Bridge the Orgasm Gap: New Language to Describe Sexual Pleasure

Gentle greenish waves under orange and yellow sunriseContemporary research and anecdotal accounts indicate cisgender men orgasm up to three times more often than cisgender women during heterosexual partnered sex. I believe this disparity, referred to as the orgasm gap, is a new frontier for female sexuality and for feminism.

In early 2017, David Frederick published a study that surveyed more than 52,000 people in the U.S. and found that 95% of heterosexual men say they usually or always orgasm during sexual intimacy, compared to only 65% of heterosexual women (Frederick, John, Garcia, & Lloyd, 2017). This compares to 89% of gay men, 88% of bisexual men, 86% of lesbian women, and 66% of bisexual women.

There are varied and complex interpretations of the reason for the lower frequency of orgasm for bisexual and heterosexual women as compared to men and lesbian women, such as stigma against women seeking pleasure, the infrequency of oral sex during heterosexual encounters, an intercourse-focused societal approach to sex, socialization of women to be passive and deferential to men, and insufficient emotional and intimate foreplay. This list could go on and into great detail on the cultural, political, and religious history that brought heterosexual and bisexual sex to where it is today.

Understanding the Sexual Response Cycle

But as a couples and sex therapist, I want to focus on one particular contributing factor: language. I want to focus on how people, specifically women, talk about their experience of pleasure during sex. Sex research and personal accounts show us the female sexual response cycle is different than the male sexual response cycle. Pioneers such as Beverly Whipple, Karen Brash-McGreer, and Rosemary Basson changed the way we think about sexual response in women by moving from Masters and Johnson’s original linear model to a circular one. Basson (2001) introduced the factors of emotional intimacy, sexual stimuli, sexual arousal, arousal and sexual desire, and emotional and physical satisfaction in place of the traditional phases of excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Basson placed “spontaneous sexual drive” in the middle of the circular model with arrows pointing to several entry points in order to clarify that sexual drive can enter at any point in the process as a result of a stimuli, whether that stimuli is emotional or sexual.

It has taken time for these non-linear models to permeate culture. In my work, I see that most people still view orgasm in a linear fashion. When a cisgender man orgasms, in most cases it is unmistakable because upon climax there is visible ejaculate, and the man’s body retires as he moves into resolution. Let’s compare this to female orgasm. Women don’t typically ejaculate (while a number of women are able to squirt, this is often not linked directly to orgasm), and women can come many times before resolution. These are two major differences between how male and female orgasm works, yet we use the same language for both.

Adding to the complexity is the fact female orgasm is not one thing, but many. Just as sexual desire can enter at any point in the circle, female orgasm can enter at any point in the sexual experience and might take on many forms. One clear scientific indicator of an orgasm is the involuntary squeezing and contracting of the muscles around the vagina. When that occurs, scientifically, it’s an orgasm. However, how the physiological phenomenon of the orgasm feels can vary widely from one person to another, even from one experience to the next. In this way, there are as many different kinds of orgasm as there are people having sex. (Orgasm diversity is true for men, too, but for now I’m focusing on the female orgasm.)

Clarifying Communication About Sexual Pleasure

From my work as a sex therapist, I have come to the conclusion that women in particular are in need of new language. I propose, for this to be achieved, that sexual partners move away from orgasm-focused language and toward a new type of language, something that better communicates their experience of sexual pleasure. The term “orgasm” may be of paramount importance from a scientific perspective, but I have found that, in conversations between male and female sexual partners, it has more potential to convolute than clarify communication about sex.

In this way, the language of “pleasure peak” is big enough to encompass the many different types of pleasurable sensations felt without limiting sexual partners to the loaded term “orgasm.”

In layman’s terms, it could be said female pleasure is akin to riding waves in the ocean. Each swell and crash and tidal pulling and releasing constitutes a “pleasure peak.” For example, a woman may feel the pull of the tide deep under the ocean, then see the wave coming. She may experience a sequence of two to three waves, followed by a big swell that knocks her over and sends her onto shore for a break. In another instance, she may bob along in the water for an hour, enjoying the gentle pull of the tide moving in and out, with no big waves but continuous enjoyable swells gently pulling and pushing her back and forth. On yet another occasion, she may wade in still water for some time, until suddenly a huge wave comes, carries her up with its force, and sends her sailing into shore with exhilaration. She may choose then to jump right back in and onto the next wave, which may be big, small, or somewhere in between.

In this way, the language of “pleasure peak” is big enough to encompass the many different types of pleasurable sensations felt without limiting sexual partners to the loaded term “orgasm.” It is certainly important scientifically to be able to know whether the sensations one feels meet the criteria for orgasm, and factors like muscle contractions, face and chest flushing, nipples hardening, and genital engorgement are important observational cues a woman can use to learn more about her body and pleasure.

