“Orgasms make such pretty bows to presents.”
― Nikita King
Sex can encompass so many good things. Sensation and emotions and ecstasy, oh my! Whether you’re having a quickie or a long night of passion, sex can offer an unlimited range of pleasure. Despite these infinite possibilities, most talk about “successful” sex focuses on one thing: orgasms. For sure, orgasms are one fantastic possibility in sex, but why do they get so much attention—especially when you consider how diverse they are for different people?
There are distinct differences between female and male orgasms—but we’re not just talking about the physical sensations. That’s one thing that can’t truly be quantified. However, how we consider, discuss, study, and accept these two types of orgasm differs dramatically. Let’s take a look at the five key differences between male and female orgasm.
*Note: This article focuses on the gender binary of male and female in a predominantly heteronormative context. Unfortunately, that’s where most of the research and literature has been focused. We need more stories and research on orgasms from folks across the gender and sexuality spectrums. Let’s all make this a priority moving forward.
The Orgasm Gap
Some say orgasm gap, some say wide, gaping chasm. Regardless of the terminology, one of the most significant differences between male and female orgasms is, simply, the frequency with which they typically occur. Study after study has shown that women orgasm far less frequently than men do during sex, particularly penis-in-vagina intercourse.
The actual numbers vary across different research, with some estimating heterosexual men’s orgasm frequency as high as 95% and heterosexual women’s as low as 32%. Some will quickly write this off as a question of anatomy—that a penis is easier to “use” and stimulate as opposed to a vulva, clitoris or vagina. That seems dismissive, perhaps even misogynistic.
Katherine Rowland, author of The Pleasure Gap, assures us that orgasm disparity is the result of many factors beyond our bits, including stereotypes about emotional intimacy, social status, and relationship roles. When differences in sexual satisfaction were first being considered, Rowland argues, women’s orgasm deficiency was chalked up to “biology, stress, and age.”
Instead, she suggests that we need to look at lack of sexual equality the same way society has been slowly emerging from years of other inequality between men and women, and that women need to fight just as hard to achieve that goal.
A big part of the orgasm gap is the perceived value and expectation of female orgasm. For far too many people, the concept of female orgasm is irrelevant—and not just from a makin’ babies perspective.
Male orgasm seems to always be prioritized because it has been depicted as the crowning achievement of sex far too frequently. Considering how curious we’ve been about the human body over the centuries, it is remarkable that science is still “discovering” the clitoris, the prime seat of female sexual pleasure.
Popular media has also taken this narrative and run with it. We rarely see female orgasm depicted in films and television and that kind of representation matters. Instead, we are far more likely to hear about women lying about orgasm to their male partners, and even that, Rowland notes, is still centered on the male experience of being lied to, as opposed to why women are lying to begin with.
The expectation that male orgasm has become so ubiquitous that the problematic No Nut November challenge has become an annual event where participants (mostly men) abstain from getting off—and this is deemed as a difficult test of willpower with the expectation of failure. By setting up the expectation of male orgasm, our sexual culture has established a disturbing imperative of male orgasm all while consistently ignoring the discussion of female orgasm.
Stop or Go?
Could the historical lack of discussion and research around female orgasm relate to fear and sexism? Well, yes, definitely, but in a more specific way, could that fear and sexism be directly connected to the “full-stop” biology of male orgasms? Has the male-dominated sexual establishment been afraid to explore female orgasms, worrying that women might take the one-and-done approach to sex, thus depriving men the opportunity to orgasm?
It is understood that a male orgasm often results in some length of refractory period. After climax and ejaculation, it takes some time for the penis to become available. On the other hand, one female orgasm can lead to many others.
Unfortunately, it is hard to have multiple orgasms, if you can’t even have the first one. You’d think researchers would look to the potential of female multiple orgasms as a good thing for their male partners. But have male scientists only looked through their own singular orgasmic lens?
A singular view of orgasm is not unique to research—it is also prevalent across sexual understanding. This problem may actually go both ways, for both male and female orgasms. When it comes to the male orgasm, the generally accepted conclusion is that some stroking of the penis will usually suffice. That a thrusting, in-out motion is understood to get the job done, and, for the most part, this assumption isn’t incorrect.
However, it negates the many other erogenous zones on male bodies that can produce or greatly contribute to orgasm, such as the prostate gland, perineum, and different types of penis stimulation. Unfortunately, the thrusting motion has long been equated to ALL orgasms and lack of sexual education means this mistake has not been rectified.
In recent years, we have learned that clitoral stimulation is more likely to lead to female orgasm. This isn’t the only key thing. Fortunately, the antiquated, sexist notion that penis-in-vagina intercourse is the best way to achieve female orgasm is finally being replaced by many other types of stimulation.
Sex Ed Needs
As with many other discussions about sex, the most significant difference between male and female orgasm is a complete lack of proper sex education that comprehensively and unbiasedly discusses both.
For far too long, sex education has focused only on the biological aspects of sex. This reinforced the idea that a male orgasm is necessary, while a female body was purely needed as a receptacle to receive ejaculation from orgasm. Pleasure wasn’t really discussed for either partner, but it was understood that the penis needed to get excited to get a sticky result. Historically, female pleasure has been deemed completely beside the point and not worthy of discussion.
But if you stick with the simple procreative narrative, there might actually be reasons for female orgasm. Instead of just thinking about baby-making, sex education should fully embrace the pleasure possibilities of all bodies.
There are different types and different ways to achieve both female and male orgasm and people need to be taught this. It is high time sex education, at all ages, embraces pleasure and teaches techniques to help people achieve orgasm on their own, as well as with partners.
Orgasm can be a wonderful thing, but it is not a singular gift that is only bestowed upon some. Let’s continue the work toward orgasm equality—so that we’re all unwrapping this gift as often as possible.
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- Differences in Orgasm Frequency Among Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Heterosexual Men and Women in a U.S. National Sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior volume, (2018). P. pages273–288.
- Why do women have orgasms?. (2020).
- Understanding the "Orgasm Gap". (2020).
- The Pleasure Gap. (2020).