy. This made them the group with the lowest sexual satisfaction — behind lesbian and bisexual women, and all of the men surveyed. Their straight male partners, however, came out on top, with 95 percent reporting regular orgasm with a partner.

This trend isn’t new. In 2009, the US National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior asked 1,857 people about the pleasure of their most recent sexual encounter, and reported an almost identical discrepancy between straight women and men.

It also identified that 85 percent of men claimed their partner had an orgasm. Even when accounting for same-gender male couples, of which the survey had a small number, this leaves a significant proportion of straight men deciding — or believing — that their partner has climaxed when she hasn’t.

The same study found that women were five times more likely than men to report some degree of pain during sex. This was not pain consensually inflicted for pleasure, but actual unwanted discomfort.

So how did we get here?

Despite having many millennia of experience under our belt as a species, there’s a lot we still don’t collectively understand about sex — and particularly about women’s sexual experiences. Many aspects of sex remain shrouded in myths and misconceptions, and even those of us who consider ourselves educated about our own bodies continue to believe some of them.

Among them is the idea that it’s physiologically easier for men to orgasm — a “fact” that most people don’t think twice about. Yet research from the Kinsey Institute has found that women reach orgasm from masturbation in about the same time as men, averaging just under 4 minutes. Women in relationships with other women also report a high rate of sexual satisfaction, with 86 percent of those asked in the 2017 survey reporting that they’d had an orgasm during every sexual encounter with a partner in the past month — similar to the responses from gay and bisexual men. So women are not more “complicated” than men. Yet they’re having less pleasurable — and sometimes even painful — sex.

Sex educator Victoria Beltran from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, says there are multiple factors, and porn is likely one of them. She explains, “Porn typically only depicts male orgasm, and much of it shows some type of violence against female partners. This absolutely can skew how some men view their women partners during the act of sexual intercourse — as a giver of pleasure, not a receiver. And women who view straight porn are also seeing the same thing.” Beltran points out that male partners can also cause pain from a lack of preparation and lubrication. Many men and women, she says, don’t understand the physiological importance of at least 20 minutes of foreplay in order to make sex comfortable and enjoyable for women.

Yet it goes beyond a simple lack of anatomical understanding.

Author Peggy Orenstein spent three years talking to young women aged 15 to 20 for her book Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. “What I found was that while young women may feel entitled to engage in sexual behavior, they don’t necessarily feel entitled to enjoy it,” she explains in her TED Talk.

Young women reported a lack of respect and satisfaction in their sexual experiences. Even on dates, women said they felt pressured to provide pleasure. Orenstein was surprised when “a freshman at a West Coast college said to me, ‘A girl will give a guy a blowjob at the end of the night because she doesn’t want to have sex with him and he expects to be satisfied. So if I want him to leave and I don’t want anything to happen…’”

Elsewhere, University of Michigan researcher Sara McLelland has found that men and women use vastly different terms to describe a lack of satisfaction, with women using terms like “depressed,” “pain” and “degradation.” Men never used such negative language about themselves; instead, they cited reasons such as loneliness, having an unattractive sexual partner, and insufficient sexual stimulation.

Women’s obligation to provide sexual satisfaction, and the idea that their own pleasure is an optional extra, is deeply ingrained in the way we talk about sex culturally. When Cosmopolitan magazine asked singer and songwriter Nicki Minaj if she was “high or low maintenance in bed” in a 2015 interview, she made waves in the media by replying, “I demand that I climax. I think women should demand that … I’ve been told that I’m like a guy. Like ‘Why do you always have to climax?’ Uh, because I do. We’re both doing this for the same reason. We both want the same feeling at the end.”

What’s the answer, then, to levelling the sexual playing field?

Many of the ideas that we develop about sexuality and our bodies begin with the sex education we receive in primary school. As Orenstein points out, “Kids go into their puberty education classes and they learn that boys have erections and ejaculations, and girls have periods and unwanted pregnancy.” This kind of thinking does not open the door to a healthy sex life — for anyone.

