Why we need a bigger orgasm gap

Gillian Mackay-Brown, Managing Editor

Writer’s note: In discussing the way we conceptualize sex as a culture, my language will necessarily be binary. This is not to diminish the wide range in gender identities and sexualities that make up humankind, but rather to highlight the binary way in which our culture engages with sex.

My high school chemistry teacher always used to say, “It’s not about the journey — it’s about the destination.” This was his favorite joke during our unit on atomic structure. As much as I’m sure we want to deny it, focusing on the “destination” is prevalent in all parts of our culture, from the media we consume to the way we have sex.

In our health classes, as well as porn and pop culture, we often tend to think of sex as a means to an end — it’s a linear timeline that, if successful, ends in ejaculation. Just look at the way we talk about sex: we “reach” or “achieve” orgasm, or we “finish,” as if it’s a race against time to win a little trophy. This mimics the way the male body orgasms — it’s phallic-centered sex. 

This phallic sex dominates our culture in unsuspecting ways — we learn the phallic sex structure before we even know what the word “phallic” means. Perhaps you remember sitting criss-cross applesauce on your fifth grade classroom rug while your teacher drew a mountain on the board. Then maybe they labeled one side “exposition, rising action, rising action” and the other side as “falling action.” And what was the peak of the mountain labeled? The climax, of course.

The Aristotelian plot structure, as it’s officially known, is the accepted “right” way to write stories. Aristotle believed stories should have a clear beginning, middle and end, and in the case of theater, he insisted that the plot unfold over no longer than a 24-hour time period. Plays should be to the point, exploring a single theme without straying into B plots. Above all else, they should reach a climax, followed by eventual resolution.

Western classical music is perhaps the most phallic of all art forms, focusing entirely on the tension and release of the ti-do relationship. It’s also one of the most male-dominated art forms – in all three music history classes that Whitman offers, I can count on one hand the number of female composers and musicians I read about.

Now, unfortunately, I am a music major, so I’m going to have to talk about theory for a second. Bear with me. For those of you who don’t know what “ti-do” means, think of it like this: music starts at “home,” on do. You can leave home in infinite directions, but the furthest point away from home, with the most tension, is ti. Going from ti back to do relieves that tension, providing a natural (almost orgasmic) end to a melody. Have you ever heard a major scale stop at ti? It’s torturous. It’s literally the musical equivalent of edging.

Heinrich Schenker, a well-respected and equally well-hated music theorist, demonstrated that all Western music can be boiled down to an underlying I-V-I progression, called the Ursatz. No matter what may be happening in the foreground of the music — original melodies, exciting cadences or boundary-pushing timbres — it all comes back to this Aristotelian tension and release.

The ancient art of oral storytelling belongs to women. The young girls who gossip around the lunch table, confiding in each other and warning each other of outside threats, become the grandmothers who sit around the fire, passing down ancient oral traditions. These stories don’t necessarily follow the Aristotelian plot structure. I recall asking my own grandmother to make up stories for me, and I was never quite satisfied with the ending. 

“And then what? And then what?” I would keep asking, not until I felt the story had come to a natural conclusion, but rather until I had had enough of the story.

Soap operas are targeted almost exclusively at women. It’s literally in the title; “soaps” are made for women to watch while they’re cleaning the house. These seemingly never-ending plot lines go on for the better part of decades. They ebb and flow, reaching climaxes in season finales only to reveal a new crisis that desperately requires 25 more episodes to unpack. If Aristotle were alive today, I feel secure knowing that “Grey’s Anatomy” would probably send him into a coma.

We tend to brush these female-centered art forms off as unintellectual, trashy entertainment. Sure, Dr. McDreamy is no Hamlet, but in ignoring the ways women conceptualize the world through art, we delegitimize the female plot structure and the female sex structure.

Heterosexual sex seems to be in as dire a state as ever. The orgasm gap in straight, cisgender sexual encounters remains prevalent. It’s a topic of great frustration among my friends. The underlying assumption in our conversations is that men simply don’t care if we’re enjoying ourselves.

Studies on orgasm have been in the mainstream media for a few years now, and many people are aware of the depressing statistics. Heterosexual women orgasm about 65 percent of the time during sexual encounters, while their male partners report orgasming 95 percent of the time. 

I think female sexuality scares us a little. We treat it like a Pandora’s box that we’re a bit too scared to touch. It’s a mystery beyond reckoning — or is it? We know that this gap isn’t due to women’s bodies being more complicated: lesbians report orgasming during about 86 percent of encounters. 39 percent of women report that they always achieve an orgasm while masturbating. That’s every single time

So why is it that when men and women get together, generally speaking, the sparks just aren’t flying? I propose that it’s because of the way we conceptualize sex. Whether or not we realize it, we make orgasm the climax of our sexual narratives. When a man is finished, we’re finished. Even if a man’s goal is to make his partner orgasm, once she has “finished,” he often feels that his job is done. But why? The vulva can keep reaching orgasm indefinitely, or at least until its owner decides to call it a day.

Art imitates life, but life imitates art too, right? In an artistic world where the dominant narrative is the Aristotelian one, how can we imagine a different kind of story for ourselves?

In an interview with the Guardian, sex therapist Silva Neves explained, “When we situate climax during intercourse as the bullseye, we gate off the idiosyncrasy and experimentation that are the wellspring of sexual pleasure.”

To be clear: I’m not saying that straight men don’t care about their sexual partners’ satisfaction. I often hear men proudly claim that they make their girlfriend come every time. But even then, the conversation around the orgasm gap itself falls prey to the phallic structure. Orgasms are not the only measure of sexual satisfaction, especially considering that the female body is capable of multiple orgasms. And hey — if it’s really that easy for straight men to come, clearly we can’t be using it as a measure of their satisfaction, either.

If anything, there should be an orgasm gap in heterosexual relationships. If the sex is truly good, women should be way outperforming their male partners, right?

Women orgasming more frequently benefits men’s sexual satisfaction, too: women who reported higher rates of orgasm were more likely to, “praise their partner for something they did in bed, call/email to tease about doing something sexual, wear sexy lingerie, try new sexual positions, anal stimulation, act out fantasies, incorporate sexy talk and express love during sex,” according to a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.

 The Aristotelian structure has its place, but in sex, it limits the possibilities of pleasure for everybody, regardless of gender or anatomy. We should start thinking about our sexual encounters like a telenovela: there will always be more drama to unpack. Maybe an orgasm gap is not such a bad thing after all. I mean, if men can’t keep up, who are they to hold women back from their full orgasmic potential?