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You’ve probably heard of the wage gap by now. You know, where women are paid less than men for doing the same job even when they have better qualifications or more experience. Well, have you also heard of the orgasm gap? The phenomenon is as old as patriarchy (roughly 6,000 years) but it has only recently begun to be discussed as a social phenomenon among, primarily, heterosexual couples.
The orgasm gap refers to the difference in the frequency of orgasms enjoyed by women and men in heterosexual encounters. Recent studies have suggested that in sex between women and men, women enjoy only one orgasm for every three that men will have. Women are least likely to experience, or even expect and orgasm during casual hook-ups, with the figures improving, but never quite reaching parity for women in long-term relationships.
Things have obviously come a long way from the days where the only sexual response expected, or indeed permitted, in women, was to grin and bear the unwanted sexual advances of their husbands. Even Ireland has experienced its own, rather belated, sexual revolution. Nevertheless, orgasm inequality continues to exist. While it may not be as urgent a problem as sexual violence or access to reproductive rights, it is perhaps one of the most persistent, insidious and subtle forms of patriarchal oppression because it gets us where we are most vulnerable: our bedrooms.
The prohibition of pleasure
The roots of orgasm inequality lie in the fact that pleasure, particularly women’s pleasure, has for the longest time been considered taboo. Sex is acceptable when it is for the purpose of reproduction but not solely for pleasure. The ideal of the ‘chaste virginal wife’ has been fixed in the public’s imagination since the Victorian era. A good wife couldn’t or shouldn’t enjoy sex nor express sexual desire. Fear and suspicion of women’s bodies and women’s sexuality reigned during this era where women were treated for hysteria, incarcerated, or had their wombs removed if they were considered too sexually forward, openly expressed pleasure during sex, or were frustrated with the expectation of chastity.
Victorian sexual oppression of well to do white women went hand in hand with the explosion of the illegal prostitution industry, the mass sexual exploitation of enslaved women and the exoticism of Asian women. While their bodies were hyper-sexualised and seen as sexually available to all, there was never any concern for their consent, and least of all their pleasure.
We may have transcended many of these backward and oppressive ideas but I would argue that sexual pleasure is still taboo. Contemporary sex education, focusing on the prevention of pregnancy and disease, still reflects this idea. When is anyone ever told that the principal reason most people have sex is for pleasure and not for reproduction? When is anyone ever told that the principal reason most people have sex is for pleasure and not for reproduction?
When is anyone ever told that the principal reason most people have sex is for pleasure and not for reproduction?
Our idea of what counts as sex also has a profound influence on how we experience sexual pleasure. If you read my last article than you will know that virginity is a social construction built around the idea that the only thing that counts as sex is vaginal penetration with a penis. The phallocentricity of our culture does not end there, however. When it comes to sex between women and men the main goal and end point is the male orgasm achieved through penetration. Whether the woman reaches orgasm or not is often of secondary importance. How many of us have been in the situation where a man comes, rolls off us and falls straight to sleep leaving us either to finish ourselves off or lie there eternally frustrated and disgusted?
In fact, many of our sexual experiences are filled with subtle or overt forms of sexism, which blur the lines of sexual consent or verge on sexual violence. The problem is one of entitlement. Who is entitled to pleasure and who is merely an object? Who is active and who is expected to be a passive recipient during sex? Who gives and who takes? Who has power over whom? These imbalances are often amplified for women of colour, people who identify as non-binary or queer and trans women and men. As a white, hetero, cis-gendered woman I cannot claim to speak for the experience of any of these communities but Reina Gattuso of Feministing points to the need to expand the discussion of sexual pleasure beyond heteronormativity.
In a recent article for Bust magazine, Sara Peterson talks about ten years of unsatisfying sexual encounters before she finally had an orgasm with a partner. She is not alone, many of us have simply faked it – and more than once. We tend to regard sex as a failure if a man does not reach an orgasm (been there) but if the same goes for the woman it is merely incidental. Unless, the male ego depends on whether or not his partner reaches an orgasm. The message has got through to some men that women deserve and expect to experience pleasure. Too often, however, a woman’s orgasm becomes more about their own sense of achievement or their need for a ‘gold star’ in the sex stakes than a genuine concern for their partner’s pleasure. This is why many women end up faking it (also been there).
