By Lucienne Walstra
The first time I heard the word “dildo”, I was twelve years old. My sister, Samantha, came home from university for summer break and piled stacks of her belongings in the living room. She had to empty out her dorm room each year, which meant that each year our house reabsorbed her odds and ends.
As we sorted through her items, my mother’s stress grew, and the arguing began. I wasn’t too concerned with their frustration – I was having fun sorting through the cool-girl college-life stuff. It was fascinating. She had decorative pillows, books upon books, and high heel shoes she wore to go clubbing. I put them on my growing feet and strutted around the room as the arguing escalated.
“Ugh, mom – I can’t find my dildo anywhere,” said Samantha, as she frantically took things out of boxes and scattered them aimlessly around the room.
She tore the boxes apart in search of this mystery item. This dildo seemed important – how could I not know what it was?
“What’s a dildo?” I asked. I had never heard such a weird word before.
This was the kind of disorder my mother could barely withstand. With a deep breath and sweat dripping down her face, she said, “Samantha, let’s just focus on finding the things that you use every day”.
“What’s a dildo?” I asked again. I started to look for it myself – if she wouldn’t tell me, I would find it and figure it out.
With a look of disgust that I have never encountered in my sisters’ eyes, she stopped what she was doing. She looked up at my mother and said, “I do use it every day”.
“What’s a DILDO?” I asked again, now completely overcome with frustration.
None of them told me what a dildo was that day, but I did learn one thing. Dildos were apparently really important. In fact, to Samantha, it was so important that it should be sought out amongst a mess of other things. Maybe there was a reason my sister was so desperate to find it and maybe, it was something I needed too.
The dildo my sister was looking for was pink and sparkly – It had a cute butterfly attachment on one end. I didn’t fully understand what it was for, but it spent the rest of the summer proudly on her desk or laying on her bed.
As I grew older, I learned a lot about sex from my sister. Samantha drew portraits of Disney princesses having sex – I remember a vivid scene featuring Ariel topping Jasmine. She had a library of Kama Sutra and sexual health books. She even started a YouTube channel dedicated to sex and love advice (I never did make it through the “How to give a blowjob” video, but I did take the time to watch “How to kiss men and women”).
When I started having sex it wasn’t magical – I wasn’t having orgasms, but my partners were. Sometimes it was painful, uncomfortable, or boring – other times it was exciting and pleasurable. Still, I knew I wasn’t having fun the way the Disney Princesses seemed to be having fun in my sister’s paintings. Because I had seen so many examples of female pleasure, I knew something wasn’t right.
The Orgasm Gap: What is it?
I was (and still am) encountering the orgasm gap. The orgasm gap, sometimes referred to as the pleasure gap, describes the phenomenon in which men have more orgasms than women in their heterosexual encounters. It appears that even though women are just as capable of orgasming as men, men’s pleasure is privileged over women’s pleasure in the bedroom.
Where is this gap coming from and is it possible to bridge it? What about queer relationships, do they experience the orgasm gap as well? How far does the gap reach? I spoke with Dr. Mark Spiering, who has been teaching sexology courses at the University of Amsterdam for the past 26 years. “I think it’s good to see the orgasm gap from a bio, psycho, and social perspective.” he says, “There are different domains wherein you can find explanations. At this moment, there are a lot of nurture explanations that are perceived as better compared to the nature explanations.” Throughout this article, I will bring to light many of these explanations in my conversations with AUC students.
AUC is diverse, sure, but how diverse are our sex lives? Our community offers a unique look into how the orgasm gap manifests because of our varying cultural and educational backgrounds. I have many questions about how we, as students (many of whom are early on in their sexual journeys), are bridging this gap. With the help of the brave, open, and honest souls who wanted to share their intimate details with me, I had the chance to explore this phenomenon in our own community. Together, we are working towards answering my central question: How does AUC deal with the orgasm gap?
In addition to my individual interviews, I created an orgasm survey to get an overview of how students are experiencing the orgasm gap at AUC. You will see quotes and pie charts created from written-in and multiple-choice questions sprinkled throughout the article. I received 66 responses – these responses are anonymous but will be referenced to show the variety of sexual experiences at AUC (For context, 75 percent of participants indicated they have a vulva). Look! A lot of us know what the orgasm gap is! That’s a great start.
