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COLUMN: Ladies first: The ins and outs of the orgasm gap

February 14, 2022

Note: The author recognizes the difference between sex and gender. This article pertains to those of the female sex who have female genitalia, regardless of gender identity or expression.

“Oh, I can’t do that with guys.”

The line came from a friend of my girlfriend. She had been telling us about her weekend and a guy she hooked up with. We asked her how the sex was, if she’d had an orgasm, and that’s what she told us: “I can’t do that with guys.”

This is the reality for many women. In heterosexual relationships, men are about 30% more likely to achieve an orgasm during sex.  University of Florida’s Laurie Mintz called this disparity in sexual satisfaction “the orgasm gap.”

Historically, women’s role in sex has been passive. Sex was a means to an end for women. Neither the female orgasm nor female enjoyment of sex is required for conception. Women weren’t active participants of sex; they were incubators, objects or prizes, and when they did want to engage in sex, there was something wrong with them.

“That was definitely the running theme behind why we didn’t talk about sex,” agriculture, food and natural resources education junior Maezie Nettleton said. “Because ‘Women who have sex are immoral or dirty or don’t value themselves,’ just that trope. … In the same regard, if it was a man, ‘That’s cool and totally normal,’ and, ‘That’s what men do.’”

Fisheries and wildlife second-year Lucy Breda agreed, adding shame contributes to women's feelings about their sexual experiences.

"It can really put a damper on what they think is something worthy of telling other people,” she said. “You can have a really great sexual experience and then the shame that other people might bring you might totally ruin it.”

Lately, the cultural discussion has changed. The body positivity movement caused positive changes in representation in media and fashion. Dating back to the free love ideology of the 1960s through the 1980s appearance of characters like Blanche Devereaux from "Golden Girls," women who were confident and in control of their sexuality, slut-shaming has been waning. 

Unfortunately, there are still gaps in that conversation. We’re fighting the battle of telling women it’s OK to do what they want with their bodies so intensely we never stopped to ask if their partners know what that means.

Think back to sex-ed. If you were lucky, given the lack of federal mandate for sex-ed curriculum, you — maybe — learned the definition and necessity of consent and were taught ways to practice safe sex.

Was pleasure, specifically pleasure for those of the female sex, ever a topic? Sex may be a biological process our species is dependent on, but that doesn’t mean we come pre-wired with instructions on how to enjoy it and help our partner(s) enjoy it. 

“I think it should be communicated if both partners are able and want to have an orgasm,” Breda said. “I just think it’s not seen as important because sex is so centered around men with penises.”

Another factor in the orgasm gap is pornography.

“Porn is shot in the male gaze,” Breda said. “When a woman with a vagina watches porn, she might try to emulate what is in the porn during actual sex acts instead of what she feels like she can gain from having sex, and what is good in sex for her.” 

Nettleton said porn shows just one way to have sex and isn’t representative of reality.

“Sex is not graceful all the time," she said. "At least for me, it’s talking and stopping and checking in with your partner and very communicative, and it doesn’t really show that. … I almost fell off my bed; they don’t do that.”

So, what can we do? How can we make sex more enjoyable for women? To start, penetration should not be synonymous with sex. 

“I absolutely do not believe penetration is a requirement for sex,” Breda said. “The point of sex is to have an intimate experience with somebody. So, whatever that entails would be whatever the partners are comfortable engaging (in) … as long as there’s open communication.”

Companies like Bellesa Boutique cater specifically to women. Gentleman, don’t be afraid to use toys. They’re not your competitors, and this isn’t news. Chicago’s Berman Center conducted a study in 2004, polling women about their sex toy use and found, “Current sex toy users, whether or not in a steady, healthy relationship, were significantly more likely to report a higher level of desire and interest for sex and less pain during and following intercourse."

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Another thing we can do? Get to know ourselves. Yes, in that way. 

“Part of it is not feeling ashamed as a woman to masturbate and watch porn … and explore your erotic side by yourself,” Nettleton said. “Because if you want your partner to be able to help you reach an orgasm, I think it’s really important to know your own body.”

Sex, making love, knocking boots, whatever you want to call it, is a process — a process that shouldn’t be considered over once a man orgasms. Different people like different things; talk to your partner.

“There are zero conversations about sex, especially for women," Nettleton said. "We should probably talk about sex more.”

And, I get it. It’s not easy to talk about. I, for one, can’t say I’m looking forward to sending my family members my first ever college article, “Look! It’s all about orgasms!” But the truth is, people aren’t educated on female anatomy — they don’t understand where the clitoris is or how penetrative sex can be very painful for women if they aren’t turned on. If we don’t get over this cultural block, a significant percentage of our population isn’t going to enjoy sex to the fullest extent possible.

This Valentine’s Day, we should all put on some music, take it slow, throw in some toys and be as communicative as we can; let’s take “Ladies first” a little more literally.

This story is part of our Love & Sex Edition. Read the full issue here.


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