Closing the Orgasm Gap: How to Help Your Partner Help You Orgasm
It’s no news to anyone — especially not to women — that the orgasm gap is still alive and well in 2018. Whereas 95% of straight men climax almost every time they have sex, just 65% of straight women can say the same. (Meanwhile, 89% of gay men and 86% of lesbians get off basically every time, so clearly this isn’t a biology problem.) Fortunately, a recent study offers some new light on what might be at the heart of the problem: men’s lack of awareness of what a female orgasm even looks like.
The research, published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, looked at nationally representative data on 1,683 married heterosexual couples. Each person in the couple reported how often they orgasm during sex and how often they thought their spouse did. The discrepancy between men and women’s orgasm frequency played out as starkly as ever: 87% of husbands hit the jackpot consistently, compared to just 49% of wives. (Yikes.) But perhaps even more surprising? As it turns out, 43% of husbands misperceived how often their wives were having orgasms. In other words, these guys thought their wives were coming way more often than they actually were.
A vast amount of men, it seems, just can’t tell when a woman orgasms.
Now, obviously male orgasms tend to be a lot more visually conspicuous than female orgasms — most men ejaculate, whereas not all women do. But the researchers suspect another factor plays a big role in facilitating the problem of misperception: sexual communication.
The same study tracked level of dialogue between the partners. As communication improved from both sides of the couple, so did both people’s sexual and relationship satisfaction. While the study didn’t specifically look for a relationship between communication and how egregiously husbands misperceived their wives’ orgasm frequency, the researchers did notice the negative effects of that cluelessness seemed to vanish when they added sexual communication into the mix.
“What we think is happening is that these problems of misperception are happening in large part because partners aren’t communicating with each other very well as to what’s actually happening in the relationship,” Nathan Leonhardt, a research assistant at Brigham Young University and the study’s lead author, tells Like A Boss Girls. “They’re either uncomfortable with their sexuality or maybe lack awareness.”
In other words, the orgasm gap may actually just come down to a communication gap.
Okay, so let’s talk about talking for a second…
“We’re a highly sexualized culture,” Shula Melamed, a relationship and wellbeing coach with a background in psychology, tells us. “There’s a lot of sex around us, but you’d just be so surprised how many people are just so uncomfortable talking about sex with their partners.”
Even for couples in otherwise healthy, long-term relationships, talking about the intimate details of what’s going on between the sheets can be surprisingly difficult. No matter how sex-positive our culture has grown to be, it can still be really uncomfortable to call out what your own partner is doing when the lights go out.
Part of the problem, Melamed explains, is that couples don’t tend to build up the habit of talking about their sex life early enough.
“At the beginning of a relationship, there’s so much about the novelty and the newness of the relationship … that that’s already a major turn-on. And that’s something that can just create a lot of excitement in and of itself,” she points out. “But if you’re in a long-term relationship, your desires change. Your tastes change. Your libido changes. I think we take for granted that it might be good to ask the other person, well, what’s going on with you? How are you feeling about this?”
People fall into a rhythm of just not really talking about their sexual endeavors, and that silence follows them deep into their relationship.
A Cycle of Good Intentions
As frustrating as the orgasm gap may be, this latest research suggests many men are at the very least not ignoring their partner’s pleasure. The study found the more often husbands thought their wives reached climax, the more sexually satisfied he felt. Past research has also shown that men reported pleasing their partner as one of the most important parts of a sexual experience.
“Particularly in a marital context, both partners typically have a high motivation to help the other feel satisfied,” Leonhardt says. “So there may be some cases in which husbands are simply not being as responsive or not attuned to whether their wife is having a pleasurable experience. [But] I do believe that that’s not the majority of cases. … They do have that motivation. They want to be a good lovemaker, a good husband, pleasing their wife.”
On the flip side of this equation are the wives who also want to make sure their husbands are having a good time. Enter: the whole “faking it” phenomenon. Women of course feign orgasm for a variety of reasons, but the end result is always the same: their partners have no idea there’s an issue.
“So, on one hand, you have wives who want their husbands to feel good about the experience, so they might be likely to fake orgasm,” Leonhardt says. “And then you have husbands that maybe are not completely sure whether their wives are having orgasms, and they’re just kind of afraid to ask. They maybe just want to be left in a blissful ignorance thinking that things went well and maybe just are a little bit concerned to find the truth.”
