Why the Mystery About Women's Orgasms?

What do you know about women's orgasms? If you're a woman you know about your own ones but you're probably in the dark about whether they're the same in quality and quantity as your friends' (they're probably not) and if you're a man, unless you're particularly attentive, the whole thing is most likely a total mystery.

What do you know about women's orgasms? If you're a woman you know about your own ones but you're probably in the dark about whether they're the same in quality and quantity as your friends' (they're probably not) and if you're a man, unless you're particularly attentive, the whole thing is most likely a total mystery. But then, mysterious is exactly how a lot of women like it I reckon.

Yes there's been loads of research on the subject trying to work out how many women have orgasms, how often and what type - but different researchers come up with different answers (see Welling chapter of this book). One of the tricky things is the sheer variety of women's experience. Men are easy - they mostly have one kind of orgasm and you know when it's happened without much of a problem, but women are fickle beings, reporting orgasms of differing intensity, type and location of the sensation, and in how emotion plays its part.

Some of this variation, without a doubt, comes down to partner skill and motivation to please. On the Polynesian island of Mangaia, for example, all women report having orgasms during sex. It's unlikely that Mangaian women are anatomically different from the rest of womankind, on average, and their boundless pleasure has perhaps more to do with the fact that their culture places a great emphasis on men sexually pleasing their women.

Women in 18th century Britain probably had a pretty good time too since back then men were very keen for women to enjoy sex and the reason came from a medical misunderstanding; they actually thought it was essential for a woman to climax, just like it is for a man, in order to conceive a child. The woman's orgasm was thought to be responsible for releasing the seed that would then be fertilized by the man's seed. You know it makes perfect sense.

But anyway, it's pretty clear that regardless of technique, women are a pretty mixed bunch when it comes to coming (sorry), and we do it in so many ways.

The quickest and most reliable method for a woman is direct stimulation of the glans of the clitoris, but then of course there are vaginal orgasms that may or may not involve the mysterious G-spot (which is likely just the back end of the clitoris anyway). I just googled "different ways women have orgasms" and top of the list is "11 different types of orgasms". All sorts of things set women off; being rubbed on their nipples, feet, earlobes, nearly anywhere, imagining things, eating chocolate... But even when it comes to regular sex women differ markedly in their abilities to reach orgasm through stimulation of the clitoris or through vaginal penetration alone.

It seems we're all wired up in our own unique way so it's no wonder we're confused. Different neural pathways in the vagina and in the clitoris can trigger orgasm independently . And don't worry about what Freud said; he really was probing around in the dark when he decided vaginal orgasms were the real deal and that the clitoral variety were immature and inferior.

But the other thing contributing to the confusion, I reckon, is that this is precisely the way women want things to be; confusing. How many of us actually divulge truthfully to anybody our precise orgasmic experiences? I'm certainly not going to tell you what it's like for me. The truth is that by keeping things a bit vague we can keep the balls in our court. We can pretend a bit if we want; lots of women do.

In an attempt to elucidate how and if the signals women are giving out during sex actually match up with what they're experiencing, Gayle Brewer of the University of Lancashire and her colleague Colin Hendrie quizzed 91 heterosexual women about their orgasms and sexual habits. The women reported having most frequent orgasms through manipulation of their clitoris, either alone or through manual stimulation by their partner. Next in orgasm frequency came oral sex from the partner, and finally, orgasms happened least frequently during vaginal penetrative sex.

So when it came to a sexual encounter, orgasms were most likely to happen during foreplay, but this isn't when women were most likely to be sighing, moaning and yelling out in ecstasy. They made their big noise during penetration, especially just before and during their partner's ejaculation.

So what does this tell us? It shows that our ecstatic utterances are not simply a reflexive consequence of orgasm (obviously if you're a woman you know this already). Women are under at least partial conscious control of their vocalizations during sex and as amply demonstrated in Meg Ryan's cafe moment they can use them if they wish to give a false impression and potentially manipulate men's behaviour. That's not to say that the noises women make during sex aren't inspired by the proceedings, just that they might not always be, totally. In fact, roughly half of all women admit to having faked orgasm at some point. In Brewer and Hendrie's study, nearly 80% of women said they moaned etc. when they knew they weren't going to orgasm, over half the time.

And why would they do this?

Making noise during sex has important signaling functions. Primatologists studying copulatory vocalizations in our monkey relatives have found that in species like savanna baboons, mating females seem to make noise to draw attention to the fact that it's their sexy time and incite male-male competition. This means they can get off with the most dominant male, or even get off with loads of males which confuses paternity and thereby reduces the risk of infanticide when the females later give birth.

Most of us Homo sapiens like to conduct our sexual behaviour in private, doggers, exhibitionists and porn stars notwithstanding, so any voluntary vocalizing that women make during sex is likely directed at their partner. They might want to boost their man's ego, which in turn could make the relationship a more attractive option for him, they may want to make themselves seem hot and add to the excitement. But according to the research, a lot of the time it's about speeding up proceedings... they might just want to wind things up more quickly so they can watch the next episode of How I Met Your Mother. Or go to sleep. The end.

Oh go on. I know you've seen it before a load of times, but you know you want to see it again...

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