The orgasm gap - and how to close it: ‘Don’t equate sex and penetration’

·4-min read

When Rachel Bilson, once a star of the 00s teen drama The OC and more recently a host of a podcast about the show, said that she didn’t have an orgasm through penetrative sex with a man until she was 38, she poked alight a smouldering conversation about “the orgasm gap”.

The phrase doesn’t refer to those years of waiting, between discovering sex and meeting someone who does it right. That would be like calling a life sentence a gap year. Rather, it’s a play on the pay gap: the difference in the number of orgasms men and women report during straight sex.

According to research by the condom manufacturer Durex, straight men have four times as many orgasms as straight women, although that fudges the figures a little: 20% of men and 5% of women answered “always” when asked whether they orgasm during sexual encounters.

OC star and podcaster Rachel Bilson.
The OC star and podcaster Rachel Bilson. Photograph: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

The International Academy of Sex Research conducted a more rigorous study in 2017 and found that 95% of heterosexual men said they usually or always orgasmed when sexually intimate, followed by 89% of gay men, 88% of bisexual men, 86% of lesbian women, 66% of bisexual women and 65% of straight women. If orgasm parity between genders and sexualities was your goal, you might say women should have sex with women and straight men should stop lying; then everyone would end up climaxing about 90% of the time.

The orgasm gap situates sex within an inequality discourse, where straight women are the losers and straight men the winners

But before straight people give up having sex with each other to meet their orgasm targets, we need to address some fallacies. First, if you make penetrative sex the only thing that counts, it will always be easier for men to climax – and that is not because they are selfish or not concentrating.

“The glans of the penis is very sensitive, so any movement is highly pleasurable and it’s easier to ejaculate,” says the sex therapist Silva Neves. “The clitoris is not quite in the right place for getting to climax in penetration.” Climaxing after clitoral stimulation by other means still counts as an orgasm. “Penetration is great – lots of people find it highly pleasurable – but it’s important not to equate sex and penetration,” says Neves. “Oral sex is also sex, mutual masturbation is also sex, using sex toys with your partner is also sex.”

People often say the problem is a failure of communication between partners, who lack the language and the openness to be clear about what they want, but I think there is something beneath even that: a Fordist understanding of sex, where everyone is built the same and wants the same thing.

“People try to go online to find out what is the best position, how do you make yourself the best lover,” Neves says. By that rationale – that there is an objective scale of excellence, in which climax is a key performance indicator – even to say what feels good is an implied criticism, because someone who was good at it would already know.

But that rationale is irrational. No two people are the same; even within one person, there will be wild variations of arousal according to who we are with and how we feel on the day. “We really need to get away from the idea that sex is a pass or fail, a good or bad. It’s about two people getting pleasure from each other,” says Neves.

Of course, so many of these frames are counterproductive. When we talk about an orgasm gap, we situate sex within an inequality discourse, where straight women are the losers and straight men the winners. That is the last place you would start if you wanted to have an open, intimate conversation. When we situate climax during intercourse as the bullseye, we gate off the idiosyncrasy and experimentation that are the wellspring of sexual pleasure.

One more thing, says Neves. “A lot of people have sex at night, when they’ve had dinner. That’s not the best time: you’re bloated, you’re tired.” He suggests having sex before dinner. Some things are universal, I guess – everyone is tired after dinner.