Faking it is a product of goal oriented sex where an orgasm, shared or otherwise, is the only benchmark for pleasure. In fact the pressure to have an orgasm during each encounter can be so high that it becomes counterproductive, just another inhibiting factor.
The medical establishment has begun to take the orgasm gap so seriously that ‘anorgasmia’ is now classed as a medical condition. The Mayo Clinic defines it as: “regular difficulty reaching orgasm after ample sexual stimulation, causing you personal distress. Anorgasmia is a common occurrence, affecting a significant number of women.” Sounds like everything we have just been discussing right?
Rather than addressing social and cultural factors that may be preventing women from enjoying orgasms the response from the medical establishment has been to pathologise women’s lack of sexual response and to medicate us. As of now we have the ‘female viagra‘ and the O-Shot (a shot of one’s own blood into the clitoris) to choose from The latter will set you back about USD$1500.
Others tend to focus the ‘deficient’ and ‘complicated’ anatomy of the vulva. How many of you have heard that physically speaking it is harder for women to orgasm? That the vulva and clitoris are complicated devices needing careful handling? The persistence of Freud’s theories on women’s sexual responses coming principally from the vagina, and the clitoral orgasm being a sign of sexual immaturity, do not help matters. We have science to thank for recent explorations on the functioning of the clitoris which have told the world what many women already knew from experience: the clitoris’ only function is to give us pleasure from it’s over 4000 nerve endings that extend throughout the vulva. The little bud that we see at the top of the vulva is literally only the tip of the iceberg.
Recovering our sexuality begins with us first by recovering a healthy relationship with our bodies. We can start by becoming comfortable with our naked bodies, alone or in company. We can limit our consumption of toxic media such as mainstream women’s magazines which dedicate endless pages to body shaming and/or the idealisation of unrealistic, unattainable, and fantastical body types.
We can explore our ability to pleasure ourselves. Betty Dodson, a veteran feminist, wrote a short instruction manual to self-pleasure in the 1980s where she argues for the need for women to take their orgasms into their own hands, literally. Sex for One is Betty’s femifesto for self-love and pleasure because ‘better orgasms, better world.’ Masturbation is one of the best ways to get to know our bodies, explore what we like, what turns us on, what gives us pleasure, and to indulge our fantasies, even the ones we would never dream of acting out in real life. Recovering our sexuality begins with us first by recovering a healthy relationship with our bodies.
Recovering our sexuality begins with us first by recovering a healthy relationship with our bodies.
When it comes to shared pleasure communication is key. No matter how hard it is to talk to our sexual partners (and the Irish aversion to discussing anything vaguely sensitive means it can be very hard) it is important to let them know what we like, what we are not so keen on and resisting the temptation to fake it.
Women can take responsibility for our sexual pleasure, we can overcome our body hatred, we can learn to let go and enjoy the moment, but it all means diddly squat in the face of repeated encounters with men for whom female pleasure is really not a priority. So if you are a man who is genuinely concerned about gender equality, then equality should rule in the streets, in the house and in the bedroom. Will you start taking women’s pleasure seriously, and I don’t mean as just a mark of your sexual prowess or a boost to your male ego? Will you challenge harmful sexual stereotypes? Will you listen to and respect your partner’s needs and desires? Will you learn a little basic anatomy?
Rather than treating the orgasm gap as a woman’s problem to be solved by women or through medication, we could focus on addressing the social and cultural factors contributing to orgasm inequality. Why not put pleasure, rather than the prevention of disease and pregnancy, at the centre of sex education? Why not teach people where the clitoris is for a start? Why not emphasise the equal importance of pleasure for all who engage in sex? Why not work to end body shaming, slut shaming and all the other ways that society finds to alienate women from their bodies and their sexuality? Why not work to end rape culture so that women don’t have to live in constant fear of sexual violence? Because that surely is the greatest inhibitor to women enjoying their sexuality to the full.