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What A Fake ‘Female Orgasm’ Statistic Says About Gender Bias

Unsplash/Gabriel Matula

For years, experts have been peddling a damaging falsehood about the time it takes for cis women to orgasm.

While I was doing research for my book on female sexual empowerment, I kept coming across a statistic online: that cis women take 20 minutes on average to orgasm. It’s in articles with vague citations like “according to statistics,” “some experts say,” and “studies show”; it’s in blog posts and advice columns by sex therapists. Few of these sources say where the data comes from.

I began hunting down this figure’s source after reading Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It by University of Florida psychology professor Laurie Mintz, PhD. Mintz writes that women take four minutes to orgasm through masturbation on average, which was indeed found in sex research pioneer Alfred Kinsey’s interviews and published in his 1953 book Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. But with a partner, she wrote, women take 20 minutes, while men took two to 10.

Mintz is adamant that the orgasm gap — the tendency for men to orgasm more than women— is cultural, not biological. (Note: Not all women’s bodies have vulvas, and not all bodies with vulvas belong to women. But as I researched this article, I found no data on trans or intersex bodies. This, of course, is its own problem, and has led me to refer exclusively to cis women throughout the rest of this piece.)

Why, then, I wondered, did she believe it took women longer?

Over email, Mintz said the 20-minute statistic doesn’t reflect a lack of sexual responsiveness, and she suspects it would be shorter with a long-term partner who understands the woman’s body. (If that’s the case, I wondered, why is it presented as a property of women’s bodies, not men’s technique? The orgasm gap doesn’t seem to be a problem with lesbians, after all.) Regarding its source, she explained, “That 20-minute stat has been written about by some of the most respected sex educators and therapists and researchers. You can find it, for example, on page 19 in She Comes First (Ian Kerner) and on page 9 of The Orgasm Answer Guide (Beverly Whipple).”

So, I flipped to page 19 of She Comes First. It reads:

“Irony, bigger and cruel, seems to be embedded into our respective processes of arousal: that a woman, so unique in her sexuality…should so often find this vast potential for blazing ecstasy smoldered — a magnificent conflagration left unlit — all for lack of a match that can hold its flame. It’s not a problem with the match, say many men, but rather that a woman’s fuse is too long. Perhaps, but then this raises the question how long is too long? Studies, like those by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, have concluded that among women whose partners spent 21 minutes or longer on foreplay, only 7.7 percent failed to reach orgasm consistently. … Few, if any, of the world’s problems can be solved with a mere 20 minutes of attention.”

The data Kerner’s citing are from Kinsey successor Paul H. Gebhard’s analysis of interviews conducted by the Kinsey Institute. Women were asked how much foreplay they engaged in and — here’s the kicker — the “percent of coitus resulting in orgasm.” Coitus, as in, intercourse — which most cis women don’t reliably orgasm from at all. A meta-analysis of 32 studies in Indiana University professor Elisabeth Lloyd, PhD’s The Case of the Female Orgasm found that only one in four cis women consistently orgasms through intercourse. Lloyd wrote that since many of these women could be stimulating their clitorises during intercourse, the number of women who orgasm through penetration alone is likely lower.

Casting further doubt on Kerner’s extrapolations from Gebhard’s data, it’s unclear what happened during those 21 minutes of foreplay. Blow jobs? Kissing? Role-playing? We don’t know. Whatever the case, it’s unlikely all 21 minutes consisted of clitoral stimulation, given that many men don’t even know where the clitoris is. Only 44% of college men in one study could locate it on a diagram. And that was in 2013, over six decades after these data were collected.

Along with claiming that “a woman’s fuse” is “perhaps” too long, Kerner goes on and on about how difficult and laborious women’s orgasms are — not exactly helping his mission of encouraging men to give them. After reading that “the female orgasm is a more complicated affair and often takes much longer to achieve” and that it requires “persistent stimulation, concentration, and relaxation,” many men may feel intimidated. Why put in so much work for something that may not even show up?

