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For young and developing girls, some of the most prominent media on popular platforms such as Disney and Netflix are a never-ending stream of romance movies featuring dreamy men who would go to the ends of the earth for their love interests. These media fuel what would come to be many women’s dream partner: the fantasy of a perfect, devout lover who would work to better themselves if their partner expressed discontentment with their relationship. 

But as a college student surrounded by newly mature relationships, I’ve noticed a pattern of disillusionment among my female peers in heterosexual relationships. Many of us have consistently felt misunderstood, mistreated and underappreciated by our male partners — unlike the pampered and elated love interests of the Prince Charmings we grew up seeing. Our standards for male partners in hetero relationships seem to continue to erode with time, and we now relish and adamantly praise our partners for performing the absolute bare minimum. Now, more than ever, we’re left wondering whether or not we will ever feel fully fulfilled in a hetero relationship. 

A 10-year-long Australian study of marriages and relationships has yielded the frankly unsurprising result that women are less satisfied than men within heterosexual relationships. This dissatisfaction specifically occurs on two levels: sexual and emotional. However, allow me to be clear when I state that men’s failure to fully satisfy their female partners is not about men’s malicious intent within relationships to starve their partner of effort, but rather, it is a consequence of the way that our collective society socializes young boys and men. 

The Orgasm Gap 

The orgasm gap, according to a study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University, “refers to 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.” This sexual inequality disproportionately affects heterosexual women, with lesbian and bisexual women orgasming at higher rates than their straight counterparts. But why are heterosexual women the least sexually satisfied? 

One of the strongest general indications of women’s sexual satisfaction within a relationship is experiencing an orgasm. So when only 65% of women in hetero relationships usually or always orgasm during sexual encounters, while an astonishing 95% of heterosexual men usually or always orgasm, it’s no wonder that these women are left feeling that their sexual pleasure isn’t prioritized or valued in the way that their male counterpart’s is. 

Our society’s socialization of young men and boys is at least partially to blame for this sexual inequality. In fact, the myth of gender essentialism — the widespread societal “belief that there are natural, biological and physical differences between men and women” — directly helps to sustain the orgasm gap. Gender essentialists reinforce inaccurate beliefs that women and men have naturally different libidos, that women inherently orgasm less than men or even that women prefer emotional connection over sexual pleasure (while men … don’t?). However, according to sex researchers, “these beliefs about women’s orgasms have less to do with women’s inherent inability or lack of desire to orgasm, and more to do with the way gender norms shape and limit expectations.” Essentially, the orgasm gap is a cultural phenomenon that is fueled by the normalization of women being sexually unsatisfied.

Evidence of this failure exists within our abysmal sex education curriculums, which reinforces the mystification surrounding straight women’s orgasms when they fail to instruct heterosexual men on how to sexually satisfy their female counterparts. For example, one study discovered that even though three out of four women said that they cannot achieve orgasm during sex, with half of the women pointing to the importance of clitoral stimulation, “30% of men said they thought the best way to help a woman orgasm is through penetrative sexual acts,” proving the extent to which straight men are miseducated on women’s pleasure. If sex education curriculums would actually instruct on this issue, they would yield much better-equipped boys and men for future mature relationships.

Societally, both men and women have adopted joking attitudes toward the difficulty of locating the clitoris during sex. However, this too is a reflection of a failed sex education system. One study conducted by YouGov in the United Kingdom asked both female and male participants to label a diagram of a vulva, to which 58% of people couldn’t describe the function of the urethra, 47% didn’t know the function of the labia and 52% didn’t know the function of the vagina. When this lack of education regarding the female anatomy expands to both men AND women, it’s apparent that the sex education systems currently in place around the world hugely center on heterosexual men and leave women to fend for their sexual satisfaction themselves. 

