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Why have so many women never had an orgasm?

Brittany* will never forget her spring break trip during junior year in college. She was headed to St. Augustine, Florida, with a group of friends. By coincidence, her ex-boyfriend from high school was going to be there too.

“I knew we’d hook up, and so did everyone else. I even Brazilian shaved for the first time. After dinner, all our friends just disappeared to give us privacy. We went back to the hotel room pretty quickly after that,” she says. “At first, I was nervous and tense. I was not prepared for him to give so much attention to the area, but I guess I just hadn’t thought that far in advance yet. And then the sensations became more intense than I’d ever felt, and before I knew it, I was having an orgasm. It was such a surprise, I actually cried a little because I was so overcome by the sensations.”

It was her first orgasm — and also her last.

Brittany, who is now 29 and married, hasn’t been able to achieve orgasm in nearly 10 years. She’s tried with different sex positions, oral sex, and masturbation, and nothing has worked.

“I’ve been close a bunch of times, but I’m either too obsessed with getting there that I can’t relax, or I wind up overstimulated and just lose it,” she says. “I can still remember what it felt like all those years ago. It’s like this high I can’t get back.”

The latest data from the Kinsey Institute indicates that 20 to 30 percent of women don’t have orgasms during intercourse. But the number is likely much higher, says Carol Queen, staff sexologist and researcher at Good Vibrations, a feminist adult toy shop and education center in San Francisco. “The statistic my colleagues and I have been citing lately is that roughly 70 percent of women rarely or never have orgasms with intercourse. That makes it the norm,” she says. “I think most people have no idea so many women have this problem.” Though this number does not come from a scientific study, she says there’s a general consensus among her peers in the sexual health community about how high it is.

Compare that with the fact that 75 percent of men climax every time they have intercourse. Men who can’t sustain an erection or achieve orgasm during sex have been given a medical diagnosis: erectile dysfunction. And it affects a lot of them – approximately 20 to 30 million in the U.S. But while the FDA has approved26 sexual enhancement treatments for men, it has developed zero for women.

The scientific and scholarly communities routinely issue reports on the causes of erectile dysfunction – from age to stress to what a man eats. But although there have been some studies on women who don’t have orgasms during intercourse, there has not been a single research study on women who don’t have orgasms at all. And conversations with experts and anecdotes from women indicate that there is, in fact, an orgasm deficit, it affects more women than you might think, and it’s not just related to intercourse.

Elisabeth Lloyd looked into the number of women who aren’t having orgasms at all with her book The Case of the Female Orgasm, and her research puts the number at 11 percent. And Queen says she hears about this all the time from women of all ages, with the proportion of young women being the highest.
Because there’s little data related specifically to women who don’t have orgasms at all, it’s hard to know if it’s always been an issue or if it’s getting worse. But experts suggest that there’s now so much pressure on women to have an orgasm that it becomes the goal of the entire sexual encounter, and then this focus actually backfires. Are women simply unable to quiet their minds and let their bodies react? Or is this orgasm deficit owed to something else entirely?

“The two most important things that can happen to you in a mainstream movie are being killed and having an orgasm,” wrote Roger Ebert in a 2011 essayon the fantastical nature of orgasms on film. “Sometimes in facial close-ups it’s hard to tell one from the other.”

And, in fact, looking at media and entertainment, you’d never guess women aren’t having orgasms — or that this is an actual problem. Women are spontaneously climaxing on talk shows. On cable TV, orgasms seem to be effortless even under the most ridiculous circumstances. For example, the first time Brody and Carrie have sex on Homeland — in a cramped car in the parking lot of an AA meeting — they both come. And advertising has been making women seemingly climax in ridiculous scenarios for years. A girl hasn’t been able to eat a hamburger in a Carl’s Jr. ad since 2005 without looking like she’s having an orgasm.

This is before you factor in porn, which Queen says just makes things worse. While some porn is produced as sex ed, most porn “leaves out significant parts of the sexual response cycle and arousal process,” she says. “It’s also a performance medium, which may mean people act out arousal and orgasm instead of experiencing and naturally depicting it. It’s like learning about love from a romantic comedy, and of course some of us do that too.”

Women today not only feel like everyone is having sex, but everyone is having the best sex ever, which apparently means ending in a mind-blowing orgasm. As a result, it’s difficult to turn off the thought that you should be having orgasms or to stop wondering when it’s going to happen.

