News Release

The big o: what shapes a woman’s pursuit of pleasure?

Rutgers researchers examine women’s motivation and environmental cues for pursuing orgasms with men – or not

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Rutgers University

Women who believe a sexual encounter with a male partner will be brief pursue orgasms less on average than those who believe they have more time, according to a Rutgers-led study. The same applies to a woman who believes that her male partner prioritizes his own pleasure during the sexual encounter.

According to the study in The Journal of Sex Research, women use cues and adjust their pursuit of an orgasm in each sexual situation depending on whether they think an orgasm is possible.

“We know there are contextual, societal and personal factors that likely create barriers that prevent women from feeling able to actively pursue orgasm," said Grace Wetzel, a Rutgers social psychology doctoral student who advocates for orgasm equity to her 21,000 followers on social media. “We can use the information from this research to create sexual environments where women’s orgasm can feel more feasible."

While orgasm isn't always the goal of sex, nor is it the only route to a sexually satisfying experience, Wetzel said recent research indicates that orgasm is more likely for women who pursue it as a goal.

Findings from the study have important implications for helping reduce the orgasm gap between women and men in heterosexual relationships, Wetzel said. The researchers noted that men tend to experience orgasm substantially more often than women within heterosexual partnerships, a phenomenon known as the “orgasm gap.”

The orgasm gap remains a pressing gender equality issue, Wetzel said, but women who want to have more orgasms can pursue orgasm more intentionally and actively take steps to achieve it during their sexual encounters.

Further, if pursuing an orgasm predicts a woman's likelihood of having one, the researchers suggest that male partners try to create a sexual environment where women’s orgasm is more likely. For example, clitoral stimulation and sexual communication have been linked to women’s orgasm.

Importantly, men should communicate with their female partners that they want their partner's pleasure to be a priority, without putting pressure on their partners to orgasm, said Wetzel. This shift in men's behavior could ultimately influence women's decisions about orgasm, resulting in increased chances of women having orgasms.

In a series of experiments, researchers had cisgender, heterosexual women imagine themselves in a hypothetical sexual scenario by reading short vignettes. They varied the time available for the sexual encounter (20 minutes versus a few hours) or how selfish their partner seemed (focused on her pleasure or himself). Upon reading the hypothetical scenario, women reported how strongly they would pursue orgasm and how likely they would be to have one.

“Research on goal pursuit has found that the strength of our effort is determined by how much we value the result and how much we expect it to be achieved," said Wetzel. “So, if orgasm is important to women, and if they believe it is possible to have one, they will pursue it more strongly. As we now understand, women pay attention to environmental cues and cues from their partners when deciding whether orgasm is ‘worth pursuing’ during a sexual encounter. We should not ignore that."

The study was coauthored by Shana Cole, an assistant professor in the Rutgers Department of Psychology, and Diana Sanchez, a professor of psychology and director of the Rutgers’ Close RelationshipsIdentity and Stigma (CRIS) lab.

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