Due to the many factors influencing society’s lack of understanding surrounding female sexual pleasure, women have found themselves sexually dissatisfied in their relationships. It’s a strong indicator of the orgasm gap’s prominence when heterosexual women have been thoroughly socialized to push aside their own sexual wants or desires to center their male partner’s orgasm. How many times have women, in the heat of the moment, been encouraged to share whether or not they are feeling satisfied sexually? How often have straight men engaged in sex only to propel their own orgasm while ignoring their partner entirely, essentially using the woman’s body to only pleasure themselves? Why have women been encouraged to push back against societal inequality but not against the sexual inequality that is rendering their hetero relationship unsatisfying? We, as a collective society, need to not only begin asking these critical questions but also reevaluate the standards that we hold for our male partners and learn to expect more from relationships than just the bare minimum. 

Emotional Dissatisfaction — Women Bearing the Brunt of Emotional Labor 

Women’s emotional discontent is the second primary source of dissatisfaction within heterosexual relationships. All too frequently, women end up performing a majority of the emotional labor within their hetero relationships, which is, again, due to the way that we socialize our young men and boys. 

In their journal article centered around emotional work in heterosexual relationships, Jean Duncombe and Dennis Marsden explain how many of the root causes of dissatisfaction and conflict within heterosexual relationships arise from the unequal distribution of emotional labor within the relationship, with women performing the majority of the labor. In their study, they concluded that “most of our women respondents felt their male partners were lacking in what might be called ‘emotional participation’ in their relationships.” Emotional participation can take the form of disclosing what emotions they’re feeling, an inability to share vulnerable emotional moments and a general lack of emotional effort. 

In turn, many of the women reacted to this lack of shared emotional labor by “comparing their relationships with worse possible scenarios” like a partner who drank excessively or a partner who was physically violent. Because their relationship was not “as bad” as other relationships they compared themselves to, many of these women “blame[d] themselves for wanting too much” and settled for men who did not fulfill their emotional needs. This further demonstrates the extent of emotional inequality within hetero relationships, where women assume blame for their dissatisfaction rather than holding their partners to higher standards of emotional intimacy.

But what could this unequal division of emotional work have to do with the way we socialize young men and boys? As Duncombe and Marsden explain, men are generally less able to think and talk in terms of “love” or “intimacy” due to the differences in the way we allow boys and girls to emote during childhood. Many boys are faced with the stereotypical “boys don’t cry” narrative, which promotes the suppression of their emotions to appear outwardly “strong” (thus creating a negative association between emotion and weakness). As they grow older, their male-dominant friend groups avoid discussions of feelings or emotions because it wasn’t “normal” to have these conversations as young boys. Thus, in adulthood, many men who were shielded from being properly socialized to emote are set up for failure within their romantic heterosexual relationships. As one of the men interviewed in the study admitted, “‘I want to change, but I don’t know how.’”

Where do we go from here?

It is clear that there is a direct correlation between the way that we socialize our young men and boys, and the subsequent discontentment experienced by women within relationships with men. Therefore, one of the best ways we can assuage this epidemic of hetero relationship dissatisfaction is by socializing new generations of men and boys to understand what we know to be true: Men do, in fact, have and experience emotions, boys should be encouraged within healthy environments to emote and emotions are not a form of weakness but a source of strength for strong interpersonal relationships. Moreover, sex education curriculums must be restructured to ensure that men and women are both properly educated on basic genitalia (which should’ve been the standard already). To go further, high school sex education curriculums should be incentivized to include lessons that emphasize the importance of mutual pleasure during intercourse and sexual equality. Finally, it is essential that we collectively reevaluate our standards for our partners in long-term relationships. Settling for dissatisfaction only reinforces the toxic belief that the way things are now are the way things should be, and that hinders what could be a wonderful opportunity to raise our collective standards for partnership. It is only when we properly equip our men and boys with the tools they need for successful relationships that we will finally surmount the hill of sexual and emotional inequality within heterosexual relationships.

Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at lehrbaum@umich.edu.