The Problem (With Orgasm) That Has No Name

Throughout time, the depictions of men and women as they relate to one another romantically and sexually have been the subject of anthropological and artistic interest. To say that there are differences between men and women is both true and untrue, at best acknowledging a fact and at worst reinforcing stereotypes rooted in culture rather than biology. And sometimes the differences between men and women are so assumed as to render them imperceptible. The modern sexual landscape is confusing for women and men partly because it is no longer propped up by old-fashioned (and some would say sexist) rituals and assumptions. Divorce, birth control, sexual assault, hook up culture; all of these phenomenon, new or just newly out on the open, have replaced facile notions of the traditional romance.

If we examine the arc of the typical modern romantic or sexual tale as it is depicted in movies, it is implied that the act of intercourse results in gratification for both parties. However, if we look at the data on sex, we find a wholly different story. Approximately 25% of women report difficulties with orgasm; 10% of women have never had an orgasm, and 40–50% have either complained about sexual dissatisfaction or experienced difficulty becoming sexually aroused at some point in their lives. A study done in 1994 found that that 75% of men and 29% of women always have orgasms with their partner. A lesser-known fact is that women are much more likely to be nearly always orgasmic when alone than with a partner. A Kinsey Institute study done in 1994 found that heterosexual women are the least likely to experience orgasms, lagging behind heterosexual men who almost always experience orgasm, and lesbians who experience orgasm at a higher rate than heterosexual women.

To say that sex is a subject of scientific interest would be generous; the study of sex has never been a field commanding prestige. Sexuality is not cancer; it’s not global warming, the economy, or childhood vaccination. It is a field that does not generate scientific interest perhaps because men do not perceive anything as being broken. However, outside of academia, sex, or rather the objectification of women and the carrot-on-a stick possibility of having sex with her, is ubiquitous and serves either as the goal or the sell; a beautiful woman eating a can of pineapples, standing next to a car, or tending to her herb garden with a particular brand of mulch. If you were to look at the pages of any magazine, you’d think the population was made up of smiling, beguiling women in the throws of mundane ecstasy.

What if we examine the arc of a typical modern romantic or sexual tale as it happens in life, the tale that adults know of, but is scarcely served as romantic fodder? Bob spotted Carol in the gym one day and wondered what it would be like to see her naked. Is this too crude of a way to describe such a phenomenon? How about: Bob spots a stunning woman, the most beautiful woman he ever lay eyes on, from across the room, with long red hair that cascaded down her skinny, shapely back, and knew in an instant that this was the girl he was going to marry. Bob tells Carol that he likes her and that she is pretty. Carol is flattered and takes Bob’s words at face value. Carol thinks she understands what is happening because books and movies have shaped her worldview, not realizing that this part is highly romanticized, not realizing that idealization is just another form of dehumanization. Bob’s attention to her gathers momentum and Carol decides to have sex with him partly because she likes him and partly because she feels it is expected of her. The natural next step. Afterwards, Bob stops talking to her. This phenomenon happens with enough frequency to warrant a cultural understanding: men want sex and it is up to women to understand how to use this to bargain for their own needs.

The transformation of women from passive and sex withholding to active and sex seeking has gained traction in the past half century. Feminists tout such a movement as a step forward in achieving equality. However, the real phenomenon of women being as sexually desirous as men does not translate into the ability to have sex like men. For one thing, the dynamic of the sexually desirous male and the withholding female does not hold true when the roles are reversed; in other words, when women are sex seeking, she will most often encounter men who are also sex seeking instead of sexually withholding. Part of the reason that women benefit from sex withholding is so that men can be trained to experience a woman as a person and not simply register her as an object. This “training period” is lost when women become sex seeking. Then, there is the actual experience of the sex itself. We know that the likelihood of female orgasm in heterosexual sex is much lower compared to that of male orgasm.

Often, evolutionary forces or biological determinism are cited as reasons why men want sex more: it is because men’s evolutionary imperative is to fertilize as many women as possible and have as many offspring as possible. It is because men have a different hormonal milieu than women and therefore a different sexual appetite. Very often, women are characterized as “needing emotional intimacy” for sex to occur. All of these explanations use soft logic to explain an observational truth about men and women; men and women appear to behave differently, therefore, they are different. But these “scientific” explanations are flimsy and self-serving; to focus on evolution or biology gets away from the mind and behavior of a person, which is really where the exploration should start. Much of pornography, consumption of prostitution, and perpetration of sexual assault have nothing to do with the innate biology of men and such misattribution privileges men by removing personal agency, closing the conversation rather than opening it up. The range of differences within a group exceeds that which exists between groups. With that in mind, the difference between men and women when it comes to sex is exceedingly small save for one fact that has nothing to do with hormones or biological mandates to fertilize female bodies.

Edward Thorndike was a 20th century scientist who first wrote about behavioral conditioning based on the observation that cats could learn to escape puzzle boxes in progressively less time if they were given rewards (such as escape or food) for desired behaviors. Thorndike generalized this finding in his Law of Effect, which states that behaviors followed by gratifying consequences tend to be repeated and those that produce unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated. In short, some consequences strengthen behavior and some consequences weaken behavior. Almost a half-century later, B.F. Skinner built his theory of behavior modification on the law of effect and called it operant conditioning.

