We have an orgasm gap. Cis-gender heterosexual women are having fewer orgasms than are cis-gender heterosexual men. As one striking example, in research I’ve conducted, 55% of men versus 4% of women say they usually orgasm during first-time hookup sex. Other research shows that this this gap narrows, but doesn’t completely close, in relationship sex. One study found that 85% of men vs. 68% of women said they orgasmed during their last instance of relationship sex.
In Becoming Cliterate I analyze the multiple societal causes for this gap—including, as just one example, sex education that doesn’t mention pleasure or the clitoris. I then provide solutions for closing the gap, culturally (e.g., improved sex education; language changes) and personally (e.g., mindfulness, good sexual communication). One central solution suggested is making sure that women get the same type of stimulation during self- and partner-sex. I tell readers:
The most crucial action needed to orgasm during sex with a partner is to get the same type of stimulation you use when pleasuring yourself.
Underlying my (literally and metaphorically) bold statement is the fact that while there’s a gendered orgasm gap in partnered sex, there isn’t such a gap in solo-sex. According research conducted by a famous scholar, both men and women have similarly high rates of orgasm during masturbation: 94% for women and 98% for men.
A primary reason women’s self-pleasure is so orgasmic is a focus on their external genitals—most often the clitoris, but also the mons, inner lips, and opening to the vagina. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of the nerve endings that women need to reach orgasm are located on the outside of their genitals. This explains why in one study, about 86% of women reported focusing completely on their external genitals during self-pleasure. Another 12% also focused externally while sometimes or always also simultaneously putting something in their vaginas. Only about 2% pleasured themselves by solely putting something inside their vaginas.
Breaking this down further, among the 98% of women who stimulated their external genitals, 73% did so while laying on their backs, 6% while laying on their tummies, 4% while rubbing up against a soft object, 2% by using running water, and 3% by simply rubbing their thighs together rhythmically.
Taken together, these statistics underscore the words of Elisabeth Lloyd:
The most striking thing about female masturbation is how likely it is to produce orgasm and how little it resembles, mechanically, the stimulation provided by intercourse.
On the other hand (no pun intended), the stimulation that a man receives through masturbation and intercourse (as well as blow jobs and hand jobs) are all similar: they focus on his most sexually sensitive organ, his penis. In fact, lots of masturbation advice for men tells them to touch themselves in ways that make it feel like their penis is inside a vagina. Conversely, the stimulation a woman receives through masturbation and intercourse is quite different: only masturbation focuses on her most erotic external sexual organ, the clitoris. Yet, when with men, women often shortchange themselves, prioritizing intercourse instead.
When cis-gender women and men get it on, intercourse is generally considered the main event and any clitoral simulation before relegated to “foreplay” – a warm-up to get the woman ready for intercourse. It’s no wonder that one survey conducted with thousands of readers of Cosmopolitan magazine found that during sexual encounters that involve intercourse, 78% of women’s orgasms problems were due to not getting enough of or the right kind of clitoral stimulation.
Thus, to close the orgasm gap, we need to hold clitoral stimulation and penile stimulation as equal. As advocated in another blog, Doing Sex Differently, we need to replace our standard cultural script (foreplay, intercourse with male orgasm, sex over) for more egalitarian scrips, including turn taking ones (She Comes First, She Comes Second) and ones where both partners get the stimulation they need during the same sexual act (e.g., a woman touching her clitoris during intercourse; a couple using a vibrating cock ring with an attached clitoral vibrator). If you’re a woman, getting the stimulation you need means making sure that you get the same kind of stimulation during partner sex that brings you to orgasm during solo-sex.
There are two ways to transfer your self-pleasure techniques to sex with someone else. One is teaching your partner what you like and the others is doing it yourself. Teaching a partner could entail, for example, introducing them to your vibrator, showing them your favorite finger motions, or telling them what feels good during oral sex. Doing it yourself could entail, for example, using your hands or vibrator on yourself during intercourse, or bringing yourself to orgasm after intercourse while a partner holds, kisses, or caresses you.
Here’s something really important about touching yourself during sex with a partner: it’s NOT a lessor form of sex than having your partner stimulate you. For some women, this is the most—or only—possible way to reach orgasm with a partner. This may be especially true for women who prefer a type of stimulation that’s difficult, or even impossible, for someone else to provide. For example, if you masturbate by laying facedown and rubbing on pillows, you’re going have to do this yourself—although your partner can be part of the action (e.g., entering you behind during intercourse while you does this). On the other hand, if you lay on your back and rub circles on your clitoral hood, it will be easier to teach a partner to do the same.
In short, to close the gendered orgasm gap in partnered sex we need to close another disconnect: the way women pleasure themselves alone and the way the receive pleasure with a partner. It’s making outercourse as important a part of heterosexual sex as intercourse.