Sex Life at AUC
First, I think it’s important to understand if AUC is a welcoming environment for sexual experimentation and exploration. According to my interviewees, AUC is very welcoming to different lifestyles, identities, and sexualities. However, the small number of students and the stark gender divide (the AUC student body is disproportionately female) means that there are limited opportunities to explore different relationships. “Everybody is having sex with everybody – especially because there aren’t a lot of guys here. If you’re going to have straight sex, you’re probably going to fuck the same guy your friend is fucking”, says Ruby Delaney, a third-year Humanities student.
As noted by Delaney, there are risks in having sexual partners in the community. Navigating this pool of people can be challenging because of possibility of seeing (ex)sexual partners at the AB, in the dorms, or at the Albert Heijn checkout. AUC social circles are very connected, and this can lead to hurt feelings and awkward/uncomfortable situations.
Emma Ebeling, a third-year Humanities student, was on exchange at Melbourne University last semester. Comparing her experiences at the two schools, she can feel the differences in sex culture, “my host university was much bigger, so I think that there is a larger sense of anonymity. It can feel lovely, to not feel put on the spot – to not feel like everyone knows about sexual experiences through gossip. That being said, you still move within a particular social circle which creates a similar effect as AUC”.
Having positive sexual encounters at AUC is possible without a doubt – many of us are having them. Nonetheless, it seems a lot of students tread lightly through the community. In my research of the sex culture of AUC, I’ve learned students are facing more challenges than fucking the same people or a limited dating pool – like me, many people at AUC encounter challenges like the orgasm gap.
“I think people are extremely competitive in every aspect of life, including sex. People rarely talk about pleasure, especially in specific. It’s always super vague”– Anonymous
Who experiences the orgasm gap at AUC?
Although the orgasm gap is a challenge, many people do not seem frustrated with their lack of orgasms during sex. A first-year student that wishes to remain anonymous says, “It is hard for me to have an orgasm – I’m really open about this fact”. Like them, many participants don’t expect to have orgasms during sex. Actually, not having an orgasm is the standard.
The orgasm gap is usually described in terms of heterosexual relationships, but it occurs in queer relationships as well. While studies suggest that lesbian women have more orgasms than heterosexual women, this does not mean lesbians orgasm in every sexual encounter. Anna Xanthi, a third-year Humanities student, recalls their experiences with the orgasm gap in their different relationships, “He would usually finish, and I wouldn’t. I would never orgasm, in fact, I have never with a partner. I did experience the orgasm gap with a man, but I also haven’t experienced an orgasm with a woman. However, I don’t think that discredits the orgasm gap experience.”
The highlighting of the orgasm gap is not meant to exclude anybody, identity, or relationship from the discussion of sexual pleasure – struggling to orgasm affects the male body, too. An anonymous student explained that his partners often orgasm, but it isn’t so easy for him, “usually, I won’t orgasm. This has humbled me in the orgasm gap experience because it’s very relatable.”
In this discussion, we should also assume that not everyone is frustrated with or facing this problem. Some people are less concerned with their personal experience with the orgasm gap. An anonymous student who identifies as pansexual/graysexual explained that the orgasm gap is less of a concern in asexual circles, “Sex is not a central part of our lives because we don’t get that urge as much as other people.”
Of course, some people who do have the urge don’t struggle with the orgasm gap at all. A third-year humanities student, says that thanks to partners who have been focused on her pleasure, she doesn’t have any complaints. This has made it easier for her to orgasm with her partners, “maybe I’m just really lucky – it feels weird to say, ‘I feel like I haven’t experienced the orgasm gap’. I don’t know why I feel guilty about this. I know that this phenomenon exists”.
“Personally, I have never had an orgasm with a partner – whether that be a man, a woman or a non-binary person”– Sasha Sushko
Xanthi is right, the variations in experiences do not discredit the orgasm gap. For example, no one should not have “orgasm guilt” because other women are struggling to orgasm with their partners. Orgasming or not orgasming is not a rite of passage towards womanhood, it is not something to feel shame or guilt over, and it is not a trivial problem. Everyone’s individual, orgasmic stories prove that the phenomenon of the orgasm gap does exist and takes on different forms.
