Navigating the orgasm gap

For some women at Queen’s, pleasure is hard to find

Some female-identified Queen's students are frustrated with the pleasure gap
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Abby Duncan, ArtSci ‘22, is fed up with the casual sex she’s had at Queen’s. From inattentive partners to poor communication, the second-year student has had her fair share of disappointing encounters.
 
“Men always come, but women come not nearly as often. A lot of men either don’t care or don’t ask,” Duncan said in an interview.
 
She became sexually active in first year and enjoyed how positive campus-wide attitudes about sex were. However, Duncan says that whether sex is pleasurable is not part of the conversation. 
 
“Queen’s is relatively progressive,” she said. “At the same time, we don’t talk about orgasms. It’s never about whether it was good. For girls, sex isn’t always good.”
 
The Journal spoke with five female-identified students about their perceptions of pleasure, sexual health, and campus culture at Queen’s University. All of them expressed concerns about the ways in which women are conditioned to view their role in sex and pleasure, especially in relationships with men.
 
When it comes to giving and receiving sexual pleasure with male partners, especially in casual sexual encounters, like those more popular in university environments, these women said they were less likely to experience pleasure or choose to prioritize their own preferences.
 
Caroline Pukall is a professor in the psychology department at Queen’s, and primarily researches sexual function, dysfunction, and sexual health. Her work has shown that although masturbation consistently results in orgasm regardless of identity, gender has a role to play in pleasure during partnered sex.
 
Pukall and other researchers conducted a study in 2017, published in The Journal of Sex Research, which concluded that women are less likely to orgasm during partnered sexual activity than men. 
 
“When a man is introduced into [a sexual] context with a woman, there is a much higher frequency of orgasm for the man versus the woman,” Pukall said in an interview with The Journal. “That is where the discussion of the orgasm gap comes up.”
 
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Duncan isn’t the only woman at Queen’s struggling to have fulfilling sex with male-identified partners. Ellie McKnight, ArtSci ‘20, has found that she’s hardly ever prioritized during sex with men.
 
“I have never come while having sex with a man ever in my life. Not once,” she said.
 
“Up until [I came to Queen’s], all I’d had were male partners, and the signal for sex to be done was them having an orgasm. I feel like people see that as the symbol of sex being completed.” 
 
McKnight believes that the focus on penetrative sex as the main component of mixed-gender sex is to blame for this phenomenon. 
 
“The majority of [my pleasure] was during foreplay,” she said. “Once penetration began and they had their pleasure, it was no longer a priority for them.”
 
Pukall’s research shows that when penetration becomes the focus of sex, women’s physical desires are not taken into account.
 
“Penis-in-vagina intercourse [...] will benefit the man, but doesn’t necessarily benefit the woman,” she said. “Intercourse is not the most reliable way that most women attain orgasm.”
 
Pukall attributes this focus on penetration as the result of ‘sexual scripts’ that are pervasive in society. She says because there is a socially-accepted order to how sex happens, men and women are less comfortable challenging expectations to prioritize individual desires.
 
“There’s a traditional sexual script where [...] penis-in-vagina is the main event,” she said. “That isn’t fair, because what people call ‘foreplay’ is really the main play for a lot of women to experience orgasm [...] it really downplays everything else that seems to work for women.”
 
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For some women at Queen’s having sex with other women, the gendered nature of sexual pleasure couldn’t be any more transparent.
 
“Having been with men before, you kind of go into it with the notion that it’s about the man’s pleasure [...] It feels more transactional,” said Emma Pritchard, ArtSci ‘20. “Now, having been with women, it’s much more of an equal relationship because there is less of an idea of what’s supposed to happen and who it’s supposed to be about.”
 
The fourth-year student wasn’t out when she first came to Queen’s and felt a lot of pressure to have the same type of sex everyone else was having. This meant not only having relationships with men, but having specific kinds of relationships.
 
