Research on female pleasure today is a step up from the dark, not-so-old days when the topic was taboo to study, wildly misunderstood by many, and often fully discounted — so much so that anatomists didn’t map the full shape of the (actually larger than you’d think) clitoris until 2005. Yet ignorance of female bodies and pleasure is still common, even amongst women and often to harmful effect. Research on this remains so stunted (and outpaced by studies on male sexuality) that there’s still debate on what defines a female orgasm or what the g-spot is. Most advice for women or their partners on how to have mind-blowing sex, as well as basic data, like what percentage of women regularly orgasm during intercourse, is based on tiny, inherently biased surveys at best, and cherry-picked anecdotes at worst.
However, two years ago a group of researchers conducted the first random, truly representative study of American women and how they like their genitals touched during sex. This summer, they published the first of their findings, which is a barrage of stats: Only 18 percent of sexually experienced women said vaginal penetration alone could reliably bring them to orgasm, while 37 percent needed clitoral stimulation. Just 19 percent said the duration of sex often led to a better orgasm. Then there’s an endless roll of data on the diverse ways — locations, pressures, shapes, styles of motion, patterns and rhythms — in which different women like to be touched during sex.
It’s important information for anyone who cares about female pleasure. But it can be difficult for laypeople to figure out what it means for them. So we spoke to Deborah Herbenick, an author on the study and a prominent human sexuality researcher, to learn why we needed this study and what we can all take from it and apply, to mutually appreciable ends, in our own lives.
This study wasn’t an attempt to prove or disprove advice on different paths to female sexual pleasure. But what do you think about the sort of advice floating around now?
It’s completely overblown. Where I’ve been frustrated is when I hear about other professionals in this field talking about certain techniques or pleasure or aspects of sex with a lot of certainty, when there’s actually no data behind it. I don’t think there’s any harm in doing the best you can to provide people with options so long as you say, ‘try these different things and find what feels right for you.’ Even in the study, that was one of our messages: There are certainly some things that some women like more than others. But there’s also a lot of diversity. So people have to talk to each other, or use nonverbal cues, or whatever else they’re able to do in their relationships or with their sex partners to indicate that they’re liking something or not liking something.
Were there any numbers in your results that surprised you — like about the commonality of certain preferences?
One of the pieces I found interesting and a bit surprising was that when we looked at different touching styles women liked, 41 percent really preferred just one of the 12 that we offered [versus preferring multiple methods]. That was an awful lot of women to hone in on one specific way of touching. If there’s no other data in that study that speaks to the value of communication, to me it’s that one. It means you really have low odds of just happening to stumble upon what your partner likes. If people really do have this one specific preference, it’s great to put in the effort and care to find out what that is.
Sexual advice givers have stressed the importance of communication for some time now. How do the results of your study add to the way people can approach that communication?
If you’re having some friends over for dinner you’ve never had over, you might want to know if they’re vegetarians, if they’re gluten or dairy free, if there are certain foods that they like a lot, or what their preferred level of spice is. There are some generic things that we ask each other when we’re even planning to eat with somebody. There are so many aspects of life where we have those categories you can go to that help you describe your preferences and what you want.
Maybe there really are some specifics that we should be asking about [with respect to sex too.] Whether it’s for people in general or sex therapists and educators, it’s not just ‘where do you want to be touched,’ but [things like] shape and pressure. That might really matter to somebody.
Do you think the categories you lay out — location, pressure, shape and style of motion, and patterns — are a good basis for these conversations, or do we need to go beyond even those?
They’re a great starting place. That doesn’t mean this is the final word. But if you can start there, you’re probably going to get into a detailed conversation. Hopefully if there are other things we haven’t thought about, partners will share that with each other too, once they get [into] talking.
Where else do you want to push your research in this vein in the future?
We do have other papers coming out from the same data set… within the next year. It would be great to do a similar study with men. There could be interesting aspects of partner perception, but also finding out what it’s been like for men in terms of touch preferences. There’s conventional wisdom out there. You can open any magazine and find things about the frenulum as this spot to focus on. But that’s not true for everyone. We know that. How do things vary by circumcision status for men — for women? What does this look like for oral sex or for intercourse techniques?
Is there anything else you think people at large could or should take away from this study?
If something isn’t known scientifically, let’s be less absolute and make room for preferences… give people a lot of options and let them try what works and doesn’t. When we talk to people about sex, that has to include lots of diversity, communication, openness, and exploration.