The Orgasm Chasm in Casual Sex

September 24, 2010

The orgasm gap is basically a term researchers have recently coined to tell us something we’ve known all along – women have orgasms a lot less frequently than men do, and often with greater difficulty. It turns out that during hookups, the gap is actually more like a chasm.

Paula England is a sociologist at Stanford, and one of the foremost authorities on the practice of hooking up. According to her, “The orgasm gap is…producing a rampant culture of sexual asymmetry.” A recent study conducted by Stanford and Indiana University sought to quantify the gap among college students. Hannah Seligson at The Daily Beast covered the study:

“Their research confirms that the orgasm gap is widespread among young people in both casual hookups and relationships. Surveying 12,925 undergraduates from 17 universities, researchers examined four sexual contexts—a first hookup, one to two previous hookups, three or more previous hookups, and a relationship—and found that in all cases, men were twice as likely to orgasm. That gap is far wider in hookup situations than in relationships. In the context of relationships, women orgasm about 80% as often as men.”

What explains this vast difference? Do women have trouble relaxing during casual sex? Do they have difficulty expressing their desires? Or is it truly impossible to separate emotional attachment from sexual pleasure? There’s truth in all of these explanations, but it turns out the solution is simple: ORAL SEX.

“England’s study found that women give oral sex to their male partners in all contexts—from casual hookups to relationships—at higher rates than men do, sometimes dramatically higher. In casual hookups it’s much worse—during the first few times they hook up with a man, women are far more likely to give him oral sex than to receive it. Men receive oral sex about 80% of the time in first-time hookups, whereas women receive it less than half the time.”

This oral sex discrepancy goes a long way toward explaining the orgasm gap, according to the study’s authors. In 1976, the Hite Report on Female Sexuality empirically established a fact that’s been confirmed by subsequent studies in the years since: Many women need oral sex, along with intercourse, to reach orgasm.” (Only 20-30% of women orgasm from penile thrusting alone.)

Courtney Martin, 29, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, says, “A lot of these girls end up forgoing asserting themselves in order to avoid the awkwardness of doing clitoris 101. One girl at a small-liberal arts school in the East told me that being with most guys felt like ‘they are masturbating into you.’”

Aside from the fact that women are often reticent to provide a map to the buried treasure, is there another reason women don’t come during hookups? During the study, students talked about their motivations in hooking up.

“The research doesn’t bode well for the late-night booty text, one-night stand, or random fornication in the fraternity house as pathways to an orgasm.”

In the one-on-one interviews included in the study, one man explained that with his girlfriend:

Definitely oral is really important [for her to orgasm], but with a casual hookup, I don’t give a shit.

Another man with a tad more empathy explained it this way:

Now that I’m in a relationship, I think [her orgasm is] actually pretty important. More important than [in a] hookup. Because you have more invested in that person…When it’s a hookup you feel less investment.

Men tended to view the hookup as a form of masturbation:

I  don’t…think…any hookup is based on mutual orgasm;…it’s really just based on an orgasm for  me….I guess a consistent one would be based on mutual orgasm.

“Women and men are more ambivalent about the importance of women’s sexual pleasure [outside] of relationships,” says England. “Our findings suggest that both women and men have absorbed a notion that women are entitled to sexual pleasure in a relationship, but not necessarily in casual scenarios.”

This suggests that the sexual double standard may be having an effect. They did identify two primary considerations that drive the degree of men’s motivation to please their partners once they’ve hooked up more than six times:

  1. She’s more likely to continue hooking up if she’s getting off.
  2. He may come to care more about her feelings over time.

“As they hook up more times, he may come to genuinely care more about her; this is consistent with the fact that relationships often start with a series of hookups in today’s college environment. If they are under the sway of the double standard, which judges women more harshly than men for nonrelational sex, they may disrespect the woman. After asking about what occurred on their most recent hookup, our online survey asked students how interested they were in a relationship with the person after the hookup. We found that the more times men said they had previously hooked up with this partner, the more interested in a relationship with her they were. (Women showed the same progression, although women reported more interest in a relationship at each step.)”

This directly contradicts the idea that men in college will disqualify a woman for a relationship based on her willingness to engage in casual sex, at least with him. One study in 2000 quantified the number of hookups that develop into committed relationships at 12%. It is unclear what proportion of college relationships this represents. Neither do we know the average number of hookups college women participate in with the express purpose of seeking commitment before they find a relationship partner.

“Thus, it appears that, notwithstanding the double standard, men and women who are more interested in a relationship proceed with repeat hookups, and/or both sexes become more interested in a relationship as they hook up more times.”

Hooking up is a very risky strategy for getting a relationship. It depends on the potential interest in commitment for both parties, something that is very difficult to assess up front. Regardless, it is one that is being pursued with enthusiasm by some college women, as they undoubtedly see some “success” stories and seek to replicate the happy ending in their own lives.

Recently in Does Hooking Up Lead to Relationships? I covered a study that indicated that it can. The primary finding:

“When Paik factored out people who weren’t interested in getting serious, he found no real difference in relationship quality. That is, couples who became sexually involved as friends or acquaintances and were open to a serious relationship ended up just as happy as those who dated and waited.”

And a caveat:

“People with higher numbers of past sexual partners were more likely to form hookups, and to report lower relationship quality. Through the acquisition of partners,” Paik said, “they begin to favor short-term relationships and find the long-term ones less rewarding.”

That’s the tradeoff. Regarding the orgasm chasm, though, the researchers did include concrete prescriptive comments in their discussion of the results. For those of you who care enough to give the very best:

Practices that provide direct clitoral stimulation are key. Women who take matters into their own hands and stimulate their own genitals during sexual activity more than double their odds of orgasm in hookups or relationships, and these large effects are true even within events where intercourse also took place. When men use their hands to stimulate women’s genitals there is a similar (though generally smaller) effect. One woman we interviewed described how both these practices work for her:

A lot of times, like afterwards I’ll just like masturbate and he’ll like kinda help. Like I think that’s actually the most effective.

Receiving oral sex also increases many women’s orgasms, increasing the odds by approximately 40-60% in hookups and more than doubling the odds in relationships. Indeed, the qualitative interviews contain many women who can orgasm from oral sex, but not from intercourse. A small proportion report not liking to receive oral sex, especially with a new partner, either because it seems too invasive (especially before comfort and trust are developed with a partner), because they are afraid the guy won’t like it, or simply because they don’t find it pleasurable. But they are outnumbered by women who like it, and want reciprocation if they give oral sex.

Overall, what the research suggests to me is that women want relationships so badly they’re willing to put up with bad hookup sex repeatedly to get one. They’re willing to risk being pumped and dumped repeatedly in the hope that Mr. Right Now is going to want to make it official. Just enough of them will succeed to perpetuate the practice of hooking up in college for the foreseeable future.

You take your chances, or you sit it out until you find someone you can feel sure about before you’ve risked your heart. There are no easy answers here.