McMaster study looks to answer why women have fewer orgasms than men

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It’s a scientific fact: women orgasm less than men.

But why?

Nicole Andrejek, a sex and sociology researcher at McMaster University, set out to answer that question in a recently released study examining some widespread assumptions about women’s ability and desire to climax.

What’s clear about the phenomenon known as the orgasm gap is that it exists. In a first-of-its-kind, nationally representative survey — conducted at Mac in 2018 and dubbed the “Sex in Canada” project — 86 per cent of men reported having an orgasm in their most recent heterosexual encounter compared to just 62 per cent of women.

What’s not yet clear about the gap, however, is why it exists, and whether it has less to do with women’s inherent lack of desire to orgasm and more to do with the way gender norms shape and limit expectations in the bedroom.

For Andrejek, the answer lies in the latter.

Through qualitative, in-depth interviews of nearly four dozen participants with a median age of 49, Andrejek and her colleagues found there’s a pervasive narrative of women seeing orgasms as work and men seeing them as natural.

Sure, she said, there are biological differences between men and women to consider as it relates to sex and orgasms — like women generally requiring some form of clitoral stimulation to climax — but do those differences truly explain why the gap is so lopsided?

“It’s not as if men don’t also want their partner to orgasm, or that women don’t want to orgasm, but there’s just these underlying expectations we have going into sex that really limit sexual expression in ways that maintain the gender gap in orgasms,” Andrejek said in a recent interview.

One myth that perpetuates the orgasm gap is the idea that, during sex, women are assumed to innately desire emotional connection, while men are assumed to innately need physical release.

“Our participants used a lot of language that was indicative of the type of thinking that, men are from Mars and women are from Venus,” said Andrejek, explaining that this notion is referred to as gender essentialism, or “natural differences that women are more emotional caregivers and men are more virile.”

This belief, whether fact or opinion, creates a culture in which men and women limit what they expect out of sex, she said, “and I think it’s really destructive to women’s potential to reach sexual pleasure.

“It makes emotional connection and having an orgasm mutually exclusive, and they’re not,” Andrejek added. “But we have these larger gender norms within sexual relationships that shape people’s expectations.”

Some of these expectations extend beyond the bedroom and mimic the kind of gender gaps seen in households or workplaces.

Often times, said Andrejek, they also influence the types of sex people have or see as normal. For instance, the vast majority of participants in her study defined “regular sex” as penile-vaginal intercourse.

“Everything else gets contextualized as alternative sexual practices” before the final event, Andrejek said. It means that practices such as oral sex — which prioritize clitoral stimulation — “feel like extra work, time-consuming and challenging, despite it supporting women’s likelihood of achieving orgasm.”

“Oral sex is really important to limiting that gap, because we don’t see that same gap amongst people who engage in same-sex sexual encounters,” she added.

Additionally, according to the study, many women harbour “bad feelings” about the types of sexual practices that bring them pleasure.

“We found our participants, exclusively the women in our sample, described the behaviours that might be more likely to bring them orgasms — like receiving oral sex or using vibrators or sex toys — as morally contentious,” said Andrejek.

Consider the answer one female participant had regarding sexual practices other than penile-vaginal intercourse: “I don’t do oral sex,” said the participant. “It can be very pleasurable, but it feels wrong (and) just makes me feel dirty.”

“That answer speaks to larger social issues around women’s bodies and points to a sexual double-standard,” said Andrejek, adding that standard teaches women to self-regulate their desires and behaviours.

“It reflects how the beliefs we have about women shape their experiences and are limiting their capacity to experience physical pleasure.”

Andrejek said all of this is to say that orgasm gaps exists even in the most private, sensitive heterosexual relationships — and it’s more a product of gender norms than biological differences.

“I think this matters because women deserve to have pleasure in their sexual encounters, and that in and of itself should be important as a social issue.”

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