What is the orgasm gap? Here's why experts say we may want to reevaluate the very definition of sex.

The orgasm gap between men and women
Straight women are having fewer orgasms than men are. Here's why. (Photo illustration: Victoria Ellis/Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images)

When it comes to men and women having orgasms during sex, there is a gap that’s hard to ignore.

According to a 2017 study published by the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 95% of heterosexual men usually or always orgasmed when sexually intimate, while just 65% of heterosexual women did.

While the researchers call out this "notable" gap, other studies suggest this doesn't necessarily mean it’s more challenging for women who have sex with men to orgasm in general — because they’re doing perfectly fine on their own. A separate study of more than 800 college women found that 39% of them said they always orgasm during masturbation — while just 6% said they always orgasm during sex with a partner.

In fact, research suggests that women who have sex with men aren’t getting off on penetrative sex alone — which means many aren’t orgasming with their partners at all.

Why is the orgasm gap happening?

Laurie Mintz, sexual psychologist and author of the book Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters — and How to Get It, has studied the “consistent scientific literature” that points to women who have sex with men orgasming less frequently — and she has thoughts about why this kind of sex isn’t necessarily helping women reach orgasm.

“It’s our cultural ignorance in ignoring and devaluing a woman’s most reliable route to orgasm, which is clitoral stimulation, and expecting women to orgasm the same way men do through penetration alone,” she says. “The clitoris, not the vagina, is the equivalent of the penis. Depending on the type of study, you can get different numbers, but in my research, 96% of women need clitoris stimulation alone or coupled with penetration. Just 4% orgasm from penetration alone.”

While it’s true that women who have sex with other women are more likely to orgasm from partner sex, that doesn’t mean the penis is to blame for lack of orgasms. Instead, Mintz says “horrible sex education” means that young people may be relying on pornography to teach them about pleasure and sexual intimacy, which can include inaccurate portrayals of how women achieve orgasm.

“In porn, the man sticks the penis in the vagina without any warm-up, and she has an instant orgasm,” Mintz says. “For most women, not only will that not result in an orgasm, it’s going to result in pain.”

How our culture contributes to the orgasm gap

It’s challenging to get past the notion that penetrative sex is the only kind of sex between a man and woman since, culturally, that’s what has been typically valued.

“We use the words sex and intercourse as if it’s one and the same,” Mintz says. “If we overvalued women's orgasms the way we overvalue men's route to orgasm, we would call foreplay sex and intercourse postplay. We refer to women’s genitals, linguistically, as the vagina, and we’re linguistically erasing the part of ourselves that gives us the most pleasure” — namely, the clitoris.

Becoming “cliterate” — aka paying attention to the clitoris, whether that’s through oral sex or manual stimulation — is one way to help close the orgasm gap, notes Mintz, who adds that the gap between men and women is greatest in hookup culture, as opposed to longer-term relationships.

Yet whether you’re having sex with a longtime partner or a brand new person, communicating one’s needs in bed isn’t always easy for women. Sex and relationship therapist Deb Laino, author of The Missing Link: A Fusion of Sexuality, Psychology, Lifespan Development and You, explains that women have long been discouraged from asking for what they want because of the stigma against sexual women, who have been called “slut and various other names” for expressing their desires. That’s directly impacting the pleasure they receive from sex, say experts.

“There is a mind-body disconnect for many women based on the direct messages and indirect messages around sexuality in general,” Laino says. “Women should explore their bodies and get connected to what makes them feel good sexually.”

Changing the culture around sexuality — so that it’s not just focused on a man getting off but on the pleasure of both parties — can help women ask for what they need to orgasm, without shame or guilt.

Mintz says: “Women often tell me they think it would be pushy to ask a man for clitoral stimulation during a hookup — and I'm like, ‘Well, they're asking you for blow jobs before intercourse. Why is it pushy?’ I honestly believe that the orgasm gap is a reflection of patriarchy and sexism. That is so deeply ingrained in the very fabric of our culture that we don't sometimes even notice it.”

How we close the gap

In order to close the orgasm gap, Dr. Laura Purdy, chief medical officer at Wisp, also stresses that communication is vital. A recent survey from Wisp found that 39% of people do not discuss how they can better achieve orgasms with their partner. The same survey from Wisp found that 47% of people with vaginas say they orgasm more during foreplay than penetration.

“Communicating — before, during and after sex — can ensure that everyone is enjoying their sexual experience,” says Purdy. “I recommend starting with a simple statement, like ‘I haven’t orgasmed with a partner yet, but I really want to explore with you,’ or suggesting, ‘I’ve been having some trouble with orgasm lately — can we try this?’ Focusing on foreplay for people with vaginas can ensure that the clitoris is stimulated before penetration, to make sure the penetration is enjoyable as well.”

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