There is a big “orgasm gap” between the sexes, such that men are much more likely to reach orgasm than are women in a given heterosexual encounter. However, the size of this gap is not consistent across different types of sexual relationships. Specifically, the gap is larger among persons having casual sex compared to persons who are in long-term, committed relationships . Another way to break these findings down is that men’s likelihood of orgasm doesn’t depend upon their relationship status. Almost all guys (94-95%) report typically reaching orgasm whether they’re in a relationship or not; however, likelihood of reaching orgasm is significantly higher among women in relationships than it is for single ladies. Why is that? A new study published in the American Sociological Review sheds some light on the underlying reasons.
In this study, over 14,000 heterosexual female college students were asked questions about their recent sexual experiences . Specifically, participants were asked about their most recent hookup, what sexual practices they engaged in, how they felt about their partner, and whether they reached orgasm. Participants were asked the same questions about their most recent sexual event that took place in a long-term (i.e., greater than 6 month) romantic relationship.
Consistent with previous studies, more women reported that they reached orgasm during their most recent sexual encounter with a relationship partner than they did with their most recent hookup partner. And this difference was huge: women were six times more likely to climax with a romantic partner than with a brand new hookup partner. However, women who had prior sexual experience with their hookup partners (e.g., “friends with benefits,” repeat “booty calls”) were more likely to climax than women having a first-time hookup. See the figure below for more on this.
Aside from simply having more previous sexual experience with a hookup partner, what else predicted likelihood of female orgasm? It appears that specific sexual practices matter. Regardless of whether the sexual encounter occurred with a hookup partner or with a romantic partner, women were more likely to report reaching orgasm when they had vaginal intercourse, when they received direct clitoral stimulation, and when they received oral sex. And the more of these activities they engaged in, the more likely women were to reach orgasm. For example, the estimated probability of reaching orgasm in a hookup with intercourse is 24%. If the woman also received oral sex in this encounter, the odds of orgasm double to 48%. A similar but much smaller boost occurs in romantic relationships (75% for intercourse compared to 83% for intercourse with oral sex).
One other predictor of orgasm that emerged was women’s feelings toward their sexual partner. Women who were interested in starting a relationship with their hookup partner and women who were interested in marrying their relationship partner were more likely to orgasm than women who did not have these same feelings of affection.
These findings tell us that there are multiple reasons heterosexual women in relationships are more likely to reach orgasm than women having casual sex. For one thing, there appears to be some partner-specific learning going on, such that the more experiences a woman has with a male partner, the more he learns how to please her. In addition, the behaviors most closely linked to female orgasm are probably more likely to occur in a relationship than they are in a hookup (e.g., intercourse, cunnilingus). And finally, it appears that feeling affection for a partner increases women’s sexual pleasure. Of course, there are likely a number of other contributing factors (e.g., women’s sexual pleasure isn’t valued as much as men’s during hookups), which means that closing the “orgasm gap” is no simple matter, but one that is definitely worthy of our attention.
 Laumann, E.O., Gagnon, J., Michael, R., & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Armstrong, E. A., England, P., & Fogarty, A. C. K. (2012). Accounting for women’s orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college hookups and relationships. American Sociological Review, 77, 435-462.
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