Hadley Finch Intro: Do you agree with Peggy Orenstein’s
Ted Women Talk about the Pleasure Gap between lovers?
Share your thoughts to start talking about solutions
after you enjoy this guest post
By Mary Halton
Women are slowly moving towards parity in the
boardroom, but not in the bedroom. Why are straight
women having less satisfying sex than men? And what
can we do about it?
The world is supposed to be improving for women.
Incrementally, work is being done to combat sexual
harassment, improve maternity-leave, and close the
But what about the pleasure gap?
While it may sound more like innuendo than issue,
the research says otherwise: when it comes to
sexual pleasure, straight women are getting less of
it than … well, anyone.
In a 2017 survey of sexual behavior among 52,000
adults in the US, just 65 percent of heterosexual
women reported that they usually or always orgasmed
during sexual intimacy. This made them the group
with the lowest sexual satisfaction — behind
lesbian and bisexual women, and all of the men
surveyed. Their straight male partners, however,
came out on top, with 95 percent reporting regular
orgasm with a partner.
This trend isn’t new. In 2009, the US National
Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior asked 1,857
people about the pleasure of their most recent
sexual encounter, and reported an almost identical
discrepancy between straight women and men.
It also identified that 85 percent of men claimed
their partner had an orgasm. Even when accounting
for same-gender male couples, of which the survey
had a small number, this leaves a significant
proportion of straight men deciding — or
believing — that their partner has climaxed when
The same study found that women were five times
more likely than men to report some degree of pain
during sex. This was not pain consensually
inflicted for pleasure, but actual unwanted
So how did we get here?
Despite having many millennia of experience under
our belt as a species, there’s a lot we still
don’t collectively understand about sex — and
particularly about women’s sexual experiences.
Many aspects of sex remain shrouded in myths and
misconceptions, and even those of us who consider
ourselves educated about our own bodies continue to
believe some of them.
Among them is the idea that it’s physiologically
easier for men to orgasm — a “fact” that most
people don’t think twice about. Yet research from
the Kinsey Institute has found that women reach
orgasm from masturbation in about the same time as
men, averaging just under 4 minutes. Women in
relationships with other women also report a high
rate of sexual satisfaction, with 86 percent of
those asked in the 2017 survey reporting that
they’d had an orgasm during every sexual
encounter with a partner in the past month —
similar to the responses from gay and bisexual men.
So women are not more “complicated” than men.
Yet they’re having less pleasurable — and
sometimes even painful — sex.
Sex educator Victoria Beltran from the University
of South Florida St. Petersburg, says there are
multiple factors, and porn is likely one of them.
She explains, “Porn typically only depicts male
orgasm, and much of it shows some type of violence
against female partners. This absolutely can skew
how some men view their women partners during the
act of sexual intercourse — as a giver of
pleasure, not a receiver. And women who view
straight porn are also seeing the same thing.”
Beltran points out that male partners can also
cause pain from a lack of preparation and
lubrication. Many men and women, she says, don’t
understand the physiological importance of at least
20 minutes of foreplay in order to make sex
comfortable and enjoyable for women.
Yet it goes beyond a simple lack of anatomical
Author Peggy Orenstein spent three years talking to
young women aged 15 to 20 for her book Girls & Sex:
Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. “What I
found was that while young women may feel entitled
to engage in sexual behavior, they don’t
necessarily feel entitled to enjoy it,” she
explains in her TED Talk.
Young women reported a lack of respect and
satisfaction in their sexual experiences. Even on
dates, women said they felt pressured to provide
pleasure. Orenstein was surprised when “a
freshman at a West Coast college said to me, ‘A
girl will give a guy a blowjob at the end of the
night because she doesn’t want to have sex with
him and he expects to be satisfied. So if I want
him to leave and I don’t want anything to
Elsewhere, University of Michigan researcher Sara
McLelland has found that men and women use vastly
different terms to describe a lack of satisfaction,
with women using terms like “depressed,”
“pain” and “degradation.” Men never used
such negative language about themselves; instead,
they cited reasons such as loneliness, having an
unattractive sexual partner, and insufficient
Women’s obligation to provide sexual
satisfaction, and the idea that their own pleasure
is an optional extra, is deeply ingrained in the
way we talk about sex culturally. When Cosmopolitan
magazine asked singer and songwriter Nicki Minaj if
she was “high or low maintenance in bed” in a
2015 interview, she made waves in the media by
replying, “I demand that I climax. I think women
should demand that … I’ve been told that I’m
like a guy. Like ‘Why do you always have to
climax?’ Uh, because I do. We’re both doing
this for the same reason. We both want the same
feeling at the end.”
