A recently published survey of 52,000 adults has backed up a longstanding piece of conventional wisdom about orgasms: Men have a lot more of them than women. When asked how often they orgasmed while getting “sexually intimate” in the past month, 95 percent of straight male participants said they usually or always got there. Just 65 percent of straight women could say the same.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever watched a sitcom or attended an amateur stand-up night. It takes virtually no effort to make a man orgasm; women always fake ‘em, blah blah blah. There are plenty of clichés about straight-people sex that help explain this orgasm gap, and while they’re all reductive and employed in service of rigid gender norms, some contain small grains of truth. “Men’s genitals are easier to focus stimulation on than women’s are,” sex researcher Debby Herbenick told Amanda Hess when two different studies found similar results in 2013. As such, men are more likely to orgasm during sex.
But this recent survey presents an interesting twist: Of lesbian participants, 86 percent reported usually or always orgasming during sexual activity. Gay and bisexual men clocked in at 89 and 88 percent, respectively, compared to 66 percent of bisexual women. This breakdown indicates that female genitals are not to blame for the orgasm gap. You could say that straight women are least likely to achieve orgasm during sex, but it’s just as true to say that if you have sex with a straight man, you’ve chosen the demographic least likely to make you come.
The authors of the study propose that women may give their female partners more orgasms than men do because “lesbian women are in a better position to understand how different behaviors feel for their partner (e.g., stimulating the clitoris) and how these sensations build toward orgasm.” This is some straight-up hogwash. There is no magic incantation, no hard-to-memorize sequence of flourishes, no advanced level of technical know-how required to unlock the mystery of the clitoris. The clitoris is not impossible to understand for any person who doesn’t have one. Every woman and every set of genitals is different; what works for one may not work for another, which means having the gear doesn’t automatically mean universal mastery.
A far more likely explanation for the orgasm gap between straight and gay women is that heterosexual sex is built around the male orgasm. Mainstream straight-sex culture places a higher value on the kinds of sex acts that privilege male orgasm—and in many cases, that means it’s all over when he is. The new orgasm survey found that, among women who received oral and manual stimulation during sexual activity, 86 percent reported usually or always reaching orgasm. Just 35 percent of those who had only vaginal-penetration sex did.
Even so, there’s the only trick that pays off for virtually every vagina: communicating with its owner about what feels good and what doesn’t. The idea that there is One Secret to Rule Them All, possessed instinctually by women but kept from all but the most sexually intuitive men, is a myth, spread by purveyors of stupid jokes about women’s enigmatic bodies. It’s a sexual paradigm taken from that Seinfeld episode where Jerry has a secret move guaranteed to give a woman an orgasm. The question is: Why are women sleeping with men who take their sexual paradigms from Seinfeld?
This is an important issue that feminist movements seemed primed to tackle before 53 percent of white women helped usher a Muslim-banning sexual predator into the White House. Now, perhaps, it’s up to individuals to demand better. On one hand, rendering straight-woman orgasms as a straight man’s responsibility puts pressure on women to have orgasms to preserve their partners’ egos. It also pressures men to go to weird lengths to prove they can make it happen, sometimes without stopping to ask for guidance. This leads to unfortunate scenarios like those described by in a 2010 study that found up to 80 percent of women fake some orgasms. The authors wrote that women said they sometimes pretended to orgasm because “their men are so goal-directed they won’t stop until a woman climaxes”—a less-than-ideal situation for both partners.
On the other hand, women deserve good sex, and men deserve to feel like something more than orgasm machines. (A Canadian survey published last year found that men, too, fake orgasms, often to “appear normal.”) Orgasm-frequency surveys are only valuable to the extent that they shed light on the social factors that may keep people from getting the most out of sex. That goes for both straight women who want more orgasms than they're getting and the Jerry Seinfelds who think doing one special secret trick for 40 minutes will get them there.