As a straight woman, I used to feel like something was wrong with me when I couldn’t orgasm during sex after very little foreplay, no clitoral stimulation, and a few minutes of penetration. I would often fake orgasms and focus on my sexual performance because I did not know how to ask for the stimulation I ached for. It turns out I was not alone in my experience: When the traditional straight sex narrative doesn’t focus on your pleasure, it’s tough to shift that narrative.
Research led by Paula England and published in the The New York Times in 2005 found that of 2400 students, only 40% of women said that they experienced an orgasm in their last sexual encounter, while 80% of men said they did. That is twice as many men experiencing the big O than women! A more extensive 2017 study, published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, found that out of 52,588 people, heterosexual men were the most likely to say they usually orgasm during sex (95%), followed by gay men (89%), bisexual men (88%), lesbian women (86%), bisexual women (66%) and the lowest being straight women (65%).
Some folks excuse this orgasm gap by explaining that female sexuality is “complex.” However, if it were simply a case of complex genitals, people with vulvas of all sexual orientations would have a similarly low orgasm rate. Additionally, research shows that women are more likely to orgasm during masturbation than during partnered sex. So it appears that many women are not receiving the type of stimulation needed for them to achieve orgasm during partnered sex.
Before we get into how to shrink this orgasm gap and facilitate pleasurable experiences for women during partnered sex, a quick note about language: We use the terms “women” and “men” here because the orgasm gap is rooted not only in anatomy but also in a heterosexist culture that both leans on the gender binary and places men’s desires above women’s. Because of that, it’s important to acknowledge that this is largely an issue between cisgender women and cisgender men. We will also use “people with vulvas” and “people with penises” when it makes sense, because we know that not all women have vulvas, not all people with vulvas are women, not all men have penises, and not all people with penises are men.
1. Step away from penetration
Our narrative around straight partnered sex focuses on “foreplay” building up to the “main act” of penetration. Although penetration can feel fantastic for folks of all genders, women are more likely to experience orgasm when being fingered, receiving oral sex, or experiencing clitoral stimulation during penetration. Many men believe that if they could last longer during penetration, that would help their partners have orgasms. In reality, a step away from penetration and towards prolonged foreplay, fingering, and oral sex is likely a better move.
2. Get to know your anatomy
Understanding more about female pleasure may be the key to closing the orgasm gap. For example, one study found that 58% of folks couldn’t describe what the urethra does, 47% were unsure what the labia was, and 52% of folks were unsure exactly what the vagina was. Furthermore, 30% of women and 25% of men could not locate a clitoris on a diagram.
For most women, the clitoris is the key to pleasure. So if you can’t find it in a diagram, there’s a good chance you aren’t correctly pleasuring it! Similarly, 30% of men asserted that the best way to get women to orgasm is through penetration, but more than half of women expressed that clitoral stimulation is the key to orgasm. Understanding women’s anatomy and how we experience pleasure is essential for creating more positive sexual encounters.
3. Remember that porn isn’t complete sex ed
Many of us learn about sex is through pornography. Although porn can be exciting to watch, it is crucial to understand that, for the most part, it is made for men by men. As a result, it is more likely to focus on male fantasy and not the type of sex that may be most pleasurable to women.
Specifically, porn often does not show any communication about desires. Instead, it often shows hard and fast penetration, which may not be the most pleasurable for women. We need more female-led porn that creates an arousing enviroment, uses sex toys, and includes sexual communication about pleasure.
It isn’t easy to express to a partner how to please us if we don’t know what we like. Folks of all genders should spend time pleasuring themselves. Experiment with different sex toys and unique types of stimulation to figure out what you want. OMG Yes is an excellent resource for folks with vulvas to see additional examples of how a vulva can be pleasured. You can also fill out a Yes, No, Maybe list, which gives you a list of potential sexual activities, and you can think through which ones you would find most exciting. Additionally, explore female owned pornography sites or try out written or audio-based erotica.
Telling your partner what would make you experience more pleasure is key to having a positive sexual experience. Once you have engaged in some self-exploration, work on expressing to a partner what would make you experience more pleasure. Anything from “my clitoris is a bit to the left” to “please tie me up and hold me down” is beneficial advice to a partner who wants to facilitate as much pleasure as possible.
6. Use toys
Incorporating toys in the bedroom can be a fantastic way for people to experience more pleasure. A vibrator is the best way to incorporate clitoral stimulation during sex. Folks can also take a break from intercourse to use toys and their hands to facilitate as much pleasure as possible.
On a societal level, we have a lot of work to do to prioritize women’s pleasure. We need to get educated about the vulva and how to pleasure the clitoris, so that people with vulvas can stop feeling like something is wrong because they can’t orgasm during penetrative sex. We need to normalize sexual communication so women can stop faking orgasms and become more comfortable experiencing pleasure and communicating about what they desire.
Nobody walks into a sexual encounter, hoping that they will be left humping their pillow or going to the bathroom to finish the job while their partner passes out at the end of the night. So let’s shift that narrative towards one that prioritizes female pleasure.