Per Mintz’s suggestion, I also checked out page 9 of The Orgasm Answer Guide, which indeed reads, “While some women have an orgasm within 30 seconds of starting self-stimulation, most women experience orgasm after 20 minutes.” When I emailed Whipple to ask where this came from, she replied, “I have not conducted or published any research on the average time for a woman to experience orgasm.” She forwarded my question to the book’s coauthors in case they knew. None of them got back to me.

Determined to figure out why people think the female orgasm takes so long, I then emailed Indiana University professor and Kinsey Institute research fellow Debby Herbenick, PhD, author of a Men’s Health article that states, “Studies show that it takes 15 to 40 minutes for the average woman to reach orgasm.” When asked where that statistic came from, she told me she couldn’t even recall writing the article. “If pressed to put a number to it, I am not sure I could, other than ‘seconds of stimulation to more than an hour of stimulation preceding orgasm,’” she replied.

Two experts — sex therapist Vanessa Marin, MA, MFT and Ball State University professor Justin Lehmiller, PhD — actually cited a source: the research of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who observed people having sex and masturbating in their lab beginning in the late ‘50s. (Lehmiller tells me he believes clitoral stimulation would take less time than the 10–20 minutes he cited but doesn’t know of any data; Marin admits her figure of 20 minutes is a “rough ballbark” since there’s “not much research” and that it applies primarily “when you’re first learning.”)

Marin linked to an article in the right-wing UK tabloid The Sun, known for reporting stories based on pure rumor. Lehmiller at least cited a book: Masters and Johnson’s 1966 Human Sexual Response. I also found that 10–20-minute statistic attributed to Masters and Johnson in a textbook: Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century by psychology professors Wayne Weiten, PhD, Dana S. Dunn, PhD, and Elizabeth Yost Hammer, PhD.

At that point, I didn’t trust anything I read about orgasmic timing, so I ordered Human Sexual Response off Amazon. After the hefty thing arrived in the mail, I spent a Sunday night poring over it. And poring over it. And not finding anything on this topic. Wondering if I was just missing it, I returned to the book’s Amazon page, clicked “look inside,” and typed “minutes” into the search bar. I learned some interesting facts (“frequently, the increment in breast volume is retained for five to 10 minutes after the orgasmic phase”), but again, nothing about how long anyone takes to orgasm. There was something in a forward by Sam Sloan written in 2009 — “it is said to take the woman 7 minutes 30 seconds to reach the level of arousal where she has an orgasm” — but he doesn’t cite anyone, and I can’t find that number anywhere else, let alone in the book. I did the same thing for Masters and Johnson’s Sexual Inadequacy with the same results. Baffled, I asked Lehmiller where in Human Sexual Response he got his information, but he didn’t have time to look. Fair enough.

It was Hammer who finally shed some light on this puzzle. When I asked her where the 10–20-minute figure that Psychology Applied to Modern Life attributes to Masters and Johnson came from, she replied, “The specific statement that appears in the textbook can’t be attributed to Masters and Johnson. The initial misattribution occurred a number of editions ago, was not caught, and was carried over through subsequent editions.” The real source? Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, she said. Numerous articles are misattributing Kinsey’s data to Masters and Johnson, who, as far as I can tell, didn’t even study orgasmic timing.

So, it appears that the 20-minute statistic is coming from nowhere, from Gebhard’s data on the length of foreplay before intercourse, or from Kinsey’s data on intercourse. In either case, the numbers are based on intercourse — which means we’ve been judging cis women’s orgasmic ability by an activity they don’t even usually orgasm from.

“The reason we think of men as being more orgasmic involves the ubiquity of ‘sex’ being defined as ‘intercourse,’” sexologist Carol Queen, PhD tells me. “Intercourse doesn’t offer sufficient clitoral stimulation for most women to allow for efficient, easy orgasm.”

But other activities do. As Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade, PhD points out, one study found that 90% of cis women orgasmed when their last sexual encounter included oral and manual sex, and another found that 92% did when they engaged in oral, self-stimulation, and intercourse. “The idea that women would have different rates of orgasm depending on what kinds of stimulation that they give their bodies seems almost so obvious that it’s stupid to say out loud,” says Wade. “But we have to do that because the assumption is that women’s bodies are bad at having orgasms.”

