Predicting Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment for College-Age Women

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In a recently published study, women reported more orgasm and sexual enjoyment in committed relationships than in hookups.

Stoichometry on Flikr

Photo: Stoichometry (Flickr)

Original photo by Stoichometry on Flickr.

I was sitting beside a couple of sociologists in the local coffee shop the other day, and when they learned what I study, they immediately told me about a new study published in the American Sociological Review. This is one of the great things about being surrounded by scholars in different disciplines. It would have taken me at least a couple of months to come across this journal article if I hadn’t talked to them in that coffee shop. It was an interesting enough study that I think it is worthy of a blog post to share with all of you.

This study sought to predict orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college women, particularly looking at the differences between hookups and relationship sex. The authors, Elizabeth Armstrong (from University of Michigan), Paula England (from New York University), and Alison Fogarty (from Stanford University), conducted a study that involved a large survey of 21 U.S. colleges and universities in addition to 85 in-depth interviews at two of those surveyed universities.

Method

The survey portion of the study was collected using the Online College Social Life Survey (OCSLS), which took about 15-20 minutes to complete. The researchers used data from 6,881 women who indicated they had engaged in a hookup and 6,591 women who indicated they were in a relationship of at least six months.

Participants in the hookup category were asked about their most recent hookup, where women were instructed to “use whatever definition of ‘hookup’ [they] and [their] friends use.” Participants in the relationship category were asked about their most recent sexual occasion in their current or most recent relationship of at least six months.

The interview portion of the study was collected at Indiana University and Stanford University and consisted of an interview of about an hour. All of the interview participants were college seniors, with 17 women from IU and 43 women and 25 men from Stanford.

By senior year, 69% of women reported at least one hookup (and the median was 3 hookups), and 39% of those involved intercourse. By senior year, 74% of women reported they had been in a relationship that lasted at least 6 months while in college, and around 80% of those involved intercourse.

Summary of results

There were a lot of really interesting findings in this study (too many for me to include in this blog post without making it far too long for your attention span), so if you are really interested, I’d suggest checking out the full paper.

As a summary though, there were four general views of sources of orgasm and sexual enjoyment:

  1. Technically competent genital stimulation
  2. Partner-specific skills – learned over time with the same partner
  3. Commitment and affection
  4. Gender equality may degrade women’s experiences of sex

Overall, the authors found that relationship sex was reported to be better in terms of orgasm and sexual enjoyment, and that women have orgasms more often in relationships than in the hookup context.

Clitoral stimulation

Sexual techniques that involved direct clitoral stimulation were extremely important to both orgasm and enjoyment. Also, when women stimulated their own genitals during sexual activity, the probability of orgasm more than doubled!

Oral sex

Receiving oral sex increased women’s orgasm for hookups and for relationships. When hookups didn’t involve oral sex, there was an 11% probability of women’s orgasm, but this rose to 20% when oral sex was involved. When relationship sex didn’t involve oral sex, there was a 58% probability of women’s orgasm, but this rose to 80% when oral sex was involved.

When hookups involved both oral sex and intercourse, the probability of orgasm moved from 37% to 48%. When relationships involved both oral sex and intercourse, probability of orgasm moved from 66% to 83%.

Intercourse

In hookups, women reported less enjoyment if they had intercourse (even though intercourse was positively related to orgasm), likely due to the negative societal messages we receive related to women having hookup sex. In relationships, intercourse was associated with more enjoyment (and was positively related to orgasm).

Predicting orgasm and sexual enjoyment

Women’s orgasm and sexual enjoyment was significantly predicted by specific sexual practices (such as using her hands to stimulate her partner’s genitals, performing oral sex, having anal sex), experience with a particular partner, and commitment from a partner.

Interview findings

The interviews revealed that perhaps a double standard contributes to why relationship sex is better for women. Both men and women reported that they question women’s (but not men’s) entitlement to pleasure in hookups but not in relationships.

Women reported that when a partner was caring, concerned with her pleasure, willing to take time and perform the techniques that worked, and when she felt comfortable communicating what worked, she was more likely to have an orgasm.

Not surprisingly, all of those qualities were more likely to be reported in the context of relationships than hookups.

Conclusions and implications

Overall, this paper provided a good deal of insight into orgasm and sexual enjoyment in college-aged women in the United States.

One note that is worthy of mentioning is the use of orgasm as a proxy of quality in this sample of women. Some (including myself) may see using orgasm as a proxy for quality as controversial. Well, the authors figured that would happen, and they noted that their reason was because they didn’t want to assume (even though previous research has noted this) that women were not particularly concerned with orgasm. Understandably, they wanted to empirically examine this. They found that the most important finding from regressions predicting enjoyment was orgasm. The odds of reporting enjoyment were five to six times higher in both hookups and relationships if the woman had an orgasm. So, perhaps using orgasm as a proxy for quality isn’t so problematic after all (at least in this sample). However, who is to say that quality is the equivalent to enjoyment. This is whole other question…  Regardless, this is an incredibly interesting article that, if you are interested in women’s pleasure, is a very worthy read!

Kristen Mark, PhD, MPH

completed her PhD in Health Behavior and her MPH in Biostatistics, both at Indiana University. Kristen is an Assistant Professor in Health Promotion at University of Kentucky. Kristen's research focuses on sexual pleasure, sexuality in long term relationships, sexual function, and women's sexuality.
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