The Undiscovered Female Orgasm

The title of this article suggests three things: 1. a secret will be revealed to the readers, 2. these article will involve women, 3. some may shy away, others may roll their eyes. But, in any case, we are going to talk about sex. I would like to begin by saying that I am by no means a feminist, nevertheless, for the purpose of writing this article I will use gender lenses and capture an issue that is seldom talked about: the female pleasure.

While 90% of the men said they always orgasm during heterosexual intercourse, 70% of the women said they did not orgasm during heterosexual intercourse. However, scans of the brain during sex show that both man and women have a similar sensory experience of orgasm, are able to perform it at the relative same speed and share the same response when masturbating. So, why do views on gender sexuality differ so much and why does it seem so hard for women to orgasm? And how does the female orgasm differ from the male orgasm?

Science behind orgasm

According to Medical daily, there are four types of nerves connected to the orgasm. The hypogastric nerve sends a signal from the uterus and cervix of women, and the prostate of men to the brain. The pelvic nerves transmit signals from the vagina and cervix. From the rectum for both sexes, the pudendal nerve transmits signals from the clitoris in women and from the scrotum and penis in men. Finally, the vagus nerve transmits the signal from the cervix, uterus, and vagina in women. The point that I’m trying to make here is that there should plenty to choose from when looking for stimulation!

The first stage during this stimulation is called excitement. For women this is characterized by an increase on the blood flow to the genitals, including the erection of the clitoris and the lubrication of the vagina. Produced by the Bartholin glands, located on either side of the vaginal opening. The second stage, plateau, the clitoris becomes hypersensitive and retracts under the clitoral hood. The heartbeat and breathing increase and pleasure signals are sent to the brain, releasing dopamine, producing a similar effect that heroin. During the orgasm the lateral orbitofrontal cortex shuts off, part responsible for feelings of fear and anxiety. John Bancroft, researcher at the Kinsey Institute, described orgasm as the “combination of waves of a very pleasurable sensation and mounting of tensions, culminating in a fantastic sensation and release of tension.” Finally, in the last stage, resolution, the hormone oxytocin which is responsible for feelings of bonding and sleepiness is released. Most men usually are not able to achieve sexual arousal and orgasm for more than a couple of minutes, while women can experience multiple orgasms. Wouldn’t this mean that women would have more chances at having orgasms?

Issues in society

Studies refer the problem to a more general and social sphere issue. The way society constructs the idea of female and male sexuality in countries where conservative or fundamentalist values are adopted, the connection between sexuality and state matters are usually more clear. For instance, rituals such as female genital mutilation are still observed in some cultures, and a whole article could be written about what changed in India from embracing sexuality and the kama sutra, to the mystification of “women’s first sexual experience”, and sex in general.  This led to the objectification of women, high rates of human trafficking and STDs. This mystification of women’s pleasure is still predominant- even in the west.

In episode three, of Vagina dispatches, Mona and Mae, journalist and film-maker of The Guardian, discuss the female orgasm. One of the most striking observations was when they compared a woman that orgasmed for the first time at 28 to a man in the same situation. For the man, something must be seriously wrong and a hundred studies would have been written about this bizarre case. Nevertheless, for the woman, it would have been unsurprising that even though she was sexually active for a long time, she might not have had an orgasm.

Passive sexual actors

Regarding male pleasure, journalist Shannon Bledsoe pointed out: “As a society, we accept this premise fairly easily when it comes to men and they learn it at a young age. (…) There are endless nicknames for male anatomy and jokes about masturbation; and TV shows, movies, advertisements and porn all cater to their fantasies. “ She goes on talking about women: “Women, on the other hand, appear mostly as the object in these fantasies rather than as subjects.” The fact is that words like man and pleasure are acceptable and sustained in our society but when we put together women and pleasure, we assume that a third party (usually male) is necessarily there. Studies find that women want to “ (…) experience orgasm in this way for the sake of their male partner.” By this I don’t mean to say that orgasm should be the ultimate goal, either for men or women, during intercourse when there is obviously more to it in the underlings of a relationship. The issue that I am presenting here is that women, themselves, prioritize their partner’s pleasure and seem to forget about their own.

Interviews to a group study  by Salisbury and Fisher, also showed that women believe it to be man’s responsibility to physically stimulate the female orgasm while woman’s responsibility is to remain in the proper mindset. This would not only bring all the responsibility to the male partner but also make women passive characters in their own sexual lives. Jackson and Scott also remarked that: “male orgasm is… seen as “natural” and inevitable… that of women requires work and, in keeping with the idea of female sexual passivity and male sexual expertise, women’s bodies need to be worked on by the male virtuoso in order to produce orgasm.” This expertise is then translated from “the bed” to society affirming men as the only actor with the necessary skills to govern prosperous society. This in turn generates a male-centric community reproduced from generation to generation.   

How to bring down the patriarchy?

In that case, how can women become a more active actor in their sexual lives and, in consequence, in their society? Salisbury and Fisher’s studies highlight three solutions:

  1. Manual clitoral stimulation: Contrary to what women believe, men find manual clitoral stimulation quite encouraging (regardless of who it is performed by).
  2. Communication with the partner:  Men have also indicated that communication about lack of female orgasm to be very important. Findings show that the female orgasm is as important for men as their own orgasm and that men are willing to communicate about what arouses their female partners and happy to indulge them.
  3. Women need to focus on their pleasure: The view that a partner has to be a skillful lover in order for the orgasm to occur has negative effects on their self-esteem. With that in mind, women fake orgasms because they are too worried about their partner’s ego. Instead they should focus their attention in the sexual moment and erotic aspects of it, producing fewer cognitive distractions and increasing the likelihood of orgasm.    

Who would have thought that the solution for patriarchy would be in loving, knowing and respecting our bodies and on dis-mystifying female sexuality?

by Ana Carvalho

Photo Credits

2 Boticelli, Birth of Venus, Steel Wool, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

illustration by Lucy Han ( in TeenVogue)

artist Stephanie Sarley (taken from Huffpost)

Adam and Eve, by Tamara de Lempicka, 1932, Petit Palais Geneva, Switzerland (from JuaanCaarlos slideshare)