The Orgasm Gap
What It Is, Why It Exists, and What to Do About It
by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.
Updated November 27, 2017
Gender disparities abound in our society. The gender pay gap, for starters, shows that the labor of men is valued more than that of women. Women hold less than 20 percent of congressional seats in the U.S., which makes for a great disparity in political representation. Women are considerably underrepresented as writers and directors of film and television, and as artists in our nation’s museums. They are also more likely than men to live in poverty.
There’s another gender gap, ideologically connected to these, which at first glance, may strike readers as a sexy gender gap. However, it is deeply un-sexy. I’m talking about the orgasm gap.
The orgasm gap is a rigorously documented disparity in the rates at which men and women achieve orgasm during sexual encounters together. A nationwide survey of sexual practices found that women report only 1 orgasm for every 3 reported by a man.
Some argue that this gap exists because women take a long time to achieve orgasm, or because it is difficult to produce an orgasm in a woman. Others suggest that women don’t orgasm as frequently because we don’t “need” to in the way that men do, or that women are naturally more giving as sexual partners. Some might suggest that women are not interested in sexual climax, but rather with the cuddling that sometimes follows it.
But, lesbians are here to prove all of that wrong.
The survey of sexual practices cited above found that women who have sex with women achieve orgasm far more frequently than do women who have sex with men. This study also found that women easily and regularly achieve orgasm through masturbation — even those who suffer the orgasm gap with men. And, way back in 1953, the Kinsey study found that both men and women take about 4 minutes on average to achieve orgasm through masturbation.
So, we’ve disproved the notions that women take a long time to climax, that it is difficult for women to climax, and that they are not interested in achieving orgasm, nor do they need to. But what about the idea that women are naturally more giving sexual partners? Is there something to that?
In fact, there is. But, it’s not natural. It is social.
Women are often viewed as good listeners and care-givers because we are socialized by our families, our teachers, our coaches, our churches, popular culture, and our employers to be such. Of course, this is not universal for women, but it is a trend. Men, in contrast, are socialized to be powerful, to take action, to win, and to be right. This means that women are overwhelmingly socialized to be empathetic in their relations with others, while men are not. From a socialization and social interaction standpoint, then, it makes sense that when a woman loves a woman, she loves her better than a man.
But, then there’s the other side of the coin: the overwhelmingly selfish and self-interested nature of heterosexual masculinity.
I know. Those are sharp words. But consider the following. In her groundbreaking study of the development of sexuality and gender identity among high school students, sociologist C.J.
Pascoe found that boys peg ideal masculinity to their ability to physically and sexually dominate girls. The way that boys talk about girls in high schools positions girls as objects to be won, and positions themselves as powerful actors who are only “real men” when they get what they want.
Sociologist Lisa Wade explains that in heterosexual encounters this amounts to women inspiring desire, and men experiencing desire. Men want women, women are wanted. Given this one-sided framing of desire, it is no surprise that women’s desire (and pleasure!) often goes unaddressed. Wade also points out that the primacy of men’s desire eclipses many sexual acts, besides intercourse, that give pleasure to women and produce orgasm. She writes, “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.”
Another study, conducted by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong and colleagues, found that as care for a woman increases in a man, the orgasm gap narrows. Their survey of college students revealed that the orgasm gap is consistent with the national average for first-time hook ups, narrows to 2:1 by the fourth hook up, and for those in long-term relationships, a man is having 1.25 orgasms to the woman’s one. Further, Armstrong and her colleagues found that incorporating a variety of sex acts that pleasure women — namely oral sex and clitoral self-stimulation — vastly increases the rate of orgasm for women.
The orgasm gap exists because most men are not concerned with the pleasure and satisfaction of women. They are socialized to achieve women, not please them. Armstrong’s study clearly shows that as care for a woman and investment in her pleasure increases, the orgasm gap decreases. That’s good news. But, for this gender gap to be eradicated, the onus is not just on men to view women as people rather than objects, and to be more invested in our pleasure. It’s also on women to value ourselves, own our desires and our right to pleasure, and to demand it of our partners.