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What Sex Scientists Know (And Have Yet to Learn) About Women's Orgasms

Which sexual behaviors are more likely to result in a woman having an orgasm rather than doing without?


As a scientist who studies sex, and as a sex educator (I teach college-level human sexuality classes at Indiana University and have written  the Kinsey Institute’s sex information column, and other sex columns, for the past decade), it’s my job to puzzle over sex and to find answers.

Among the numerous questions about desire/libido, penis size, lasting longer and the many variations of “am I ______” (fill in the blank with: pregnant, “normal,” bisexual, doomed to a life without sex), some of the most commonly asked questions have to do with women’s orgasm. Although orgasm isn’t everything, it’s important to most people at least some of the time. (And some women probably wish it were more important to their partners more of the time.) While scientists have uncovered a great deal about women’s orgasm, there’s still much to learn.

We “sex scientists” ask questions such as: How important is orgasm to women’s sexual pleasure and enjoyment? How important is a woman’s partner in whether she’ll experience orgasm? How much does physical technique matter? And which sexual behaviors are more likely to result in a woman basking in the glow of orgasm rather than doing without?

Some of these questions are addressed in a  recent study published in the American Sociological Review titled “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment in College Hookups and Relationships.” The researchers surveyed more than 13,000 women and interviewed a smaller group of women and men about their sexual experiences. Though this particular study focused on college students, there are striking similarities between these data and research on older adults.

As you’d expect from media accounts about college students’ sex lives, hookups were common among these women – 69 percent reporting having at least one. Contrary to media stereotypes, however, hookups haven’t doomed relationships – by their senior year in college, 74 percent of women had been in at least one relationship that lasted six months or longer.

Also, women have more sex with relationship partners. A third of hookups were limited to kissing and nongenital touching (e.g., breast touching), and only 39 percent of hookups — compared to about 80 percent of relationship sexual encounters — involved vaginal intercourse.

The study also found – not too surprisingly – that first-time hookups are awkward. The tough part about all this awkwardness ( How far do we go? What does my partner like? How do I ask for oral sex?) is that many women leave hookups sans orgasm. Not so for the guys they’re hooking up with, though. Whether it’s hookup sex or relationship sex, men largely expect to orgasm and women largely aim to, and do, please. Unfortunately, the guys seem less chivalrous, focusing their efforts largely on girlfriends’ orgasms but not hookup partners’ orgasms. (I cringe every time I read a quote from a guy who says, in regard to whether women he hooks up with have an orgasm, “I don’t really care.”)

While practice may not make perfect, there’s something about learning how a partner’s body works over time. Although only 11 percent of women in first-time hookups reported orgasm, 16 percent of women in second- or third-time hookups with the same person had an orgasm, as did one-third in more regular hookups. Women were most likely to have an orgasm during sex with a relationship partner (67 percent of women). In a nationally representative study of Americans’ sex lives, my Indiana University research team found that 64 percent of American women ages 18 to 59 – and 61 percent of college-age women – reported having an orgasm during the most recent sexual event. This compared to 91 percent of men ages 18 to 59 – and 96 percent of college-age men – reporting having had an orgasm during their most recent sexual event. So, yeah – we have a long way to go.

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