Chelsea Roff: The Science of Female Orgasms — Do Relationships Matter?

There are few questions about human sexuality that puzzle scientists more than those about the female orgasm. For years, the the study of women’s sexual pleasure got much less attention in science than that of men’s — largely because participants in most major studies were predominantly young, well-off, white blokes attending major research universities. Even today, when a man complains to his doctor about sexual dysfunction, he’s most often handed a prescription for Viagra. A woman, on the other hand, either gets a shrug of the shoulders or a referral to a psychologist. The how and why of the female orgasm still largely eludes us.

But change is in the air. The female orgasm is getting much more attention — from researchers, from sex therapists, from doctors, and of course from the media. The working group for the DSM-V, the major diagnostic manual of psychological disorders, is hard at work revising the criteria for Female Sexual Arousal Disorder (FSAD), which up until now has been defined as ‘‘an inability to attain, or to maintain… an adequate lubrication-swelling response of sexual excitement.” Notice the failure to mention anything related to pleasure or orgasm. The most commonly-used definition of sexual dysfunction for women doesn’t even acknowledge that orgasm might be an important component in healthy sexuality.

But as greater numbers of women take leading roles in scientific laboratories, we’re seeing a new class of research on the factors that influence women’s ability to orgasm (a lady’s version of Viagra, we’re told, is just around the corner).  Even more influential, perhaps, is the influence of major pharmaceutical companies and businesses with vested interests in capitalizing on such research to develop new products and drugs. Whatever the reason, scientific research is now providing a window into the factors that lead to sexual satisfaction for women.

In a recent study reported on by The Science of Relationships (a fantastic, evidence-based blog run by a group of PhDs), researchers asked nearly 14,000 women to answer some very pointed questions about their sex lives. Specifically, the researchers were curious about whether women in long-term relationships were more likely to have orgasms than those simply “hooking-up” (objectively defined as having sex with a partner for the first time).

Here’s what they found:

Only 11% of women had orgasms with a first-time hook-up partner. If they had previously hooked-up with that partner 1-2 other times, 16% of women had orgasms, and 34% of women had orgasms with a partner they had hooked-up with three or more times. Enjoyment increases with repeated hookups, supporting the idea that sexual satisfaction is partly a function of partners learning how to navigate each others’ bodies and understanding each others’ turn-ons (even without a romantic commitment).

When it comes to female orgasms, long-term relationships seem to be the place to find them: 67% of women in relationships reported they had an orgasm with their partners the last time they had sex… Similarly, rates of enjoyment of sexual activity (e.g., “enjoyed it very much”) were higher in relationships (81%) compared to hookups (50%).

The takeaway? Women are nearly twice as likely to have orgasms if they’re having sex with a long-term partner.

This finding could be due to a variety of factors — women may feel more at ease and less self-conscious when they’re with a long-term partner, their partner may be more attentive to their sexual needs, or it may simply take time and practice for both partners to get on the same “sexual wavelength.” Unfortunately, a single study (and especially one that relies on self-report measures) can only reveal so much… female orgasms are correlated with long term relationships, but we don’t yet know what about long-term relationships is actually causing more women to have orgasms.

I think the findings of studies like this are important to disseminate — both through the mainstream media and sex education programs —  especially when most of the information we receive about sexuality comes from advertising or sex-phobic education programs. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of telling kids that it’s sinful or dangerous to have sex before marriage, we told them that they may derive more pleasure from sex in a long-term and committed relationship? The difference, as I see it, is that one approach empowers people to make decisions based on evidence, while the other attempts to change their behavior with fear.

If this is a topic that interests you, I highly recommend Dr. Justin Lehmiller’s article Everything You Should Know About Female Orgasms.

Photo via Luxurious Extravagance (source unknown)

Infographic via Science of Relationships