How Lamenting The "Orgasm Gap" Is Missing The Point

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
Sometimes, my sex life feels suspiciously unfeminist.

That feeling isn't fair, either to myself or my partner. But the numbers don't lie: I — like many women — am having fewer orgasms than the other person in my bed. And after hearing so much about the gender orgasm gap and how it's an affront to women, it almost seems like my duty as a child of sex-positive feminism to bridge that gap in my own relationships — to ask, no, demand that my needs are met and desires fulfilled in every encounter, to own my sexuality, to revel in my awesome womanhood until I'm coming as much as the menfolk do, or at least as much as I think an Empowered Woman does. (To clarify, I don't know how much that is, I just know that it's more than me.) Unsurprisingly, feeling like your personal life is part of a political statement can be fucking stressful, and stress, the sexperts have always told me, is not sexy.

Yes, the data suggests that women of all sexual orientations are having fewer orgasms than men (women who sleep with women do have more than women who sleep with men). But number of orgasms is often used as the only indicator of sexual inequity, and it shouldn't be. You may have heard that women in the U.S. have only one orgasm for every three men have; one study found that among 1,931 U.S. adults from 18 to 59, 91% of men had climaxed in their most recent hookup, while just 64% of women had. As far as this gap stems from social factors such as having no idea where the clitoris is or prioritizing male pleasure over female, let's bridge it. But let's also recognize that we shouldn't be in an orgasm arms race — and that every woman's body, abilities, and preferences are different.

"I think 'orgasm gap' is a misnomer," sex therapist Vanessa Marin tells me. "I prefer to call it the pleasure gap. The idea isn't that you and your partner should keep a tally sheet of how many orgasms you've each had; it's that you should both focus on giving each other equal amounts of pleasure" as defined by both of you respectively. (Excuse me while I delete this spreadsheet I've been keeping.)
Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
The orgasm gap has often been compared to another gender gap, the wage gap, but it's easier to call bullshit on the wage gap: A woman makes 79 cents for every dollar a man does, while Black women make 66.8% of what white men do and Hispanic women make 61.5%, and that's gross. Systemic social factors perpetuate both the wage gap and women's subpar sexual experiences — but there are also clear differences between an employer and a sexual partner, and when my partner and I talk sex, we're not warring over who gets which sexual favors ("I'll agree to your terms if you throw in a signing bonus of 30 minutes of uninterrupted oral!") so much as learning what the other wants. It's a conversation more than a negotiation; sexual pleasure isn't as easily measured as dollars or cents.

As Marin puts it — emphasis mine — "You should want to bring your partner pleasure, and you should feel that you deserve pleasure." And if you're not getting it? "If it feels like there's an imbalance in your relationship, first, take some time to think about what you want more of," she says. "Do you like when your partner gives you massages? Do you like having one or two orgasms from oral before you move on to intercourse? Do you want your partner to spend more time helping you learn how to orgasm?" If your partner listens and responds and an orgasm results, congratulations! If you're voicing your needs and having fun with someone who respects you and orgasm isn't the direct outcome, leave your feminism out of it. I'm trying to.

"If your partner doesn't respond to these more casual conversations, it may be time to sit down and say something like, 'I really love pleasuring you, and sometimes I feel like you don't make the same amount of effort with me,'" Marin adds. "I'd love it if you did more of x, y, z.' If your partner still doesn't get it, this may end up being a real litmus test... Do you really want to be with someone who doesn't value your pleasure?" That's a far better measure of a relationship than orgasm counts.
The Bed Post is a series that explores what holds us back from loving and fucking whom, when, where, how, and why we want. We all deserve sex that’s not only free of obvious evils, but full of what is good. Let’s talk about all of it. Follow me on Twitter at @hlmacmillen or email me at hayley.macmillen@refinery29 — I’d love to hear from you! — and find all of The Bed Post right here.

More from Sex & Relationships