The Psychology of the Orgasm Gap

Man and woman embracing at home

We know that women face a number of challenges to achieving equality. In the boardroom, we face the wage gap. And in the bedroom: The orgasm gap.

Researchers (and everyday people!) have found that a gap exists between the frequency with which men and women experience orgasm, especially during heterosexual sex. Specifically, women consistently have fewer orgasms than their male partners.

While the orgasm gap may appear to be a product of biology, researchers are increasingly suggesting that the orgasm gap is actually caused by what’s in our heads, not what’s between our legs.

Cultural attitudes which discourage female sexual pleasure, as well as a lack of comprehensive sexual education, affect many of our relationships on the most intimate of levels. The result? Less communication and less pleasure — especially for women.

But never fear. By getting to the root of the orgasm gap, we are not only making sure women experience more orgasms (always a worthy goal!) — but we are also building healthier relationships with our partners and ourselves.

Let’s begin…

What is the orgasm gap?

The orgasm gap is the difference between the frequency with which men and women experience orgasm, especially during heterosexual sex.

Numerous studies have reported a persistent gap, which is largest between heterosexual men and women. In one study, only 39% of female college students compared to 91% of male students reported that they always experienced an orgasm from partnered sex. Another study found that the gap is larger in hookup sex, but persists in committed relationships, with men experiencing orgasms 17% more than their female partners. Finally, in a survey of 3,000 adult American men and women, women said they orgasm 63% of the time and men said they orgasm 85% of the time.

What causes the orgasm gap?

Seeing these statistics, it may be tempting to assume that women just naturally orgasm at a lesser rate than men. But this isn’t necessarily so.

In fact, research indicates that women experience orgasm much more frequently and quickly while masturbating than with a male partner. Furthermore, women who have sex with women report having orgasms more frequently than women who have sex with men.

While in one study, heterosexual women reported orgasming in 61.6% of sexual encounters, lesbian women reported orgasming in 74.7% of encounters, nearly the same frequency as bisexual men.

So why would lesbians experience orgasm more frequently than heterosexual women? The answer lies in culture, not nature — and specifically, in how we approach sex.

Historically, our culture stigmatizes female pleasure, discouraging women from exploring our sexualities or masturbating. This leads to internalized shame, making it difficult for many women to speak up about what we’re feeling in bed and ask for what we want and need. Many of us might even be at a loss for what we want and need in the first place.

But the problem isn’t with individual women: It goes as deep as our notion of sex itself. As a culture, we tend to prioritize sexual activities that lead to male orgasm more than female orgasm, with penile-vaginal intercourse equated with “sex” itself.

This is bad news for female orgasm. In fact, most women require or prefer some kind of clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm — and research increasingly suggests that even so-called vaginal orgasms arise from stimulation of one underlying structure, the clitorourethralvaginal complex.

Plus, the longstanding stigma against clitoral pleasure means men may not prioritize clitoral stimulation for their partners and women may not feel able to ask for it.

How can I close the gap?

Great orgasms are a product of great relationships. And not just great relationships with your partners: Closing the orgasm gap also requires building a great relationship with your sexuality and yourself.

Your sexual relationship doesn’t have to fit a certain mold to be healthy — your partner could be for one night or for life, monogamous or polyamorous, and everything in between. But positive, consensual, and respectful sexual encounters in which both parties experience pleasure (and orgasm!) come from a foundation of communication and consideration.

And remember, while orgasms are awesome, sex is about pleasure beyond orgasm. The below skills can help make your relationships and sex more pleasurable overall, regardless of orgasm.

Explore.

Sexual pleasure is highly personal and individual, and what works for you might not work for the next woman. So don’t be afraid to explore. Find pornography or erotica that you enjoy. Focus on fantasies that turn you on. Masturbate. Experiment with sex toys. All of these things will help you know what works for your body, give you pleasure, and if you so choose, help you experience more pleasure with partners.

Communicate.

You’re probably familiar with the idea that because women are discouraged from advocating for ourselves, we lose out at the workplace bargaining table. The same is true in the bedroom.

Practicing healthy communication doesn’t just help us experience more sexual pleasure — it’s also fundamental to consent. In a healthy sexual relationship, we should feel comfortable saying “no” to what we don’t want, and asking for what we do want. And our partners have an obligation to listen, respect our boundaries, and treat us with the consideration we deserve.

Cultivate healthy relationships.

While women can learn ways to explore and advocate for our own sexual pleasure, it shouldn’t just be women’s responsibility to close the orgasm gap. It’s everyone’s job to build truly healthy relationships, and it’s especially incumbent on men to be self-critical of whether they are prioritizing their partners’ pleasure as much as their own. As the cultural conversation about gender, sex, consent and pleasure continues, we all have an opportunity to reflect, grow — and orgasm.

Published by

Reina Gattuso

Contributor