With this knowledge, more questions arise. Think about it: If the average woman can orgasm within 4 minutes when she’s masturbating, what obstacles are being presented when she is with her partner? Where are these discrepancies coming from?
The “Mythical” Orgasm
Delaney calls the female orgasm “mythical”. She says, “The thing with female orgasms is if you don’t know if you had it – you didn’t. Every time I have sex, I’m confused. I think, ‘is that it? Is that what I was waiting for?’” For many women, it can be difficult to know how to reach orgasm, if it is happening, or if it happened. Sometimes they don’t know if it will ever happen.
Not only can you be unsure if you have experienced orgasm, but you can be unsure if your partner experienced one. The female orgasm is mythical because there is no proof of it happening – unlike the male orgasm. Cedar Cox McCallister, a third-year social science student, admitted that faking orgasms is a way to get out of a sexual situation, “I have faked an orgasm less than five times with women and literally countless times with men. Half the time I’m too uncomfortable and I want it to end, so I fake it.”
What is the benefit of faking an orgasm? In Cox-McAllister’s case, it allows her to end a sexual encounter and make her partner feel like they “succeeded” in giving her sexual satisfaction. This is a band-aid solution. As it turns out – a lot more people do this than I thought:
If we don’t specify what brings us pleasure, our partners are not going to read our minds and magically “do better” next time. Faking orgasms will not lead to real, authentic sexual pleasure because no one is learning from it. So, is there a benefit to faking it? Best case scenario, you improve your acting skills, your partner feels better about themselves, and you get to stop the uncomfortable poking around.
Formal Sex Education
Despite our different backgrounds at AUC, many of my participants found themselves uninformed about pleasure due to a lack of sex education. The sex education students received was described as “clinical”, “heteronormative”, and “targeted for men”. Those of us who did receive sex-ed likely learned about basic anatomy, how to prevent STDs and pregnancy, and reproductive processes. According to my interviewees, their educators didn’t move beyond these topics – nobody at school taught them about sexual pleasure or queerness in the bedroom.
Other participants, Sasha Sushko (from Russia), Maja Pomorska (from Poland), and Lili Kurcz (from Hungary), described never receiving formal sex education. Looking back on her sex-ed experience, Kurcz recalls “I don’t know how I learned about the clitoris because no one has ever told me about it”.
Some people identify this lack of education as contributing to their struggle with the orgasm gap. Sushko reflects on where her struggle to orgasm with her partners comes from, “I think it is very much rooted in the lack of sex education I got, and stigma that I still feel around my vulva/vagina although I am a raging feminist and a very sex- and body-positive person.” The stigma described by Sushko is exacerbated by an education system that ignores or suppresses sexual pleasure. When students are taught to ignore and stifle their sexuality, it becomes very difficult to understand why the body operates the way it does.
Learning about pregnancy and disease prevention, while important, does not offer students the proper skills to navigate social, sexual environments. Even if they have all the reproductive, and anatomical knowledge, they may not have the knowledge and communication skills to discuss sexual pleasure, challenges, and identity. Whom can we trust to teach young people about the nuances of sex if not our educators?
Informal Sex Education
Because many people didn’t learn about sex and pleasure in school, they had to find that information elsewhere. When I asked my participants where they learned about sexual pleasure, if not from school, they came up with a long list of things. Some people, like me, had a sex-positive role model who taught them about the pleasurable side of sex. Others turned to alternative ways of learning. Most commonly, AUC students concluded that movies, television, family, friends, social media, the internet, fan fiction, and pornography taught them about sexual pleasure. Although sexual pleasure is represented on many of the platforms mentioned, it still skews towards the male gaze.
Delaney emphasised, “You know what men like because it’s all over the face of this Earth.” Meanwhile, other sexual orientations have less representation, exploration, and understanding in popular culture.
Because most of us grew up with the internet, we used this tool to answer our questions (where do you think I found out what a dildo was?). The internet can be a dark, scary place, especially for young people exploring their sexuality. “I didn’t have the maturity to recognise that porn wasn’t reality – I was just seeing it and I assumed it was real”, says CoxMcAllister.
