Talking Orgasm Satisfaction with Dr. Karen Blair
There's been a great deal of talk about the "Orgasm Gap", after a number of studies indicated that men are 3-4 times as likely to orgasm from penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex than their female counterparts.
Why are women having fewer orgasms?
I asked Dr. Karen Blair, Ph.D., whose research includes the study, "Not all orgasms were created equal", which analyzed female orgasm variety and frequency.
Thank you for taking time to chat, Dr. Karen. Can you tell us a little about the study and what you hoped to learn?
This data about orgasms came from a larger study on relationships, so participants were not specifically recruited to answer questions about their sex life. This is important to note, as sometimes sex studies can result in slightly different samples that might skew the results. In the process of asking questions about a variety of topics related to relationships, we also included questions about their experiences with orgasm. Instead of just asking how frequently they experienced orgasm, we asked them to tell us about the different activities that lead to orgasm and to rate the frequency with which they experienced orgasm from each type of activity as well as how satisfying they found the different types of orgasms. Overall we asked them about a total of 14 different activities, such as orgasm derived from oral sex, penetration, masturbation, etc. We really just wanted to learn whether all orgasms were generally rated as being equally satisfying, or whether some might be seen as more satisfying than others. As it turns out, there are differences. For example, men in mixed-sex relationships really enjoy orgasms that result from penile-vaginal intercourse, while women tend to derive more satisfaction from orgasms that result from oral sex (regardless of the gender of their partner). This represents a bit of a mis-match then, with respect to individuals in mixed-sex relationships. The most satisfying orgasm for each partner is not coming from the same activity, and yet, cultural norms and sexual scripts that suggest that penetration *is* sex may be leading women to feel that if they cannot experience or enjoy an orgasm through this type of sexual activity then that is their fault/loss, rather than just a result of the script being wrong!
Your study found a big difference in orgasm satisfaction in women in same-sex relationships compared with those in mixed-sex relationships. Why was that important?
Women in same-sex relationships were the most likely to experience multiple orgasms, while women in mixed-sex relationships were the most likely to experience sex with a partner that did not result in an orgasm (for themselves). Previous explanations for the orgasm gap between men and women have suggested that men simply have an easier time reaching orgasm. Some have gone as far as to say that the male orgasm is expected and natural, while a woman’s orgasm is superfluous and not necessary (and therefore more difficult to achieve). The fact that women in same-sex relationships are reporting very high satisfaction from multiple forms of orgasm, that they are reporting experiencing multiple orgasms during individual sexual encounters, and that they do not have difficulty reaching orgasm whether they are with a partner or not suggests that the reason for the orgasm gap is unlikely to be related to any innate or biological difference between men and women. Rather, the more salient explanation seems to be whether women are having sex with other women or with men. When they have sex with women, orgasm does not appear to be a difficulty. This doesn’t mean that women need to become lesbians in order to experience satisfying orgasms or multiple orgasms, but it does mean that considering what activities tend to differ between same-sex and mixed-sex relationships might help to close the gap.
We don't necessarily think of orgasms as being "more satisfying". How can orgasmic satisfaction ratings help us, so women can reach greater fulfillment?
I think you’re right, but I also think this is a missed opportunity. If orgasms can differ in how satisfying they are, then that means there might be certain types of orgasms that we prefer to have. This is likely to be a function of individual preference. Seeking out orgasms that are the most satisfying for each partner could significantly improve overall sexual and relationship satisfaction. After all, it is a pretty low bar if the mark of success is simply having an orgasm, vs. aiming for the orgasms that each partner is most likely to enjoy. I think this is particularly relevant for women where it seems that the ’status quo’ is to be satisfied if you even come close to an orgasm. If the notion of one orgasm potentially being more satisfying than other seems foreign, then I would encourage women to explore and learn more about the different orgasms they are capable of experiencing and considering which ones they actually enjoy the most. It might be best to do this kind of exploration on their own, and once they know that types of activities that bring about their most satisfying orgasms they can begin to incorporate those activities into their partnered sexual encounters.
Do you have any final advice for women trying to expand their pleasure potential?
My best advice is for couples - of all types - to negotiate their sexual scripts as though they knew absolutely nothing about sex and had never seen a single romantic comedy! Start from the basics of just what feels good and go from there. If it doesn’t feel good - stop - even if what doesn’t feel good is penetration - still stop! Sexual scripts can be re-written in ways that can maximize the sexual satisfaction of each partner, which will, in turn, increase the sexual satisfaction of the couple as a whole. After all, are you really satisfied if your partner is never satisfied? This is where same-sex couples have the upper hand. They were never given any sexual scripts to follow. They are not inundated with cultural messages informing them who should make the right move, what qualifies as sex, or whose orgasm matters most. As a result, each new relationship is a blank slate in which they do not know what activities will be included and which will be off the menu. Most importantly, it’s never a set menu!
Great information. Thanks again, Dr. Karen!