The boardroom isn’t the only place where there’s gender disparity – it exists in the bedroom, too. So why are so many women missing out on orgasms? A new book seeks to find out, and put it right. Hannah Betts reports.
For many of us, the only thing getting us through recent months has been Bridgerton’s hot duke initiating a tremulous virgin into sex. Thanks to his expert tuition, we are all now familiar with how women achieve pleasure. Everyone knows instinctively what to do to arouse each other and engage in instant multiple orgasms. Elsewhere, good-time girls will mount young bucks at boxing matches, the pair climaxing mutually and ecstatically after seven seconds.
If only life – specifically our sex lives – were this straightforward. Instead, as Dutch journalist Laura Hiddinga makes clear in her new book, Are You Coming? A Vagina Owner’s Guide to Orgasm, heterosexual women are consistently short-changed. According to a report published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour in 2016, only 65% of straight women achieve orgasm during sex, compared to 95% of men. Other studies put this female pleasure rating as low as 35%. Meanwhile, 10-15% experience anorgasmia, meaning they have never achieved climax, or used to but no longer do. Compare this with the 86% of lesbians who report orgasming during sex and it’s clear that the heterosexual world has a problem.
Only 65% of straight women achieve orgasm during sex, compared to 95% of men
Society has an orgasm gap, and all of us should mind it. Fundamentally, the problem is that we’re continuing to have procreative-style sex for recreational purposes. As Laura tells me, “Female pleasure is all about the clitoris. Most women (80%) cannot achieve orgasm through penetration alone. Traditional sex focuses on penetrative sex and the male orgasm. That’s the goal. We’ve been told that a man needs to climax or he’ll experience ‘blue balls’, while a woman’s orgasm is difficult and not necessary. This is a cultural, not biological, issue. We wouldn’t have an orgasm gap if the clitoris wasn’t ignored.”
Laura is a journalist for LotteLust (lottelust.com), an online magazine for women who want to learn about sexuality and fantasise. She lives in the Netherlands – a country regarded as having the world’s most progressive sexual attitudes. Laura’s indignation was fired by that 2016 report. From her work with LotteLust, she also knew that lack of sexual satisfaction was the most pressing issue for her readers. And so, the idea for her book was born: her mission was to rescue female pleasure via 200 pages of facts, anatomy lessons, cataloguing the 13 forms of orgasm, and tips as to positions and sex toys.
“Knowledge is power,” she asserts. “To close the orgasm gap, women – and men – need first to know about it, then talk it through. Ask yourself why there is a difference in expectation? It’s too simple to say it’s the man’s fault. He can’t read your mind. As a woman, you need to explore what makes you come, solo and/or with your partner. It’s important to communicate this.”
When her manual came out in the Netherlands in 2019, it made the orgasm gap part of the national conversation. Now Laura hopes for a similar response around the world, to tackle inequality in its most fundamental form.
“Orgasmic equality is feminism’s final frontier,” she says. “Women have been trying to change society’s view about their sexuality and bodies for decades. However, feminism has necessarily been about sexism and sociological differences. Meanwhile, in the bedroom, men and women are not equal. Sex for straight couples has always been so much about what the man wants.”
Historically speaking, the female orgasm has been not so much elusive as ignored, or “suppressed for centuries”, as Laura puts it. The clitoris, on which it largely depends, is an organ, the visible portion of which – the glans – sits at the front of the inner lips of the vulva, above the opening of the urethra. Although roughly the size of a pea, it is estimated to have about 8000 sensory nerves, double that of the penis, with which it shares corresponding structures. And unlike the penis, the clitoris’s sole function is pleasure, leading to the traditional misogynistic belief that women are insatiable, their sexuality needing to be controlled.
As Dr Karen Gurney, clinical psychologist, psychosexologist and author of Mind the Gap: The Truth About Desire and How to Futureproof Your Sex Life, observes: “Many people find it shocking that the full structure of the clitoris was supposedly only discovered in 2005 (when surgeon Helen O’Connell presented an MRI view of it). However, the real disappointment is that it was actually identified in 1844, by the German anatomist Georg Ludwig Kobelt. It’s just that the scientific community decided not to include the discovery in most diagrams, anatomy texts or models for the next century and a half. It’s possible that the clitoris has been repeatedly discovered, then deliberately forgotten. It’s no coincidence that most anatomists were men.”
Needless to say, ignorance was not bliss. Moreover, while some women may be happy to forgo orgasms, the negative consequences of not climaxing can be legion. For a start, women may feel an equivalent of ‘blue balls’ – so-called ‘blue vulva’ – occurring when blood flow to the genitals increases without being relieved, leading to pain.
To quote Laura again, “The most obvious downside is lack of pleasure. An orgasm releases feel-good hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, a happiness reward for your brain that brings you closer to your partner. A climax also boosts your immune system, and lowers the risk of cancer and heart disease.
It increases blood flow to the brain, so it receives more oxygen and minerals, enhances fertility, and stabilises the menstrual cycle. Orgasm also increases sex drive, reduces stress, improves sleep and relieves pain.” Some women swear by orgasms to manage mood, others argue that they improve the condition of their skin.
So why do women keep quiet about – and accept – lack of pleasure in their sexual relationships? “There are so many reasons,” says Laura. “They may feel the orgasm gap is just part of sex because so many women experience it. They may feel inferior in bed, as if their orgasm isn’t important. It could be that it seems as if they are insulting their partner, or perhaps they just don’t know what to say. Maybe they don’t know what it takes to orgasm because they haven’t experimented. It could be because of shame, trauma, insecurity, or simply for the sake of a quiet life.”
Dr Gurney states that women are so socially conditioned to put others’ needs first that they can be reluctant to indicate when they want something different, or have just had enough.
While acknowledging that a bit of hamming it up may increase one’s own arousal, Laura is emphatically against faking it. “Every time you fake an orgasm, your partner will think he or she did something right, meaning they will repeat this, creating a negative spiral. So it’s vital to talk, and talk honestly.”
This may be all very well for the Dutch, however some of us live with partners who put a bag on their head at the very mention of the act, let alone technicalities. Reticent Kiwis should read chapter four, which proposes a series of conversational gambits. If all else fails, you can always leave the book lying around.
Either way, Laura and Dr Gurney agree that women must take responsibility for their own orgasms. In terms of devices, Are You Coming? recommends the Lelo Sona, a sonic clitoral stimulator, while British stalwart Ann Summers has expanded its range to include myriad state-of-the-art appliances, having discovered that the average woman misses out on 1734 orgasms during her lifetime.
The average woman misses out on 1734 orgasms during her lifetime
A friend has finally become what she terms “cliterate” in her late fifties, and declares that it has utterly transformed her life. “For the past 20 years, I blamed my partner for not intuiting my needs, when, actually, the ignorant party was me. I feel ashamed that my feminism only extended so far.”
Laura is optimistic that Gen Z won’t tolerate any such behaviour. “Young women are more feminist, more into body positivity and sex-toy normalisation. Hopefully, this is the generation that will close the orgasm gap.”
The increasing fluidity in both gender and sexuality must also surely be a help, leading to a diminished expectation that sex equals penetration, so-called “foreplay” merely a preamble.
Equal rights have a place in the bedroom as in the workplace; only when we have parity of pleasure will true equality be ours.
© Hannah Betts/Camille Ferrari/Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021.