Porn can be so theatrical and confusing, especially when pleasure is so male-oriented. It can be hard (and scary!) to imagine yourself in these scenarios if you have little experience with a sexual partner.
“When I started watching porn it felt so outside of reality to me. It felt so fantastical that I never thought it was something I would be a part of.”– Olivia Lance
Pornography can give its viewers a warped view of sex, bodies, and expectations in the bedroom. When it comes to educating ourselves about sexual pleasure, consent, and communication, pornography may not be the best path to take.
So, where else can we learn about pleasure? Ayelle Tiné, a third-year Social Science student, found social media to be a helpful platform for her to understand the pleasure of sex. She says it opened a new pathway toward understanding because “the problem in the media is that we only get one narrative and that there are a lot of things that are not spoken about.” When she started following feminist accounts on Instagram, she learned that “foreplay is always represented as a step towards penetration, but I don’t have to be defined by penetrative sex”.
Social media is not always accurate, however (surprise!). It was on these accounts that she was introduced to the phenomenon of the orgasm gap, “I thought, ‘I don’t want to have sex with a guy because having sex with a woman will give me more pleasure’. Then I discovered that’s not necessarily true. In my current relationship, I don’t experience orgasm a lot, I still experience a lot of pleasure but not a lot of orgasms.”
When we go searching for answers to our questions in places like pornography, social media, film, we can be led astray. So, is there any – emotionally and physically – safe, secure, and surefire way to learn about pleasure?
Orgasm DIY Project
Although sexual repression is what many of us were told to practice, listening to your body may be the best way to begin to understand what you like or don’t like. A third-year Humanities student says that your body naturally seeks pleasure, “you know inherently because you get to know your body, that you want it. And you know that other people want it because it is coded in society”
Dr. Spiering adds “I think the psychological point of view is an important perspective. For example, there is also a gap in masturbation frequency. For example, in Holland, men start masturbating younger, but a lot of females only start masturbating once they are in a relationship – they miss the history of masturbating. So, when you don’t masturbate, you also don’t get to know your body – that also has to do with the orgasm gap.”
Exploring your body can be a helpful tool to figure out what works for you. Xanthi says that self-pleasure “revolutionised” her sex life. They experienced the “masturbation gap” explained by Dr. Spiering, “The only time I thought about women’s pleasure was after my first [heterosexual] relationship and I discovered masturbation – I learned ‘this can also be good for me; I can also reach orgasm’.”
Another third-year student also attests how the way self-pleasure has improved her sex life, “before I started having sex, I was masturbating, so I learned a lot about what it means to experience pleasure.”
According to the survey participants, one of the best ways to educate yourself about pleasure is to focus on your personal experience. It can be extremely difficult to advocate for your own pleasure, Lance says, “Sex a lot of the times can be somebody objectifying you. I realised I can be a vehicle for someone else’s pleasure, and I can feel the reduction of myself as that vehicle for their pleasure”.
Instead of looking at how other people experience pleasure, consider what turns you on and explore your own body. Your sexual pleasure is unique to you.
It’s the journey, not the destination
Don’t get me wrong, having orgasms does not equal good sex. Not having orgasms does not equal bad sex. The focus here is PLEASURE and growing comfortable with our sexual selves. As said by Tiné, “I’m not having sex to reach orgasm; I’m having sex to experience pleasure. It’s about the process and experiencing all the sensations you have to reach an orgasm.”
Pomorska advises to “Stop pressuring yourself to have an orgasm – take pleasure from sex itself.” It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to detach the goal from the process.
“I feel like a lot of people are not craving an orgasm when they want to have sex because they know they can do that for themselves, they are craving somebody”– Ruby Delaney
The truth is, I’m not an orgasm fairy and I don’t know how to make sure everyone has more orgasms. If I had all the answers, I’d be having better sex myself – that’s for sure. Unfortunately, what you see in this article is only a fraction of the eye-opening conversations I’ve had. In this process, however, I’ve learned that we are all struggling with different things when it comes to sexual pleasure and it’s refreshing to open this discussion with others.
