Some Thoughts on the Orgasm Gap


From The Age: “A new sexuality survey has confirmed what women know and some men fear’single females have far more luck achieving orgasm than those partnered off.”

This news story has been showing its disquieting self in all kinds of places, followed by depression, indifference, argument, curiosity, vindication or bravado depending on who’s commenting. The article contains palliative professional speculation as to why, mostly revolving around women being better able to concentrate on the task at hand when they’re alone, but I’m not sure anyone is really buying it.

I’m not. Yes, women can relax more easily alone, and can provide themselves with more precise stimulation, but the same is true of men.

Still, when people worry about men not getting enough of something in relationships, it’s sex itself, not orgasms. People don’t seem to worry much about men getting off. There is an uneasy focus on women where orgasms are concerned, and I have as theory as to why.

Women don’t get off as often when they’re partnered because they’re less likely to come during the sexual activity most common to straight couples: vaginal intercourse. Men can usually count on an orgasm during intercourse. They even rely on it. Women, however, cannot.

The discovery that women do not enjoy sex in the same way as men has not been a source of universal joy on either side. Rather, it’s considered a cause for rancor, mean-spirited negotiation, accusations of insensitivity, and a lot of similar garbage. With some notable exceptions, women are expressing a lot of pent-up resentment and men are discovering a new source of the same.

A lot of that resentment has to do with a simple fact that no one can seem to get around: the activity most commonly engaged in that most easily results in orgasm for men rarely does for women. There are other factors involved, but the low percentage of women who can orgasm reliably from vaginal penetration combined with the low percentage of men who can stay awake after they orgasm leaves a lot of women engaging in sex without ever coming at all. Knowing this, it gets easier to understand how partnered women might come up with a relatively low orgasm count. A good portion of their sexual activity is unlikely to get them off.

Are men and women really such a bad match? I don’t think so. Take the Rabbit, for example, the vibrator made famous by Sex and the City. Poor Charlotte didn’t leave her bed for days. There are men out there who loathe that toy, who see it as their most deadly rival, but stop and think for a moment. What can the Rabbit do that a man can’t?

Not much, it turns out. The mix of penetration and clitoral stimulation the Rabbit provides is relatively simple. Two fingers and a tongue will work, or even just fingers. So will a penis and a thumb if you want to get fancy about it. If you really feel adventurous or lazy, you can start adding things from the adult toy store, but there’s no real need. Everything required to replace what may well be the most famous vibrator available comes as standard equipment on the male body. Applying it to best effect is mostly a matter of learning the preferences of that particular women.

Women know this, thus much of their resentment, but I think women often underestimate the level of identity wrapped up in male sexual behavior. There’s a very specific, cultural construction labeled Male Sexual Performance that directs what a man is supposed to do in bed and how his partner is supposed to respond. The excitement-plateau-orgasm-resolution model of sexual response developed by Masters and Johnson is probably a good outline for it, especially if excitement transitions into plateau via what’s commonly called foreplay and orgasm occurs during intercourse. Follow this with some brain-dead cuddling, and the encounter is at an end.

It may apply just fine to men. I don’t think, however, that it applies to women nearly as well. Penetrative activities are much less of a thrill and orgasm doesn’t knock us out cold, which means that both can take place at any point in the activities. We need arousal to keep things from getting physically unpleasant, but otherwise any order is fine. Penetration, orgasm and erotic play can happen at any time without spoiling it for us. For the most part, we can mix things up quite a bit.

Even if you decide to get linear about it, the order comes out different. I’d say that for most women, the ideal approach would be to follow arousal with orgasm, and then follow that with whatever makes him come, essentially having intercourse during our so-called resolution stage. At the very least, it’s a lot less stressful than trying to time the untimable during an activity that makes it next to impossible to achieve anyway.

A lot of theories have been put forth over the years as an attempt to explain why women don’t respond to the same things in the same way that men do. I would say that the trouble started with Freud, but I can track it back to the Kama Sutra. Among other things, that hallowed tome considers whether women experienced sexual desire or whether sex merely scratched an itch, possibly caused by tiny worms in menstrual blood. No, I’m not making this up. There’s a little poem about it in the footnotes of my copy.

The most notable thing about this discussion that it’s entirely one-sided. Women themselves had very little voice in the matter, an omission that continued for centuries. The work of Masters and Johnson was an improvement in that it helped debunk Freud’s notion of the “mature” vaginal orgasm, but it still declared about 70% of the female population sexually dysfunctional on the grounds that they failed to orgasm during the activity that was most likely to result in male orgasm.

In light of what we now know, this sounds silly, but sometimes we behave as if we were still thinking in terms of parasitic infestations. Other things haven’t evolved much, either, including the idea that because orgasm ends sex for men, it must therefore do the same for women, so women shouldn’t come during straight sex just to make sure that men, with their greater urgency, get off. Or we tell ourselves that women, being so much more emotional, don’t really need orgasms in order to enjoy sex, a half-truth that causes far more problems than it solves.

I think a lot of the fear and distrust of female sexuality has to do with the fact that it is something distinct and different. While men and women do experience pretty much the same things, they experience them in different ways and with different emphasis. Female sexuality isn’t merely receptive or responsive, an adjunct to male pleasure and reproductive function. It has a structure and function all its own.

Why should this be a problem? Really, everyone can get their kicks, provided that the participants let go of the idea that the female body should respond like a male one. Heck, half the fun of being straight is exploring this new territory, finding out how this fascinatingly different body works. If we keep those differences in mind, we can please each other better, to the point where results of studies like these are met with a collective shrug. The outcome, whatever it is, will no longer disturb us.

This study reflects a part of heterosexual experience we take for granted but are collectively uncomfortable with. We continue to make excuses, but we also continue to squirm whenever anyone points out that women in straight relationships are maybe not having so much fun, that maybe the balance is tilted so far in one direction that they are having sex as a favor to their partners, not as a pleasure in itself.

In a lot of cases, this is probably true, especially in a physical sense. I don’t think, though, that only one sex is at fault. Both operate with a dose of guilt that has an effect on the heart similar to mainlining cholesterol, and the more commitment there is to the cultural constructions of sex, the thicker the mix.

We can pull the needle out, though. It involves a lot of forgiveness followed by a lot of embarrassment, discomfort and other difficult emotions, but I see no physical reason why the pleasure gap can’t be closed. It’s okay that women don’t usually come from intercourse, because they don’t have to. When you think about it, it makes things a whole lot easier if they don’t.

Modern sexual research keeps uncovering this problem, but it’s also showing us the solution. Knowledge is power, in bed as well as out.

Knowing that married women have significantly fewer orgasms is unnerving, but if we pair it with what we know about how women orgasm and how it affects their experience of sex, we can do something about that discomfort other than sweeping the orgasm gap under the rug again.

We probably should. It’s the sort of thing where if we don’t satisfy it, it will just keep popping up and embarrassing us.

Ann Regentin
May/June 2007

© 2007 Ann Regentin. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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