Importantly, there are usually good intentions behind each party in this scenario — but the tendency toward shirking away from the uncomfortable truth is allowing problems to fester.
The Pressure to Perform
Heterosexual women, in particular, are prone to entering a sexual encounter at a supreme disadvantage due to enduring, toxic cultural norms around what female sexuality is “supposed to” look like. A woman’s sexuality, according to the media, porn and even many faith teachings, is based around serving male pleasure. The not-so-subtle subtext in this ideology is that a woman must look a certain way before and during sex, that she’s expected to give blowjobs without expecting to get oral sex in return, and obviously, she’s supposed to enjoy getting plowed with jackhammer-style sex (even though it likely doesn’t stimulate her main sexual pleasure organ, the clitoris, at all.)
“There is a pressure for women to perform sexuality more than to enjoy it, historically speaking at least,” Melamed explains. “There’s definitely still some stigma around a woman asking for what she wants and what feels good.”
The entire script around what happens during heterosexual sex is heavily skewed against women. “Sex” is coded to mean “P-in-V”, while all other sexual acts are labeled as “foreplay.” That’s the patriarchy at work. Most women (anywhere from 75% to more than 90% of women, according to some research) cannot climax from penetration alone, so when we structure every sexual encounter toward getting to the “penetration part”, that means privileging men over women. Period.
“[Women] talk to me about not being able to orgasm during penetrative intercourse, and that is something that really gives them a lot of shame,” Melamed says. “They feel like all of the activities that would get them there are ‘foreplay’ and not important, so they just rush to the act [of penetration], and they end up being unsatisfied.”
Your Action Plan
Now that we understand what’s at the heart of the so-called orgasm gap, there are a few straightforward steps every couple and individual can take toward bridging the divide and making sure women are coming as often as they deserve:
Start talking about sex as soon as you start dating. Melamed recommends starting to voice desires and preferences as early as possible in relationships. If you’re already used to talking about bedroom behavior from the get-go, it relieves a lot of the awkwardness of bringing up new issues, suggestions or interests later on.
Reorganize the acts of sex. Start implementing a sexual routine that isn’t all about racing to get a dick into a vagina. Make cunnilingus the main event more often. This isn’t to say penetrative intercourse can’t be a super fun part of the lineup, but it certainly doesn’t need to be the “point” of sex — nor does it have to be the last part of it. (For example, one great way for a hetero women to do her part in closing the orgasm gap is to ask her partner(s) to make a habit of continuing to go down on her after he comes if she’s not there yet.)
Ladies: Masturbate. “If the woman hasn’t experienced pleasure on her own too, [she should] explore her own body and see what works for her,” Melamed suggests. “If she’s already in touch with what those things are, figure out a way to integrate them into the interaction with the partner.” You can literally tell your partner: Hey, there’s something that I realized feels really good for me… but I want to feel you doing it to me. Helpful suggestion and major turn-on.
Dudes: Check in. There’s no magic formula to know when your partner is orgasming. Just ask. Does that feel good? How does this feel? Melamed notes, however: “Frequently I hear that men say, ‘I want you to come for me.’ Stop saying phrases like that. That’s like asking a bowl of water to boil. It’s not gonna happen once you say it.” Plus, “I want you to come for me” is yet another example of male-first sexual rhetoric. First and foremost, your orgasm should be about your pleasure — not your partner’s ego.
Set aside time to have a big-picture conversation as a couple. “Make a time to have a ‘state of the union’ conversation,” she suggests. “Just being like, how are you doing? Beyond the housework, the business work, managing all the stuff that you’re managing, how are you doing? Check in with them about how they’re feeling about their life.” And do it regularly!
Privilege pleasure over performance. Having goalposts can distract from enjoying what’s happening to you. Stop thinking about what sex “should” include — penetration, orgasms or what-have-you. Just focus in on doing the things that actually feel good.
If you still feel uncomfortable about bridging the orgasm gap with your partner, try thinking about it like this: When you’re laying in bed relaxing with your partner, it probably feels totally natural to tap them and ask for, say, a back massage. He rubs your body down and stops when it makes sense. No pressure, no stress. Just good vibes. What if you did the same with, say, asking him go down on you? You’d be surprised how good it can feel to remove the scripts and just ask for what you want.