“The Case of the Female Orgasm,” Revisited

4 min read

This question came my way the other day:

“I am a 38-year-old woman, happily married, with two children. The other day my sister and I were talking about the fact that we never had orgasms during intercourse but had been faking it for so long that we didn’t know how to talk to our husbands about it. We’re wondering: How common is this?’

As it turns out, faking orgasm is not at all uncommon: One 2019 study of 462 women in the UK found that the majority had faked orgasm on one or more occasions and that faking was more common in women who held anti-feminist views.

To learn more about why this might be, I interviewed Dr. Elisabeth Lloyd, whose scholarly research over the last two decades confirms that many women continue to struggle with a lack of sexual satisfaction during intercourse. She commented, “[Many] women reliably have orgasms with masturbation 99 percent of the time—but when it comes to intercourse, not so much. The percentage of women who reliably don’t have orgasms with unassisted intercourse lies between 80 and 95 percent of women, depending on the study.”

In 2005, Dr. Lloyd’s groundbreaking book, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, created enormous controversy. Her analysis showed that female orgasm was likely a byproduct of male orgasm, rather than having natural selection value on its own. (Another example of this kind of evolutionary “byproduct” is that males have nipples as a byproduct of the female’s need to nurse.) This theory continues to dominate thinking in the field of evolutionary science, and competing theories have been largely disproven.

For the majority of women, clitoral stimulation is an absolute requirement to achieve orgasm. In subsequent extensive research that has been duplicated by others, Dr. Lloyd and her colleagues determined that one and only one factor was associated with the ability to have an unassisted orgasm in intercourse: the distance between the tip of the clitoris and the vaginal opening.

“The reason that correlation is important is because it shows that it’s nobody’s fault when a woman doesn’t have orgasm with intercourse,” Dr. Lloyd explained. “It’s not her fault because she’s too religiously uptight. She’s not too immature psychologically. It’s not that she needs more candles or that she needs to be more relaxed or anything of the kind.”

She added: “It’s not his fault either. He doesn’t need to have a larger penis, or a longer one. He doesn’t need to have a different kind of penis, or a ripply condom or heated jelly. These numbers are very reliable no matter what you do to them.”

Dr. Lloyd’s own 2018 work showed that about 50 percent of women do fake orgasms for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they are embarrassed about their sexual function, or perhaps they want to speed things along and get to sleep.

Yet Dr. Lloyd has researched a group of women who have more success in achieving sexual satisfaction: lesbians. In her research, lesbian women have 23 percent more orgasms than straight women. She found that three activities are associated with achieving orgasm, for gay or straight women: deep kissing, genital petting, and oral sex. Lesbian women have better sex more reliably because they take turns. Presumably, they also have a more intuitive understanding of the female sexual response.

Unrealistic depictions of sexual gratification in films and movies may contribute to misconceptions about orgasm. Léa J. Séguin at Université du Québec à Montréal in Canada performed an analysis of 50 porn films and found that in less than 20 percent did women achieve climax, and clitoral stimulation was depicted in only 25 percent of these. Mainstream movies also tend to depict exciting sex in an unrealistic way, with a sprint to tear off clothes, immediate penetration and grinding, and instant orgasm.

Thus, although the myth of vaginal orgasm was punctured 70 years ago, the behavior of many couples during sex continues to reflect a limited understanding of the female sexual response.

To hear the entire interview, listen to “They’re Driving Me Nuts!” on all major hosting platforms.

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