Mind the (Pleasure) Gap: Gender Inequality in the Bedroom
It is a truth self-evident that pleasure is inequitable. Our privilege to pleasure is defined by our social status, compressed and constrained by financial position, race, gender, and sexual orientation. However, the problem is not necessarily the pursuit of pleasure, but how we achieve and define what is pleasurable.
We understand that policing one another’s pleasure defeats its purpose. There are countless articles, influencers, and brands encouraging you to follow your dreams—pursue your pleasure—while offering advice on how to stop comparing your progress to others (i.e. how you go about pursuing said pleasure). It's our unfortunate reality that these same businesses continue to prime you with aspirational advertising enshrouded with the power of suggestion—linking success to bank accounts, mental health to losing weight, and sexual pleasure with (mind blowing) orgasms.
The problem is not the pursuit of pleasure, but how we achieve and define what is pleasurable.
It’s true society has come a long way in terms of accepting peoples’ sexualities, understanding that sexual preference and satisfaction are highly individual. But as a culture, we continue to overvalue penetrative penis-in-vagina sex. This kind of regressive heteronormativity has conned us into thinking that there is also a means to measure the success of a sexual encounter, a defined “event,” or a common goal you and your partner work toward: an earth-shattering, mind melting orgasm. Researchers call this the “orgasm imperative,” a belief that any sex that doesn’t end in climax for both partners is, well, a failure.
Unfortunately, there exists the undeniable reality that people with vulvas get off far less frequently than people with penises. This is what is known as as the pleasure gap. This does not mean that we failed at sex, but that our culture fails us.
You can blame it on the porn industry, or outdated sex education, but it’s clear that gender and sexual orientation play a large part in the pleasure puzzle. Studies show the experience of sex without orgasm is most common for heterosexual relationships, not queer ones. (It’s important to note here that the while the pleasure, or orgasm gap does affect more heterosexual cis women, it can affect anyone with a vulva.)
The Pleasure Gap is the undeniable reality that people with vulvas get off far less frequently than people with penises.
Another study indicates that heterosexual cis men have 20 to 50% more orgasms than heterosexual cis women. In fact, cis women are four times more likely to say that sex wasn’t even pleasurable in the past year, regardless of reaching orgasm or not. Perhaps the most telling information, however, illustrates that queer women typically feel more entitled to pleasure—both from themselves and from a partner—than cis heterosexual women.
One obvious answer to the pleasure gap, is cis men’s lack of understanding of the vulva—note that we refrained from using the eponymous vagina. (Using the words vulva and vagina interchangeably isn’t just a linguistic misstep; it contributes to diminishing our sexual agency. Anyone who cares about their body—and language—should recognize that.)
See, the vulva includes all of the external (and some of the erotic) parts of our anatomy. It includes the mons pubis (pubic mound), the labia majora and minora, the urethra (your pee hole), the vagina, and the clitoris aka the pleasure center.
Fun fact: the clitoris is the only organ designed solely for pleasure. It might appear to be a little button-sized nub situated above your vaginal opening, but it is actually an internal organ that projects upwards into your pelvis and is composed of erectile tissue that swells with blood during arousal, similar to the penis. It contains over 8,000 nerves (twice as many as a penis) and can be stimulated directly or indirectly through other parts of the vulva, or internally through the vagina (this is known as the G-Spot).
The clitoris is the only organ designed solely for pleasure.
So penetrative sex does stimulate the clitoris, but think of it like scratching an itch while wearing oven mitts—it feels good, but you’re not completely satisfied. Needless to say, the clitoris’s potential isn’t always realized. It’s often relegated to foreplay, a precursor to the "actual event” of vaginal intercourse. Our cis male partners are surely aware that the clit plays a role in sexual pleasure, but they (and even we) consistently underestimate the number of cis women who inconsistently, rarely, or never experience orgasm during penis-in-vagina sex. Not that it’s our partner’s fault!
Porn has historically been created by-and-for the straight, white, masculine, heterosexual viewer, which essentially creates narratives around fulfilling the orgasm imperative we referred to earlier vis-à-vis penetrative penis-in-vagina sex.
This over-focus on orgasm as the ultimate goal of sexual encounters puts a lot of pressure on performing—for both individuals; cis men may feel they need to make their partner come while cis women may feel pressured to fake an orgasm in a form of emotional labor.
If you have faked an orgasm, you’re not alone; over 50% of people with vulvas report having faked an orgasm—whether that’s because they’re simply tired (or bored) and ready for the sex sesh to end, or to make their partner feel “useful” in completing the climax goal.
While it might feel like the only option in the moment, faking an orgasm as opposed to communicating to your partner that you’d like to stop, or switch things up, only perpetuates the myth that penetration alone sans clit play leads to those mind melting orgasms. Letting go of these misguided ideas of prioritizing orgasm over pleasure can help you both to start to enjoy the ride, rather than get distracted with the destination.
How to Close the Pleasure Gap
Explore your body. Whether that means taking a mirror and learning the proper terms for all of the parts between your legs, or masturbating using different techniques, exploring your body will lead to a better understanding of what (or what doesn't) give you pleasure.
Communicate with your partner. We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: open, honest communication is key to any and all relationships. Let your partner in on what you’re learning about your body, your turn-ons, turn-offs, and what kinds of things you’re interested in exploring together. They won’t know you have an issue if you don’t share!
Reframe your idea of pleasure. Pleasurable sex is both physical and psychological, and it means something different to everyone—orgasm or not. Letting go of preconceived notions of what sex should be helps you refocus your attention on how sex works for you. Shift your focus away from the orgasm imperative and prioritize receiving and giving pleasure to your partner(s).
We believe that everyone is entitled to pleasure, however you define it, and we encourage you to to pursue it safely and respectfully. Pleasure can be equitable.
Dancing Through the Pain of Vaginismus by Arielle Egozi