There are a million reasons why a woman might not orgasm during sex: a lackluster partner, her physical anatomy, her level of relaxation, her ever-growing to-do list, a lack of foreplay, or even a big burrito dinner that's getting in the way of her enjoying herself (or so I've heard).
But there's another possible explanation for why a woman might not climax that hasn't gotten much mainstream attention: Sexism in the bedroom.
In a new study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, researchers from the University of Queensland in Australia hypothesized that when women buy into their partners' sexist beliefs, they pay a price in the bedroom—and they were right.
For the study, a researcher at Queensland's School of Psychology named Emily Harris and her colleagues enlisted two sets of women in heterosexual relationships for two different experiments. The first group, which included 339 women, were gathered from a previous sex study that measured men and women’s sexual attitudes, sexual history, and social attitudes. The second set group, which numbered 323, were recruited from Amazon's Mechanical Turk.
In the first experiment, the researchers began by measuring every woman's endorsement of hostile and benevolent sexism using the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory. For the uninitiated, hostile sexism can be defined as an overt disdain for women. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, is much more nuanced. It's partly defined by the belief that women need to be cherished and protected by men. This belief might seem beneficial toward women on the surface—but it's actually insidious. As the authors explain:
Benevolent sexism assumes female passivity and romanticizes the belief that women should be reliant on men. In this way, benevolent sexism is argued to be a form of legitimizing myth, whereby prejudicial attitudes toward women are justified through the guise of care and protection.
Understanding benevolent sexism is key to Harris' research: Harris and her colleagues hypothesized that when a woman held benevolent sexist beliefs—and was part of a relationship on which her partner was dominant and she was more passive—she might also believe that her partner had a right to be selfish in bed. They speculated that these women would view sex as a wifely "duty" owed to a husband rather than a source of pleasure.
After measuring every woman's level of sexism, the researches measured their level of "perceived male sexual selfishness"—or how selfish they felt their partners were in bed. The participants were given statements such as, ‘‘During sex, men only care about their own pleasure,’’ and ‘‘Men care more about ‘getting off’ than whether or not their partner has an orgasm,’’ and asked to rate them on a scale of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree."
The women also provided information on how frequently they orgasm and whether or not their orgasms come from penetration, oral sex, or manual stimulation.
After analyzing the data, Harris and her team saw a clear link between endorsing benevolent sexism and experiencing fewer orgasms.
Women’s benevolent sexism significantly predicted perceived male sexual selfishness, such that the more women endorsed benevolent sexism, the more likely they were to perceive men as sexually selfish. Perceived male sexual selfishness was, in turn, significantly related to women’s orgasm frequency, such that the more women perceived men as sexually selfish, the fewer orgasms they experienced.
While benevolent sexism wasn't directly causing this issue, the endorsement of benevolent sexism did lead to a perception that men are selfish in bed, and that in turn resulted in fewer orgasms.
In the second experiment, the researchers expanded their questioning to measure participants' "willingness to ask for pleasure." The researchers hypothesized that women who had sexist partners who focused only on their own sexual satisfaction would be less willing to ask for pleasure than women in egalitarian relationships.
In this experiment, the researchers again found that endorsing benevolent sexism predicted ‘‘perceived male sexual selfishness,’’ which in turn predicted ‘‘willingness to ask for pleasure,’’ which then predicted orgasm frequency.
So what should we make of these findings? For one, the researchers point out that when women buy into benevolent sexism they may be more inclined to buy into other detrimental beliefs about their relationship, too—including the notion that men are entitled to sex from their wife and that a man can demand pleasure but a woman can not—and this, in turn, results in fewer orgasms for women.
"The present study therefore furthers our understanding of how broad ideological factors such as benevolent sexism may (indirectly) impact women’s orgasm functioning," conclude the authors in the report.
Previous studies back up what Harris and her team discovered. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that when presented with a marital vignette about a man demanding sex from his wife, those participants who ranked higher in benevolent sexism were more likely to see sex as the man's right and the woman's duty. In the world of benevolent sexism, sex becomes an exchange. If a man is caring for and protecting his wife, then it is her obligation to give him sexual favors. In this same study, the researchers found that those high in benevolent sexism were also less likely to consider forced marital sex as rape.
Similarly, a small study published in 2015 found that the more college-aged women were exposed to benevolent sexism in their daily lives, the more they saw sex as a relationship tool rather than a source of pleasure.
So it appears that when benevolent sexism enters the bedroom, sex no longer becomes a shared experience of pleasure for both partners. Instead, it becomes a transaction in which a woman uses sex as currency in exchange for protection. Which seems so freaking unsexy.
This setup may work some people—to each their own—but as for me, I think I'll stick to my egalitarian relationship, which also happens to be filled with pleasure. Thanks!
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.