Illustration: Karolina Burdon


Why aren’t you having more orgasms?

New research suggests it could be down to the (limited) way we talk about female sexual pleasure. Hattie Garlick reports 

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By Hattie Garlick on

It’s the only organ known to exist solely for pleasure, yet up till now scientific study of the clitoris has been, well, a bit fumbling.

Which seems something of an oversight, really, given that heterosexual women appear to have fewer orgasms than any other demographic. Notably fewer, in fact, than heterosexual men, according to a vast study published earlier this year.

In a survey of 52,000 Americans of various genders and sexual orientations, heterosexual men got luckiest: 95 per cent usually or always orgasming during sex. Then came gay men, followed by bisexual men, lesbian women, bisexual women and finally – at the bottom of the pile – straight women, scoring just 65 per cent of the time.

In fact, some argue, the question of what kinds of sexual activity results in the most pleasure for women has never been properly investigated. Not on a big enough scale, at least, to generate statistically representative samples from which any dependable conclusions could be drawn.

Until, that is, this summer, when a study was published that went largely under the radar: Women’s Sexual Experience With Genital Touching, Sexual Pleasure, And Orgasm: Results From A U.S. Probability Sample Of Women Ages 18 To 94. Debby Herbenick, PhD – the study’s lead author and a professor at Indiana University School of Public Health – has had a long history of conducting slightly unusual scientific studies of sex, some of which she has told The Pool about previously. What makes them stand out is that they don’t focus on risk or disease, but on pleasure.

When it came to women’s enjoyment of sex, “There have been a number of studies of ‘special populations’," she tells me, “for example, college students or sex therapy patients. What was needed was a bird's eye view of women's sexual pleasure at the population level – a gold-standard, nationally representative study examining pleasure, clitoral and vulvar stimulation, vaginal stimulation and orgasm.”

So, that is what she did. Her team surveyed 1,055 women reflecting the demographic range of women across America – across eight decades of life, in all shapes and sizes (though mostly straight). Each was asked “the specific ways that they enjoy being touched, or touching themselves", says Herbenick. 

The detail was impressive, delving into where the women enjoyed being touched, with what kind of motion, with what pressure and in what pattern.

Just think how many words we confidently and openly use for the penis – willy, dick, cock... Now consider speaking about your own vagina. There’s no comfortable word to use, is there?

And, in fact, the mere process of gathering all that information was revealing. The surveys were completed exclusively over the internet, Herbenick tells me, because “internet-based research has been shown to produce more reliable and valid responses on sensitive topics such as sexuality". 

Yet, she says, the survey’s response rate was notably high. We seem embarrassed to talk in frank detail about sex – so much so that we might not be able to tell the truth in a face-to-face interview. But we also really, really want to. 

Because, of course, men’s sexual desires have long been portrayed in graphic detail, by porn. But watch porn for guidance on what women want from sex, and you’d imagine each and every one of us is left howling in pleasure after the briefest, strip-lit sexual encounter with a stranger, the longest and most intimate conversation with whom she’s had is a five-minute phonecall about a fridge malfunction. 

This may be changing. We now, for example, have OMGYes – the online how-to guide for women who masturbate – which sponsored Herbenick's research. But if no longer quite taboo, explicit discussion of what women really want is still conducted, largely, in blushing whispers. 

Even Herbenick, a sexual researcher and educator, was fascinated as to “what we'd find in regards to women's needs, or preferences for, clitoral stimulation during intercourse". She added, “I was also intrigued by the kinds and styles of touch that women reported as being pleasurable.”

In the event, a depressing 21 of her respondents could not complete the survey at all, because their partner just never touched their clitoris during intercourse. As for the rest, however, their results painted a gloriously varied picture of female sexuality, the myriad kinds of touch we like and the many rhythms with which we prefer it.

What unites us, the study suggests, is not the type of touch we like, but the need for touch itself. Just under 20 per cent said that penetration alone was enough to bring them to orgasm. Nearly 40 per cent reported needing clitoral stimulation, with around the same proportion agreeing that – even if they did not need it – it certainly made the experience a lot more fun. 

Then, there were less physiological findings. The majority agreed that their orgasms improved in direct correlation with the time devoted to the build-up, that having a partner who knows what they like helped, and that emotional intimacy and not feeling rushed was a factor, too. 

No surprises there, perhaps. But some of the results did startle Herbenick. “I was surprised that 41 per cent of American women preferred just one style of touching,” she says. “It speaks volumes about how important it is for women and their partners to communicate – verbally or non-verbally – about what they might enjoy together. The more easily they are able to do so, the better their sex lives are likely to be.”

Just think how many words we confidently and openly use for the penis – willy, dick, cock... Now consider speaking about your own vagina. There’s no comfortable word to use, is there? No nickname that doesn’t make you squirm. Without the words, we are struck dumb. We cannot name our own sex organs without embarrassment, let alone what we want a partner to do with them.

For Herbenick, this language gap is critical. “We deserve to have more language around sexual pleasure,” she says, “more open ways of talking about whether we enjoy light or firm pressure, in circles or side to side, and all the other details that help us understand our own response and that enrich our sex lives.” 

Nor is it only our sex lives at stake. As the report itself concludes, “use of more specific and comfortable terms when talking about sex has implications for couples’ happiness and closeness".

So, get scribbling. The pen, it turns out, could still prove mightier than the porn.


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Illustration: Karolina Burdon
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