In everyday communication, however, the term pleasure peak can provide more flexibility with less judgment. Women report faking orgasms often, and men may pressure women to orgasm, feeling inadequate when they do not. Oftentimes, both simply have good intentions and a desire to please. Still, in my work with couples and individuals I have found the way in which that desire to please is communicated can be detrimental to an honest and satisfying sexual experience for both partners in a relationship.

With this new language, each pleasure peak can be acknowledged as its own unique experience. Sexual partners can appreciate each experience as it is and face less pressure to compare one peak to the next and less judgment on the differences between them. Ideally, both partners will incorporate this more flexible language and perspective. In this way, a couple or individual can come to a place of acceptance, trusting that they will be able to ride their own waves of pleasure to satisfaction within each experience before coming in to shore and moving to resolution when they are ready.

References:

  1. Basson, R. (2000). The female sexual response: A different model. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 26(1), 51-65. DOI: 10.1080/009262300278641
  2. Basson, R. (2001). Female sexual response: The role of drugs in the management of sexual dysfunction. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 98(3), 350-353. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11506856
  3. Frederick, D. A., John, H. K. S., Garcia, J. R., & Lloyd, E. A. (2017, February 17). Differences in orgasm frequency among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual men and women in a U.S. national sample. Archives of Sexual Behavior. doi:10.1007/s10508-017-0939-z
  4. Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1966). Human sexual response. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
  5. Whipple, B., & Brash-McGreer, K. (1997). Management of female sexual dysfunction. In M. L. Sipski & C. J. Alexander (Eds.), Sexual function in people with disability and chronic illness: A health professional’s guide (509-534). Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers, Inc.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Rachel Keller, LCSW-C, therapist in Odenton, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 10 comments
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  • Mandy

    Mandy

    July 13th, 2017 at 8:02 AM

    I am so lucky to have found someone who cares not just about himself but always aims to make sure that I am happy too!

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    July 13th, 2017 at 8:22 AM

    Mandy – that is wonderful! There are lots of caring men out there who do understand women’s pleasure.

  • Leona

    Leona

    July 13th, 2017 at 12:44 PM

    Isn’t it crazy how much better your sex life can be when you are with a partner who not only understands your needs but who is also so alert to them and wants to make sure you are happy?

    For way too long I settled for far less than what I deserved. After my first divorce I had to take life into my own hands. I was tired of settling for less than what I deserved. .

    Liberating isn’t it

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    July 14th, 2017 at 6:57 AM

    Leona – That is so true. A big part of that liberation is having the confidence and awareness to be able to identify and advocate for your own needs. I’m so happy you found it!

  • Beverly D.

    Beverly D.

    July 13th, 2017 at 2:32 PM

    Love the language of pleasure peak and comparing women’s experience to oceanic waves.Seems much more realistic if the expression of women’s experience is FINALLY what we end to talk about. This is the first step toward liberating women to wholeheartedly embrace their (different) experiences.

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    July 14th, 2017 at 6:58 AM

    Beverly – Thank you, I’m glad it’s clicking for you! I agree! One more step in the right direction towards the liberation of pleasure. :)

  • Shannon

    Shannon

    July 14th, 2017 at 10:29 AM

    Quite often there are no words that can adequately describe those feelings, and for women I think that it is exponentially more difficult to talk about because for so long we have been taught that the subject of sex is taboo and this would be a conversation best spoken to oneself. I fervently don’t believe that and know that in order to ever achieve the same equality and pleasure that men freely enjoy we have to be willing to speak out loud our own experiences and be willing to share them openly and honestly.

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    July 18th, 2017 at 7:50 AM

    I could not agree more Shannon! And, the more women talking about it, the better, so thank you for posting!

  • Marcy

    Marcy

    July 17th, 2017 at 10:45 AM

    One big difference between men and women and how they view sex is that for me and many women I know it isn’t always about the big O per se. I mean, of course that is nice but it is also a time to bond and love one another, and while it is fantastic when you have a giving and willing partner that is not always the end all and be all. Sometimes it is honestly more important for me to feel that I am physically connected with my husband regardless of whether or not I climax. I am not putting my own needs to the side but I do think that there times when I am searching for something out of sex that goes beyond that end experience.

  • Rachel Keller, LGSW

    Rachel Keller, LGSW

    July 18th, 2017 at 7:53 AM

    So true Marcy. “Sex” can have many different meanings – do you want physical release or a deep connection? Physical comfort and closeness or rough play? Or any combination of these! Which is why being able to communicate specifically about what you want is so important.

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