The Pleasure Gap: How To Achieve Orgasm Equality For All

In a very real sense, Foria exists to address the pleasure gap. When we launched in 2014, there were over 26 pharmaceuticals available for male sexual pleasure and dysfunction, but not a single one for females – an especially skewed figure considering that it’s people with vulvas, not their penis-possessing partners, who report much lower levels of satisfaction with partnered sex.

Much lower. Only 4% of people with vulvas report penetration as the most reliable path to orgasm, and since we’re often taught that penetration should be the focus of sexual activity, we may wonder if this very normal phenomenon means there’s something terribly wrong with us. 

Most people with vulvas need clitoral stimulation in order to climax (whether via oral sex, a vibrator, or manual stimulation provided by our partners or ourselves). It’s just a fact. 

Additionally, fewer than 10% of people with vulvas report experiencing orgasm with a new partner. More than 50% report having faked orgasms, and in studies conducted on heterosexual cis couples, 95% of men report orgasming consistently during partner sex, while only 65% of women do.

The list goes on. The lack of available research on the sexual experiences of queer people and POC (and basically anyone who isn’t cis, white and straight) further compounds the issue.  

So what’s to be done about all this? To get some answers, we spoke to Kiana Reeves – somatic sex educator, pelvic health advocate, doula, and Foria’s Chief Brand Educator. 

Foria: What are some of the physiological reasons for the pleasure gap, as we understand it? How can we compensate for them?

Kiana: Arousal, pleasure, and reaching climax works differently for everyone. Not only on an emotional and psychological level, either – we are all physically wired for pleasure differently, especially anyone who has a vulva. 

Some of us have denser neural wiring intravaginally, some of us experience more pleasurable sensations derived from clitoral stimulation, and some people experience a lot of pleasure with anal stimulation. The erectile tissue in your genitals can be distributed any number of ways, all of them perfectly normal.

However, many of us haven't been taught about the importance of arousal for orgasm, or how to notice when our bodies are actually experiencing the heightened state of arousal that will make orgasm possible. 

For someone with a vulva, you may start to notice heightened arousal when your labia feel a little more firm and puffy, your clitoris gets enlarged, and sometimes you will notice more lubrication. These are cues that your body is sending a lot of blood flow to this area. 

Foria: What role does social conditioning play in the pleasure gap?

Kiana: One’s family and culture play a huge role in how people engage with themselves and their partners sexually. We often take on the conscious and subconscious messages that we grew up with and bring them into our adult lives, sometimes without even knowing it. 

In our youth, the way our caregivers responded to our genitals – telling us not to touch ourselves, or that a particular part of our body was dirty or shameful — later on this can have a big impact on how we feel about masturbation, or how we feel when a partner wants to explore this part of us.

Bottom line, all of us tend to have some shame and inherited messaging around sexuality – and we certainly encounter many misleading messages from our culture around how women should express their sexuality. 

The messaging around women's sexuality depicted in media has often been about pleasing their partners and following the male arousal trajectory. In movies and TV, you’ll often see a steamy connection between a hetero couple, in which penetration happens almost immediately, and then, within a few minutes, both people are having an orgasm at the same time. 

This is just not realistic, and, unfortunately, if this is what most people believe sex is supposed to look like, they’re less likely to explore various levels of arousal, oral and manual stimulation, or the dance that happens when penetration isn’t the goal but simply part of the menu of experiences during the sexual encounter.

Lastly, the way we feel about our bodies has a huge impact on how we are able to receive pleasure. Sex requires us to surrender into the present moment, to experience sensation. When we are in our heads — thinking about how we look, or how our partner is perceiving us — it takes us out of the sensation and the experience. 

Foria: What actions should we be taking as a society to promote parity in pleasure?

Kiana: We badly need early and comprehensive sex ed that includes a discussion of pleasure, consent, and masturbation, to give young people a framework to have these types of conversations when they are starting to be relevant so they can develop healthy language and have experiences that aren’t confusing, awkward, or dangerous.

We need to continue normalizing masturbation as a ritual for self-discovery and self-knowledge. 

We also need to continue normalizing the human body in all of its expressions — as opposed to trying to fit into an artificial ideal that we have to strive to look like.

Foria: If the pleasure gap is a problem for us in our own lives, how can we best advocate for ourselves?

Kiana: To understand our bodies better, read books like Women’s Anatomy of Arousal, Come as You Are, Wild Feminine, and Becoming Cliterate. Find great sex educators in your area who teach in-person workshops. Seek out certified sexological bodyworkers in your area who can work with you in a hands-on way to learn about making requests, setting boundaries, and experiencing embodied consent. Don't be afraid to feel clunky and vulnerable when making requests — and lastly, always ask yourself "what is feeling good now – what might feel even better".

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