Men need women to orgasm to feel more masculine, suggests a new study that finds female orgasms function as a “masculinity achievement” for men — a finding that could have positive, and not-so-positive repercussions for women.
University of Michigan researchers who randomly assigned 810 men to read a vignette where they imagined that an attractive woman either did or did not orgasm during sex with them found (many would say unsurprisingly) that men felt more masculine, and reported higher sexual esteem when they imagined the woman climaxed.
That was especially true for men with more fragile masculinity.
None of this is necessarily bad for women. “Certainly, many men who experience women’s orgasms as a masculinity achievement may also be genuinely invested in women’s pleasure” and thus may be motivated to attend to women “with zeal,” the researchers write in The Journal of Sex Research.
However, the desire to preserve or shore up a man’s masculinity might also keep women from speaking honestly about what they want, which is why women, other research holds, frequently fake it.
Women might also be made to feel they are somehow missing out on “good” sex if they don’t climax, don’t want to or orgasm only “via non partnered stimulation,” they add.
Furthermore, if a woman’s orgasms become rooted in a man’s sense of masculinity, infrequent orgasms could be seen as a “failure” of the man’s skills or prowess, or some kind of medical or psychological dysfunction or disorder within the woman.
Perhaps tellingly, “Women who seek medical consultation for their own orgasm problems have described their concern as stemming from their male partner’s feelings of sexual inadequacy,” they write in the Journal of Sex Research.
Media messages “on how to give women orgasms, receive them and make them more frequent, more mind blowing and more multiple are abundant,” writes Toronto-born Sari van Anders, an associate professor of psychology and women’s studies at the U of Michigan, along with co-author Sara Chadwick.
Women’s orgasms, van Anders added in an interview, are being held up as a paragon of women’s sexual liberation. But she wondered, is something else behind the rhetoric?
When we push orgasms for women as a sign of sexual liberation, if there’s more going on behind the scenes we might end up reinforcing some of the same gender norms we’ve had all along, just with a new cover
“When we push orgasms for women as a sign of sexual liberation, if there’s more going on behind the scenes we might end up reinforcing some of the same gender norms we’ve had all along, just with a new cover,” she said in an interview.
She said research has shown “quite convincingly” that sexuality between women and men has historically been about men’s pleasure. “It usually ends with men’s orgasms and often a woman’s orgasm isn’t even part of the story.” In the Victorian era, women were thought not to have any kind of sexuality whatsoever, Chadwick added. Gynecologist William Acton famously wrote in his 1857 manual, The Function and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, that “the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled by sexual feelings of any kind.”
The sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s brought increased focus on women’s pleasure, making women’s orgasms a symbol of gender equality, Chadwick said.
Today, there’s increasing pressure on women, and men, to fulfil certain sexual norms — lots of sex, ending in orgasm — in a culture of almost compulsory sexuality.
Yet studies have found that many women fake climaxes to please their male partners, van Anders and Chadwick write, “highlighting that women sometimes prioritize their male partner’s ego” over communicating their own sexual desires.
For their study, the pair developed an experiment, the Imagined Orgasm Exercise. In an online survey, men (mean age 26) recruited from Craigslist, Reddit, Facebook, the University of Michigan and other sources were randomly assigned to read one of four vignettes where they imagined themselves with a woman with whom they had had sex at least three times previously. The women were orgasmic, or not. And the woman had either often, or rarely experienced orgasms with other men.
The authors hypothesized that men with more precarious masculinity, at least as measured by the “masculine gender role stress” scale that measures how stressed men would feel in given situations, like being outperformed at work by a woman, would be more motivated to “prove themselves” and feel most masculine in imagined scenarios where the woman orgasmed.
Overall, “success conditions” led to the highest masculinity scores. Men also felt more masculine after imaging their partner rarely orgasmed in the past, however the effect was small. High-stress men, meanwhile, felt more masculine and validated when a woman orgasmed, and less masculine and more distressed when she didn’t, compared to low-stress men.
“I want to be clear — certainly this isn’t something that all men would experience and this isn’t something that most men are doing consciously or on purpose,” van Anders said.
“This is about how our cultural norms about gender and sexuality can turn heterosexual interactions into an arena for performance — meaning there’s pressure to perform and less scope to enjoy what’s going on, learn from it and experience it for what it is.”