Our society is obsessed with sex and orgasms. Orgasms are seen as a rite of passage just as much as sex is: we see them on the screen, read about them in books and are subtly reminded of them in many advertising campaigns. Chances are, you’ve experienced one, although those chances are higher if you have a penis. Like a multiple orgasm, this entry is complex and multi-faceted. However, like a fumbling encounter in a supply closet, it also does not have the capacity to go deep, so enjoy the highlights and read some of our other pieces for an even greater look into sex and its layers.
There are many different ways of achieving orgasm. The stimulation of any erogenous zone, including the ears, breasts, lips, buttocks and more, can lead a person towards orgasm. In fact, many people find purely genital stimulation to either not suffice or not produce as much pleasure. All sexes can achieve orgasm by stimulating nerves in and around the anus. For those with penises, stimulation of the penis is the most common way of reaching orgasm. For those with vaginas, scientists are still debating whether there is a distinct difference between clitoral and vaginal orgasms. In most cases, some clitoral stimulation is required for a person with a vagina to reach orgasm. Mere penetration does not always suffice.
Since Victorian times, scientists have been exploring whether there is a qualitative difference between vaginal and clitoral orgasms. They argued that vaginal orgasms (i.e. through penetration) were more explosive, more mature, and more worthy than the short meagre bursts of pleasure achieved by clitoral orgasm. This is not the experience of most people with vaginas, but it does reveal the ongoing heteronormativity within science: surely women must feel deeper orgasms when their men counterpart/s is/are also experiencing sexual pleasure? Or indeed, surely reproductive sex is the best kind of sex.
It is not only science that prioritises the orgasm of men, but society. In popular media (and therefore real life) penetrative sex literally almost always ends when the man achieves the holy climax. In fact, studies show that where 91% of men say they climaxed during their last sexual encounter, only 64% of women can say the same. This phenomenon is commonly known as the ‘orgasm gap’.
There are two interesting avenues of research that stem from the acceptance of an orgasm gap. One of these is an attempt to explain why women in heteronormative couplings are stopping sex before it’s time, namely faking orgasms. We’ve all seen When Harry Met Sally. Women are often forced, and encouraged, to fake orgasm to boost the man’s ego (or end unsatisfying sexual encounters), with studies finding up to 80% of women have at some point faked it. Notably, studies also show that men believe their woman partner has reached a climax during sex 85% of the time, so nobody can plead that faked orgasms are not convincing.
Around 30% of men have also faked an orgasm in their lifetime; this technique is sometimes the safest and quickest way to end a sexual encounter. For men, there is a culture of shame around premature, and delayed, ejaculation which can cause anxiety and stress around having sex. Indeed, male orgasm and ejaculation are so culturally linked that they can be confused as one event, instead of two. In all cases, anxiety about cultural norms related to performance increases the likelihood of problems during sex for all genders and can lead to disappointing or stressful encounters.
The other avenue to stroll down is how to close this gap, and the answer is to move away from penetrative sex. In one study, regardless of which sexual acts are included in a coupling, men are reported to orgasm around 90% of the time. For women, 64% orgasmed during partnered masturbation, and 81% orgasmed when they received oral sex. For all study participants, anal sex took the biscuit, with 100% of men and 94% of women saying they orgasmed during encounters in which they received anal sex. Notably, this pool of participants was smaller as anal sex is still considered adventurous by most, however, those who have tried it certainly seem to like it.
The question that we always come back to in debates around sex is ‘what is it for?’. If sex is about reproduction, then the woman’s orgasm is irrelevant because it does not serve a functional purpose. They do not help in reproductive sex, and they do not serve any obvious health or fitness benefits. Anecdotally, orgasms have been found to help promote better mental health, lessen the symptoms of migraines, or even induce childbirth for pregnant persons, but they are not often prescribed by doctors. If sex is about oneness and relationship building, then everyone’s orgasms matter equally. Understanding the unique needs and desires of your partner/s regardless of their genitals or sexual orientation is crucial in building a strong relationship.
Sometimes, sex doesn’t come into this at all; for asexual/aromantic couples, and other non-sexual couples, our orgasm-obsessed society can be difficult to navigate. Similarly, sex is not always about achieving orgasm, it can be about vulnerability or self-discovery: sex should not be viewed as a linear activity leading towards orgasm. The reverse is always true, orgasms are not always about relationship building, they can be solely for pleasure. There are also some who are unable to have orgasms or participate in certain types of sexual activity. Enjoying one another and getting intimate can take all different forms, there is no one correct way of having sex or experiencing orgasm.
In essence, there are many ways to orgasm, and nobody should feel like they can’t, or don’t deserve, to receive sexual pleasure. Sex isn’t about reaching orgasm either, if you choose to have sex, it should be equally fulfilling for all participants, whatever that looks like for you.