And a lot of women are wondering. Readers of write in on a weekly basis asking questions about love, sex, and relationships, and one of the most common topics is women’s difficulty with orgasm, often with the underlying tone of something being wrong with them. Here are just a few of the queries related to the orgasm deficit:

“I can’t come. Me and my boyfriend have tried everything. But after a while I just get uninterested, sore, and tell him to have his way.”

“Me and my boyfriend have started having sex. He’s my first and I’ve been faking my orgasms so I don’t hurt his feelings. Is there anything I can do or say that could subtly get me to the Big O without him knowing or hurting his feelings?”

“I never had an orgasm. Yes, I know, quite a statement and quite a problem. I’ve never been in a relationship, but did have sex with people I loved. But I always faked it. I’ve tried on my own and even though I enjoy it, again, I can’t orgasm. And oral — it’s more like, why bother? I’m a normal 22-year-old, I’m healthy and I think I’m normal down there. So, I don’t get it, why can’t I?”

“I have had four sexual partners and till now not even one of them have made me have an orgasm. I have not even been close. We’ve tried many positions but nothing works, and this has always been the main reason for my breakups. What can I do? The problem is obviously me.”

The best way to have an orgasm is to not care about having an orgasm
Marwa* is a 25-year-old bisexual and a self-described “sexual extrovert.” She started having sex at 23 when she moved to the U.S. from Lebanon, but she has masturbated regularly since she was a teen. Still, despite her experimentation on her own and with partners, she says she doesn’t think she’s ever had an orgasm.

“Where I grew up, sex before marriage was forbidden, and promiscuity was a sin. I had to adhere to a strict dress code that enforced modesty and any straying from that rule book meant punishment,” Marwa says. “When I escaped to the U.S., I hoped the freedom to be intimate with another person without the culture of shame around me would allow me to reach arousal levels higher than the secret masturbation sessions of my childhood.”

Marwa says she’s now a mixture of “trying to be resigned” to her situation because she can’t seem to fix it and “incredibly frustrated.”

“Sex is incredibly pleasurable and is one of my favorite things to do in the world, but I never experience any sort of climax or release,” she says.

The fact that Marwa enjoys sex without orgasm speaks to the complexity of sex in general: It’s a process. A woman enjoys many aspects of sex — from a kiss behind the earlobe to the anticipation of her lover taking his or her clothes off to the feeling of another body pressed against hers. But the expectation that she must make a mad-dash to orgasm — rather than savoring the things that feel good — takes something away from the experience.

“The best way to have an orgasm is not to care about having an orgasm,” says sex and intimacy coach Xanet Pailet. “Once you’re in your head during sex, it’s very hard to have one. The way to have an orgasm is to be in your body.”

Rebecca, a 24-year-old who is currently dating two guys on a regular basis, has gotten so frustrated with this obsession that she’s decided to stop worrying about having orgasms. She started having sex at 15 with her high school boyfriend, but despite their efforts, she never had one.

“We had sex ed every year in middle school. I knew all about condoms and safe sex and contraception, and I was taught to talk about sex without shame. But I didn’t know how it would feel,” she says. “There were certain times when my boyfriend and I would spend a lot of effort trying to orgasm. He would try to give me finger stimulation and oral sex for a long time, and it just wasn’t working.”

When this pattern continued with subsequent boyfriends, Rebecca grew tired of having to reassure concerned partners that she was having fun.

“If you worry about whether you’re orgasming or not, you’re probably not going to have as good of a time,” she says. “You’re preoccupied with some bullshit that this is the only way you must be having a good time. I’m having a great time regardless.”

Rebecca echoes what the experts say about not equating good sex with orgasm. “If you change that in your mind to the goal of sex is to feel good, then (1) you’re not going to care about orgasm and (2) you’re just going to have better sex — it’s going to free you up to explore other ways to feel good,” she says. “I think that men get freaked out if they can’t make their ladies orgasm, or women get freaked out for the same reason, because they think, Oh, I’m not doing my job.”

It’s not like touch the clit and we’re done
In the 2013 book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College president Debora Spar recalls the day she had a group of young women over to her house to talk about sex. When one of them asks the others if they’ve ever had an orgasm, Spar is shocked by the response: “Dead silence, then a scramble of agreement. ‘Nope.’ ‘Not me.’ ‘I don’t feel anything down there.’ ‘I just go numb.’ They wonder for awhile about what they realize is a rather glaring gap,” she writes. “And then, in a whirl of coats and plans and handbags, they leave.”

Yes, efficient, consistent orgasms seem to be just another thing women are supposed to be good at.

