Across the globe, women have disproportionately suffered from a longstanding disparity in stark comparison to those in Queer relationships: the orgasm gap. If you are not familiar with this phenomenon, it is defined in a study by Grace M. Wetzel et al. as being “the well-established discrepancy in orgasm frequency between cisgender men and women when engaging in heterosexual partnered sex, with men having more orgasms than women on average.” While this should not be a foreign concept, spending four years in a predominantly cisgender, heterosexual, capitalism-centric campus has helped me put into perspective just how pressing it is that we have intentional conversations about our pleasure, especially when these forces permeate into all aspects of our daily lives.
The term “orgasm gap” is predominantly used to refer to the discrepancy in orgasm rates between heterosexual women and men. While the term typically encompasses women’s sexual experiences with men, other types of orgasm gaps also exist, such as the gaps between (a) women engaged in partnered sex versus masturbation, (b) women engaged in sex with other women versus with men and (c) women engaged in casual versus relationship sex, etc. according to the research literature.
I will specifically be exploring the socio-cultural significance of the orgasm discrepancies in heterosexual couples. I will also be cross-analyzing similar data representing those in the Queer community to illustrate that the orgasm gap is most prevalent in heterosexual relationships. This will highlight that, for the most part, straight men are indeed most responsible for this gap.
More specifically, the differences in sexual behavior among those with varying sexualities are an indication of how deeply ingrained the patriarchy is in our daily rituals. To the men reading this, I would like to give some of you the benefit of the doubt; I am sure you may genuinely want to make your partner climax — whether that is to inflate your sense of self or actually meet their needs is another question — but you must first recognize that society has misguided you in how to achieve this outcome consistently, if at all.
Moving forward, I ask that you read this article with the same level of consideration and sensitivity as you would when learning about any other social injustice. The way we approach the pleasure of others is a reflection of how we perceive the personhood and bodily autonomy of those we share such vulnerable experiences with. To not acknowledge this fact is to deprive intimacy of its nuance, complexities and most importantly, its humanity.
While doing extensive research on this topic, I have found that the language in these studies can feel a bit dense. Therefore, I will try my best to make this writing accessible to all audiences by omitting any overzealous scientific jargon. If you are more curious about the specific details of each of the studies, they can be found referenced throughout the article. I would also like to preface that there is a clear discrepancy in the extent of research conducted among heterosexual couples versus Queer couples, which makes the data more difficult to cross-examine across identities. Nonetheless, that does not mean there is insufficient data to prove that straight men are significantly more responsible for the orgasm gap than any other group.
In a study conducted by sexual health researchers, David A. Frederick et al. examined a representative sample of adults in the United States, concluding that “heterosexual men were most likely to say they usually-always orgasmed when sexually intimate (95%), followed by gay men (89%), bisexual men (88%), lesbian women (86%), bisexual women (66%) and heterosexual women (65%).” Further, regardless of whether you’re in a committed relationship or a casual fling, on average, 95% of heterosexual men ejaculate from sex, while only 18% of women orgasm from vaginal intercourse alone.
If you’re a man reading this and you’re thinking “nah bro my stroke game is crazy, I can make any girl cream,” please allow me to dispel the illusion you have created by providing some peer-reviewed, statistical findings.
When having sex with a familiar partner, there were no significant differences between orgasm rates for heterosexual (86%), gay (85%) or bisexual (78%) men. On the contrary, orgasms rates among women differed across sexualities, where lesbian women reported experiencing orgasms at a statistically significant higher rate (75%) than heterosexual (62%) or bisexual (58%) women. Another, more recent study conducted by Elizabeth A. Mahar et al. in 2020, used a sample of 800 undergraduate students, and found that 91% of men versus 39% of women reported usually or always experiencing orgasm in partnered sex. Gay men were also 28% more likely than heterosexual men to say their partners always orgasm and 16% more likely to say they usually-always orgasm. Interestingly, in the context of a familiar partner, a recent large-scale survey of 2,850 individuals revealed that lesbian women are more likely than both heterosexual and bisexual women to orgasm during partnered sex, a finding subsequently replicated in an even larger survey of over 50,000 dating, married, remarried or cohabiting people.