What’s the answer, then, to levelling the sexual
Many of the ideas that we develop about sexuality
and our bodies begin with the sex education we
receive in primary school. As Orenstein points out,
“Kids go into their puberty education classes and
they learn that boys have erections and
ejaculations, and girls have periods and unwanted
pregnancy.” This kind of thinking does not open
the door to a healthy sex life — for anyone.
Beltran, who also runs the educational website
Healthy Sex & You, would like to see the concept of
pleasure included in sex education. This is already
happening in the Netherlands, where the
sex-education curriculum begins as early as four
years old, and the country has some of the lowest
rates of teen pregnancy in the world. While there
are other reasons behind this success —
reproductive healthcare is more accessible and less
stigmatized for young people than it is in the US
— their approach to sex education is definitely a
factor, according to Beltran.
She says, “A lot of their curriculum isn’t even
dedicated to discussion of sexual intercourse. They
begin with the skills and tools it takes to be
prepared to talk about sex and pleasure with a
partner, to advocate for your own pleasure, to
accept a ‘no’ and get enthusiastic consent, and
have meaningful intimacy. They also do outreach to
the parents to help them have those talks with
And it appears to work, says Orenstein. She
explains, “Consider a survey of 300 randomly
chosen girls from a Dutch and an American
University; two similar universities talking about
their early experience of sex. The Dutch girls
embodied everything we say we want from our girls.
They had fewer negative consequences like disease,
pregnancy, regret; more positive outcomes like
being able to communicate with their partner, who
they said they knew very well, preparing for the
experience, and responsibly enjoying themselves.
What was their secret? The Dutch girls said that
their doctors, teachers and parents spoke candidly
to them from an early age about sex, pleasure and
the importance of mutual trust. What’s more,
while American parents weren’t necessarily less
comfortable talking about sex, we tend to frame
those conversations entirely in terms of risk and
danger whereas Dutch parents talk about balancing
responsibility and joy.”
Of course, sex-ed isn’t limited to the
conversations that educators and parents have with
young people — pornography is also forming part
of their education. Rather than denying that teens
are accessing and learning from porn, Beltran
contends that we need to provide young people with
a comprehensive understanding of the artificial way
in which porn is created.
She says, “Porn is usually the first time someone
sees a sexual act or a naked body, usually by the
age of 14. Most [young people] are certainly not
being educated on how much preparation,
communication,and scripting go on behind the
scenes. I would love the porn industry to tackle
this head on by making sex-ed videos that expose
the “back of the house” stuff, like discussions
and agreements made by talent on what sex acts will
take place, when, how much, etc. This is consent.
Young people should have porn literacy so they can
be better sexual consumers.”
So, is it even possible to close the pleasure gap?
What would it take?
There’s a lot of work still to be done, says
Beltran. “Pleasure requires trust, but in our
society, we talk about sex in a way that creates
shame and secrecy. Unfortunately, without
comprehensive sex education in middle and high
schools, I doubt we’ll get close to providing a
safe enough environment for young people who are
curious about sexual activity to practice it safely
and therefore figure out what is pleasurable.”
She believes we need to start with how we teach
children to understand, regard and care for
themselves. This includes talking about intersex
identities, and exploring gender and sexuality
across a very fluid spectrum.
In addition, encouraging a sexually healthy society
is work that needs to be done well into adulthood.
“As sexual beings, we as humans aren’t static,
so our sex education shouldn’t be either … We
just need to let go of the fears and shames and
anxieties that we have around our body,” says
Billie Quinlan, co-founder and CEO of Ferly, an
online guide which aims to promote sexual
wellbeing, in her TEDxClapham talk. “We need to
be able to openly express ourselves, asking what we
want and don’t want, and we need the science
around our arousal and desires so we know why our
body is reacting the way it does to sex.” This
also means considering our partner’s pleasure to
be as important as our own — not more, not less.
Beltran concurs. She adds, “Building self-esteem
has to be a priority, especially in a society that
tries its hardest to make you feel bad about
yourself. Becoming empowered, working on
self-esteem and healthy body image, and having
relationships that are emotionally supportive and
psychologically healthy can help all people get
more pleasure in their sex lives, because they can
help them get more out of their relationships in
How will you use this news to enjoy happy, sexy love?