All of my participants stressed communication as the key to bridging the orgasm gap. Part of me is uncertain about this solution because, from what I’ve learned, communication meant something different to all of my participants. Saying “communication is key” is vague and (sorry to say it) not constructive. Because our relationships, sexual history, and sexual identities are all dynamic and unique, emphasising communication isn’t a solution to the challenges we face as individuals. I think we can supplement this answer by focusing on the different forms of communication and the mindful, intentional potential of communication.
As said by Kurcz, “I found it difficult to communicate with words – it’s way easier to communicate by directing them with body signs.”
We communicate with our bodies, language, text, and ‘vibes’. Our communication varies between our friends, our family, and our lovers. Of course, communicate with your partners and tell them what does (not) pleasure you. But have the courage to take it a step further – Talk to your peers/friends and expand on the narratives of sexual pleasure (Trust me! I sure am better for this experience). When you are uncertain of something – do not shy away from discussing your sexual challenges with a specialist.
Most importantly, communicate with yourself – be honest. Ask yourself, what is pleasurable about this experience? What do I require to feel safe in this space? How can I explore my pleasure? How do I express my needs, desires, and curiosities? Although I have no qualifications (except the research I have presented), here is what I recommend: Explore your body alone and with partners if that’s pleasurable for you. Experiment with ‘communication’ to discover what is effective and safe for you. Finally, remember that your sexual pleasure is evolving, emerging, and exciting. So, get to know yourself a bit better – pleasure awaits you!
I’m no Samantha, but I think my sister would be proud of this piece.
What tips do you have for bridging the orgasm gap?
“Have sex debriefs, it’s really fun! After my partner and I have sex, we always talk about it in a fun way. It doesn’t have to be in an intense or deep way or accusing someone of not being good. Just have a fun discussion like “I really like what you did there” – bring that to next time.” – Anna
“Start having sex when you are ready to talk about it. LEARN WHAT THE CLIT ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE. Explore with your fingers and a mirror. Especially as a woman, allow yourself to focus on your pleasure and not mainly on your partner’s. Trust me that you look incredibly beautiful even if you have a funny coming face. Make communication and education with your partner a sexy part of the whole process” – Sasha
“Try to reach an orgasm by yourself – don’t give up, it can be a long process. Experiment with toys, lube, and videos; figure out what turns you on and what feels good for you. That’s the first step.” – Anonymous
“Try some new stuff – it makes it a lot more fun. Also, stop every once in a while and talk about other things, this gives sex more meaning” – Anonymous
“Fuck with your limits – you need to experiment. You don’t know what works for you and you don’t know what works for them. The more you switch it around the more you will learn. Challenge yourself.” – Seb
“Know your body, know what positions you like, know where that shit should go” – Harper
“Try not watching porn when you’re masturbating. If you can’t, source your porn from a good place (like on Bellessa or amateur porn). Be aware of how you’re thinking about sex and where your pleasure is coming from – there are a whole lot of different kinds of pleasure” – Olivia
“If it really bothers you, go to a specialist to understand it, to get comfortable with it, and do something about it. I’m not saying the orgasm gap is completely normal, it’s not fine. We are supposed to have orgasms – orgasms are great. There are many ways to learn about it, educate yourself” – Maja
“When it comes to sex, it’s important to stay inside your comfort zone, at least until you know that you are comfortable going outside of it. For ace people, if you don’t know if you should tell a partner, always do. If someone doesn’t like that part of you then you also don’t want to be with them.” – Anonymous
“I don’t know if I can give tips because it feels a bit too entitled but coming back to my body through conscious self-touch and intuitive movement has been a game changer. Applying pressure on my chest when I feel anxious, tapping and moving energy out of my body, sighing a lot, releasing, and making space through sound. Dancing feels beautiful too.” – Emma
“For me, it was going to therapy and managing my stress and anxiety. Not sure if it’s good advice, but it worked for me” – Anonymous
“Some people don’t orgasm, there’s nothing wrong with that. University is a good time to explore both sex and love, so make sure to take advantage of that in a safe way, with people you trust and take seriously.” – Anonymous
This is an article made in collaboration with AUC’s Journalism course of 2022-2023.