Are Women’s Magazines Ruining Our Sex Lives?

For years, the media has reported that women have trouble climaxing—often omitting some crucial details. Which is a serious buzzkill.

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This week the FDA finally recommended approval of “Viagra for women,” putting female sexuality, or lack of it, front and center in the media. But while this will hopefully have a positive outcome (men have been able to treat their libido with a prescription for years), much of the media coverage around female sexuality is far more insidious. The internet is lousy with articles that tell us women can’t come. Just Google “female orgasm” and you’re likely to find countless sites exploring problems, and articles, many geared toward straight males, offering to “demystify” women’s libidos

I don’t know about you, but if I were struggling with having an orgasm, the last thing I’d want to read is an article telling me how normal my problems are, that I should expect to have a hard time coming.

In a recent online poll, Cosmopolitan surveyed over 2,300 women aged 18 to 40 about their orgasm experiences. The results have been called eye-opening, and proof that there really is an “orgasm gap” between men and women. While 57 percent of the participants reported coming every time during sex with a partner, 95 percent said their partners consistently do. Sixty-seven percent admitted to having faked an orgasm, and 39 percent said they usually climax through masturbation—bringing oneself to orgasm with fingers or an aid, such as a vibrator. While the publicized results don’t specify participants’ sexual orientation, the headline claims that single, straight women have fewer orgasms than anyone, including lesbian and bisexual women. 

I’m generally one of the first to cheer sexual studies on. I love Cosmopolitan for studying, exploring, and celebrating female sexuality—their latest poll included. I don’t love what happens once the media catches wind of the findings.

Like a game of telephone, “facts” about female orgasm problems tend to get garbled over the transom, and give the impression that there is something wrong with women’s bodies because they can’t come easily, or that they are simply disinterested in sex. Not only is that false, but highly risky, because if we’re told anything enough, especially about our bodies and our sexuality, who wouldn’t believe it? And then it eventually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consider this example: Countless articles on female orgasm state that 75 percent of women don’t orgasm through intercourse alone. Some articles and headlines leave the ultra-important “through intercourse alone” bit out entirely. Read often enough, and you could lose faith in your climax capabilities. 

The finding comes from research published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1978, in a study that involved only 20 women, who seemed more likely to orgasm through masturbation. In other words, a very common belief about female orgasm is based on a handful of women’s experiences, analyzed nearly 40 years ago—practically ancient times, in the sexual science world. 

The Cosmopolitan poll is already heading down a similar path. Most of the headlines featuring its findings focus on women’s inability to climax and inclination to “fake it,” regardless of the fact that other more promising findings have surfaced. For example, we’ve recently learned that orgasm frequency increased with age. The infographic featuring the results has been called “everything you need to know” about female orgasm, yet they’ve said nothing about blended or multiple orgasms. Little attention is paid to the poll’s limitations, exploring what the findings actually mean or, perhaps most importantly, what to do about them. Here’s what you need to know about female orgasm studies.

It’s not an easy science.

Female sexuality is difficult to study. Much of the research relies on what women will admit to, in a culture in which women are seldom encouraged to discuss sex, and many who do are deemed “sluts.” 

Women who volunteer to participate in orgasm studies are probably either struggling in that department (and seeking support or information that led to the opportunity) or highly comfortable with their sexuality. Both of these factors could skew results.

It’s also a new science. While many other health-related studies involve tens of thousands of participants and data collected over decades, female sexuality was scarcely addressed scientifically until recently. Over 2,000 participants may sound like a substantial sample, but it isn’t, compared to the 150-plus million female population in the U.S.

Women don’t always know they’ve come.

Unless a woman is hooked up to an MRI machine during sex, there’s no way to determine with certainty whether she’s climaxed or not. Research involving orgasm MRIs conducted at Rutgers University shows that some women come without realizing it. (Having been one of those participants, I can attest to that.) A clitoral orgasm may pale by comparison to vaginal/combination climax—so much so, that a woman may not consider the milder, external release substantial enough for the Big O. 

Considering what mainstream entertainment and porn depict about female orgasm, some women may not realize that it’s perfectly normal for it to take time, have less-than-mind-blowing intensity, and not produce a geyser’s worth of squirt. And we’re really not learning much more elsewhere.

Self-stimulating is sexy!

Contrary to what headlines and study write-ups suggest, climaxing through self-stimulation doesn’t make a woman less orgasmic or sexual. Masturbation has been the primary form of sexual activity since the dawn of time—for all genders. Doing so alone or with your partner can be damn sexy, not to mention a healthy way to learn what makes your vagina tick. 

Though the benefits are immense, most women aren’t encouraged to masturbate, and many religions suggest it’s flat out hell-worthy.

Research shows that while men tend to embrace masturbation as healthy and normal, women grapple with related guilt, shame, and anxiety. If adverse feelings keep a woman from exploring her own body, she’s a lot less likely to come with a partner. 

Men face orgasm challenges, too. 

It’s difficult to formulate accurate orgasm gap statistics when only women are questioned. Even if men were polled about faking orgasms, the results likely wouldn’t be accurate. Some men take part in orgasm charades, but many aren’t inclined to admit it. Faking orgasm is considered a woman-thing, and men are expected to be able to come at the drop of her pants. Numerous studies show that women are more likely to fudge facts in order to appear less sexual, whereas men tend to do the opposite.

Simply thinking about being aroused is enough to trigger significant turn-on in a woman’s brain, according to Barry Komisaruk, PhD, the renowned sexual scientist at Rutgers University who headed the orgasm MRIs, and many women can climax through thought alone. That’s just one illustration of how mighty our thoughts can be. On the flip side, women who believe they can’t climax, either won’t or might do so without realizing it. 

Rather than obsess over how many women can’t reach orgasm, perhaps we should focus more on celebrating and recognizing those who do, and the myriad other ways women experience sensual pleasure.

Myths, perpetuated

A walk through social media can illustrate just how deep the notion that women aren’t big on sex or orgasm runs. While women fake orgasms, says a common meme, men fake entire relationships. Other prevalent “humor” suggests that the best way to turn a woman on is through housecleaning. Unless a guy (or gal) does so naked, mopping-induced arousal is pretty unlikely. Stress relief is important, of course, and if helping with chores or other tasks alleviates it, terrific. But I’ve noticed significantly more stress-inducing myths in the context of female sexuality than girlfriends complaining about dirty dishes.

One of the most important results from the Cosmopolitan poll hasn’t gained much light. Nearly one-third of participants who don’t experience orgasmic sex blamed being too in their heads or concerned about their appearance to let go. Might that be the problem worth addressing? 

Perhaps if we empowered women to embrace their bodies and capacity for pleasure from early on, that number would diminish. We could stop poking fun at women’s sexuality and find even more pleasure poking, well, something else. 


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