The real reason women have trouble orgasming during casual sex

Hint: It's not because they desperately crave commitment

Published November 11, 2013 10:57PM (EST)

    (Olga Danylenko via Shutterstock)
(Olga Danylenko via Shutterstock)

In a Monday story on the New York Times' "Well" blog, writer Natalie Kitroeff looks at available research on college students, sex and sexual pleasure, and finds that women don't always orgasm during casual hookups.

According to the two surveys on the sex lives of American college students Kitroeff cites -- one recent study from the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and another five-year study from sociologists at New York University -- heterosexual women are far more likely to reach orgasm during sex in serious relationships than they are with casual partners.

But the framing of the piece, both in the headline and the entire first half of the story, is pretty misleading about what these studies actually reveal about women and pleasure. In the first several paragraphs, Kitroeff and a series of experts seem to suggest that women's difficulty climaxing during casual sex has everything to do with the absence of emotional intimacy.

But that isn't really the case.

The studies actually seem to show that women have a harder time orgasming during casual hookups with men because of a number of factors that have very little to do with commitment. Instead, barriers to orgasm are more closely related to performance anxiety, sexual partners who may not be that generous or invested when it comes to mutual pleasure, or the discomfort of communicating one's sexual preferences to a near-stranger. The orgasm problem, then, is mostly about the attitudinal and mechanical things that can make some sex really bad sex.

But perhaps because calling the piece "Men ejaculate quickly, everyone communicates poorly during casual hookups" (an alternative framing that Seth Mnookin also jokingly suggested) makes for a less compelling headline, the focus instead implies women require intimacy and commitment to achieve orgasm:

Like generations before them, many young women ... are finding that casual sex does not bring the physical pleasure that men more often experience. New research suggests why: Women are less likely to have orgasms during uncommitted sexual encounters than in serious relationships.

At the same time, however, researchers say that young women are becoming equal partners in the hookup culture, often just as willing as young men to venture into sexual relationships without emotional ties.

But Kitroeff eventually moves away from this framing, thanks in large part to a college student who explains the real reasons orgasm often "eludes" women during hookups: that sex with a new partner can sometimes be awkward, because college students aren't that familiar with the mechanics of it just yet, and that, culturally, women are not encouraged to be direct about the things that give them pleasure.

“I haven’t hooked up with anybody who was so cavalier as to just, like, not even care,” college student Vanessa Martini told the Times. “But I think most of them were somewhat baffled that it would require more than just them thrusting.”

Martini goes on to say that she was never taught how to communicate during sex so that both partners can experience pleasure, a knowledge gap made worse by many mainstream representations of unrealistic sex and cultural stigma that shames women for wanting it. “The way we view sex in porn and in movies and in books, people aren’t talking to each other like, ‘Oh, my foot’s falling asleep, we need to move,’” she said.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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