As I was researching my epic g-spot piece, I reread Elisabeth Lloyd's excellent Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the science of evolution, and I had one of those "HOLY CRAP," moments.
It came in Chapter 1, when I was reading these data:
This is basically how Dr. Lloyd summarizes 32 studies conducted over 70+ years, on the frequency of women's orgasms with intercourse - intercourse ALONE, mind you, not orgasm with additional direct clitoral stimulation. (It doesn't add up to 100% because there are overlap in the groups, but it's a solid representation of 70 years of science.)
The central point Lloyd is making with these data is that only a minority of women are really reliably orgasmic from intercourse alone - the overwhelming majority are sometimes, rarely, or never orgasmic from intercourse and require more direct clitoral stimulation. This is something I talk about a lot on the blog, because the cultural narrative around women's orgasms is that they happen with intercourse, while the reality is sometimes they do and often they don't.
But the HOLY CRAP moment came for me when I realized that "5-10%" is the same range of "no orgasm at all" that I came to in my book.
I haven't read Lisa's book for several years, so I didn't (consciously) remember her statistic, but my own lit review led me to conclude the same range of the percentage of women who neverhave orgasms: 5-10%.
And then to top it all off, I read this Refinery29 article that cites this Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) page that says that 10% of women never orgasm at all.
Does that sound high to you? 10% never have orgasms, ever in their lives? One in 10?
It sounds high to me.
So I dug deeper into the research and put it together with my clinical and teaching experience... And I realized something remarkable:
That 5-10% range might actually be a huge overestimate. Here's why:
First: In general, sex therapists and educators refer to people who've never had an orgasm as "pre-orgasmic," rather than "anorgasmic," to emphasize that just because you HAVEN'T had an orgasm doesn't mean you CAN'T have an orgasm. Therapy for "anorgasmia"(typically 6-14 treatment sessions, with "homework" in between to begin practicing masturbation) is generally quite effective, and it's MOST effective for women who've never had an orgasm - around 80% of women with primary ("lifelong") anorgasmia successfully have an orgasm with the treatment.
Second: Most young women who've never had an orgasm begin having them later in life, without therapy. In this recent study (PDF) 12% of women between the ages of 17 and 28 had never had an orgasm, and about 4% weren't sure - much greater than 5-10%. The "5-10%" represents all women of all ages, not the proportion of women who will die never having had an orgasm, but this means that this group is composed disproportionately of women under the age of 25, who may very well go on to have orgasms later in life.
Third: Several times, I've taught about childhood sexual behavior - particularly the ways that girls masturbate by humping things - and someone has come up to me afterward and said, "I had totally forgotten, and of course at the time I had no idea what I was doing, but I was definitely having orgasms as a kid!"And these have almost always been women who had to work deliberately to have their "first" orgasms in adulthood. They would have identified as "women who haven't had an orgasm" before that first intentional orgasm at age 18 or 24 or 32... but they actually had had orgasms, without knowing that's what they were doing.
So it's not at all clear that women who've never had an orgasm are women who can't have an orgasm or will never have an orgasm They just women who haven't... yet... as far as they remember. I myself most often say that anyone interested enough to sex to WANT to have an orgasm almost certainly can, given the right context. That "right context" might involve a Hitachi Magic Wand, a racy sustained fantasy, and 45 minutes, but it can happen. Ruling out medical issues like spinal cord injury, medication side effects, etc,"no scientific evidence supports the idea that anorgasmia arises from dysfunctions in body systems" (paywall).
But then! I returned to the research... and this is the really weird thing:
I can find no research specifically on women with truly lifelong anorgasmia. None.
I did a far-reaching literature review and I can't find a single paper that looks at the experience of these women. The best I found was the section in The Hite Report, "Women Who Never Orgasm." Hite found:
1. Almost all the women who had never orgasmed would like to;
2. Some women aren't sure if they've had orgasms.
3. The best way to learn is to masturbate - though some women without orgasm did masturbate, just not to orgasm. The most effective masturbation technique for most women is directly stimulating the clitoris and vulva.
4. The age range of women without orgasm was 18-77.
Other things I can conclude from the research:
It's certainly not that these 5-10% of women are asexual - only about 1% of the population identifies as "asexual," and plenty of asexuals have orgasms. And it's not that there isn't loads of research on women who don't have orgasms - it's almost all clinical research, assessing efficacy of interventions to help women who want to learn to have orgasms.
So how many women will never, under any circumstances, have an orgasm? And do they wish they could, or are they not bothered?
For me, this is an intellectual puzzle - and for the women themselves it might be nothing more. But maybe they really want to have orgasms - maybe they have tried and failed. Like, what about the 20% of pre-orgasmic women who don't learn to have orgasms from therapy? If we extrapolate from the 5-10%, that's 1-2% of the total population. Who are they? How do they feel about it?
So I'm reaching out to you, oh blog of my blog, oh intelligent and sex positive readers. I want to hear from you if:
(a) You were late to orgasm - first orgasm after age 25 would generally put you in the 90th-95th percentile. Did you wonder if you never would? Do you feel orgasms come easily to you now, or do you sometimes struggle? What's your preferred technique? How do you feel about your orgasms?
(b) You have never had an orgasm. Would you like to? Do you not really care but feel pressured to by others? Are you "out and proud" or is there a sense that you "shouldn't" tell people you're not a person who has orgasms?
(c) You have a friend or partner who's never had an orgasm. Do you find yourself wanting to encourage them to try?
(d) You can point me to research that I didn't find. Is there a paper somewhere talking with women of various ages who have never had an orgasm? That 20% of preorgasmic women who are not successfully treated in therapy?
There is a gap in the research, friends. Let us begin, in our small way, to fill it.