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The Biggest-Ever Orgasm Study Tells Us More About How Women Come

The world needs this right now.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

George Peters/Getty Images

A study published last month in The Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that nearly 37 percent of American women required clitoral stimulation to experience orgasm, compared with 18 percent of women who said that vaginal penetration alone was enough to come.

According to Debby Herbenick, a researcher at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University, the results of this study revealed women's wide range of preferences when it came to how they liked being touched during sex.

The study, which was conducted in partnership with OMGYes, a company focused on "the science of women's pleasure," surveyed more than 1,000 women between the ages of 18 and 94. The study followed on the heels of a round of 1,000 interviews conducted by OMGYes with different women about their sexual preferences, for a combined cohort of 2,000 participants to make this largest-ever study on the specifics of women's pleasure.

The women in the study took a survey composed of 30 multipart questions related to their sexual behaviors, attitudes, and experiences with genital touching, including detailed questions about how the women preferred to be touched. Nearly 37 percent of women responded that they needed clitoral stimulation to come, and another 36 percent responded that while they didn't require clitoral stimulation to orgasm, it did enhance the experience. Eighteen percent of respondents said vaginal penetration alone was sufficient for orgasm, and 9 percent reported that they didn't have orgasms during intercourse, or achieved orgasm in other ways, such as oral sex.

As for their subjective experiences of pleasure, a majority of women cited 'spending time to build-up arousal,' 'having a partner who knows what I like,' and 'emotional intimacy' as techniques which enhance their orgasms. As far as the actual touching, 66.6 percent of women said they preferred being touched directly on the clitoris and cited 'up and down' with medium pressure as their preferred style of touch.

The research adds some much-needed data to the science of women's pleasure, which has long been haunted by largely baseless Freudian assertions about the nature of female orgasms.

"Freud contended that the clitoral orgasm was adolescent, and that upon puberty, when began having intercourse with men, women should transfer the center of the orgasm to the vagina," the feminist Anne Koedt wrote in the famous 1970 essay, The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm. "The vagina, it was assumed, was able to produce a parallel, but more mature, orgasm than the clitoris. Much work was done to elaborate on this theory, but little was done to challenge its basic assumptions."


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"The idea of one kind of orgasm being more mature is ridiculous," Herbenick says. "I also don't like the clitoral/vaginal orgasms binary because, anatomically, all of these parts are really tiny and close to each other and packed. Ultimately I don't think fighting over which nerve endings led to the orgasm is instructive."

According to Herbenick, the reality of female orgasm is quite nuanced but there has historically been a large knowledge gap when it comes to the science of coming. As one of the first studies to address female orgasm in a nationally representative sample of women in the US, Herbenick and her colleagues' work represents an important step toward a broader understanding of women's sexual health.

"The first US nationally representative study of sexual behavior ever was conducted in the US was conducted in the early 1990s and our research team actually conducted the second one ever back in 2009," Herbenick said. "That's a gap of around 20 years before that had even taken place for a second time. Part of the reason sexual behavior studies aren't frequently conducted is because they're expensive and the federal government has never provided funding for one."

Moreover, prior studies on sexual pleasure in women have used limited sample size or didn't focus on specific details of sexual touch. This lack of subjective data on genital sensitivity makes empirical science focusing on neurological networks in the genitals more difficult and may also prohibit sex educators and clinicians from addressing common experiences or concern among women when it comes to sexual health and pleasure, according to Herbenick and her colleagues.

Although the study is one of the most in-depth surveys on women's sexual pleasure ever conducted, Herbenick said a number of questions remain.

"I was really intrigued that 41 percent of women really just honed in on one style of touching they liked," Herbenick said. "In a future study I think it would be fascinating to encourage those women to explore some other ways and see if they really do just like one style or if there is a second one if they explore it they like."

Ultimately, Herbenick said the study points to the importance of communication and openness in the bedroom. "If that many people really just prefer one thing, you really have to talk to each other to find out what you like otherwise it's such a guessing game," Herbenick said. "As part of my teaching of human sexuality, I've always encouraged people to say just because you've found one thing you like, try not to limit yourself. I guess I'm still a big proponent of exploration."

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