Emma x Ann Summers

Our guest editor this month is the incredible Emma-Louise Boynton, founder and host of the Sex Talks podcast, a platform which focuses on honest conversations around sex (aka our favourite podcast).

We'll be focusing on The Orgasm Gap, a subject she's done loads of work on, and we know she's going to make a huge difference to so many of your sex lives. But what is the orgasm gap, you may ask? Well, it's disparity between the rate at which men versus women orgasm during partnered sex. There's absolutely no physical reason why women shouldn't orgasm just as much as men during sex, and Emma-Louise and Ann Summers are here to do what we can to make sure YOUR sex isn't suffering from a statistic that shouldn't exist.

What is the orgasm gap and what are the main reasons for this?

The orgasm gap is the disparity between the rate at which men versus women orgasm during partnered sex. Research shows that people of all genders orgasm 95% of the time when they masturbate. However, only 65% of cis-women orgasm during partnered, heteronormative sex. A figure that drops to just 18% when it comes to casual sex.

Meanwhile, men consistently orgasm 95% of the time when they’re having sex with a woman, regardless of whether it’s casual or with a regular partner.

How does the orgasm gap vary across different sexual orientations and gender identities?

We don’t see this trend happening amongst men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women - in same-sex couples there is no orgasm gap. (If you want to get specific, in a recent survey of 52,000 adults, lesbian participants reported usually or always orgasming during sexual activity 86 percent of the time. Meanwhile, gay and bisexual men reported orgasming 89 and 88 percent of the time.)

Why is the orgasm gap so important to discuss in a relationship?

We all need to be talking about the orgasm gap, whether you are in a relationship or not, because as the above research shows, there is no orgasm gap between same-sex couples so we know this is not an anatomical problem, it’s a cultural problem, and hence it is one we can fix by changing how we think and talk about sex. Let me explain.

Because sex science was historically dominated by men, woefully little scientific research has been done into the specificities of female sexuality and pleasure. This resulted in a ‘one-size fits all’ model of sex based largely on the male experience. The way in which sex has been shown in mainstream culture is a clear reflection of that, prioritizing penis in vagina sex and depicting sex as over as soon as a man comes. How many sex scenes have you seen where the clitoris has been given even a sliver of air-time? Not many.

Given that most women (some 65%) require clitoral stimulation to orgasm, rather than just penetration, it is little wonder that so many women are leaving sexual situations unsatisfied. What’s more, this lack of research into female pleasure has (mis)informed the idea that the female genitalia is just more ‘complicated’ and it’s much harder to make women come. I’ve lost count how many people (men and women) have said versions of this to me before and it’s just not true. The problem isn’t that women’s bodies are trickier to stimulate, it’s just that we haven’t been taught how to stimulate them. Poor sex education and the primacy placed on male pleasure in mainstream straight-sex culture has set all of us pretty terribly for mutually pleasurable sex.

And so, I return to the importance of talking about the orgasm gap. The more we understand about the cultural factors that have led to the orgasm gap, the better placed we are to tackle it because we can see that it’s not just ‘one of those things’ but something totally within our power to address.

How does communication between partners impact the orgasm gap?

As my sex therapist said to me during virtually every single session we did together: communication is key, always, to better sex. The orgasm gap highlights how little we know about female pleasure specifically, but it is also important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all model of sex generally. Every body is different and hence every body is going to respond differently to certain types of sexual stimulation. That is why it is so critical that when we’re having sex with someone new, or even a long-term partner (what we want in sex can change and fluctuate constantly) we ask them what feels good and what in that moment they want, while in turn communicating what we want and what we’re enjoying from them too.

Florence Bark, co-founder of the sexual wellness platform, Come Curious, said on the Sex Talks stage some time ago - “your pleasure is your responsibility” and it really stuck with me. For years, I wasn’t able to orgasm during partnered sex, which I interpreted as a me problem - “I’m broken” I said to my sex therapist. When I found out about the orgasm gap I suddenly felt quite resentful of all my previous sexual partners, annoyed that they’d failed to prioritise my pleasure.

But as Florence reminded me, we cannot expect our sexual partners to know off-the-bat what we like and what is going to make us come. We have to take responsibly for our own pleasure and communicate to them what we want. The problem for me was, in part, that I just didn’t know what I liked and so I didn’t know what to communicate. By not saying anything, I was derring responsibility to whoever I was sleeping with to find that out for me, which is a very inefficient and, obviously, ineffective way of exploring your sexual pleasure.

