When our friends at Dame recently appeared on “Megyn Kelly TODAY” to talk about the pleasure gap, we knew the term had officially gone mainstream. And for good reason. The statistics on how often women reach orgasm compared to men are striking, especially in heterosexual relationships.
And yet, to many women this news isn't all that surprising. Why is that? And what can we do to elevate and validate women's pleasure?
First of all, what is the pleasure gap?
The pleasure (or orgasm) gap refers to the discrepancy in how often men achieve orgasm compared to women. Statistics show that the disparity between men's and women's experiences of pleasure have existed for some time, even though the term only dates to the mid-2000s. A 2017 study found that 95 percent of heterosexual men in the U.S. say they regularly orgasm during sex, but only 65 percent of heterosexual women said the same. Furthermore, there is a knowledge gap as it relates to female pleasure. According to a study from University of Wisconsin-Madison, almost 30% of college-age women couldn’t identify their clitoris on an anatomy test.
We'd like to note that reaching orgasm is not the "end all, be all" of a meaningful sexual experience. However, this trend speaks to larger, more pervasive inequality in the ways women are taught about pleasure and how they ask for their needs to be met.
Why is there a discrepancy between men's and women's experience of pleasure?
It’s not a huge surprise to learn that there are differences in how men and women’s pleasure is prioritized in romantic relationships and in the culture overall. There are many complex parts at play, but they can be narrowed down to two primary issues.
Lack of Education About Female Orgasm and Pleasure
If you think back to your own sex ed curriculum, the subjects you probably learned about included puberty and reaching sexual maturity, how ovulation, conception, and pregnancy occur. Some schools may have also talked about STIs, contraceptives, and consent. But, rarely was there a focus on pleasure (especially the female orgasm) and more generally on sex being a positive, normal, healthy part of adulthood.
This gap in what adolescents learn about sex is filled in by our culture, leading us into an issue that is much more difficult to tackle…
Cultural Norms About What Sex Is – And Isn't
The second likely cause for pleasure gap has to do with what social scientists refer to as the “socio-sexual script”. Basically, this encompasses all of the cultural norms and expectations we learn through the media (advertising, TV, pornography, art and more) that define what sex is and isn’t, and even how men and women should interact.
A key part of this script is that sex isn’t sex unless a man reaches orgasm. (If a woman reaches orgasm too, that’s great, but it isn't required.) When the roles are reversed – if a woman climaxes and a man does not, the script would say that encounter wasn’t really “sex.”
For example, while men and women equally engage in hookups on campuses, only half of women report climaxing in these casual encounters. Additionally, young girls are more likely to classify a sexual encounter as “successful” if their male partner was satisfied than if they themselves had reached orgasm.
Good Clean Love CEO and Founder Wendy Strgar describes this sorry state of affairs as an “if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me” complex. Despite our perceived “sexual liberation”, women are consistently settling for less than their male peers.
How can we close the gap?
Although ideas about pleasure are beginning to change, the old ways of thinking are often embedded in us and can have a real impact on how we think about pleasure in ways we don’t even realize.
The best place to start in turning the ship around on these trends is with ourselves and with our partners. Whether we are in a place where we don’t have the courage to advocate for our needs, or we aren’t granting ourselves permission to explore our own bodies, or just don’t have the information to make informed decisions – the grey area of pleasure can be deeply hindering.
Here are some ways you can put a priority on pleasure in your life and in your relationship:
- Choose to have more communication with your partner about what you like and where your boundaries are. (Try this worksheet to get the conversation started!) As uncomfortable as it may seem at first, part of this should include speaking up if you feel your pleasure needs are not being met.
- Choose to be more experimental and open-minded to discover pleasure with yourself or with a partner. Explore solo touch in new ways, or incorporate things like sex toys or a new lubricant or oil. You can also consider role play with your partner.
- Choose to have honest conversations with your partner outside the bedroom (in addition to in the bedroom). This will strengthen the trust you have in one another and lead to better intimacy, self-esteem, and will help you develop confidence in your voice.