The female orgasm: What women want

Societal norms and the media both have a strong influence on how we view women’s orgasms, but research shows that their desires for sexual activity and orgasm experiences vary widely.

Research suggests that sexual self-esteem and good communication are essential factors in the sexual satisfaction of women.
Research suggests that sexual self-esteem and good communication are essential factors in the sexual satisfaction of women.

The female orgasm is often depicted as the source of sexual pleasure of a woman, and the ultimate goal of women. Yet many women do not feel an orgasm during sexual intercourse until their 20s or even 30s, and there is a decrease in the number of women who claim they always or almost always have one in sex.

Women who don’t often feel them may be especially disturbed by the social standards surrounding female orgasms. So as media representations of sex are thrown into the mix, the disparity between expectation so fact is widening even further.

Léa J. Séguin – from Université du Québec à Montréal’s Department of Sexology in Canada – investigated how female orgasms are portrayed in popular pornography.

Just 18.3 percent of women were seen to achieve orgasm in 50 common video clips included in the report, and clitoris or vulva stimulation just featured in 25 percent of these.

In a new study, 53 percent of men in the United States and 25 percent of women said they had seen pornography in the past year.

How the female orgasm is portrayed in pornography does not suit research results, with Séguin writing that “mainstream pornography encourages and perpetuates many false assumptions about female orgasm.”

Putting aside the stigma of societal expectations and the pornography fantasy universe, what does scientific evidence tell us about female orgasms? How much position does the clitoris play and, most importantly, what do women want when it comes to sexual pleasure being achieved?

The female orgasm in research

A research by Prof. Osmo Kontula-from Helsinki’s Population Research Institute at the Finnish Family Federation-questioned more than 8,000 women in Finland about their sexual encounters.

Many of the women under 35 who took part in the study had felt their first orgasm by masturbation. It happened before the age of 13 for around a fifth of these, and before the age of 10 for one tenth.

Yet, at first sexual intercourse the average age was 17. Many women did not experience an orgasm at this time – in addition, during intercourse, only one quarter of the survey participants had experienced an orgasm during the first year after they started having partner sex.

It took even longer for the others, so having sex still doesn’t guarantee us orgasm.

Prof. Kontula found that in 2015, only 6 percent of women said they always had an orgasm during penile-vaginal intercourse, 40 percent said they almost always had an orgasm, 16 percent said they had an orgasm half the time, and 38 percent said they had one occasionally. A minimum of 14 percent of women under 35 had never had intercourse orgasms.

The number of women reporting orgasm during intercourse has always or almost always fallen from 56 per cent to 46 per cent since 1999.

And Professor Kontula dug deeper to shed light on what leads to the desire of women to achieve orgasm and what detracts from it.

The recipe for orgasm

According to Prof. Kontula, “In this research, the keys to achieving more frequent female orgasms were defined as being in the mind and relationship.”

“These factors and capacities,” he explains, “included how significant orgasms were personally considered; how high sexual desire was; how high sexual self-esteem was; and how open sexual contact with the partner was.”

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

Ironically, while over 50 percent of women in relationships said they typically experience orgasm during sexual intercourse, this figure for single women stood at 40 percent.

Professor Kontula goes on to emphasize the importance of diversity in the sexual identities and desires of women. “The results of this research,” he writes, “indicate that women differ greatly from each other in terms of their propensity to experience orgasms and their ability.”

The most commonly cited factors preventing the participants from achieving orgasm were “fatigue and stress” and “concentration difficulty.” Prof. Kontula also postulates that as a result of social norms and media representations, women are gradually rationalizing sex.

“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

Recently, a study of 926 females studied how thoughts impact sexual satisfaction. The study found that this had a detrimental effect on their orgasms when women had feelings of “sexual failure” or “lack of romantic feelings” during sex.

In the flip side, it’s understood that romantic thoughts make a major contribution to sexual excitement.

Nan J. Wise, Ph.D. – from Rutgers University’s Department of Psychology in Newark, NJ – studied which areas of the brain respond to sexual thoughts.

Using functional MRI, she found that various regions of the brain were affected by imagining clitoris and nipple stimulation and self-stimulation of those regions.

In fact, when the participants considered penetration with a dildo, regions of the brain lit up that had been “previously shown to be involved in the genital penetration process leading up to and including orgasm,” notes Dr. Wise.

Clearly, the subconscious is a powerful contributor to sexual arousal-but it’s not the only one.

Clitoral stimulation and orgasm

There is ongoing controversy about the role of the clitoris in women’s orgasms. For example, last week we explored the various hypotheses in our post, “The ins and outs of the vagina.” Whether orgasm can be achieved by vagina stimulation without clitoris intervention is at the core of the scientific debate.

What’s obvious is that, apart from biological processes and anatomical specifics, women know how the clitoris blends into their personal orgasm experience.

A research paper by Prof. Debby Herbenick – from Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion in Bloomington in 2017 – and colleagues found that 36.6 percent of women required clitoral stimulation to achieve orgasm during intercourse.

Thirty-six percent of women also said they didn’t need clitoral stimulation, but it improved their experience, and 18.4 percent of women said vaginal penetration was enough.

Prof. Herbenick went a step further in her research and questioned women about what kind of clitoral stimulation they preferred, regardless of whether or not it was important for orgasm.

Two thirds of women favored direct clitoral stimulation, and up and down, circular shape and side by side were the most common motions. Approximately 1 in 10 women preferred firm contact, while most preferred light to medium touch on vulva.

Apparently there is no single-size-fits-all response to female orgasms. Prof. Herbenick further illustrates how diverse sexual tastes are among women in a separate study.

What women want

As part of the study performed by Prof. Herbenick, 1,046 female and 975 male participants from around the U.S. were presented with a list of sexual activities and asked if they considered them “very appealing,” “somewhat appealing,” “not appealing,” or “not appealing at all.”

The top 10 activities women found very appealing were:

  1. vaginal intercourse – 69.9 percent
  2. cuddling more often – 62.8 percent
  3. kissing more often during sex – 49.3 percent
  4. saying sweet, romantic things during sex – 46.6 percent
  5. giving or receiving a massage before sex – 45.9 percent
  6. having gentle sex – 45.4 percent
  7. receiving oral sex – 43.3 percent
  8. watching a romantic movie – 41.9 percent
  9. making the room feel more romantic – 41.3 percent
  10. wearing sexy underwear or lingerie – 41.2 percent

Furthermore, 40.4 per cent of women said it was really desirable to have sex more frequently.

But appreciating that there was not one category that no women found appealing is significant. For example, while the study showed the majority of women did not find it very enticing to watch sexually suggestive videos or DVDs, 11.4 of participants in the female study did.

Although there were no gaps in how men and women classified many of the categories, men obviously favored those activities more than women.

For example, men found anal sexual behaviors more attractive than women (including anal sex, anal toys and anal fingering). The same applied to oral sex (both giving and receiving), watching a partner undress, and watching a masturbate partner.

So, what’s the secret sauce for reconciling the desire gaps that sexual partners may have?

Communication at the heart of the matter

It may seem to be an easy solution, but when analyzing studies into sexual activity and sexual pleasure, the communication problem tends to come up time and again.

Whether it’s about sexual interests, expectations, or problems, those who can speak to their partner freely show more orgasms and are less likely to claim their sex drive is small.

Gender is closely related to satisfaction. Feeling confident with one’s own sexual desires, and finding a partner who shares these beliefs are essential ingredients in the sexual satisfaction recipe.

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