Some women struggle to have orgasms, especially with their partners, what would you recommend to them for achieving the big O?

As I mentioned above, this was me for so many years. I had what I later learned is called ’situational’ anorgasmia, which basically means you can’t to orgasm in certain situations, aka during partnered sex in my case. There are so many things that can contribute to this, and for me anxiety played a big part here. I used to get so in my head about sex (and sometimes still do) that I’d really struggle to be in the moment, instead I’d be thinking about how my body looked in each position, whether the other person thought I was ‘good enough’, and then worrying that I wouldn’t orgasm. Such anxiety around sex becomes self-fulfilling because you get so in your head and out of your body that you end up not enjoying the experience that much and not orgasming.

On the recommendation of a friend, I went to see a sex therapist about the fact I couldn’t orgasm, and the conversations that ensued completely transformed my relationship to sex and, fundamentally, to my body. But you don’t have to see a sex therapist necessarily to begin addressing issues with orgasming. For me, the biggest game-changer was getting more comfortable talking openly about sex. So much of the anxiety I had around intimacy was rooted in shame I felt around my body, about my perceived lack of sexual experience, and about the fact I couldn’t orgasm. I thought I was alone in being ‘broken’, but the more I began to open up about what I was going through, first to my sex therapist, and then to friends and those around me (and now to the whole world by way of Sex Talks), the more I realised how common were the issues I was facing in the bedroom.

As soon as I realised I wasn’t alone in my anxieties about sex, those anxieties began to feel less heavy and I started to see sex as less of a performance (and one I needed to be ‘perfect’ at each time, whatever that means) and more a form of sexy, hot, silly play between two people, or just with yourself. What also really helped me here was masturbating more. My sex therapist used to tell me: “seduce yourself!” By which she meant I needed to see self-pleasure as sacred time and treat myself as I would want to be treated if I was having a romantic evening in with someone else.

It sounds a bit trite, but I didn’t think about self-pleasure growing up. I had an eating disorder for most of my adolescent to adult life (I was anorexic then bulimic for years) which meant that I’d learned to see my body as a source of pain rather than pleasure, something to be punished rather than cherished. Learning to ‘seduce myself’ by ‘indulging’ in the simplest things like running a bath, lighting a candle, masturbating(!) was really important in helping me to get a little more comfortable in my own body. I used to dread being at home alone because it always meant I’d make myself sick, but sex therapy helped me shift my perspective so that I began to see time alone as time in which I could really look after myself, and masturbating was key to that.

And finally, to really bang the drum for the importance of masturbation, I spoke above about the importance of communication in sex - masturbating is key to better understanding your body and thus helps you to get better at advocating for what you want in the bedroom. Knowledge is power, lest we forget.

So, if you’re struggling with orgasm my top tips would be:

  • Get comfortable talking about sex and pleasure, either with your friends, going events like Sex Talks, or listening to podcasts. It helps remove the shame that might be propping up any anxiety around sex;
  • Prioritise masturbating so you can get to know your own body better and in turn learn how to communicate what you want to a partner;
  • Talk to your partner about what you’re going through, what you’re worried about and make this something that isn’t a burden you bear alone. Sex is meant to be fun and playful and is a great opportunity to try new things and just experiment with what you like. Ask to try new things, bring in sex toys, see this is a great sexual experiment you get to do together;
  • This will sound counter-intuitive but try not to focus too much on orgasming because it puts added pressure on you to come, which can make it less like you will. Focus on what feels good in the moment and on being present in those feelings. The orgasm will come. Pun intended.

What are some common myths or misconceptions surrounding the orgasm gap?

I think the issue is less about their being misconceptions about the orgasm gap, and more about people just not knowing there is an orgasm gap.

But I realize I live in a bit of a bubble when it comes to these conversations, by virtue of hosting Sex Talks. The other day I asked the Sex Talks audience to raise their hands if they knew what the orgasm gap was - only about a quarter of the room put their hand up, and they’re a pretty switched on crowd. So there is definitely still a long way to go in making conversations about the orgasm gap fully mainstream.

Let’s try something here - everyone reading this blog right now, why not tell 5 friends about the orgasm gap (who don’t know about it) and ask each of them to, in turn, tell another 5 friends about it. Just think how quickly that network of orgasm-gap-truth-tellers could grow!