This recent NYT article was a surprising reality check for me.
The short version of the article is this: During one-night-stand sex (“hookups”), women don’t tend to have orgasms. Why? (1) Men aren’t motivated to try to give women orgasms, (2) women don’t feel able to communicate what they need to get to orgasm, and (3) orgasm isn’t even always a woman’s goal. “Inequality Reigns,” declares the headline. The article includes interviews with many folks whose excellent work I follow closely, and you should totally read it.
As a sex educator reading all that, my primary response was: I will have done my job when the NYT no longer considers it “news” that women aren’t often orgasmic during hookups.
There are three things I know about orgasm (and you should too) that make this true:
1. “Different” Doesn’t (Always) Mean Unequal. One partner having an orgasm and the other partner not having an orgasm need not be a case of “inequality.” That’s a bit like saying one person eating four slices of pizza and another person eating two slices is “inequality.” The two-slice partner may have enjoyed the pizza just as much, and may feel just as satisfied as the four-slice partner. Difference is not always unjust.
It’s a different thing if the two-slice partner WANTS 4 slices and isn’t allowed to have them, and sometimes that happens and that’s a different thing. But it’s not always what happens, and we don’t need to make the two-slice partner feel inadequate and broken for not wanting more pizza, ya know?
We use “orgasm” as a marker of pleasure and satisfaction because the correlation is higher for men than for women, and men’s sexuality is the default standard against which women’s sexuality is measured. Because, ya know, patriarchy.
So it won’t be “news” that women aren’t often orgasmic during hookup sex when people let go of measuring satisfaction or pleasure with the patriarchal benchmark of orgasm. We’ll use the more universal benchmarks of pleasure and satisfaction.
2. Pleasure and satisfaction are context dependent. The good old standby example: If you’re in a sexy state of mind and someone you’re very attracted to tickles you, you can imagine a circumstance where that feels pleasurable and could lead to nookie. But if that same person tickles you when you’re pissed off with them, how will that feel?
“You want to punch them in the face,” is what students often say when I ask.
It’s the same sensation, but a different context, and so the PERCEPTION of the sensation is different. That includes sexual sensations. It even includes orgasm.
The context that results in pleasure varies from person to person and it changes across a person’s lifespan, but it generally involves high quality stimulation plus some degree of attraction toward the partner to activate the sexual gas pedal, AND a high degree of trust and safety, to deactivate the sexual brake (though this is complicated by the ironic effect, but that’s another blog post – see also this). For many women, the brakes only turn off all the way after they’ve experienced sex with a particular partner a few times.
If the parking brake is on, it doesn’t matter how hard you hit the gas pedal. Inadequate stimulation is part of the equation, but too much brake is very likely a more important part.
It will no longer be “news” that women don’t orgasm during hookups when everyone understands that pleasure is context-dependent, and some women don’t find the hookup context to be the right context for them, even if their partner provided excellent stimulation.
3. This is the difficult point, and I’m still working on finding ways to explain it to people: We’re taught that particular contexts – like hookups – are fun, and when our experience doesn’t match our expectations, we often do the most astonishing thing: we assume that WE ARE WRONG and the expectation is right! We assume that everyone else out there is having orgasms with hookups and we’re just broken.
Or, more strangely, because we engaged in the experience we’ve been taught should bring us pleasure, we assume that what we experienced must have been pleasure. When really it was… not that pleasurable.
What we’re told should satisfy us may or may not match what genuinely does satisfy us. And that’s as true now as it was when women’s sexual choices were constrained to married-penis-in-vagina sex. All of us must go through a process of learning what satisfies us, in which contexts – and our expectations about a context are themselves part of the context.
In short, it will no longer be “news” that women don’t always (or even often – it’s something like 10% of women) orgasm during a hookup when women trust their own body’s experience MORE than they trust what they’ve been taught about how sex is “supposed” to work.
When all of this is common knowledge – orgasm isn’t a a reliable marker of pleasure or satisfaction; pleasure emerges in response to a context that BOTH provides adequate stimulation AND lets the brakes turn off; and we can trust our own body’s experience more than we can trust anything we’ve been taught – then we’ll all have healthier sex lives and the NYT won’t consider it news that women don’t orgasm much during hookups. Everyone would just shrug and go, “No shit, because context.”
And then I can retire.