Sex researchers consistently find that men are having far more orgasms than women when it comes to heterosexual sexual encounters.
This is called the gender gap in orgasms, or the orgasm gap. There are many myths and assumptions about why women orgasm less. Some of the more popular ones are that women take too much time to reach orgasm, women don’t actually care about having an orgasm, that getting a woman to orgasm takes more work and they’re harder to please.
But are women’s orgasms really too much work and, if not, why is this belief so prevalent?
Insights from the ‘Sex in Canada’ project
I recently published a study alongside sociologists Tina Fetner and Melanie Heath that questions these assumptions about women’s ability and desire to orgasm.
We used data from our nationally representative Sex in Canada survey to establish that there is a gender gap in orgasms — 86 per cent of cisgender men reported having an orgasm in their most recent heterosexual sexual encounter, compared to 62 per cent of cisgender women.
What reduced the gap among our sample? Oral sex.
The notion that women generally require some form of clitoral stimulation in order to reach orgasm has been documented by a number of sexualities researchers, but what’s unclear is why the gap persists despite knowing the importance of clitoral stimulation for women.
To understand this discrepancy, we conducted in-depth interviews with adult men and women across Canada to examine the underlying beliefs and feelings that deters couples from engaging in the types of sexual activities that would make it more likely for women to reach orgasm.
The role of gender essentialism
One of the reigning myths that helps maintain the orgasm gap is that there are inherent gender differences for why men and women have sex. Women are expected to inherently desire emotional connection and men are expected to inherently need physical release.
So feeling emotionally connected to one’s partner and whether women orgasm become mutually exclusive. This way of thinking isn’t new or isolated to the bedroom.
These explanations are what social scientists call “gender essentialism” — the belief that there are natural, biological and physical differences between men and women.
Gender essentialist beliefs have been used to justify a variety of gender inequalities, for example, those that attempt to solidify traditional gender distinctions that women belong in the home and men belong in workforce.
If we took essentialist beliefs at face value, it would seem that women simply don’t want to orgasm since they require emotional connection over sexual pleasure. But is it really the case that women don’t want to orgasm during partnered sex with men?
Our research suggests that 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.
The role of heteronormativity
The orgasm gap is not just about gender, it’s also about heteronormativity. Our participants defined “regular sex” as penile-vaginal intercourse. This definition means that our participants see sex as being centred on stimulation of the penis, rather than the clitoris.
Our study shows that heteronormative conception of “regular sex” results in other sexual practices that prioritize clitoral stimulation — like oral sex — as alternative sexual practices to the main event.
It also means that other sexual practices feel like extra work, separate, time-consuming and challenging, despite supporting women’s likelihood of achieving orgasm.
Bad feelings about potentially great sex for women
A consequence of the belief that sex is about “emotional connection” for women, and defining what it means to “have sex” as penile-vaginal intercourse, is that it limits the types of sexual practices women engage in, and these beliefs shape the feelings women have about other types of sexual practices.
For instance, some of our participants described other sexual practices, especially oral sex, as unnatural, bad or dirty.
As succinctly exemplified by our participant, Kathy: “I don’t do oral sex. It can be very pleasurable, but it feels wrong, it just makes me feel dirty.”
Women’s bad feelings about engaging in the types of sex that might bring them more physical pleasure shows the strength of the sexual double standard in which women are judged more harshly than men and taught to self-regulate their sexual desires and behaviours.
Putting sex on the agenda for gender equality
Beliefs about women’s bodies, what women want from sex and what it means to have sex in the first place all help justify why women aren’t reaching orgasm when having sex with men.
Fights for gender equality have tackled and refuted many gender essentialist beliefs, and yet the longstanding orgasm gap shows how gender essentialist beliefs still have a strong hold on the domain of heterosexual sexual encounters.
The orgasm gap highlights the ways in which gender inequality emerges even in the most seemingly private and personal encounters in heterosexual relationships.
Like other gender gaps, it is important to continue pushing past individual explanations and understand the gender gap in orgasms as a form of gender inequality.