“I definitely felt the pressure to take [relationships] further, and when I didn’t want to do that, it made me feel worse about myself,” Pritchard said. “I wouldn’t want to pursue anything sexually, and that would make me feel like there was something wrong with me.”
 
Pritchard feels a lot more comfortable in her skin now that she’s explored relationships with women. She finds it easier to be open with her partners than before, because she says same-gender sex has less expectations surrounding it. Pritchard says this has helped her to be more comfortable as a sexual person.
 
Evelyn Poole, ArtSci ‘21, agrees that same-gender sex sheds a lot of the expectations that exist in mixed-gender relationships.
 
“Being in a lesbian relationship is so valuable because you learn from your partner,” Poole said. “What I really enjoy about gay sex is that it’s very much about mutual pleasure. There’s no end goal. It’s more about a constructive experience.”
 
Pukall’s research revealed that women in same-gender relationships were having a greater number of orgasms during sex, in part because a lack of sexual scripts allows for freedom in how same-gender partners have sex.
 
“You actually co-create goals. It’s not set for you, and it hasn’t been internalized [...] through media,” she said. “If you don’t have a script, it’s yours to create.”
 
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The women interviewed by The Journal agreed that dissatisfaction with mixed-gender partnered sex isn’t the only hurdle women face when it comes to de-stigmatizing pleasure. Masturbation is another aspect of sexual health where gender plays a role.
 
McKnight didn’t use masturbation for self-pleasure until she came to university, and even then, she grappled with a lack of confidence around it.
 
“I didn’t masturbate successfully for the first time until the age of 20,” she said. “I always found it gross growing up, and I feel like that’s definitely related to my gender. It’s seen as more normal for a guy to masturbate. For women, when you seek your own pleasure, it has a stigma around it.”
 
This stigma, Pukall says, stems from the discomfort society feels with women’s desire.
 
“Studies show that women as a group take longer to get into the behaviour [of masturbating], but with even lower frequency. They never quite reach where men are,” she said. “Part of that is internalized shame. You might think, implicitly, that it is wrong, because it isn’t discussed or portrayed.”
 
Resources do exist at Queen’s to try to expand students’ knowledge about partnered and individual pleasure and sexual health, in order to combat the stigmas around sex and masturbation. The Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC) describes itself as a “confidential, non-judgmental, feminist, queer-positive, pro-choice, sex-positive, and non-heterosexist information and referral service” for the Kingston and Queen’s community.
 
The centre not only sells at-cost safer sex products and toys but seeks to normalize sexual pleasure by educating students.
 
“Oftentimes, we only talk about sexual health in terms of [sexually-transmitted infections] or sexual assault, but we also focus on pleasure,” said Justine Aman, the director of the SHRC.
 
Aman added that making sure all SHRC volunteers are educated in terms of sexual health and pleasure makes the centre a welcoming environment for any kind of visitor.
 
“All of our volunteers are really informed in a wide array of ways people can feel sexual pleasure, so they’re really prepared to have conversations with people about trying to find what they are interested in,” she said. “A lot of people don’t get that anywhere else.”
 
All the women interviewed by The Journal cited the SHRC as a resource they had used before. Many said the SHRC helped them to practice safer sex and explore masturbation as a form of self-pleasure.
 
“I went to the SHRC when I was 20, and I got a $150 toy. That opened my eyes,” said McKnight. “I had always viewed masturbation as gross and dirty while I was growing up, and then I found out that other women had been doing it since they were teenagers [...] I got my sex toy, and then three other girls in my house got the same one.”
 
In addition to using resources like the SHRC to explore sexual interests, Pukall wants Queen’s students to prioritize communication in their sexual relationships.
 
“If the goal is pleasure, then people have to start getting used to asking for it, and having those somewhat explicit conversations,” she said. “That can teach their partner to check in more often and understand what women’s pleasure looks like. Having these conversations and raising this awareness is really important to get it on people’s radars.”
 

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