Of the 20-minute statistic, Wade says, “There’s nothing there. It’s crazy to me because I hear this said all the time.”

The idea that orgasms come (heh) far quicker and easier to men is one of the most ubiquitously believed gender differences, yet it’s been known since the ‘50s that this is only true during intercourse. Given that intercourse tends to favor male orgasms, it’s telling that our male-dominated society has defined it as “sex.”

When we look at masturbation, gender differences almost entirely evaporate. Kinsey found that 45% of cis women took one to three minutes to orgasm through masturbation, 25% took four to five minutes, 19% took six to 10 minutes, and only 12% took over 10. He wrote in Sexual Behavior in the Human Female:

“Many of those who took longer to reach orgasm did so deliberately in order to prolong the pleasure of the activity and not because they were incapable of responding more quickly. These data on the female’s speed in reaching orgasm provide important information on her basic sexual capacities. There is widespread opinion that the female is slower than the male in her sexual responses, but the masturbatory data do not support that opinion. The average male may take something between two and three minutes to reach orgasm unless he deliberately prolongs his activity, and a calculation of the median time required would probably show that he responds not more than some seconds faster than the average female. It is true that the average female responds more slowly than the average male in coitus, but this seems to be due to the ineffectiveness of the usual coital techniques.”

Sex researcher Shere Hite similarly found that 95% of cis women who masturbated “could orgasm easily and regularly, whenever they wanted.” She didn’t determine the average time, but she wrote in 1976’s The Hite Report that Kinsey’s findings were “similar to the women in this study.” She elaborated, “It is, obviously, only during inadequate or secondary, insufficient stimulation like intercourse that we take ‘longer’ and need prolonged ‘foreplay.’ But this misconception has led to a kind of mystique about female orgasm.”

Even today, the authors of widely used textbooks endorse this view. “During masturbation, 70 percent of females reach orgasm in four minutes or less,” psychologists Dennis Coon, PhD and ‎John O. Mitterer, PhD write in Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. “This casts serious doubt on the idea that women respond more slowly. Slower female response during intercourse probably occurs because stimulation to the clitoris is less direct. It might be said that men simply provide too little stimulation for more rapid female response, not that women are in any way inferior.”

There hasn’t been much research on this topic since Kinsey, but I’d venture to bet that women might be even quicker if the data were collected today, given that 53% of American women in one 2009 study had used vibrators, compared to less than 1% in the ‘70s, according to Shere Hite’s research. A 2015 study of 100 users of the Womanizer vibrator found that half orgasmed in a minute or less using the toy. Toys aren’t necessary to make women as sexually responsive as men, as some companies would have you believe. They put us ahead of them.

I’m not saying that orgasm should be the goal of sex or that those who can’t orgasm are in any way inferior or unworthy (stigmatization of those who are anorgasmic is a serious issue). Nor am I saying that those who need more time have inferior sex lives. They may actually enjoy sex more, since they get more pleasure before they crash. They should ask for however much time they need unapologetically. And lastly, I’m not saying women’s partners should give up after four minutes. Everyone’s different, and it can take a while to get to know a partner’s body, regardless of gender.

But here’s why the 20-minute statistic pisses me off so much. As Wade puts it, deeming female orgasms more difficult “naturalizes the orgasm gap.” She explains:

“It makes it seem like the orgasm gap is inevitable and acceptable and just, and it makes women feel guilty for wanting to have orgasms and asking for orgasms from their partners because if their bodies are so bad at it and it’s just a burden, women don’t want to be a burden on their partners. And it also gives men an excuse to not try.”

She’s right: Fake statistics about orgasmic timing do get used to naturalize the orgasm gap. The website for Promescent, an anesthetic penis spray that claims to close the orgasm gap by prolonging erections, claims:

“Today, far too many people believe that when they have good sex, men and women are supposed to orgasm around the same time. But, like many other common misconceptions, the science just doesn’t back it up. On average, men take about five minutes to orgasm, while women take much longer, which means that men climax a lot more often than women do. This difference between the male and female orgasm is what we call the Orgasm Gap. Believe it or not, science is to blame. Because men and women are scientifically different. But the best way to beat science is with better science. And that’s where Promescent comes in.”

