A new study published in the Journal of Sex Research finds that women’s orgasms are tied to men’s feelings of masculinity, such that guys feel manlier when their partners climax during sex.
Since it came out, this study has been making the rounds in the media, but it has been interpreted in vastly different ways. Some outlets have argued that the results are ultimately a good thing for everyone because they imply that men are likely to “invest themselves in [women’s] pleasure more often.” Not only does this mean women are likely to have more orgasms, they say, but also that men get a self-esteem boost whenever women climax. Win-win, right?
Not so fast. Other outlets have argued that these results are actually problematic for all of us because they turn women’s orgasms into something that occurs primarily in the service of men’s egos. This amps up performance pressure on everybody and reinforces the idea that men’s pleasure matters the most. Some have taken it a step further and concluded “men are sexist if they enjoy giving their female partner pleasure.”
Let’s step back from all of the spin for a moment and take a look at what really happened in this study—and what the results do and don’t tell us.
University of Michigan researchers Sara Chadwick and Dr. Sari van Anders conducted an online survey of 810 adult men (age 25 on average) who reported being sexually attracted to women. All participants were asked to imagine getting it on with an attractive woman they like and with whom they’d already had sex three times. They were then led to believe that she either always or never orgasms with him. Afterward, guys were given a list of 36 emotions—including masculine, successful, and ashamed—and were asked to indicate how likely they would be to feel each one in that situation.
Men across the board said that they’d feel manlier if their partner orgasmed. So what does that mean?
Men’s feelings of masculinity were highest when they imagined a woman who orgasms regularly with him. The researchers referred to this as a “masculinity achievement” effect because higher masculinity ratings were linked to feeling more successful, accomplished and proud in general.
Men who had more “fragile masculinity”—that is, guys who felt a lot of pressure to live up to the traditional male gender role—experienced the achievement effect most strongly; however, even the guys who were at the low end of this scale still showed it to some extent. This achievement effect also occurred for guys regardless of whether they held more traditional or egalitarian (aka equal) values.
In other words, we’re talking about a pretty pervasive effect here. Men across the board said that they’d feel manlier if their partner orgasmed. So what does that mean?
As Chadwick and van Anders said in a statement they sent me, this masculinity boost is likely to come “at a cost to the pleasurable experience of sex for women—and men.” They argue that it puts pressure on men to feel like they have to “give” orgasms to women, while also putting pressure on women to fake orgasms in order to “protect men’s feelings.”
Another sexologist I spoke to, Dr. Jess O’Reilly, echoed these sentiments, saying that this has a tendency to turn sex into a “performative act as opposed to a selfish/pleasure-based one” for women. Further, she said this is “sometimes why orgasms can be elusive—the pressure detracts from pleasure.”
Put another way, when men make women’s orgasms about themselves, we all suffer—and it might very well be contributing to the orgasm gap.
Another researcher I spoke to—Dr. John Sakaluk, a social psychologist at the University of Victoria—doesn’t disagree with any of these claims; however, he wonders whether we might be drawing conclusions that go slightly beyond the data. Sakaluk, who praised the rigor of this study, took a cautious interpretation, in part because men were asked to simply imagine their emotional reactions to a partner’s orgasm.
“We know that people are terrible affective forecasters,” he said, meaning that our imagined feelings aren’t accurate at predicting our actual feelings. As such, he suggests that we need to look at how this plays out in the real word, which includes gathering data on whether the quest for a masculinity boost ultimately translates to less pleasurable sex for men and women alike. To be fair, Chadwick and van Anders touch on this limitation briefly at the very end of their article, too.
However, another important reason to be cautious about the conclusions we draw is that this study didn’t look at how women feel about men’s orgasms.
“I agree wholeheartedly there isn’t the same discourse of women ‘giving’ orgasms to men who ‘have’ them,” Sakaluk says, “but I nevertheless wonder whether women would feel more ‘feminine’ and likewise experience higher sexual self-esteem following their partner’s orgasm. And, if so, what the heck does that mean?”
It’s quite possible that women might also feel pressured to some extent for their partners to have orgasms, given that we live in culture where “successful” sex is defined by the presence of mutual orgasm—something sex researchers have termed orgasmic imperative.
In light of this, it would be useful to study women’s reactions to their male partners’ orgasms, or lack thereof. If we were to see that women also feel some kind of achievement boost following male orgasm, that would signify that the orgasmic imperative is part of the problem here, too. Maybe we’re all overemphasizing orgasms in a way that might be detracting from sexual enjoyment by promoting performance anxiety instead of relaxation in the bedroom.
With all of that said, I wholeheartedly agree with Chadwick and van Anders’s argument that traditional gender-role beliefs and fragile masculinity are a likely recipe for sexual problems and, furthermore, that this is probably a key factor involved in the orgasm gap. However, this gendered explanation may not be the only factor at play. Another likely problem is that both men and women have gotten too hung up on the idea that sex isn’t really sex without orgasm.
We’d probably all stand to benefit if we stopped putting so much “achievement” pressure on ourselves (and our partners) during sex and started recognizing that our partners’ orgasms aren’t really about us—they’re about them.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.