What an excellent question to be considering. One of my people sent me this article, which talks about how the company Sexy Liberation is giving women free sex toys (sadly only in the US). The premise is that women experience fewer orgasms than men. Considerably fewer, particularly during partnered sex. The company wants women to experience more orgasms, and thinks giving women sex toys is the way to achieve this – but is it?
There are several problems with their idea. First, the assertion that you can measure the quality of sex by how often you orgasm is dicey. Why is orgasm the be-all and end-all of sex? Certainly, people should enjoy sex, but is orgasm really the only way to achieve this? I think not, and I’ll be writing about this sometime soon. Nevertheless, this is the premise of the question so let’s go with it. If we move past our issues with orgasm focused sex, what remains the problem? Well, in a nutshell, the problem is that thinking sex toys might help in the kind of sex in which the orgasm gap is greatest. It turns out women are awesome at orgasming in solo sex. When they identify as Lesbian, they also do pretty well (though if bisexual, not so much). This orgasm gap is located firmly within heterosexual partnered sex. Lisa Wade found women that are otherwise having plenty of orgasms in solo sex aren’t having the same experiences when they have sex with their male partners. Why is that?
There are lots of studies on the orgasm gap in sex, but some of the most interesting data on sex and orgasm in heterosexual relationships is from research on college and university campuses. Elizabeth Armstrong found striking data that women in relationships had considerably smaller orgasm gaps than those that had first-time hook-ups, particularly where several different sexual activities were involved. If the orgasm gap shrinks to such a tiny level in relationships, then what accounts for the difference at other times? It turns out that this appears more to do with social attitudes and expectations within heterosexual encounters than body parts. Elizabeth Armstrong and colleagues found that men were disinterested in their partners’ pleasures in the context of a hook-up, but were very invested in their pleasure within a relationship. Similarly, women expressed that it was rude or inconsiderate to expect sexual pleasure from a hook-up. When both women and men prioritise male pleasure in any given sexual encounter, it is not surprising that there is a large orgasm gap.
Can a vibrator fix this problem? In a word, no. A sex toy might be able to help if the issue was about duration of sex, level of sensation or even clitoral stimulation. But it isn’t. The issue, really, is in whose pleasure is considered important. Whose orgasm is considered important. Providing a sex toy to address the orgasm gap is a bit like putting a condom on a cucumber to prevent STI’s or pregnancy. It doesn’t work because it doesn’t address the problem. Worse, it suggests that the problem is about bodies and not about the desires and intentions of the people having sex. Until mutual pleasure is the goal of sex, the orgasm gap will persist.