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Orgasm gap: The insidious reason women have fewer orgasms than men

It’s the clitoris, stupid!
Credit: dvulikaia / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Heterosexual men have far more orgasms during partnered sex than heterosexual women, resulting in a significant pleasure disparity.
  • New research suggests that the explanation for the gap is simple: Men don’t take the time to stimulate women’s clitorises. The clitoris is the primary anatomical source of female sexual pleasure.
  • The reasons for this inattention are more complicated. It seems that cultural norms around gender place the focus on men’s pleasure and vaginal sex while downplaying women’s desire for their own pleasure.

There exists a significant “orgasm gap” between heterosexual women and heterosexual men. A 2005 study found that 39% of women usually or always experience an orgasm during partnered sex compared with 91% of men. A more recent survey conducted in 2018 discovered that the gap had narrowed, but a sizable 30-point divide remained.

So what will it take for women to reach “pleasure parity” with men? Identifying the reasons for the disparity in the first place would be a good place to start. For years, this effort has been undertaken by psychologists, sex experts, and columnists, often with mere opinions and anecdotes.

Now, McMaster University sociologists Nicole Andrejek, Tina Fetner, and Melanie Heath have added some real rigor to the conversation. In a study recently published to the journal Gender & Society, the trio surveyed 2,303 Canadian adults broadly representative of the country’s population, then conducted in-depth interviews with 40 of the participants, all with the aim of understanding and maybe even one day resolving the male-female orgasm gap.

Three orgasm hypotheses

Just like in the prior studies, the researchers again discovered a large pleasure divide between men and women: 86% of men reported having an orgasm in their most recent sexual encounter, while only 62% of women did.

Their survey also addressed the three leading hypotheses for the orgasm gap: that women would have more orgasms if they masturbated more, that — unlike men — they are more likely to orgasm with a committed partner, and lastly, that they would be more likely to orgasm if men made more of an effort to stimulate the clitoris, the primary anatomical source of human female sexual pleasure.

The results resoundingly supported the third explanation. Women who reported masturbating in the previous month were no more likely to achieve orgasm compared to women who did not. Women in committed relationships were also no more likely to reach orgasm than women who were just hooking up. However, women who received oral sex in their prior encounter were 16% more likely to have had an orgasm.

“The gender gap in orgasm remains primarily associated with a lesser emphasis on clitoral stimulation,” the researchers summarized. Their finding is supported by prior research showing that homosexual women have vastly more orgasms during partnered sex than heterosexual women.

Why aren’t men up to the job?

So why don’t men take the time to pleasure their female partners? To try to answer this question, the researchers turned to in-depth interviews. Three overarching narratives emerged.

First, both male and female interviewees described men’s orgasms as natural and obvious and women’s orgasms as unnecessary, secondary to emotional connection. Indeed, an orgasm was almost seen as a requirement to maintain men’s masculinity and self-esteem.

“Our findings point to the fact that men and women’s limited expectations for women’s orgasms have less to do with women’s inherent inability or lack of desire to orgasm but to the norms of heterosexuality and gender that limit and confine expectations along gender lines,” the researchers commented.

Second, participants widely defined “regular sex” as only penile-vaginal intercourse, with the penis as the primary focus. Sexual activities that prioritize clitoral stimulation, such as oral sex, the use of vibrators, or manual stimulation were described as more “time-consuming” and “extra work” for couples. Moreover, the female orgasm was erroneously viewed as “unnecessary and challenging.”

Third, a significant subset of the female interviewees expressed shame at using practices other than vaginal intercourse to achieve orgasm, including oral sex or vibrators, describing them as “unnatural” or “dirty.”

“We still must move past a taboo about women’s sexuality,” the researchers wrote. “Discomfort with their own sexual pleasure and embodied shame lead women to rein in their sexual appetite. Women as a group feel less entitled to the types of sex that lead them to orgasm, relative to men. Even in the most private, intimate settings, our findings show that gender and heteronormativity shape how individuals act.”


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