Women’s orgasm: a feminist issue

image of crrumpled paper with pleasure written on it

We were recently asked to contribute to a piece for the i paper about women’s orgasms and it got us thinking. We live in a society where we are constantly striving for equal rights for women in all kinds of areas, but are we lagging behind when it comes to sex? Heterosexual women are often having the types of sex that are not the ultimate fit for their anatomy, then feeling shame and guilt for not experiencing the ‘right amount’ of pleasure or orgasms from those experiences. Why do we let this happen? And how does this affect our sex lives?


Firstly, we need to understand which types of sex are most associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm for women and how this fits with the types of sex that heterosexual women usually have.

The number one sexual activity for orgasm is masturbation. When masturbating, men and women reliably reach orgasm to a similar degree (more than 95% of men and women report orgasming when alone).

Most women reliably orgasm from masturbation even if they don’t orgasm from other types of sex. Following masturbation the second most reliable road to orgasm reported is a partner using their hands to stimulate the clitoris and surrounding areas, after this, receiving oral sex and lastly, (very faint drum roll) penetrative vaginal sex.

What’s interesting, is that for heterosexual men the activities resulting in ‘usually or always’ experiencing orgasm follow a different order. Penetrative sex is high up on the list alongside masturbation, followed by oral sex then manual stimulation by a partners hand.

This shows itself in an orgasm gap between heterosexual men and women, with heterosexual men orgasming roughly 95% the time, and heterosexual women only 65% of the time during a partnered sexual experience.

What does this tell us?

It tells us that the type of sex heterosexual women routinely find themselves having (the ‘heterosexual script’ – i.e. always ending in penetrative sex) is better suited to men’s preferences than women’s. Often we hear stories of women having ‘complicated anatomy’ or being ‘harder to please’ as explanations of this gap between the sexes but the truth is this doesn’t hold up in the research, as women who have sex with other women report orgasming ‘always or nearly always’ much closer to that of heterosexual men at a rate as high as 86%.

What doesn’t help?

Women fake orgasms frequently (roughly 50-65% of women report having faked or regularly faking) and for a variety of reasons such as;

  • wanting sex to end
  • to protect a partner’s feelings
  • an attempt to enhance sex for them or their partner
  • to avoid conflict or explanation
  • wanting to prevent a partner from leaving
  • to avoid shame as they feel they should have come.

In one study sex researchers Sari van Anders and Sara Chadwick found that women’s orgasms function as a masculinity achievement for men. But why do women prioritise their partners needs in such a way that clouds their communication about what they really want? And how does faking it help a partner know what’s working or what isn’t?

Media representations of women’s sexual pleasure don’t help either. Too often than not sex scenes on mainstream TV show penetrative sex with little build up beforehand (I never use the word foreplay- in my opinion the concept of some sexual acts as the starter before the penetrative main course is part of the problem), with rushed penetration and quick mutual orgasm in positions where any kind of clitoral stimulation is unlikely.

We don’t get to be a fly on the wall to observe most people’s sex lives so apart from porn, sex on tv and our own experience we have little to compare our sex lives to. The consequence of this is that we start to see what is represented on screen as the norm, and our inability to reach orgasm in this quick and easy way as a failing in comparison.

So why do we put up with it?

This I can speculate on, well at least partly. Firstly, there are several things that we as a society simply do not know. We do not know how our bodies work, that it’s OK to ask for non-penetrative sex, that other women feel the same way, that it’s still ‘sex’ if you don’t have penetration, that we’re not unusual and that the odds are stacked against us to come in the way we’re expected to.

Secondly, we care too much. We care about being perceived as unusual, about moving too far from the norm, about a partner’s pleasure or disappointment being more important and about rocking the boat.

BUT we can change. We can experiment with asking to do things differently and noticing the effects, on us, on them, on our mutual satisfaction and on our desire over time. It’s time we brought our feminism to the bedroom and owned it. Equal rights, equal desires, equally deserved to receive pleasure.

Time for a sexual revolution?


Dr Karen Gurney, Clinical Psychologist and Psychosexologist- The Havelock Clinic

The Havelock Clinic offer expert help with sexual problems and getting the sex life you want


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