“Using mixed quantitative and qualitative analyses, we found compelling evidence that orgasm experiences can be “bad” during consensual sex.” p 2435

Wait. What? You mean having an orgasm doesn’t prove the sex was good?

In my counseling office, it is common for me to hear husbands focus heavily on whether his wife has an orgasm – and to hear her frustration with that focus. Similarly, I hear wives convinced something is wrong when her husband doesn’t have, or doesn’t want to have, an orgasm.

It seems the orgasm itself is the mark of whether the sex is good or not. This idea is reinforced in both the media and in professional sexology (see article for references).

But… what if the orgasm isn’t the best mark of “good sex”, or even fulfilling sex? Is it even possible for an orgasm to NOT be a good thing?

According to recent research, the answer to this is that sex is more complex than just assuming if an orgasm was had, then the sex was good.

Summary

In exploring this issue, researchers set out to answer the following questions:

  1. Do individuals experience orgasms during sexual coercion, sexual compliance, and/or when they feel pressured to orgasm?
  2. Is there evidence that orgasm experiences can be “bad” during consensual sexual encounters?
  3. How does social location shape bad orgasm experiences?

Method

Researchers used an online survey of open-ended questions from a convenience sample of individuals over 18 who had had consensual sex. Sample was obtained through social media (see chart).

“We recruited specifically to increase gender and sexual minority representation through similar advertisements targeted toward gender and sexual minority individuals. Targeted advertisements were posted in the same online spaces as general recruitment ads, but also in targeted online spaces…”  (p. 2439)

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The sample for the quantitative side of the research included 726 participants (x̄ age = 28.42 years, s.d. = 7.85) with 289 providing qualitative statements which were analyzed. 

Subjects for quantitive and qualitative study (respectively) were largely US based (75%/80%(2)first number is percentage in quantitative study/second is percentage in qualitative study), in committed relationships or married (60.8%/61.5%), white (78.2%/78.5% though broad race/ethnicity were represented), and young (<20% over 34). As they specfically targeted gender/sexual minorities these were well (heavily?) represented with self-reported heterosexual (41%/36%), bisexual or pansexual (34%/38%), gay or lesbian (11.1%/11.4%) followed by 9 other categories of sexual identity.

Respondents were divided into three categories: 

Coerced sex: These participants reported the sex as consensual but identified pressure from their partner as the reason for having sex. 

Compliant sex: These participants complied with having sex even though they did not want to have it. 

Desired sex: Participant wanted to engage in sex. 

Further, participants were divided into those who felt:

  1. no pressure to orgasm,
  2. pressure from their partner to have an orgasm, or
  3. pressure from within themselves to have an orgasm.

This 3 by 3 matrix was then evaluated based on standard statistical methods for both qualitative and quantitive analysis.

Results

The first question asked was if the pressure to have sex or have an orgasm was inhibitory enough to prevent an orgasm.

“Our results showed that orgasms can occur during coerced sex, compliant sex, and orgasm pressure and that these experiences were often described in negative and/or non-positive ways.”

Researchers pointed out this doesn’t mean negative experiences can’t be inhibitory but

“These findings highlight that orgasms can co-occur with negative affect during consensual sexual encounters, contrasting with previous research that has positioned negative affect as inhibitive for orgasm occurrence…” (p. 2452)

The second question asked if an orgasm is good under such circumstances.

“Some might argue that if orgasm occurred during a consensual sexual encounters that included negative affect, the encounter must have become at least somewhat positive even if the encounter was initially unwanted or negative in other ways because of the orgasm’s occurrence. However, many of our participants described their experiences in completely negative terms, even though we asked participants to describe their positive feelings during and after the sexual activity (if they had any).” (p. 2452) 

Researchers identified 4 main themes:

Theme 1: Participants characterized their encounters in negative and/or non-positive ways despite orgasm occurrence.

