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Mary Rolfes: Minding the orgasm gap

While the 1989 rom-com classic “When Harry Met Sally” may seem a little too old to be relevant on the modern college campus, one of the movie’s most climactic moments has become a cultural icon. Whether they’ve seen the film or not, most people would likely recognize the scene in which Sally challenges Harry’s ability to tell a real orgasm from a fake one, giving a loud demonstration of the latter in a crowded café and producing the often-repeated line, “I’ll have what she’s having.” This scene serves as one of the most pervasive on-screen portrayals of the female orgasm — quite telling, then, that the orgasm depicted is unambiguously fake.

To the film’s credit, the scene probably wouldn’t have had the chance to become so iconic if the orgasm was not explicitly fake. While the film did receive an R-rating for profanity and vulgarity, it almost certainly would have been hit with a highly restrictive NC-17 rating had they shown Sally sincerely enjoying sex — especially oral sex. That’s right — the MPAA considers both drug abuse and intense violence more appropriate for viewing by children than the explicit female orgasm, despite the fact that women are often highly sexualized in popular films. Simultaneously portraying women as sexual while refusing to acknowledge their pleasure contributes to the prevalence of female objectification. Even the theoretically equivalent male orgasm is widely viewed as more acceptable to show in movies.

This orgasm inequality is certainly not limited to the silver screen. The existence of a gender pay gap is established and well-known, but women are consistently shorted fair compensation in many measures beyond their salary, including the frequency of achieving the Big O. Female college students consistently report having an orgasm during intimate encounters — both within hookups and relationships — less than their male counterparts, with the largest difference being an astounding 32 percent. As I’ve said previously, emotional and mental factors are just as crucial to safe, healthy sex as physical factors. This includes the recognition and fulfillment of desires and pleasures. It’s about time we come to widely acknowledge closing the orgasm gap as part of the fight for gender equality. We need to get comfortable talking about it, too, as open discussion is often an important step in the path toward reconciliation. We have a lot of catching up to do, but improving our personal and cultural understanding of the female orgasm gives us a good place to start.

While the term ‘orgasm gap’ is fairly new, gender inequality in terms of sexuality is not a recent development. Women have been receiving the short end of the stick when it comes to sexual pleasure for centuries. In fact, female sexual desire was so misunderstood it used to be pathologized as hysteria, a diagnosable illness in need of a cure which — somewhat ironically — led to the invention of the vibrator. Hysteria remained in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, and while it has since been removed, gender inequalities when it comes to the understanding and acceptance of pleasure and desire remain an issue. The statistics about orgasm frequency demonstrate the results of this misunderstanding. According to a 2017 article from the Archives of Sexual Behavior, heterosexual men are most likely to orgasm from sexual intimacy, while landing in last place is — you guessed it — heterosexual women. It’s not even close, either, with 95 percent of heterosexual men reporting they usually orgasm during sex, compared with just 65 percent of heterosexual women. This already significant difference widens to 52 percent when the population is narrowed down to college students, with just 39 percent of female respondents reporting they usually or always experience orgasm during partnered sex in one survey. These numbers make it clear that the issue of orgasm inequality is undeniable, especially on college campuses.

Obviously, this massive gap isn’t going to close itself, and in order to realize statistical improvements, we need to recognize the factors leading to inequality. Laurie Mintz, a psychology professor at the University of Florida, cites cultural misunderstandings and myths surrounding female anatomy as the “number one reason for the orgasm gap,” along with inaccurate media depictions of sex and the under-valuing of female sexuality — especially when compared to the over-privileging of male sexuality. This over-privileging includes the cultural definition of penetrative sex as the primary form of sexual behavior — it’s widely considered the “main event” in any intimate encounter, with other behaviors being secondary supporters of penetration rather than independent and equally valid forms of sex. In fact, many people don’t even believe sex without a penetrative element to truly be ‘sex.’ This creates issues for people of varying gender and sexual identities (for example, the cultural question of “How do lesbians have sex?”) including heterosexual women. Their desires, pleasures and, yes, their orgasms, are neglected and reduced as a result of the heteronormative prioritization of penetrative sex.

With the scale of the orgasm gap established and the factors that create it laid out, we can work to mitigate, and possibly eliminate, this inequality.

First, we’re going to need to do a bit of brushing up on our anatomy. Ideally, American sex education should be improved to include a more comprehensive understanding of sexual desires and pleasures and their connection to anatomy. But for those of us beyond high school sex-ed, our learning likely is of our own initiative. Luckily enough, the Internet provides a vast number of resources for learning more about female anatomy. The University of Michigan offers some resources, as well, and if you have time between double majors and distribution requirements, consider using a few credits to take a course on women’s health.

On a macro-level, we need to reassess our cultural agreement on what constitutes “real” sex. Instead of heterosexual penetration being considered the ultimate form of sex, we must begin to see it as one of many equally valid forms of intimacy. This societal reconsideration of sex will be a continuous progress, as will closing the orgasm gap. But a dedicated progression toward improvement should certainly be seen as a form of success. The day when we can all “have what she’s having” — in equal proportions, of course — can’t come soon enough.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.