On Twitter, insecure dudes talk about how it’s not worth the effort to get women off, while women themselves often complain about men making these damaging assumptions.

There’s also another, deeper reason this stat pisses me off. Supposed gender differences in orgasmic timing are often considered God’s cruel joke on humanity, with women the butts of the joke — the unlucky ones. Female multiple orgasms have been deemed the great equalizer in this equation, but in reality, most cis women have refractory periods like men. “I am suspicious that ‘multiple’ is not really multiple in the way Cosmo has traditionally written about them,” sex researcher Nicole Prause, PhD tells me. “Rather, it seems likely that some women have a relatively short refractory period, just like some men.”

Or, we’re supposed to feel comforted by the “fact” that the clitoris has twice as many nerve endings as the penis, another baseless statistic that’s somehow made its way around the internet without any study ever cited. The clitoris and penis develop from the same structure in the womb, so they likely have around the same amount of nerve endings, says Queen. These supposed advantages are typically cited in praises of women, yet they’re often framed as consolations for not having the supposedly superior male body.

This is part of a larger narrative that says that being a woman is a disadvantage, a curse. It dates back to God punishing Eve through the pain of childbirth. He supposedly made the “female body” an unpleasant place to live in, and the idea that we have less access to sexual pleasure perpetuates that notion. From normalizing painful sex and painful periods to lamenting the “elusive female orgasm,” we learn that men’s bodies work for them while ours work against us. We learn that they’re built for pleasure while we’re built for pain. And when we learn we’re built for less pleasure and more pain, we come to accept lives where we experience less pleasure and more pain. Being taught you were born unequal on a physical level instills a deep-seated inferiority complex.

Spreading a false statistic about women as a group reflects and perpetuates the idea that women are poorly built — and that intercourse is the most valid type of “sex.” It also reflects and perpetuates the notion that female masturbation is threatening — hence the constant omission of that four-minute figure.

Consider this parallel: The clitoris is frequently omitted from medical textbooks. Scottie Hale Buehler, CPM, MA, a PhD Candidate in UCLA’s Department of History who studies this very phenomenon, tells me: “The clitoris embodies many misogynistic fears about sexual pleasure: that penetration and penises may not even be necessary for orgasm.” When asked whether the erasure of female masturbation statistics could reflect the same fears, Buehler told me, “I think your hypothesis sounds convincing,” adding that heteronormativity also likely plays a role.

So, perhaps it’s threatening for men to know that women’s own hands are far better at getting them off than a penis. As psychologist Manfred F. DeMartino wrote in the 1974 book Sex and the Intelligent Women:

“As more women become liberated sexually and thus more confident, aggressive, and demanding in their heterosexual relationships, and because of their ability to reach several orgasms in a short time interval, men may well experience a greater sense of threat with respect to their feelings of virility and masculinity — they may find it increasingly difficult to sexually satisfy women. Past and current research clearly indicate that the majority of women in our society are able to attain an orgasm much easier and faster from clitoral self-manipulation than from sexual intercourse.”

That said, I don’t believe that those who cite the 20-minute statistic are driven by misogyny or fear of the clit. They’re just trying to convince women’s partners to spend some goddamn time on them for once. They want to close the orgasm gap. We share that mission.

But achieving orgasm equality is not empowering if it’s framed as a way of overcoming cis women’s shitty biology. In that case, it’s only feeding the idea that women are inherently defective. Claiming that women need toys or vaginal treatments or extra time to gain equality implies that they’re innately unequal. True orgasm equality means abolishing this hierarchical thinking altogether.

Think about it: We’ve relegated the activities that give most women orgasms to “foreplay,” mere preparation for the main event that produces male orgasms. We need to adjust our definition of “sex” to accommodate women’s bodies, not judge women’s bodies based on a patriarchal definition of “sex.”

All we really need is more respect for the vulva and more accurate information about how it really works. Because, trust us: Contrary to popular belief, it works just fine.