Superdrug’s Naked Academy is the UK high street’s first sexual and intimate health and pleasure academy for all sexualities and ethnicities. The online Naked Academy hub, on Superdrug.com, provides helpful information and education on all things sexual and intimate health, along with sexual pleasure and health product recommendations and services.
In this blog post from the series, our Naked Academy ambassador Dr Annabel Sowemimo shares her thoughts on how there is an orgasm gap and why we need Pleasure Activism.
The gender orgasm gap is known as the difference between heterosexual cis-women* and other groups in achieving orgasm during sex. The orgasm gap was first reported in 2005 in a study of 800 students. The study revealed that in heterosexual relationships, a staggering 91% of cis-men achieve orgasm compared to a measly 39% of cis-women.
As a sexual health doctor, we are routinely taught to ask patients who they last had sex with, what type of sex they had, and even if the sex they had was consensual; their answers help us to know what sexual health screening to carry out and what further support to provide. However, we almost never ask, “Did you enjoy the sex that you had?”
Asking about pleasure should be a routine part of sexual health consultations, but it rarely feels like there is enough time in the consultation room. What’s more, it still makes many doctors and patients uncomfortable; pleasure is rarely discussed, let alone uttering the word ‘orgasm’.
One study suggested a whopping 67% of heterosexual cis-women had faked an orgasm, whilst only 20% of their male partners thought that their partners had ever faked it. Clearly, cis-women are faking it so well that their partners don’t even notice.
Since the orgasm gap was first described, there has been further research into orgasms experienced and it seems that heterosexual cis-women are even worse off than their bisexual and lesbian counterparts. Lesbian women are more likely to orgasm during partnered sex, and bisexual women are much more likely to orgasm when having same sex intercourse. Yet, when heterosexual cis-women use masturbation and self-pleasure, orgasms happens more quickly and more frequently. So why can’t my heterosexual cis-ters get an orgasm in partnered sex?
For many young cis-women, as their sexual health doctor I am one of the first people that they speak to in depth about their first sexual experience − most often they want a sexual health screening or contraception (and frequently they need emergency contraception). They have not been told to expect very much from their first sexual encounter; the experience was painful, swift and they are not eager to try it again. It’s awful to hear. Yet, worse still, many patients that I meet – from those just starting out to those going through the menopause – admit that they are unsure if they even really know what an orgasm feels like.
It is estimated that 10% of cis-women have anorgasmia, meaning that they have never experienced an orgasm, but it is likely that a significant number may orgasm if given the right support. Cis-women are conditioned to make men feel good whilst denying their own pleasure. We are less likely to receive oral sex and much more likely to give oral in casual encounters, even though receiving oral can be much more fundamental to us achieving sexual pleasure. This silencing has maintained one of the greatest sexual myths – that for cis-women, achieving orgasm is difficult. The truth is, it isn’t difficult for many, and this is a myth that needs to be consigned to the history books.
Whilst it has become pretty clear that the orgasm gap is a result of the sexist expectations we are taught to have around sex, others have still tried to suggest that orgasms for cis-women are just far more tricky to achieve due to our ‘complicated’ anatomy. Without talking about the different ways that women achieve orgasm, we continue to construct heterosexual sex around what the penis desires.
One recent study found that only 18% of cis-women are able to orgasm by vaginal penetration alone; 43% of participants said that the most successful method of achieving orgasm was through joint penetrative and clitoral stimulation using a hand or a vibrator. Yet, the media and pornography continue to perpetuate the idea that spontaneous orgasms or ones through penetrative sex alone are common. An analysis of the fifty most watched PornHub videos showed that only 25% of those showing cis-women orgasming included any clitoral stimulation. This is particularly worrying given how important free porn sites have become in sex education for both young people and adults.
It should be noted that the importance of achieving an orgasm varies between individuals. Yet we do know that achieving an orgasm can have other benefits beyond providing a sexual climax and release. The huge dopamine surge associated with an orgasm may help those experiencing low mood, particularly at major biological life stages like the menopause. There is even some evidence that regular orgasms may assist those who experience menstrual cycle pains.
So how are we going to rectify the gender orgasm gap? Well, it means addressing inequalities that go far beyond the four walls of my clinical consultation room. We need to address how we are educated about sex in our formative years, but also where we access sexual health information throughout our adult lives.
For many groups, particularly those that are marginalised within society either due to their race, class or gender, sexual pleasure may be one of the few ways for them to focus on themselves and experience joy. That is why centring pleasure can be revolutionary. Experiencing an orgasm is just one way of experiencing pleasure, but there is so much more we can do to ensure sexual pleasure is accessible to a greater range of people.
In Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, author Adrienne Maree Brown defines pleasure activism as, ‘the work we do to reclaim our whole, happy, and satisfiable selves from the impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.’
This means that simply improving sex education is not enough: sexual interactions are a microcosm of the inequalities in the world around us, and it is essential we address patriarchy and the impact it has on sexual dynamics.
Closing the gender orgasm gap means we must uplift those whose pleasure is usually sidelined elsewhere in our society. We must be bold in asking for what we want in all aspects of our lives. We must not shrink ourselves to meet society’s expectations. If we are unafraid to get to know ourselves, engage in self-pleasure and prioritise our own pleasure in partnered sex, we will help to create a vital shift within our society.
About the Author
Dr Annabel Sowemimo
Dr Annabel Sowemimo is a doctor, activist, and writer. As well as being a Sexual & Reproductive Health Registrar in the NHS, she is co-director and founder of charity the Reproductive Justice Initiative (RJI) (formerly Decolonising Contraception), which aims to address health inequalities and racial disparities. They have been shortlisted for numerous awards, winning grassroots organisation of the year at the 2020 Sexual Health Awards and a National LGBTQ Health Advisor award in 2022.
Within her specialty, she is interested in tackling Gender Based Violence and improving access for marginalised groups. She is a regular columnist for gal-dem, as well as a freelance writer, writing for The Independent, The Guardian and numerous other publications. As well as jointly hosting The Sex Agenda podcast, she is frequently in demand for TV and radio.
Annabel is a part-time PhD candidate and Harold Moody Scholar at King’s College London, where her research focuses on the experiences of Black British women with fertility control methods. As well as writing for mainstream publications, she has co-authored a number of academic publications.
Annabel firmly believes that healthcare should be about empowering people with knowledge to make informed choices about their bodies. She spends her spare time campaigning on reproductive justice, against NHS cuts and improving healthcare for marginalised groups.Her first book Divided: Racism, Medicine and Why We Need to Decolonise Healthcare will be published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection in April 2023.