Can we save the heterosexual female orgasm?

Another year, another ‘breakthrough’ in better understanding the female orgasm. And against a backlog of speculation as to whether or not female ejaculation exists and broad figures that inform women how likely they are to enjoy sex, 2017 has not disappointed.

In February, the BBC informed us that apparently heterosexual women have fewer orgasms than lesbian and bisexual women, and bi, gay, and straight men.

The US study of 52,600 people found that just 65% of heterosexual women usually orgasmed, behind 66% of bi women and 86% of lesbians. Men in all groups outscored all women, with heterosexual men (95%) coming out ahead of bi (88%) and gay men (89%).

So, what’s the story? Why do straight women seem to be losing out?

Researchers have long considered that science has something to do with the way different groups respond sexually. Controversial neuroscientist Dr. Simon LeVay, who has been a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, has been vocal about the role biology plays in sexual orientation. His landmark 1991 study described differences between gay and straight men’s brains, arguing that the region of our brain that affects our sex lives was bigger in heterosexual men than in gay men. His work has come under fire for overlooking the influence of a person’s environment on their sexuality, along with inaccuracies in the way he interpreted his data.

One 2006 study suggests that lesbians’ brains react differently to sex hormones than heterosexual women, comparing the former’s sexual response process to that of heterosexual men.

Another and perhaps more sensible venture concludes that using a heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy in studies of female sexuality is a fallacy.

Ok, so biology is out. What about the effects environment can have on libido, particularly in terms of the way we’re socialised into gender roles that are performed during sex?

As far as the dominant narratives go, heterosexual men are socialised to feel entitled and dominant where it comes to sex while heterosexual women are taught to be submissive and docile. Straight sex is typically considered penetrative, and as the Kinsey Institute reminds us, men are more likely to orgasm when sex involves vaginal penetration. If straight guys are having more penetrative sex, this may explain why they’re having the most orgasms.

An intersectional view might add that the oppression experienced from being in a sexual minority group could have a negative effect on libido. This would add weight to reasoning why bi and gay men scored lower than straight men but not why bi and lesbian women scored higher than their straight sisters.

However, both trains of thought assume far too much by omitting the sum total of an individual’s experience beyond the fact of their privilege or oppression.

But what about bi women? They more or less scored the same as their straight sisters and we can’t assume that the entire sample space was only having sex with heterosexual men at the time.

Douglas Kimmel’s 2006 book Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender Aging describes a decline from 1983-1996 in bisexual women engaging in sex with women as well as men, with more women over time having sex with only men. Some reasons cited were the pressure to fit into heterosexual culture, a desire for a simpler life, and decreased opportunities for same-sex partners. This data was taken from a 2001 study by Weinberg and Pryor, which Kimmel calls the best available source of information on the topic. He also notes how bisexual subjects tend to be collapsed into lesbian and gay subject pools due to small sample size.

Kimmel also reminds us that, at the time of publishing, most research on lesbian sexuality has studied white women. I’m willing to bet that not much has changed on that front.

Yet, another study in 2009 found that between four groups of men and women in mixed and same-sex relationships, almost all groups reported near-identical sexual repertoires and levels of sexual communication with their partner. It was women who reported slightly higher levels of general satisfaction, rather than men. Here, perhaps satisfaction was accepted at subjective face value instead of being used interchangeably with orgasm.

Interestingly, research from 2008 found there to be no significant differences between homosexual and heterosexual women where it comes to sexual satisfaction, despite heterosexual women apparently having “stronger sexual desire, and higher frequencies of sexual activity.” The difference here, too, may be down to this study gauging sexual satisfaction as something broader than simply having an orgasm.

Eureka, I think we’ve cracked it.

The problem is not a lack of or poor quality research, nor an inconsistency in gender stereotypes. It’s that we’re separating orgasms into boxes based on the sexuality of the person having them and presenting them as the ultimate goal of sex. Doing this ties sexual pleasure to the same restrictions and stereotypes society ties to people.

We can’t save the heterosexual orgasm so long as we define it as proof that sex is done correctly between two straight people.

Not all women orgasm every time they have sex and some women don’t orgasm at all. Some women are perfectly happy being asexual. Sex is a choice, and the ways we enjoy it should be choices we make with complete and selfish knowledge of what gives us pleasure. What turns someone on is something so subjective that it would be nonsensically impossible to correlate with categories of sexuality: could you confidently say that all people into BDSM were of a certain sexuality? What about those who like cosplay in the bedroom?

By searching fervently to prove essential differences between us we are validating categorical views of sexuality. An orgasm is something that happens during sex to some people who enjoy it in different ways. And once we start gauging what’s possible in terms of what isn’t, we lose the opportunity to discover what it is we really like.

Mon

Mon is a firm feminist who believes in the power of language and good media to make change. An avid reader and arts buff, her interests lie in media representation and reportage of gender and sex.