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: Undressing the Orgasm

Women's Orgasms

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  • Posted: 02/19/2013 7:00 PM
  • Updated: 02/21/2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Co-authored with Jes Matsick, Jen Rubin, Amy Moors and Ali Ziegler

Mary Roach highlights a number of quirky vignettes illustrating the study of orgasm and the extreme outer limits of orgasmic response. The focus of our stigmatized sexualities lab is women's sexuality. As such, our interests dovetail with Roach's, but research has led us to perceive sexual matters in substantially more social and political ways. We have no disagreements with Roach's presentation, but if we are to discuss orgasm, it seems crucial to examine the differences between women's and men's experiences, and in particular, misconceptions about women's sexual pleasure and particularly women's orgasms.

First, let's take a closer look at casual sex. Everyone seems to know that women just don't like casual sex as much as men do. And most people believe this distaste for the quick hook-up to be biological in origin. However, women's orgasms (or, rather, lack thereof) play a central role in this disparity. Women are not as likely to have orgasms in casual encounters as men are. So yes, it is true that women like casual sex less than men -- but for very good reason... they are less likely to experience a physical reward from the encounter.

This difference in experiences of pleasure highlights another point -- people may scoff at the notion that women orgasm less in casual sex encounters than men. They may rationalize this notion by thinking, "Of course! That's because it's just more difficult for women to orgasm -- it's nobody's fault!" But that's not exactly true when we consider context -- for example, women orgasm as quickly as men do during masturbation. And within an established heterosexual relationship, college women orgasm nearly as often as men do. So how does one explain this dynamic? Research suggests that men don't believe that women are entitled to orgasms in a casual context -- whereas they are somewhat more likely to believe that women deserve orgasms in ongoing romantic situations. And, perhaps, women are more comfortable communicating their needs in ongoing relationships because they also feel more entitled to pleasure when a relational context exists. These findings suggest to us that when an individual man is inattentive to women's sexual pleasure in a casual encounter, it makes it difficult for heterosexual guys everywhere to have the no-strings attached flings that heterosexual men so often desire.

But, a critical reader might say, women don't really care about orgasms anyway, right? So that couldn't be a deciding factor in sexual encounters. And, it is true, when asked directly about orgasms, women say that they are less important than men do. But it is important to note that women's sexual satisfaction is fairly strongly tied to their orgasm during the encounter. More orgasms are associated with higher satisfaction. Perhaps women feel obliged to report less desire for orgasm because they are experiencing orgasms less than men are.

This finding brings us back to casual sex -- the flip side of women liking casual sex less is that women are more likely to accept a casual sex offer if they believe the proposing partner will be "good in bed," which would presumably include, the likelihood of having an orgasm with that partner during the sexual encounter.

But orgasms don't just pose issues for women in casual relationships -- the orgasm dilemma continues in committed relationships as well. Women in the courses I teach often ask what is "wrong" with them that they can't have a "vaginal" orgasm. Yes, research suggests that some percentage of women experience "vaginal orgasms" -- but that term is notably poorly defined. Women may be having orgasms during heterosexual vaginal intercourse, but no one has consistently and carefully asked whether clitoral stimulation is happening at the same time -- either before or during intercourse. Are the men stimulating the glans of the clitoris (the outer tip) prior to inserting the penis? Or are the women rubbing themselves? Or is the clitoris being unintentionally manipulated by friction from intercourse? Before we define something as a "vaginal" orgasm, we would at the very least need to know what other stimulation is happening.

But even if a large percentage of women have orgasms through "vaginal intercourse alone," this is not evidence for a distinct vaginal orgasm versus a clitoral orgasm. The clitoris is not merely a surface structure. Rather, most of the clitoris is internal. The glans is visible from the outside, but the crura (Latin for "legs") extend into the walls of the vagina, and there is no obvious way to tell how far they extend in a given woman. In some women, the crura of the clitoris wrap around the walls of the vagina. Therefore, even if a woman has an orgasm without anyone touching the glans of the clitoris, it is likely that clitoral stimulation is still responsible.

But we are most certainly not blaming men for the presence or absence of women's orgasms. Men are often concerned about their ability to "give" women orgasms. Correspondingly perhaps, women recognize men's concerns, and respond by faking orgasms, with great frequency. The viciousness of this cycle is obvious.

Though it was certainly not intentional, Roach's stories about odd ways to orgasm may serve to further obfuscate the connection between the clitoris and women's orgasms. For most women, most of the time, the clitoris is center of sexuality. Women and men in heterosexual encounters very simply need to talk more about how to bring women more sexual pleasure -- given that equity eludes our society in sexuality domains. A cardinal rule for sexual pleasuring is, "When in doubt, ask for help," and a corresponding rule for receiving pleasure is "SPEAK UP!"

Cited research includes:

Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. K. (2012). Accounting for women's orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college hookups and relationships. American Sociological Review, 77(3), 435-462.

Conley, T. D. (2011). Perceived proposer personality characteristics and gender differences in acceptance of casual sex offers. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 100(2), 309-329

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