Mahar et al. also found that for women identifying as bisexual who had engaged in one-night stands with both men and women, 64% reported frequently or always orgasming when their partner was a woman while only 7% of these same women reported frequently or always orgasming when their partner was a man. In short, research finds that women’s orgasm rates seem to be context-dependent (i.e., sex with a man vs. another woman, casual vs. relationship sex), with women being least likely to orgasm during casual sex with male partners.
You may be wondering what some of the reasons for these discrepancies are, to which we can point to our social organization of sexuality and cultural scripts surrounding the act of sex. The disproportionate value we have placed on a man’s pleasure versus a woman’s informs how we behave in the bedroom. This valuation is often based on one’s exposure to the idea that women’s bodies are meant for procreation and, in turn, that sex is intended to be pleasing only to the man. It has been found that many women have even internalized this belief with existing research indicating that women feel an obligation to soothe the male ego by orgasming during intercourse.
One qualitative study found that female participants reported being concerned about hurting their male partner’s confidence if they did not have an intercourse-based orgasm. Further, these women believed that asking their partners for clitoral stimulation would “hurt their partners’ feelings,” where this prioritization of their partner suggests a lack of entitlement to sexual pleasure. Since women’s bodies have been commodified throughout history for the sake of procreation, many of our instincts in the bedroom derive from this generational trauma. Women are also less likely to communicate to their partners how they need to be stimulated in order to orgasm, each of these being factors positively correlated with reaching orgasm.
The overwhelming concentration on penetrative sex in heterosexual relationships, stemming from the emphasis on male pleasure and women’s ability to procreate, further explains these findings. While reports vary depending on how the question is worded, studies overwhelmingly suggest that only about 18% of women indicate that vaginal penetration alone is sufficient for orgasm to occur. Furthermore, when a convenience sample of over 500 undergraduate students was asked to indicate “their most reliable route to orgasm,” only 4% indicated penetration alone. Instead, 43% said they most reliably orgasmed when pairing penetration with clitoral stimulation (e.g., with hands or vibrators), and 34% said they most reliably orgasmed during sexual activities focusing exclusively on clitoral stimulation (e.g., oral sex, manual stimulation, vibrator stimulation). On top of this, it has been found that men largely overestimate the consistency of orgasms for their partners, most likely as a result of their misconceptions on how to please. Men tend to feel emasculated when they are unable to perform well during sex — whether this means not lasting long enough or thrusting hard enough — therefore, this overinflation of self-perceived skill aims to protect their self-image.
So why does this matter? While the orgasm gap in and of itself is problematic, its existence has wider implications for society’s perception of women’s bodies and their humanity. No matter how progressive you perceive yourself to be as a man, the data shows that you are most likely reinforcing patriarchal notions of sex whether you’re aware of it or not. The existence of these patriarchal structures is not necessarily your own fault, but you will always benefit from it, and by being complicit in this system, you are exploiting your male privilege in not challenging these misogynistic perceptions.
To challenge this, we must first acknowledge the deep-seated history of the colonization of women’s bodies to serve the needs of man. We have quite literally built our entire society on the backs of our women, with their bodies historically being seen as a means to an end: to procreate, expand the workforce and ultimately maximize productivity. This reinforces the idea that women’s pleasure is not a necessary component of sexual experiences; rather, their bodies exist to serve the needs of external societal forces at the expense of their personal needs.
By internalizing the commodification and dehumanization of women’s bodies, we have gotten to a point where it is woven into our social script. This lack of accountability in the bedroom suggests a lack of personal responsibility to support the needs of women, which is unacceptable.
The bottom line is that the personal is political: how men cater to the needs of women reflects their own toxic masculinity and the perceived subordinate role of women in society. If we wish to see a world where everyone is climaxing in beautiful glory, we must question and interrogate the patterns of our behavior, whether it is behind closed doors or not.
MiC Columnist Kailana Dejoie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.