You’ve probably heard of the pay gap between men and women, but another equally effective measure of gender inequality is
the orgasm gap — the tendency for men to get off more than women. The 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that 91 percent of men but only 64 percent of women climaxed during their last sexual encounters, and a 2017 study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior similarly found that 65 percent of straight women, compared to 95 percent of straight men, orgasmed every or almost every time they were sexually intimate over the past month. Why is this happening? Is it just more difficult for women’s bodies to reach orgasm?
In her book
which was first released last year but came out in paperback May 15 with new content on the cultural privileging of male pleasure, psychologist Laurie Mintz, PhD presents another theory: “The idea that women should orgasm from intercourse is the number one reason for the pleasure gap.” Decades of research have shown that most women need clitoral stimulation to orgasm (and even Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It, “vaginal orgasms” involve the clitoris), and yet we continue to stubbornly spread the myth that if you don’t orgasm through vaginal penetration alone, there’s something wrong with you.
"To me, [the orgasm gap is] really about the privileging of male sexuality and male pleasure," Mintz tells Bustle. "And it's related to other gender inequities and other sexism."
To break it down a bit, here are some subtle ways women are pressured to orgasm through vaginal penetration, shamed for needing clitoral stimulation, and set up to have fewer orgasms, according to
Pop Culture Depicts Women Orgasming Through Penetration
From mainstream porn and movie scenes that depict women (supposedly) orgasming after a few seconds of aggressive penile thrusting, it’s hard not to feel like if you don’t orgasm through penetration, you just need to find the right position or lover.
In reality, for most people with vaginas, it doesn’t matter much what position you’re in, who you’re with, or how big their penis is. The vagina simply has very few nerve endings, Mintz explains in her book. The depictions of female orgasm in the media just instill insecurity in women who don’t orgasm that way. "The real way that women orgasm is devalued, which is clitoral stimulation," Mintz says.
The Proportion Of Women Who Orgasm Through Penetration Has Been Overestimated
The way female orgasms are spoken about and depicted in popular culture, you might get the sense that the majority of women orgasm through intercourse and more could if they tried hard enough. Often, the data we hear spreads this same myth. There’s a commonly cited statistic that only one in four women consistently orgasm through intercourse, for example — but this
includes women who receive clitoral stimulation during intercourse, Mintz points out. When these women are subtracted from that number, it becomes 15 percent.
Mintz wanted to know how many women said this was the
best way for them to orgasm, so she asked her college students what their most reliable route to orgasm was. Only four percent said it was intercourse alone. Forty-three percent said it was clitoral stimulation plus intercourse, 34 percent said it was direct clitoral stimulation, and 17 percent said they rarely if ever orgasmed with a partner at all. So, a more accurate statement than “one in four women orgasm through intercourse alone” would be “one in seven do, and only one in 25 prefer it over other types of stimulation."
And even these statistics may be too high because, as sex researcher
Nicole Prause, PhD tells Bustle, those who participate in sex studies are generally more sexually open and therefore more likely to orgasm than the general population.
Female Genitalia Are Defined By The Vagina
The socialization that teaches women they should orgasm through intercourse begins when they’re children asking what the difference is between boys and girls. In a response that also happens to be cissexist, they’re usually told, “Boys have a penis and girls have a vagina.”
“This is analogous to telling a child that the nose is for both eating and breathing — since, a er all, the nose and the mouth are both on the face, so what’s the difference?!” Mintz writes. “This would be bizarre, but somehow we’ve taken to calling all women’s genitals by one part and we don't even notice the absurdity of it.”
This definition isn’t just absurd — it’s patriarchal.
The word “vagina” means “sheath for a sword.” In other words, women’s anatomy is being defined as something that exists for men. And since the clitoris doesn’t directly please men, it’s left out of that definition. If we want women and their partners to become more aware of their clitorises, we can start by acknowledging their existence rather than pretending the vagina is all that’s down there.
Sex Gets Defined As Penis-In-Vagina
A few years after we learn the word “vagina,” we learn the word “sex,” which is defined in a similar way: by the penis. Anything
before penis-in-vagina intercourse is just called “foreplay” or “fooling around.” Mintz contends that this is because we disproportionately value what gives men orgasms, making it the main event. It could also have to do with the cultural idea that sex is for reproduction, not pleasure, so the act that leads to reproduction is most valued.
Either way, intercourse is considered the main course, when most women’s favorite food is considered an appetizer or a side dish. I see you, patriarchy.
Male Pleasure Is Valued Over Female Pleasure
The reason we’ve defined sex in a way that favors male pleasure is that our society values men over women and, accordingly, values male sexual pleasure over female sexual pleasure.
This comes out even in the sexual acts that are performed when intercourse is off the table. A 2016
study in the , for example, found that 63 percent of college men but only 44 percent of women received oral sex during their last hookups. Another Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality study from the same year in the found that teens considered oral sex a bigger deal if it was performed on a woman. Clearly, the lack of attention given to the clitoris is about more than misunderstandings about anatomy. Even when people are aware of the clitoris, there’s a sense that it’s not as important. Journal of Sex Research
Orgasm equality may not be the most pressing feminist issue, but when we deconstruct all the culture messages behind it, we end up challenging ideas that tie into every feminist issue out there. The basic idea behind it is that women exist to please men. Once we embrace women’s right to pleasure for nobody but themselves, we give women greater freedom to be independent and pursue their desires in all areas.