The XX Factor

Dr. Debby Herbenick Explains the Orgasm Gap

One satisfied customer.

Photo by Lisa S./Shutterstock

This week, the New York Times parsed two recent studies of orgasm rates for men and women in casual hookups and found that men get off a lot more in those situations than women do. One study of 24,000 students at 21 colleges found that only “40 percent of women had an orgasm during their last hookup involving intercourse, while 80 percent of men did.” The study investigated a host of reasons for why women aren’t reaching climax in casual relationships nearly as often as they do in serious relationships, from poor communication to alternate sexual motivations. Then again, it takes two to hook up. The Times only interviewed one man about his orgasmic experiences. (Twenty-six-year-old software technician Duvan Giraldo: We salute you.) Gay men and lesbians weren’t mentioned at all. I asked Indiana University sex researcher Dr. Debby Herbenick, quoted in the Times piece, to help fill in some of the gaps on the orgasm gap. The interview has been condensed and edited.

Slate: The New York Times story focuses on why women might not reliably have orgasms during casual hookups. But what about the men they’re hooking up with? Why are they so good at it?

Debby Herbenick: In most samples and studies, men are more likely to report orgasms. It’s partly social; our culture gives more value to behaviors that result in orgasm for men. But I also think—and many people would agree—that men’s genitals are easier to focus stimulation on than women’s are. But it always depends on the person.

Slate: Still, 20 percent of college men didn’t orgasm from their last casual hookup. What’s their deal?

Herbenick: In general, what we do see in a lot of the hookup research is that people aren’t even engaging in behaviors you might expect to result in orgasm, so it’s not surprising that people don’t have them. People consider kissing “hooking up,” touching and fondling “hooking up.” Only in some cases is intercourse “hooking up.” What we’re also seeing in college hookups is that, because many involve alcohol, some men can’t orgasm even if they want to.

Slate: Do men fake orgasms?

Herbenick: Yes. In most studies, about one-quarter to one-fifth of men say they’ve ever done it. But if you look at just the most recent sexual encounter, it’s a really low percentage.

Slate: Do we have data on the orgasm rates for gay men and lesbians in casual relationships?

Herbenick: Not that I know of! Someone tweeted at me asking about that, and I wish I had a better answer. I would assume that you would see really high rates of orgasms for gay men, because of the behaviors they engage in and because of their genitals, but we don’t have any specific data on that. As for two women, you might think there would be a desire to give orgasms to each other, but I also think that while many women prioritize orgasm, not all do. Some women who partner with men feel a pressure to have an orgasm, or fake one. The male partner won’t stop until he feels like he’s achieved that. I’ve heard that frustrated comment from many women.

Slate: What’s your big takeaway on these orgasm gap studies?

Herbenick: On the one hand, I think that we are fairly decent at not putting too much pressure on ourselves on the individual level. We know that sex shouldn’t be about cultural performance. But then, something like this orgasm piece comes out, and there’s such an intense interest in it that we start putting pressure on performance collectively. We say, “Oh no, not enough women are having orgasms!” Are we judging them? Are we judging men for not doing it as if it’s their job? There are so many reasons that people connect, kiss, make out, and have some type of sex with each other. Some people just want to see the other person naked, to meet someone they’re curious about, or to have someone warm next to them. They do it because they feel sad, or happy, or want to get back at somebody. There’s a lot of richness in those relationships that’s not communicated through the data.

Slate: The New York Times did nod to that breadth of motivations for hooking up—for women. Does the same go for men?

Herbenick: Yes. I recently talked with some documentary film producers who were interviewing some college guys for their movie, and [the college guys] said that their goal for a hookup was often to see a girl naked and get a picture. They don’t need to have sex with her to say “been there, done that.” Their motivation is simply that they want to see her naked. There could be a hundred more motivations. The bottom line is: If all men and women wanted was an orgasm, they could do it by themselves, and do it more successfully. There’s no way it’s just the orgasm.