The Orgasm Gap: The Real Reason Women Get Off Less Often Than Men and How to Fix It
April 3, 2013 |
According to a large-scale survey of American adults, women have about one orgasm for every three a man enjoys. We call this the “orgasm gap” and it’s been a point of contention since feminists identified it during the heyday of the sexual revolution.
In the U.S. we tend to explain the orgasm gap by suggesting that women’s bodies are somehow bad at orgasms. Sigmund Freud infamously posited that women should have orgasms in response to intercourse. If they didn’t, he argued, there was something fundamentally wrong with their sexuality. While his theory has been roundly debunked (as few as 25% of women will routinely have orgasms from intercourse), many female college students who don’t have orgasms this way assume there is something wrong with their sexual response. College students bring some other interesting ideas too. I’ve been asked to confirm if it’s true that women are physically incapable of orgasm before the age of 30. I’ve explained to a truly confused listener why, anatomically speaking, women are unlikely to orgasm from anal sex. I’ve clarified the location of the clitoris (30% of women and 25% of men don’t know where it is).
These are the stories we tell ourselves about the clitoris: that women’s bodies are simply more difficult. The clitoris is hard to find and complicated to operate; it’s shy and persnickety; it disappoints its owner and mocks the efforts of her partner. And perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway, we continue, because women aren’t as interested in orgasm, right? They don’t need them like men do. They’re a more giving sex. Their pleasure is more diffuse and empathic. In any case, they’re really in it for the eye contact and the cuddling.
Freudian echoes, anatomical mischaracterizations and gender stereotypes are part of the logic naturalizing the orgasm gap, but there is nothing natural about it. We know this because women who sleep with women have many more orgasms than heterosexual women, almost as many as men who sleep with women. Women also have no problem experiencing orgasm through masturbation and the same women who frequently have orgasms during masturbation report many fewer orgasms when they’re with a partner. Men are also not faster to climax than women; it takes women the same amount of time to orgasm during masturbation as it takes men, on average, to have an orgasm through intercourse: four minutes.
Instead of being driven by biology, women’s rate of orgasm relative to men is a function of social forces. For one, we often bifurcate the sexual experience in line with gender norms: men are sexual (they experience desire) and women are sexy (they inspire desire). The focus on men’s internal wants and sensations also draws our attention to his satisfaction. Thus his orgasm, but not necessarily hers, becomes a critical part of what must happen for a sexual encounter to be successful and fulfilling. This is part of why intercourse – a sexual act that is strongly correlated with orgasm for men – is the only act that almost everyone agrees counts as “real sex,” whereas activities that are more likely to produce orgasm in women are considered optional foreplay.