The orgasm gap isn't going away – and wider inequality is to blame

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Did patriarchy cause the orgasm gap?Max - Getty Images

While fortunately, women’s exclusion from sexual pleasure is slowly changing in many realms, the roots run deep and cannot be pulled up overnight, writes Maya Oppenheim

It felt impossible to escape the label of “frigid” or “slut” in the Hackney secondary school I came of age in. These two words, which certain boys wielded interchangeably and arbitrarily to describe me, cut deep. Slut was an ironic moniker given I wasn’t engaging in sexual activity and frigid was a misnomer given the name-callers knew nothing about my sexual experience or intrigue.

I highly doubt these experiences were unique; instead, symptomatic of children’s innate talent for sniffing out and then inflaming people’s insecurities. However, there is far more to these scenarios than teenage cruelty. On the contrary, such torment is symptomatic of the deep shame and misogynistic double standards which imbue and thwart women’s sexual pleasure.

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This is an issue which not only transcends the school gates but also has far-reaching repercussions on women’s relationship with sex. The so-called orgasm gap between men and women being a case in point. This buzzword may have recently infiltrated modern-day vernacular, but for those who remain unsure about the term’s exact meaning, the orgasm gap refers to the gulf in the number of orgasms men and women have during sex.

Studies have discovered men have more orgasms than women. Research that looked at data from more than 50,000 Americans found that lesbians orgasmed 86 percent of the time while having sex, whereas straight women orgasmed 65 percent of the time. Meanwhile, straight men came out on top, orgasming 95 percent, substantially more than gay men who orgasmed 89 per cent of the time. In other words, when it comes to orgasm during sex, heterosexual women are the unambiguous losers.

But what is driving this orgasm gap? Women’s sexual desires have long been obfuscated by taboo, misinformation, and stigma. Instead, their sexual urges are often considered with knee-jerk suspicion and deemed deviant or dangerous. Feared rather than celebrated. The sustained prevalence of slut-shaming - a word which always strikes me as sounding far too innocuous given its harmful repercussions - cannot be underestimated when looking at what drives the orgasm gap.

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Women are often the favoured targets and casualties of slut-shamers. Many deem it "natural" and socially acceptable for a man to have multiple sexual partners but when a woman does the same, she is chastised as being promiscuous, irresponsible and untrustworthy. But what is behind slut-shaming? Misogynistic misconceptions about sexuality certainly have a part to play. After all, the fictitious biologically deterministic view that men are more predisposed to orgasm and masturbation than women and have higher sex drives remains firmly entrenched within public consciousness. It is often this troublingly prevalent belief system that props up slut-shaming.

While fortunately, women’s exclusion from sexual pleasure is slowly changing in many realms, the roots run deep and cannot be pulled up overnight. Systemic issues of internalised misogyny and shame mean women can become disconnected from their own sexual proclivities and passions. How do you tell a partner how you want them to pleasure you if you do not know what pleasure looks and feels like? For some women, sex can become an activity to endure for the sake of their partner’s urges, rather than enjoy for their own sake. Like a household chore, sex becomes another mundane task to tick off the list.

But the historically functional approach Brits take to sex is another key factor that cannot be overlooked when seeking to understand the orgasm gap in the UK. This is an issue, among others, I have explored in my forthcoming book The Pocket Guide to the Patriarchy. “In the UK, this is likely to be a reflection of the prudish and utilitarian approach we often take to sex,” reads an excerpt from the chapter on women’s sexual pleasure where i seek to decipher the orgasm gap. “Intercourse is often portrayed as a means to an end – i.e. procreation – rather than celebrated as a source of pure, unbridled joy.”

In turn, pleasure falls down the pecking order of life. Something that feels like a crying shame when you consider the unparalleled joy of reaching orgasm. While I love a good plate of food, no it is not orgasmic. However, there is more to an orgasm than the pursuit of pleasure, research has found orgasms are good for both your physical and psychological health. Dopamine, oxytocin and testosterone levels are boosted by orgasms, with doctors sometimes even prescribing patients orgasms.

shot of a young woman looking pensively out a window at home

This is why it is distinctly depressing to think many women across the world have never had the pleasure of an orgasm – alone while masturbating or during sex. Research by Durex found a meagre two per cent of men said they don’t orgasm, while 20 percent of women said they do not orgasm. The dearth of women experiencing the thrill of climaxing is something which it is hard to know the true scale of – given you would imagine many who struggle to orgasm will be keeping this under wraps. In fact, there are likely many men out there who may be unaware their partner is unable to orgasm when you consider the research that found 80 per cent of heterosexual women fake orgasm around half of the time, while a quarter nearly always pretend they are orgasming when having sex.

We may have a better chance at tackling the orgasm gap if we relinquish the commonly touted view that our sexual desires and neuroses are only a reflection of our inner worlds. Although, yes, this is no doubt, true, our individual relationships and attitudes to sex cannot be extricated from the wider world we live in. The gendered orgasm chasm echoes not just wider gendered inequalities but also misogynistic delusions and double standards.

The Pocket Guide to the Patriarchy is publishing on the 30th of August from Trapeze

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