More orgasms for single women

And childless women have longer careers in the sciences. Is being married with children a bummer, or what?

Published March 29, 2007 8:00AM (EDT)

After this week's announcement that kids in day care have higher incidences of behavioral problems (never mind the fact that "the effect was slight, and well within the normal range for healthy children, the researchers found," as the New York Times reported), I assumed that we'd be due for some sorry single girl (or perhaps sorry single mom) stories. After all, it seems the media loves to hype the bad things that may befall single women. But no, today brings more bad news for women occupying the married-with-children colony.

According to two new studies, husbands interfere with married women's ability to have orgasms, and having children (or, really, family-unfriendly workplaces) is getting in the way of women staying in traditionally male-dominated professions like science and technology.

Let's first address the lack of orgasms: According to a New Zealand study on women and aging, single women have more orgasms than those with partners, leading researchers to conclude that removing men from the equation allows women to "better connect with themselves." At first I thought this was just a veiled, if scientific, attack on men's performance -- a bit of comparing single-girl apples with coupled-up oranges.

But no. Titled "What Does Sexuality Mean to Older Women?" the study interviewed 500 women between the ages of 40 and 80 as a part of a larger study at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital. It found that 56 percent of sexually active women could reach orgasm every time they masturbated, while only 24 percent of the women with partners could bring themselves to orgasm.

Of course, the study of older women may say more about the two demographic groups than the possible psychic interference of having a husband. Older married women might compose a more traditional group that may be less sexually at ease; the singles cohort could be less inhibited about going the extra mile for their own pleasure. Or, who knows, there could be another explanation or set of explanations. But what's interesting is that the researchers took the results as evidence that women -- when it comes to orgasms -- are better off on their own without the "distraction" of having to please a man or defer to male fantasies. (A nice control group would have been lesbian couples, but for now we're still stuck in the with men/without 'em dichotomy.)

As a married woman, I like to think I'm in full possession of my psychosexual imagination, so the researchers' interpretation rankles. And yet I can't dismiss it out of hand. To me it's always felt like marriage is both a real contract between two individuals and the visitation of a ghostly tradition that no one can control. Even in the most unconventional marriages, women often feel the unseen hand of wifeliness (and many men feel the pressure of conventional expectations, too).

On the professional front, the finding from a study involving 2,000 Australian women (reported by the Age) that female scientists, engineers and technology workers are fleeing their professions after being forced to choose between work and children shouldn't surprise anyone. According to the study, fewer than half the women remaining in these fields have children, meaning the number of female workers in these fields who are childless is significantly higher than the national childlessness rate of 1 in 4. In a country with a skills shortage, the researchers rightly concluded that "the results mean we are missing out on a lot of talented, successful women."

Fair enough. But as I consume more and more of these studies and surveys that explore contemporary women's lives -- charting our pasts and futures like so many dead ends, blind turns and roads not taken, the whole work-family information juggernaut feels like it has its own power to undermine. With all the ghosts of past and potential haunting our newspapers, is it any wonder some of us hesitate to reach peak performance -- in the boardroom or the bedroom?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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