Sex Question Friday: Should You Expect Your Partner To Orgasm During Sex?

Man's hand grabbing bed sheet

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know whether it is reasonable to “expect” an orgasm from your partner every time you have sex.

Is it normal for women to expect orgasm (ejaculation) during intercourse from a male partner? And is it natural for men to expect orgasm during intercourse from a female partner?

Among both medical professionals and laypersons alike, there seems to be an assumption that both partners (regardless of their gender and sexual identities) are supposed to reach orgasm during a given sexual event. When orgasm does not occur, the act is sometimes not even classified as sex because sex without the climax is often thought of as just foreplay or “messing around.” Consistent with this idea, college students are less likely to classify a given act as “sex” to the extent that orgasm does not happen [1]. Of course, others may interpret a lack of orgasm very differently, with some seeing it as “dysfunctional” or a sign of some sexual problem that needs to be fixed.

This view of orgasm as being essential not just to the definition of sex, but also to successful sex creates an orgasmic imperative. What this means is that men and women of all orientations feel pressured and obligated to reach orgasm themselves, and also to help bring their partners to orgasm [2]. Sex therapists have argued for years that this orgasmic imperative is destructive and can potentially create sexual problems by causing people to view sex as an activity in which something needs to be achieved, rather than an act that is engaged in for pleasure and enjoyment.

William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the founders of the modern sex therapy movement, believed that one of the keys to resolving sexual difficulties is getting clients to stop approaching sex in this achievement-oriented fashion and, instead, just relax [3]. This is important because not only can the orgasmic imperative distract us and take us “out of the moment” during sex, but it can also set the stage for a self-fulfilling prophecy (e.g., if you start to worry that an orgasm will not happen, this mindset may ultimately make that come true). As a result, the goal of many sex therapy programs is to fundamentally change the way that clients approach and think about sex so that feelings of anxiety are replaced with pleasure.

In short, to answer your question, although the expectation of mutual orgasm is certainly common, it is important to avoid getting caught up in the idea that orgasm has to happen every time you have sex. Good sex is not about putting pressure on yourself or on your partner to achieve something. Relax and remember that you can still enjoy sex a great deal even if one or both of you do not have an orgasm.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Byers, E.S., Henderson, J., & Hobson, K.M. (2009). University students’ definitions of sexual abstinence and having sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38, 665-674.

[2] Frith, H. (in press). Accounting for orgasmic absence: Exploring heterosex using the story completion method. Psychology & Sexuality.

[3] Masters, W., & Johnson, V. (1970). Human sexual inadequacy. Boston: Little, Brown.

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