If we return to the discussion of first hand experiences of sex itself, it seems that almost all men orgasm through vaginal sex; comparatively, most women never orgasm through vaginal sex. Some women have never had an orgasm at all. The experience of sex without orgasm means that women are not directly “rewarded” by sex and are thus not incentivized to have sex. In men, the pathway is: libido (an experience in the mind), sexual intercourse (an action), orgasm (reward). In women this pathway is disrupted and leads to the decoupling of libido, sexual intercourse, and orgasm, which are each experienced as discrete states without a connection. Thus the action of sex, in operant conditioning terms, is not positively reinforced through orgasm, as it is in men. Instead, a woman’s experience of sex is primarily of being wanted and coveted as an object, not because she cannot have an orgasm, but because this is what is offered to her in lieu of an orgasm. Thus the pathway of libido, sexual intercourse, and orgasm is overtaken by the pathway of wanted object, intercourse, and extinction of wanted object. There may be libido intermixed in this pathway, however without positive reinforcement through the reward of orgasm, the utility of libido quickly wanes and the purpose of sex becomes fraught with thought, confusion, and hesitation, overtaken by considerations which have little to do with libido such as the desire to have a child, to fulfill a duty to a partner, or to secure a means of living.

Oscar Wilde said that everything is about sex except for sex itself, which is about power. The difference between control and power is that control is exercised on the self; power is about controlling others. A second, more compelling reason that women are dis-incentivized towards sex is that men experience orgasm frequently and regularly and thus the experience of sex is asymmetric, unequal, and thus unfair. This is what I would argue is the foundation of inequality between the sexes; unconsciously, the lack of orgasm in one party, in contrast to the near always orgasm in the other party, sets up a dynamic of inequality in which the woman is rendered without power and the man is rendered powerful by sex. The absolute rates of orgasm in men and women do not matter; it is the relative asymmetry that makes all the difference. The fact that a man can simply utilize a woman’s body as an object without any regard to her desires may in fact heighten his sense of power and thus his sexual experience.

Rape, prostitution, and, pornography are based around the asymmetry of sexual experience and driven by the demand of men and supply of women. Entire industries are devoted to the transformation of women as decoration, thus fulfilling her role of the wanted object. The fashion industry, the beauty industry, and the weight loss industry all exist out of the concern for the physical appearance of the female body; at best, they sell female empowerment by giving women the chance to own their own objectification; at worse they cultivate a sense of hatred towards the self and other women who are not “doing their job” of being the fantasy object of men.

If we follow the line of thought that posits women as gaining gratification from being wanted, the common female fantasy of forced sex can be understood as being the ultimate manifestation of invoking uncontrollable desire in another, overriding their autonomy, and thus controlling them. In other words, feeling power. Who is forcing themselves on whom in these fantasies? It is notable that the male protagonists in these erotic fantasies are often men who are physically attractive or powerful in their own right. It is equally important to note that women choose the “actors” in their fantasies. Thus the female fantasy of rape has little in common with the reality of sexual assault. Re-imagined, it is the man who is powerless and controlled by a woman who is powerful.

Some would say that women are satisfied with sex despite not achieving orgasm and that they enjoy the collateral aspects of sex without focusing on orgasm. This idea conflates what should happen with what does happen and frames female deprivation as normative and female pleasure as unnecessary. Without the likelihood of orgasm, women are forced to find other aspects of sex to be redeeming, perhaps to reassure herself of her own sensuality or to reassure her partner. For men, the experience of sex without orgasm is not a regular problem and thus elicits little empathy. The orgasm is central to a man’s experience in sex as well as central to his erotic fantasy material and to propose that the same is not true or should not be true of women is sexist. Additionally, one only needs to compare statistics on pornography and prostitution to realize that the vast demand of such industries comes from men. If women en masse were really as satisfied with sex as men, the numbers of women consuming pornography or paying for sex would be equal to that of men.

The very meaning of sex is defined by the male experience: it is taken for granted that the definition of sex must include use and stimulation of the penis, most often to the point of orgasm for men. The focus on vaginal penetration and fixation on use and qualities of the penis as a means for sex is erroneous and serves to create confusion and misinformation, as well misplaced ideas of adequacy and inadequacy. Unfortunately, we do not live in a world where the honest depiction of women’s sexuality is celebrated or even revealed on a regular basis in popular culture. And thus a sort of one-sided fiction is depicted in movies, books, and media, promulgated by a cultural standard set by men. Women are encouraged to be sexual, but only in the context that a man can understand and consume. How many sexual encounters are truly centered around female pleasure as vice versa? All too few. Even the way we define virginity is male centered and should be revised to consider the first time a woman experiences female centered sex and orgasm.

Equality will continue to be elusive until women can experience sex as men experience sex, and are rewarded as men are. The realm of physical pleasure-like all pleasure-should be accessible to everyone. Because the point of sex for women is the same as the point of sex for men-to feel good.