In a recent study of young adults’ sexuality, Galinsky & Sonenstein (2011) discovered that when it comes to orgasms, men are having them a lot more often than women.
Nearly nine out of ten men in the study of 3,237 of young adults aged 19 to 25 experienced an orgasm most or all of the time. But only about 47 percent of the women in the study had an orgasm during a couple’s sexual relations.
Young women are also five times as likely as young men to have orgasms less than half the time they have sex with their partner.
The new research provides some interesting data that confirms previous research findings in this area, and sheds some additional light on young adult sexuality. There remains a sex gap not only in the enjoyment of sexual pleasure through orgasm, but also when it comes to oral sex.
The new research is based upon wave III of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health study, which is a nationally representative study of students who were in grades 7 through 12 in the 1994-1995 school year.
The data for the present study comes from the 2001-2002 time-frame, when 20,745 students were re-interviewed for wave III. The interviews took place in the person’s home, but for the sexually-intimate questions, the subjects heard the questions through an earphone and entered the questions directly into a computer.
After filtering out people who had not been in a relationship for at least 3 months, and taking a random subset of the remaining people, the researchers collected data from 3,237 young adults. Only people in opposite-sex relationships were considered, so these findings may not generalize to other types of relationships.
The researchers noted that while sexual pleasure cannot be measured purely in terms of orgasm, receiving or giving oral sex, these three components are highly valued in American culture (for better or worse). So they argue that measuring them is a good way to measure people’s sexual enjoyment.
In addition to the researchers’ other findings, some women are simply not having orgasms very often — especially when compared to men. The study found that 9 percent of women say they experience it less than half the time during a sexual encounter with their partner, and 6.4 percent they never or almost never have one (compared to about 1 percent of men).
Who Enjoys Oral Sex?
The sex gap is apparently not affecting women’s enjoyment of receiving oral sex much, because women enjoy oral sex nearly as much as men do — 84 percent of men say they “like it very much” compared to 71 percent of women.
But women don’t like giving oral sex to men nearly as much as men enjoy giving oral sex to women (or at least say they do). Only 37 percent of women said they enjoyed “very much” giving oral sex, while nearly 61 percent of men said they did.
Nearly 10 percent of women “dislike [giving oral sex] somewhat or very much,” compared to only 4 percent of men.
Psychological Traits Connected to More Sexual Enjoyment
The researchers were also interested in understanding what kinds of psychological traits are related to people’s enjoyment of sex. Three traits stood out — autonomy, self-esteem, and empathy.
They found that autonomy and self-esteem in women were highly correlated with increased sexual enjoyment. But because of the nature of the data, they couldn’t say independent women who have high self-esteem are more likely to experience increased sexual pleasure, or whether women who have the ability to enjoy increased sexual pleasure helps them be more autonomous and have higher self-esteem.
The researchers hypothesized that this may help youth overcome barriers to sexual communication and exploration:
[… B]ecause young women face more barriers, the achievement of sexual enjoyment might do more to boost the self-esteem and feelings of autonomy of young women as compared with young men.
Empathy was also an important component associated with a healthy and enjoyable sex life:
[… F]or both men and women, empathy is associated with all three types of sexual enjoyment. This is consistent with our hypothesis that empathic individuals are more responsive to their partner’s needs and thus initiate a positive feedback cycle.
So much research is focused on dysfunction and problem areas. There are very few large, population-based studies that look at how psychological traits can be associated with positive sexual health, such as sexual pleasure. This is one of the few studies that have shed more light on young adult sexuality, and helps us better understand the gender sex gap between men and women.
Galinsky, A.M. & Sonenstein, F.L. (2011). The association between developmental assets and sexual enjoyment among emerging adults. Journal of Adolescent Health, 48, 610-615.