Beltran, who also runs the educational website Healthy Sex & You, would like to see the concept of pleasure included in sex education. This is already happening in the Netherlands, where the sex-education curriculum begins as early as four years old, and the country has some of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the world. While there are other reasons behind this success — reproductive healthcare is more accessible and less stigmatized for young people than it is in the US — their approach to sex education is definitely a factor, according to Beltran.

She says, “A lot of their curriculum isn’t even dedicated to discussion of sexual intercourse. They begin with the skills and tools it takes to be prepared to talk about sex and pleasure with a partner, to advocate for your own pleasure, to accept a ‘no’ and get enthusiastic consent, and have meaningful intimacy. They also do outreach to the parents to help them have those talks with their children.”

And it appears to work, says Orenstein. She explains, “Consider a survey of 300 randomly chosen girls from a Dutch and an American University; two similar universities talking about their early experience of sex. The Dutch girls embodied everything we say we want from our girls. They had fewer negative consequences like disease, pregnancy, regret; more positive outcomes like being able to communicate with their partner, who they said they knew very well, preparing for the experience, and responsibly enjoying themselves. What was their secret? The Dutch girls said that their doctors, teachers and parents spoke candidly to them from an early age about sex, pleasure and the importance of mutual trust. What’s more, while American parents weren’t necessarily less comfortable talking about sex, we tend to frame those conversations entirely in terms of risk and danger whereas Dutch parents talk about balancing responsibility and joy.”

Of course, sex-ed isn’t limited to the conversations that educators and parents have with young people — pornography is also forming part of their education. Rather than denying that teens are accessing and learning from porn, Beltran contends that we need to provide young people with a comprehensive understanding of the artificial way in which porn is created.

She says, “Porn is usually the first time someone sees a sexual act or a naked body, usually by the age of 14. Most [young people] are certainly not being educated on how much preparation, communication,and scripting go on behind the scenes. I would love the porn industry to tackle this head on by making sex-ed videos that expose the “back of the house” stuff, like discussions and agreements made by talent on what sex acts will take place, when, how much, etc. This is consent. Young people should have porn literacy so they can be better sexual consumers.”

So, is it even possible to close the pleasure gap? What would it take?

There’s a lot of work still to be done, says Beltran. “Pleasure requires trust, but in our society, we talk about sex in a way that creates shame and secrecy. Unfortunately, without comprehensive sex education in middle and high schools, I doubt we’ll get close to providing a safe enough environment for young people who are curious about sexual activity to practice it safely and therefore figure out what is pleasurable.” She believes we need to start with how we teach children to understand, regard and care for themselves. This includes talking about intersex identities, and exploring gender and sexuality across a very fluid spectrum.

In addition, encouraging a sexually healthy society is work that needs to be done well into adulthood. “As sexual beings, we as humans aren’t static, so our sex education shouldn’t be either … We just need to let go of the fears and shames and anxieties that we have around our body,” says Billie Quinlan, co-founder and CEO of Ferly, an online guide which aims to promote sexual wellbeing, in her TEDxClapham talk. “We need to be able to openly express ourselves, asking what we want and don’t want, and we need the science around our arousal and desires so we know why our body is reacting the way it does to sex.” This also means considering our partner’s pleasure to be as important as our own — not more, not less.

Beltran concurs. She adds, “Building self-esteem has to be a priority, especially in a society that tries its hardest to make you feel bad about yourself. Becoming empowered, working on self-esteem and healthy body image, and having relationships that are emotionally supportive and psychologically healthy can help all people get more pleasure in their sex lives, because they can help them get more out of their relationships in general.”

Watch Peggy Orenstein’s TEDWomen talk now:

Watch Victoria Beltran’s TEDxUSFSP talk now:

Watch Billie Quinlan’s TEDxClapham talk now: