In order to close the orgasm gap, it's important to understand what contributes to it. In this series of posts, I’ll be exploring the key barriers that allow the female orgasm gap to persist, followed by proposed solutions. In my first post, I introduced the details of the issue, so check it out here if you missed it.
Sex, like eating, is a natural biological impulse. But the way it’s practiced is a learned phenomenon, highly influenced by the culture it exists in. For this reason, it’s important to frame the orgasm gap not as an individual problem but rather to investigate what in our sexual culture contributes to its persistence. One of the main culprits is in the way sex is defined. Sex is synonymous with intercourse. In sex defined as penis-in-vagina intercourse (PVI), the woman’s clitoris receives only indirect stimulation for a large portion of the sexual encounter.
The acts that directly stimulate a woman’s clitoris—manual and oral contact--are typically relegated to foreplay, a period prior to the real show (PVI) and treated as an optional sideshow. This is largely because sex has been defined in terms of reproduction and male pleasure. This limited definition of sex leads to the misconception that female orgasm SHOULD come from penis-in-vagina intercourse. Yet, with a basic understanding of female anatomy, this is an unrealistic expectation.
We can blame some combination of porn/ movies/Freud/patriarchy for perpetuating this understanding. Most media depictions of heterosexual sex involve little or no foreplay but instead proceed quickly to penetration and the woman’s nearly immediate (typically loud) climax. These scenes show the women’s experience only from the outside observer’s viewpoint and imagination. Women may experience orgasm through intercourse as long as they have first become aroused and erect (yes, women’s clitoral tissues become erect just as men’s do) through direct clitoral stimulation. Yet, these depictions typically ignore the woman’s clitoris, perpetuating Freud’s view that a clitoral orgasm was an “infantile” phenomenon, and that mature women should aspire to the “vaginal orgasm”, meaning orgasm through genital intercourse without any direct clitoral stimulation.
The result of this persistent narrative is that many women feel “broken” if they don’t orgasm during intercourse without understanding that PVI is an effective path to male pleasure because it directly stimulates a man’s clitoris (Yes, men have what is essentially a clitoris in the erectile tissues that run the length of the penis). Without clitoral stimulation, there is little wonder less than 25% of women say they climax from penetration alone. Yet PVI that ignores the woman’s clitoris persists as a synonym for sex itself.
A related myth is that women take longer to orgasm than men. While this can be the case during sex that bypasses the parts of a woman’s anatomy that give her pleasure, this is certainly not a reflection of any inherent physiologic limitation. Both women and men have the capacity for orgasm; any difference is because the sexual culture pays little attention to women’s subjective pleasure. How women (and men) come to orgasm is something that is learned. If all a woman learns via the sexual culture is how men gain pleasure, she may face unnecessary obstacles to cultivating her own orgasmic capacity.
So, what to do? SOLUTION #1: RETHINKING FOREPLAY
Let’s finally do away with the word foreplay and bring the acts that most effectively help women climax to the main stage where they belong. It’s ridiculous that the sexual activities that most reliably bring women to orgasm are still known as “foreplay.” There is deeply sexist bias in the relegation of female-centric activities as optional precursors to the main event of intercourse.
A brief anatomy lesson helps guide us toward sexual activities that are more female-centric. A key concept is that, as mentioned above, women and men alike have a clitoris, though it is situated differently in the body. While men’s clitoris receives maximum stimulation during PVI, woman’s clitoris is mostly bypassed. Expecting a woman to orgasm just from penetration alone, is like a woman rubbing her clit against a man’s hip, occasionally bumping his penis in the process and wondering why it’s difficult for him to reach climax.
To make mutual pleasure a priority, let’s do away with with the very notion of foreplay. Marcia Douglass and Lisa Douglass, social scientists and authors of The Sex You Want: A Lovers’ Guide to Women’s Sexual Pleasure elaborate, “Sex without a man’s ejaculation is considered incomplete. Yet heterosexuals regularly leave out the woman’s clitoris and, as a consequence, her orgasm, and they still call it sex. In reinvented sex, “foreplay” would be forgotten, intercourse, optional, and manual and oral sex done to the woman’s satisfaction.”
We need a common dialogue to redefine heterosexual sex to be centered around mutual pleasure. Sex educator, writer and author of O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm, Jenny Block, offers tips for starting a conversation that sets the stage for requesting and redefining sex to be more female-centered. Try telling your partner “Penetration is not the main attraction for me. It’s not the main attraction for most women. It’s part of the menu but orgasm is easiest for me with manual and oral (or insert your personal taste here)”. This allows women to shift from seeing themselves as deficient or broken if they can’t orgasm easily from intercourse and start acknowledging that the way our culture defines sex is broken instead.
My next post will focus on updating our understanding of female anatomy and physiology, more specifically diving into female erection!
*I want to be clear that my intention with these articles is not to imply that orgasm is the ultimate goal of sex or put any pressure on women to have orgasms. In my view, orgasm isn’t the goal of sex but rather mutual pleasure. Instead, my goal with this series is simply to encourage a context where female orgasm is more viable and accessible and placed in equal importance as male orgasm.