Theme 2: Participants more often described these orgasms as less pleasurable than in other non-pressured encounters. Subsets of this included:

  • Weaker orgasms
  • Physical reaction only (only body responded).
  • Emotionally less pleasurable
  • Painful (specifically due to the encounter)

Theme 3: Participants suggested that their experiences had negative impacts on their relationships, sexuality, and/or psychological health. This included negative feelings toward their partner, decreased desire, and reports of developing dysfunction.

Was coerced sex, consensual sex, or when there was orgasm pressure more pleasurable, less pleasurable, or the same?

“Importantly, participants also implied that the act of having an orgasm during an encounter otherwise characterized by negative affect meant that their concerns were not taken seriously by partners.” 

The individual coercing, for example, might suggest their partner’s resistance/complaints were not valid since they had experienced an orgasm.

Theme 4: “Some participants who experienced an orgasm during coercion, compliance, and/or orgasm pressure reported orgasm experiences that were characterized by positive or mixed feelings.” (p. 2448) 

Finally, researchers asked a third question – the impact of social location. “Social location” can be described as where the individual fits in the fabric of society and is based upon social characteristics deemed to be important by that society. Characteristics deemed to be important by U.S. society would include socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, and religion.  Researchers found sexual identity, gender identity, race, and religion all impacted how an orgasm was experienced. Stereotypes seemed to play heavily into the impact of social location. Impact was also individualized. Christian religion, for example, was listed as both a positive and a negative impact depending upon the individual.

“Overall, results from the current study highlight that orgasms during consensual sexual encounters are not unilaterally positive experiences. Our findings also refute the notion that orgasm occurrence during consensual sex means the encounter was wanted, arousal was present, and the experience was pleasurable.” (p. 2456)

So What? …

Note: I’m skipping the typical “review” section to go straight to the “So What?…” This was a well done study and any critiques I have are identified by the researchers are nit-picky and don’t change the outcome.   

I love that this research supported some of the statements I teach to clients and students. 

At one level, an orgasm is simply a neurochemical reaction. Much like any body function, that neurochemical reaction doesn’t have to be about love, connection, sex, or even pleasure. Orgasms can occur outside of sexual or pleasurable contexts. 

True pleasure is more than neurochemical reactions. Our nervous system sparking an orgasm doesn’t mean the experience was good or pleasurable. Meaning and connection also are critical to true pleasure.  

“Making” your partner have an orgasm doesn’t mean you are a great lover. In fact, this research shows you might actually be doing damage to him/her, his/her view of you, his/her sexuality, and your relationship.  

Consent is key – and more than compliance. Consent is critical for healthy sexuality, but as this article highlights, “consent” doesn’t necessarily equal desire. And, just because someone desires to be sexual, doesn’t mean they also desire what they believe is expected or what their partner desires. Our bodies might respond if we “go along” with our partners, but that doesn’t mean we are responding.

Healthy sex happens when we are pursuing something, not just having something done to us. All participants in this study identified the sexual encounter as consensual, but that didn’t mean they wanted what they were doing. This doesn’t mean we need to be horny. Pursuing nurturing sex is still pursuing. Laying back and allowing something to be done to us because the cost of not is too high may do damage.

 

What do you think? Do you see other themes supported in this research? What stands out to you?

Shameless promotion

Articles like these highlight the need for counselors (LPC, MHCC, NCC, etc.), therapists (MFT, CST), psychologists, and social workers to obtain quality continuing education. If people helpers don’t stay current, we perpetuate social myths rather than provide grounded help. Stay connected with Sexualis Veritas to learn about upcoming CE opportunities grounded in research.

Citation

Chadwick, S. B., Francisco, M., & van Anders, S. M. (2019). When Orgasms Do Not Equal Pleasure: Accounts of “Bad” Orgasm Experiences During Consensual Sexual Encounters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 48(8), 2435-2459. doi:10.1007/s10508-019-01527-7

References   [ + ]

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2. first number is percentage in quantitative study/second is percentage in qualitative study