“We see all these societal pressures, and we see it in the movies, TV, and we hear about it from our friends. Women are supposed to have these amazing bodies — there’s no room for variance — and women are supposed to do everything,” Pailet says. “That includes being perfect in bed, which means the minute a man wants to have sex, she has an orgasm.”

That timeframe is hardly realistic. Experts (and personal female experience) tell us that women need more time than men to reach orgasm during intercourse, which also means that their partners need to understand their bodies as well.

“When you look at Girls, look what’s being modeled there. Walk in, take your pants off, screw and you’re done,” Pailet says. “There’s no pleasure there. There’s no opportunity to explore anyone’s body, and there’s certainly no intimacy.”

Cue the inevitable discussion of “hookup culture.” While the term has been bandied about so much that it’s not always clear what it means or if it’s even a real phenomenon, there does seem to be a connection between casual sex and a lack of orgasms, which may impact young women who are hooking up outside of committed relationships. Two 2013 studies found that young women were less likely to have orgasms during noncommittal sexual encounters than they were when they were in a relationship. This suggests what might seem obvious: When a woman isn’t comfortable with a particular partner or doesn’t have much practice with him or her, she might not be able to relax and enjoy herself. Think about it: A woman meets a stranger and decides to hook up. Of course she’s going to be concerned about her appearance — and her performance. She might not advocate for herself in the way she would in a committed relationship (e.g. asking her partner to focus more on a certain area and actually work on helping her orgasm), and he might not be as committed to finding out what makes her feel good or be as comfortable talking about specifics if it’s just a casual encounter.

“Orgasm is about surrendering to sensation, to pleasure, allowing your body to do what it wants to do. You can’t do that in a state of anxiety and tension,” Pailet says. “The guys really want to get the women to orgasm, but it’s not like touch the clit and we’re done. We are very, very different than men.”

The wired millennial generation isn’t particularly good at unplugging in general, which can make truly relaxing a difficult proposition. As modern technology has seeped into every aspect of our routines, it’s also starting to act as a blocker in the bedroom. Not only do students get most of their sex education online now — and much of it is inaccurate — but a recent global survey conducted by Durex found that many people can’t unplug long enough to engage in good sex. At least 5 percent of people have checked Facebook during sex, and another 10 percent have read a text, the study found.

All that visual stimulation can lead to a disconnection from actual physical stimulation. Would women be facing less of an orgasm deficit if they masturbated, meditated, or did anything centered on their own bodies half as often as they checked social media — or even once a day? It might be worth an experiment.

People would react like I had just told them my dog had died
Despite the number of women who may not be having orgasms, talking about it remains somewhat taboo, even among close friends.Women see this problem as a flaw in themselves, and because it means making themselves a bit vulnerable, honesty can be scary.

Marwa, who left Lebanon to avoid one kind of stigma, faced a different kind when she started talking about her inability to orgasm. Her gynecologist assured her there was no physiological problem, but the reactions from her friends weren’t exactly supportive.

“I felt a little alone, especially when people would react like I had just told them my dog had died. ‘I’m so sorry. How can you live?’ That’s maddeningly unhelpful and not exactly a morale-booster,” she says. “I don’t think this is anything to be embarrassed about though — being able to orgasm has zero bearing on how sexy I am or any other parameter of self-worth as a human being.”

As for Brittany — who hasn’t had an orgasm since that long-ago spring break trip — she says she was shocked when she found out one of her friends also wasn’t having orgasms. “She didn’t seem bothered by it and had basically accepted that it’s just not happening for her, which made me want to tell her, ‘No! It doesn’t have to be that way!'”

Though Brittany has never faked orgasms, she says she had been dating her now-husband for almost three years before she finally talked to him about the fact that she wasn’t having them — and she still feels self-conscious. She’s encouraged him to give her more oral stimulation, but she’s open to other possibilities as long as they can figure out something that works.

“He says he has an overly small tongue,” she says. “He says, ‘I don’t think my tongue is very talented,’ so he prefers other ways. I do wish he would work a little harder, but I’m very particular as well. I want to always make sure I just showered to make sure everything is clean and fresh and wonderful.”

She’s thought about sex therapy too, but it hasn’t gotten to that point yet.

“We make it a project every time we have sex — try a new position, spend more time on foreplay, go slower, go faster. I masturbate more. I know [climaxing] is not like a magical unicorn. It does exist. It’s just more challenging for me than for other people,” she says. “But I know I can do it. I really want to have another orgasm before I turn 30.”Names have been changed.