Living the orgasm gap: why are women still settling for less in the bedroom?

A 3D model of a clitoris. (Image: Marie Docher and Odile Fillod)

Just 24 years ago, Australian urologist Helen O’Connell redefined female sexuality when she claimed the anatomy of the clitoris was more complex than that which we had been told for centuries. This organ isn’t just the small piece of erectile tissue we see above the urethral opening, after all — about 90 per cent of the clitoris is hidden from view, full of nerves, extending beneath the pubic bone and wrapping around the vaginal opening. The pleasure women feel through penetration comes from previously aroused, engorged bulbs, and is not limited to contact with the small nub commonly joked about as a mystery to men who can never seem to find it.

More shocking than the realization that the anatomy of the clitoris has been misunderstood for so long is the reality that millions of women never learned about the mechanisms of their bodies, which actually enables us to feel deeper and more varied pleasure than men.

Despite having an organ whose sole function is orgasm, a concerning number of heterosexual women don’t reach the climax during sexual intercourse. Studies confirm the disparity in orgasms between the sexes — the so-called orgasm gap.

While a man is likely to orgasm regardless of his relationship to the woman he is having sex with, women in long-term relationships are more likely to experience orgasm than women experiencing a first-time hookup. This tells us that the more encounters a woman has with her male partner, the more he (and she!) learns how to engage in sexual intercourse that results in satisfaction for both partners.

Durex conducted a study that found 20 per cent of women said they don’t orgasm, compared to two per cent of men. Other research shows even worse results (for women): only 10 per cent of women “easily climax,” and, astoundingly, 10 to 15 per cent of women have never had an orgasm at all. Specific numbers aside, all the research shows heterosexual men are the group most likely to always orgasm during sex.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m blaming neither women nor men for orgasm inequity. Much of this is due to women’s lack of understanding about our own bodies as well. Three years ago, a UK study found that six in 10 men and half of the women polled couldn’t even correctly identify the vagina on a diagram of female anatomy. The sexual revolution fought to normalize contraception and abortion, sex practices outside of traditional heterosexual intercourse, and masturbation, yet women’s sexual pleasure remains a low priority.

Even though women have fought for emancipation from male control and modern sexism, we still live in a world where the female body is constantly objectified through social media, which we all use, and pop culture we all get caught up in. Women are still presented as and understand themselves to be objects to be touched and seen, whereas men are subjects — the performers of the action, particularly when it comes to sex. Women are taught to perform sexuality, men are taught to prioritize their own pleasure.

These dynamics normalize the male orgasm as necessary and inevitable, and the female orgasm as a bonus — much less important than men’s visual and physical pleasure. Both traits can be traced back to the porn industry. Most women in porn are primarily categorized via ethnicity, sexual ability, and their size or body type. Not only does pornography disparage female sexual experience but it also treats the female orgasm as a rare occurrence, connected to performance — female ejaculation is a porn category in and of itself, representing the orgasm as a novelty.

Hollywood doesn’t help — casting women based on body type, showing women orgasming the moment a male character’s penis penetrates her vagina, and normalizing faking orgasms. Most of us have likely seen endless sex scenes showing a man dominating women physically and sexually — directing the action, as it were — while women provide visual pleasure for the audience.

This phenomenon has been extended to social media where increasing numbers of women self-objectify for a heterosexual male audience to gain popularity, validation, and followers. Most virtual social networks are visually centered, which encourages female objectification and sexualization.

So how is all this related to the orgasm gap?

Female sexual function and pleasure isn’t just about biology. We all learn by growing up in this culture and absorbing its values. When women live in a society that values us primarily as sexual objects, we learn our worth is defined through the male gaze — dependent on being aesthetically pleasing and able to please men in the bedroom.

This is further reflected in the fact that women tend to put their male partners first — in bed and in life. Even if they want to learn how to close the orgasm gap and take their sexuality into their own hands, many of the articles that tackle the question, “Why can’t I orgasm?” focus on the “female sexual dysfunction” narrative, which assumes women don’t orgasm because they are not communicating well with their partners or are stressed. And while indeed these issues can factor into women’s inability to orgasm, telling women they are “dysfunctional” when actually most women can reach orgasm when they masturbate shows this perspective is misguided.

A more effective approach would be to tackle cultural factors, educate women (and men!) about female anatomy, and stop glorifying sexual practices that humiliate, hurt, and degrade women. Today, penetration is what defines “sex,” which wouldn’t be an issue except that the vast majority of women can’t reach climax through penetration alone — clitoral stimulation is necessary for most. With all the progress feminism has made, heterosexual women are still less likely to receive oral sex than they are to give it to their male partners.

Sure, sexual pleasure isn’t limited to the orgasm, but the facts demonstrate there is a major sexual inequality problem in our society. Women are no less deserving of sexual pleasure than men, and the fact we still don’t see things this way is discouraging. Women who are sexually empowered also have a sense of authority over their own bodies and lives. In this sense, the personal really is political.

Aleksandra Cejovic is a Montenegrin anthropologist based in the United States whose work is focused primarily on female embodied experiences, mainly menstrual and sexual health.

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