Sigmund Freud once told a female colleague: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”
Female sexuality has long confounded researchers and eluded popular understanding. We have spent decades refuting myths about female sexuality: women aren’t frigid and sexless, women want sex just as much as men, women also enjoy casual sex. Our internal anatomy has also remained shrouded in mystery. The mythical G-Spot has been playing an endless game of peekaboo with scientists: First, it seems to show itself and then it disappears just as quickly. And scientists still don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind female ejaculation or even female orgasm.
Nearly a hundred years after Freud posed that question, we’ve firmly established that women do indeed want sex but scientists are just starting to understand how that works. And the year 2014, in particular, has borne witness to a seemingly unprecedented number of studies examining female sexuality and especially female orgasm. Are we finally unlocking the secrets of female sexuality? Can scientific research sweeten our sex lives? Let’s find out.
The first potential scientific secret to improving your bedroom experience: surround yourself with men. A study this year from the Journal of Comparative Psychology found that men whose partners have more male friends and co-workers have sex at a higher frequency, provided that he perceives those male friends and co-workers as “potential sexual rivals.” Simply put, men try harder when other men are around, a phenomenon that evolutionary psychologists call “sperm competition.” The authors of the study speculate that this behavior could be “part of a broader anti-cuckoldry strategy” designed to discourage women from straying outside their partnership for sex. If your boyfriend is feeling particularly generous, it could mean he’s afraid of losing you to Jim from accounting.
While having more men around undoubtedly means more sex, another 2014 study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology suggests that women who prefer quality over quantity might want to be a little more selective. After surveying 54 heterosexual female college students, researchers found that women whose partners were wealthy, self-confident, and funny had more frequent and more intense orgasms than their peers. Women also reported initiating sex more frequently with partners who had a sense of humor. So take note, college aged boys—instead of ensconcing yourselves in choking clouds of AXE Body Spray, try telling a few jokes instead. Another noteworthy item from this study: Women who started having sex earlier found greater satisfaction in college. It pays to get a head start.
But don’t lose hope if you’ve already left your alma mater behind. Even ancient women who have made it to their mid-20s can still have amazing sex! In a recent survey of 1,000 adults, sex toy retailer LoveHoney found that, on average, women report having had the best sex of their lives at age 26, contradicting the popular wisdom that women peak in their 30s. While that statistic seems to paint a particularly dire picture for the trajectory of women’s sex lives, we can still take comfort in the fact that a sizable minority of respondents (46 percent) indicated that they were currently having the best sex of their lives, irrespective of age.
If few of the above studies seem relevant to your interests, then congratulations! You might be a lesbian, in which case you have won the sexual lottery. According to another 2014 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine, lesbians are winning the orgasm race by a mile: 78.4 percent of lesbians have an orgasm over 50 percent of the time that they have sex, compared with just 59 percent of straight women. For lesbians, then, the odds of having an orgasm fall just shy of a safe bet but for straight women, climaxing is still a coin toss. More worrying still, the percentage of straight women who report never reaching orgasm during sex (7.5 percent) is nearly three times higher than the percentage of lesbians who have to go without (2.2 percent).
Where does this performance gap come from? The researchers who conducted the study hypothesize that women are “more comfortable and familiar with the female body and thus, on average, are better able to induce orgasm in their female partners.” In other words, it may indeed take one to know one, in the full biblical sense of the word “know.” But knowing your way around town isn’t the only way to reach your destination. According to a 2004 study in The Journal of Sex Research, lesbians also have longer sex sessions than straight women, averaging 57 minutes per tumble in the hay. Lesbian sex is like an episode of Law and Order: it lasts an hour, there’s a lot of talking, and almost nobody walks in the end.
So what’s a woman to do if she works in a female-dominated occupation? If her boyfriend isn’t Jon Hamm? If she’s older than 26? If she’s not batting for the other team? Has she been doomed by the science of 2014 to a life of sexual misery?
I asked sex educator and sex coach Elle Chase for her take on this past year of female sexuality studies and she cautions that we should read them “with a large grain of salt” because we need to consider “where [each] study is from as well as how it was done.” The first two studies in particular—which claim, respectively, that more male friends means more sex and funnier boyfriends perform better in bed—are based on fairly small samples of college students. Basing our understandings of female sexuality off of the sexual behavior of select groups of college students hardly seems like a prudent course of action. Lesbians, however, still have to cause to celebrate because that particular study did, in fact, use a nationally representative sample of American adults.
Chase also observes that these studies are inevitably shaped by the terms they use and the subjective sexual histories of their participants. She writes:
Unless it can be physically measured by science, studies on personal experiences are open to outside influencers, such as memory, and the subject’s own attitudes toward sexual pleasure, not to mention his or her personal orgasm history and much more. There are so many variables to take into account with something subjective like how and orgasm “feels.” How do I know what feels good for me wouldn’t feel great for you?
If you’ve ever wondered if your purple could be somebody else’s green, then, you should probably approach self-reported data about the relative intensity of orgasm with a healthy dose of skepticism. There are a handful of objective ways to measure female arousal— Mélanie Berliet of Cosmopolitan, for example, took the vaginal photoplethysmograph at the Kinsey Institute for a spin last month—but many of the studies that enjoy widespread media circulation rely on inherently unreliable survey responses.
It’s important to note, too, that academia may not be paving new ground with these studies; rather, as Chase argues, “academics are listening to the zeitgeist, in which… more and more women [are] having conversations about, exploring, and taking charge of their own sexual pleasure than ever before.” While Chase finds some of the claims of these studies to be dubious, she nonetheless takes their increasing frequency as a promising sign that the groundswell of honest sexual conversation between women has finally broken into the mainstream. “That can’t be a bad thing,” she writes.
So if we can’t fully place our trust science to unlock the secrets of female sexuality, who can we turn to? The answer, Chase suggests, is ourselves.
“Ultimately,” she notes, “you are the expert on your own body. If you haven’t explored your body and discovered how you like to be pleased, then you’re putting all your orgasm’s eggs in somebody else’s proverbial basket.”
Chase supplements this general directive with some more pragmatic suggestions for women looking to find sexual fulfillment. Lesbians likely have more orgasms, she speculates, because “clitoral stimulation is de rigeur” in those circles, a lesson that straight couples could stand to internalize, especially given the fact that a minority of women can achieve orgasm from penetrative intercourse alone. If all else fails, she writes, “breathing deeply leading up to and during climax helps, and leaving the day behind and being present in the moment is essential.” Although these studies can be insightful on occasion—or, at the least, fun to gawk at—they are no substitute for the bare necessities.
So before we all turn ourselves into guy’s girls and exclusively date wealthy, confident stand-up comedians—and are there any of those, really?—it’s probably best to take a step back and reevaluate the essentials of a healthy sex life: communication, clitoral stimulation, and knowing how your own body works.
What does a woman want? It’s not rocket science.