A plethora of forces contribute to a collectively screwed up understanding of sexual expression. From the porn industry’s depiction of sex through an artful “gang-banging cum shot compilation” to the social construction of female virginity, modern-day sex reflects a cis male-centric pleasure paradigm, a social phenomena clearly illustrated in the orgasm gap.
The orgasm gap refers to a societal privileging of male pleasure during sexual encounters. According to a survey of American adults, this gap means men have three orgasms to every one a female has.
“Even in wanted, mutual desired sex, male satisfaction is central,” Tomás Narvaja, a recent graduate from the UW’s gender, women & sexuality studies bachelor’s program, said. “Oftentimes, there’s this view that sex ends after the male orgasms.”
Generally, the orgasm gap is justified by the idea that women’s bodies are somehow bad at orgasms; the clitoris is seen as shy and complicated to operate. These anatomic mischaracterizations of male and female pleasure play a huge part in normalizing the orgasm gap. However, there’s actually nothing natural about the discrepancy between male and female orgasms.
While female orgasms are biologically more complicated than male ejaculation, studies have shown that women who sleep with other women have significantly more orgasms during sex than heterosexual women reported. Women also reported having no trouble orgasming during masturbation, and these same women said they have significantly less orgasms with a male partner than during masturbation.
Finally, in another comparative study of orgasms, women were shown to take an average of about four minutes to reach climax during masturbation, about the same amount of time it takes for a man to orgasm during intercourse.
The orgasm gap, therefore, is not simply a biological difficulty, it’s an issue that sits at a powerful sociopolitical intersection of gender inequality. My conversation with UW professor of gender, women & sexuality studies and psychology Nancy Kenney shed some light on just how representative the orgasm gap is of the current gender dynamics that surround us.
“The orgasm gap, to me, is the end result of all the other gaps: of the power gap, the gender role gap, the gap in understanding who is allowed to be sexual, in all of the sexual scripts that we have,” Kenney said. “You can’t fix [the orgasm gap] without fixing everything before it.”
According to Kenney, these sexual scripts are woven into our cultural fabric through the centuries of conditioning that have taught men to be the subject of sexual encounters and women to be the object to the male subject’s desire. In other words, women are taught to define their sexuality in relation to male sexual desire and pleasure, and therefore exist in sexual encounters to please their male partner.
In Narvaja’s own post-graduation research on gendered sexual encounters, he argues that “in order for a script to manifest into behavior, scripting has to occur at multiple dimensions: the cultural, the interpersonal, and the intrapersonal.”
The repression of female sexuality, therefore, doesn’t lie in the hands of men for prioritizing their own pleasure, but instead reflects a fracture that resonates with all parts of society.
“Responsibility and ‘response-ability’ is expanded to everyone and everything,” Narvaja said, arguing that to even begin the conversation of closing the orgasm gap, there must be a shift in understanding how each person, male or female, contributes to determining the existence of the gap in sexual satisfaction. “It’s not something you figure out, but it’s something that we are producing every day.”
In other words, the orgasm gap is created and perpetuated by both males and females during each and every heterosexual intercourse experience, a perspective that gives both males and females the power to both create and close the gap.
With this understanding in regards to female sexual expression, there is no longer the condition of helplessness when it comes to male-dominated sexual encounters. Rather, there is a new possibility that comes with understanding one’s own sexual needs and desires.
The sexual liberation of women is, of course, a movement that has been happening since the 1960s, a history lesson for another time. Vital to the conversation of closing the orgasm gap, however, is the push toward women understanding their own bodies’ sexual desires and responses. In understanding what one requires to reach an orgasm, there no longer is an acceptance by the female that there’s a one in three chance that she will orgasm during a sexual experience. Instead, there’s an agency: to know what she wants and to ask for it.
“Until you reach the point where you can be secure in yourself and say ‘I want to have sex and I want to have sex in these circumstances in this way,’ I don’t think we’re going to solve the orgasm gap,” Kenney said.
And in realizing that everyone plays a role in the orgasm gap, men are then able to consider how the gap resonates with them, perhaps considering the roots of one’s own learned expectations of sex, and what’s at stake when there’s a privileging of male pleasure over female pleasure.
Kenney emphasizes the need for America to normalize sex as a natural drive and to not be afraid to talk about what we want and how we feel during sex. Beginning the conversation with your friends, with your partner, and with yourself about what beliefs have led us all to accept sex as an unbalanced experienced rather than as a joint venture between two equals is key to turning gendered sexuality around.
Not only would orgasmic mutuality benefit female populations, but it would also hugely benefit male sexual expression and connection. When all parts resonate with the whole, any attention given to understanding the fracture will move us all closer to a more fulfilled whole.
Reach writer Mira Petrillo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @mirap