The female orgasm is often depicted as the center of a woman's sexual satisfaction and the ultimate goal of sex. But many women don't experience an orgasm during sexual intercourse until their 20s or even 30s, and the number of women who say that they always or nearly always have one during sex is declining.
The social expectations surrounding women's orgasms can be particularly distressing to women who don't always experience them. And when depictions of sex in the media are thrown into the mix, the gap between expectation and reality widens even further.
Léa J. Séguin - from the Department of Sexology at Université du Québec à Montréal in Canada - examined how female orgasms are represented in mainstream pornography.
In 50 popular video clips included in the study, only 18.3 percent of women were shown to reach orgasm, and stimulation of the clitoris or vulva only featured in 25 percent of these.
In a recent survey, 53 percent of men and 25 percent of women in the United States said they had watched pornography in the past year.
How the female orgasm is depicted in pornography does not tally up with research findings, with Séguin writing that "mainstream pornography promotes and perpetuates many unrealistic expectations regarding women's orgasm."
Putting the stigma of social expectations and the fantasy world of pornography aside, what does scientific research tell us about women's orgasms? How much of a role does the clitoris play, and, most importantly, what do women want when it comes to achieving sexual satisfaction?
The female orgasm in research
A study by Prof. Osmo Kontula - from the Population Research Institute at the Family Federation of Finland in Helsinki - asked more than 8,000 women in Finland about their sexual experiences.
Most of the women under the age of 35 who participated in the study had experienced their first orgasm through masturbation. For around a quarter of these, this happened before the age of 13, and for a tenth, before the age of 10.
But the average age at first sexual intercourse was 17. Most women did not experience an orgasm at this time - in fact, only one quarter of survey participants had reached an orgasm during intercourse within the first year that they started having partnered sex.
For the remainder it took much longer, and having sex still does not guarantee orgasm for everyone.
Prof. Kontula found that in 2015, only 6 percent of women said that they always had an orgasm during penile-vaginal intercourse, 40 percent said they had an orgasm nearly always, 16 percent of women had an orgasm half the time, and 38 percent had one infrequently. A total of 14 percent of women under the age of 35 had never had an orgasm from intercourse.
Since 1999, the number of women experiencing orgasm during intercourse always or nearly always has fallen from 56 percent to 46 percent.
So, to shed light on what contributes to women's ability to reach orgasm and what detracts from it, Prof. Kontula dug deeper.
The recipe for orgasm
According to Prof. Kontula, "The keys to achieving more frequent female orgasms were identified in this study as being in the mind and in the relationship."
"These factors and capacities," he expains, "included how important orgasms were considered personally; how high was sexual desire; how high was sexual self-esteem; and how open was sexual communication with the partner."
"Sexual self-esteem included how sexually skillful and how good in bed women considered themselves. Other positive factors of orgasmic capacity were the ability to concentrate on the moment; mutual sexual initiations; and a partner's good sexual techniques."
Prof. Osmo Kontula
Interestingly, while over 50 percent of women in relationships said that they usually experience orgasm during sexual intercourse, this number stood at 40 percent for single women.
Prof. Kontula goes on to highlight the importance of diversity among women's sexual experiences and preferences. "The findings of this study," he writes, "indicate that women differ greatly from one another in terms of their tendency and capacity to experience orgasms."
The most frequently cited reasons that prevented the participants from achieving orgasm were "fatigue and stress" and "difficulty concentrating." Prof. Kontula also postulates that women increasingly rationalize sex, as a result of social expectations and media depictions.
"Excessive rationalism is the biggest enemy of orgasms. Simply put, thinking does alight desire, but orgasms come when thinking ceases."
Prof. Osmo Kontula
The power of the mind
How thoughts affect sexual pleasure was recently investigated in a survey of 926 women. The study revealed that when women had thoughts of "sexual failure" or a "lack of erotic thoughts" during sex, it had a negative effect on their orgasms.
On the flip side, erotic thoughts are known to contribute significantly to sexual arousal.
Nan J. Wise, Ph.D. - from the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ - investigated which areas of the brain respond to erotic thoughts.
Furthermore, when the participants imagined stimulation with a dildo, areas of the brain lit up that were "previously shown to be active in the process of genital stimulation leading up to and including orgasm," Dr. Wise explains.
The mind is clearly a strong contributor to sexual arousal - but it isn't the only one.
Clitoral stimulation and orgasm
The debate about the role of the clitoris in women's orgasms is ongoing. Last week, for example, we discussed the different theories in our article "The ins and outs of the vagina." Whether orgasm can be achieved by stimulation of the vagina without any involvement of the clitoris is at the center of the scientific debate.
What is clear is that, biological pathways and anatomical details aside, women know how the clitoris fits into their personal experience of orgasm.
A 2017 study paper by Prof. Debby Herbenick - from the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University in Bloomington - and colleagues found that 36.6 percent of women needed clitoral stimulation to reach orgasm during intercourse.
Also, 36 percent of the women said that they didn't need clitoral stimulation but that it enhanced their experience, and 18.4 percent of women said that vaginal penetration was sufficient.
Prof. Herbenick went one step further in her study and asked women about the type of clitoral stimulation that they preferred, irrespective of whether it was necessary for orgasm or not.
Two thirds of women preferred direct clitoral stimulation, and the most popular motions were up and down, circular shape, and side to side. Around 1 in 10 women preferred firm pressure, while most preferred light to medium touch on their vulva.
There is clearly no one-size-fits-all answer to the female orgasm. How diverse women's sexual preferences are is further highlighted in a separate study by Prof. Herbenick.
What women want
As part of Prof. Herbenick's research, 1,046 female and 975 male participants from across the U.S. were presented with a list of sexual behaviors and asked if they found them "very appealing," "somewhat appealing," "not appealing," or "not at all appealing."
The top 10 behaviors that women found very appealing were:
- vaginal intercourse - 69.9 percent
- cuddling more often - 62.8 percent
- kissing more often during sex - 49.3 percent
- saying sweet, romantic things during sex - 46.6 percent
- giving or receiving a massage before sex - 45.9 percent
- having gentle sex - 45.4 percent
- receiving oral sex - 43.3 percent
- watching a romantic movie - 41.9 percent
- making the room feel more romantic - 41.3 percent
- wearing sexy underwear or lingerie - 41.2 percent
In addition, 40.4 percent of women said that having sex more often was very appealing.
But it is important to appreciate that there was not one category that no women found appealing. For instance, although the study found that the majority of women did not find watching sexually erotic videos or DVDs very appealing, 11.4 of female study participants did.
While there were no differences in how men and women rated many of the categories, some behaviors were clearly more favored by men than by women.
For example, men found anal sexual behaviors (including anal sex, anal toys, and anal fingering) more appealing than women. The same was true for oral sex (both giving and receiving), watching a partner undress, and watching a partner masturbate.
So, what is the secret sauce to reconciling the differences in interest that sexual partners may have?
Communication at the heart of the matter
It might seem to be an obvious solution, but when examining research into sexual behavior and sexual satisfaction, the issue of communication crops up time and time again.
Whether it is talking about sexual desires, preferences, or problems, those who can talk openly with their partner report more orgasms and are less likely to say that their sex drive is low.
Sex is strongly linked to happiness. Being comfortable with one's personal sexual preferences and having a partner who shares and values these are key ingredients in the recipe for sexual satisfaction.