The Orgasm Gap — Why it exists and how we can close it
In case it wasn’t obvious, men are getting 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.
Many of us know about this “orgasm gap,” but there’s a misunderstanding about its source. Take the website for the penis spray Promescent, which claims to close the orgasm gap by prolonging men’s erections. “Men climax a lot more often than women do,” it reads. “This difference between the male and female orgasm is what we call the Orgasm Gap. Believe it or not, science is to blame. Because men and women are scientifically different.”
In reality, it’s the very idea behind Promescent — that women’s orgasms and sex itself center on a penis — that causes the gap, according to therapist and University of Florida psychology professor Laurie Mintz, PhD, author of Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It. It’s not “science;” it’s society. To further explain this idea, I interviewed Mintz about where the orgasm gap comes from and how to close it. Here’s what she had to say.
What makes you so passionate about orgasm equality?
It really is my students. It's just so shocking and upsetting and sad to me how few of my students- when they first enter my class, and so many young adult women that I talk to also in my practice- have so little sexual agency and so much misinformation about their own bodies and what is OK or normal. And also, as I've taught that class over the years, the fact that just a little bit of information really helps people close the orgasm gap — it just makes me really passionate about spreading the word.
What does it give your female students to learn how to orgasm?
I have talked to women once they begin to have sexual pleasure and sexual agency. They’re just more confident in their own bodies. In general, they’re more assertive. It just has these ripple effects in terms of happiness, health, self-esteem, assertion, confidence, even feeling comfortable in exercise. It has ripple effects on a person’s sense of self. Just like we can’t really separate the mind and the body, like we do in our culture, I don’t think we can separate our sexual selves from the rest of our selves. Our sexual self is really part of our overall self.
Do you think the orgasm gap has any biological component?
No, I don’t. I really don’t. The fact that we know how to do this in four minutes ourselves speaks to the fact that it’s not biological; it’s cultural. We don’t value, we don’t teach, we don’t learn this. If the tables were turned and we overprivileged female sexuality, we'd have the orgasm gap in the other way. Except for procreation, we wouldn't be having intercourse — only when you're trying to get pregnant. To me, it’s really cultural.
What effect does it have on women to teach them it’s harder for them to orgasm?
It gives them a sense of learned helplessness before they even try — this sense of, “I can't do this. It's too hard. It’s not gonna work anyway.” So I think it stops people from even feeling free to explore and try.
It seems like orgasms are really important to you, but many people also say orgasm shouldn’t be the goal of sex. Do you believe that? How do you reconcile those two things?
The goal is to really empower women to orgasm, but if it's set up as this goal to achieve, it’s not gonna happen. So I think basically the way I try to do that is emphasizing over and over again to women and men that an orgasm is lovely, it’s nice, it’s the culmination of a good sexual experience for many, but it doesn't have to happen. You can have great sex without it, but here are the skills to learn to experience it, and one of the skills is not to be so goal-focused, so it’s one of those great sexual ironies. Like how the best sexual encounters are those in which the two people involved are both self-focused and self-absorbed. There’s a lot of ironies to this but this is the way it is.
Another irony, it seems, is that women feel so much pressure from men to orgasm, yet you hear complaints about men who don’t care whether women orgasm
I think there are men like that, and they say, run if you find them. But I actually think the majority of young men I've talked to — and the research shows this as well — that they really care about making a partner orgasm, especially a relationship partner. With hookups, some do, some don’t. I think they care, but they're trying to do it the wrong way. They're misguided. The real way that women orgasm is devalued, which is clitoral stimulation, vulva stimulation, outercourse, because it doesn't involve penile penetration. There are individual men, some of whom are assholes and don't give a shit, some of whom really care and are misguided, and the cultural privileging of the male orgasm. If you think about it, we use the word “sex” and “intercourse” synonymously. We privilege male sexual orgasm and pleasure by assuming that their way is the natural human way. We don’t give men the information they need to do what they really want to do, which is to make women orgasm for real.