What Sex Scientists Know (And Have Yet to Learn) About Women's Orgasms
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
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 anationally 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.
Not that orgasm is everything! And yet it does matter to many sexually active adults. The authors note that women were five to six times more likely to enjoy relationship or hookup sex if they had an orgasm. “These large effects,” they write, “should put to rest doubt about whether women care about orgasm.”
We women do care about our orgasms. However, sex is fraught with all kinds of things including how we feel about our genitals, gender dynamics, our feelings about ourselves and our partner, and how we learn, sort out, and then ask for the types of sexual behaviors that are more likely to feel good to us or result in orgasm, if that’s what we want (and most of us do).
We could certainly benefit from more of our partners caring about our orgasm. Fortunately, many women have partners – especially relationship partners, this study suggests – that care deeply about mutual pleasure and women’s orgasm. A recent study of older couples found that, for men, valuing their female partner’s orgasm increased the chances of their own sexual satisfaction.
In other words, partner investment matters. So does “technique,” as the present study put it, showing that sexual encounters that included intercourse were more likely to result in women’s orgasm – even if it wasn’t intercourse itself that led to the orgasm. Women were three times as likely to report orgasm during a hookup, and twice as likely during relationship sex, if intercourse occurred. It may be that sexual encounters that include intercourse signify something greater – for example, that a woman is more likely to feel comfortable with, trusting of, or highly “into” her partner.
Other behaviors that boosted the chances of whether a woman had an orgasm were whether she or her partner had stimulated her genitals with their hand, and whether she’d received oral sex. This lines up well with data from our National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior that show that greater sexual variety and specific sexual behaviors – including receiving oral sex and vaginal intercourse – are linked with a greater likelihood of female orgasm.
No study can answer every question I or you have about women’s orgasm, but this study gives us much to ponder. It demonstrates the complexity of women’s sexuality (there’s no one sexual behavior that’s a “sure thing” for women’s orgasm), and it demonstrates that for all the advances we’ve made (for example, vibrators are available in drug stores and, occasionally, street corners), we still have a long way to go. Our relationship partners may value our orgasms, but hookup partners? Not so much.
As a woman – and as a sex researcher/educator – I’m struck by study data that speak to the value of care and affection (women in the interview portion talked about noticing when a partner cares about them and their pleasure). Hookups aren’t going away, so how can women make their hookups more enjoyable? How can women learn to choose partners who care about them as people they’re creating something fun and pleasurable with, even if only for one evening? How can men learn to treat their hookup partners as equally interested in and deserving of pleasure? How can sex partners communicate together about mutual pleasure?
As a scientist, I think too of how much we still have to learn about sexual experiences. This study, like my own and others’ research, shows that women’s orgasm is more likely to occur with a regular partner, in the context of care and affection, and when sexual variety and perhaps good technique are present.
But how do these pieces fit together? And how do they compensate for one another’s absence?
Many of us know – whether from personal or professional experience — that it’s possible to have orgasmic sex with a partner one doesn’t know well or feel connected to (even if that person is a relationship partner or spouse). In those situations, is it a woman’s own technique that trumps care, affection or familiarity?
There’s also the power of our own minds. Recent research demonstrates that mindfulness and self-talk may play a role in women’s sexual response. As I described in “Sex Made Easy,” my own personal experiences with orgasm suggest that the mind plays an important role in learning how to experience orgasm and multiple orgasm. Yet strikingly little research has examined women’s mental processes in regard to orgasm.
Many of us also know that it’s possible to have highly enjoyable sex, even without an orgasm, and perhaps in these situations it’s the care, affection, intimacy or hormones that compensate for what’s lacking in terms of partner technique or willingness to engage in certain sexual behaviors. A hand on one’s breast, or in the right spot of the vagina, can be highly pleasurable – even if an orgasm never rears its head.
We also know very little about the “gray areas” of orgasm – those spaces where one comes close to having an orgasm, but doesn’t, even though it’s those “almost there” experiences that often eventually lead us to experiencing orgasm.
So where does this leave us? Somewhat satisfied, I supposed. But left wanting more – just like a hookup.