This is how TV depicts women’s struggles to orgasm
In a 2002 episode of Sex and the City, Samantha declares that she “lost her orgasm.” Carrie and Charlotte throw out suggestions to comfort her, including “Were you on top?” Toward the end of the episode, she breaks her orgasm dry spell during intercourse with her latest guy, Nick, the wrestling coach. The condition Samantha was experiencing is known by psychologists and doctors as anorgasmia, which affects 11 to 41% of women worldwide, according to a University of Vermont review in Advances in Psychosomatic Medicine. According to Laurie Mintz, professor of psychology at the University of Florida and author of Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It, anorgasmia is the inability or difficulty to orgasm.
In fact, a meta-analysis in biologist Elisabeth Lloyd’s 2006 book, The Case of the Female Orgasm, found that 5-10% of women had never had an orgasm at the point when the studies took place.
Sometimes there’s a psychological or physiological issue that causes anorgasmia, like anxiety, pelvic floor dysfunction, or medication side effects. Other times, it’s simply due to poor communication with a partner or lack of education on someone’s own part, as many women either don’t learn what is required for them to orgasm or feel too ashamed or afraid to talk to their partners about what they need, Mintz adds.
But one of the main reasons orgasm problems are so common among women is that they’re not receiving the clitoral stimulation they need to climax, Mintz says. According to Lloyd’s study, only one-quarter of women consistently orgasm through intercourse. Another Indiana University study published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy found that 73% of women either need clitoral stimulation to orgasm or say it enhances their orgasms.
Yet most TV depictions of female orgasms—including those of women overcoming anorgasmia—involve penetrative sex or suggest in the storyline that a man is necessary for an orgasm to occur. In early 2017, for instance, The Bachelor shed light on this topic when contestant Raven Gates admitted she had never had an orgasm with bachelor Nick Viall and suggested that it was a man’s job to give her an orgasm. After their night in the “fantasy suite,” the audience is treated to a montage of Gates prancing cheerfully through the snow; presumably, Nick did his duties. “I will say this: Nick is really good at what he does, so I’m pretty satisfied today,” Raven declared.
The Bold Type, a Freeform series about several young women working at a magazine in New York City, repeated this storyline with protagonist Jane confessing that she has never had an orgasm. She then has her first and second through penetrative sex (and with what seems like no foreplay) with a new fling from her office. Even though these TV moments are not depicting a true reality of how women orgasm, why are they still happening?
According to Mintz, this all comes down to the patriarchy. Because intercourse (via penis-and-vagina penetration) is a reliable way for most men to orgasm, people (and shows) assume it’s the most important and only sexual activity for both men and women to do.
“Underlying this false idea is our cultural privileging of male sexual pleasure and our parallel devaluing of female sexual pleasure,” she explains. “[Our society] believes that the way men most dependably orgasm (via intercourse) should be the way that women should most consistently orgasm. And we consider showing intercourse on the screen to be acceptable and showing women’s most reliable route to orgasm—clitoral stimulation—to be obscene.”
In reality, the person who can best give you your first orgasm is you. Not a partner.
In one survey conducted by Cosmopolitan, 39% of women said most of their orgasms happened through masturbation, while only 15% said most happened through penetrative sex without clitoral stimulation.
“Having a woman pleasure herself is almost always the first step to helping [her] orgasm,” says Mintz. “After she finds this out on her own, she can then transfer this [knowledge] to partnered sex by showing and/or telling her partner about the type of stimulation she needs to orgasm.” Unfortunately, this is not the kind of thing you usually see portrayed on TV.
But as more progressive feminist-based shows hit the screen, alternate depictions of women overcoming anorgasmia are finally getting air time. In late 2017, when Ilana of Comedy Central’s Broad City found herself in an orgasm drought, the show showed a solution that is actually effective: Ilana goes to a sex therapist—who is modeled after sex educator Betty Dodson—where she explores the root of her issue (which appears to be related to her stress over Donald Trump’s election) and masturbates using a vibrator.
Plus, just this year, The Goop Lab—a Netflix documentary series about Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness company—got into the nitty-gritty of Dodson’s work, demonstrating the technique she uses to help women have their first orgasms: She has them masturbate while simultaneously using a powerful vibrator called a Hitachi Magic Wand on the clitoris and a barbell toy in the vagina. According to one study by the European Orgasm Academy in the Scientific World Journal, 93% of women dealing with anorgasmia were able to orgasm using this method.
2020 also gave us Season 2 of the Netflix series Sex Education, which acknowledged that often when women aren’t orgasming it’s not because of a deep psychological blockage—it’s just due to poor sex education and communication. Episode 2, for instance, draws attention to all the misinformation that’s out there about the female orgasm and the need to talk to a partner about it. After Otis, a young teenage boy, does a disastrous job fingering his partner, Ola, based on his online research, his friend Ruthie advises him to ask Ola what she likes instead of going online.
While the female orgasm is often depicted as something mysterious, it’s becoming less and less of a mystery thanks to more progressive shows like Broad City and Sex Education. Now, we’re getting a more nuanced view of female pleasure.
According to Mintz, however, we’re still lacking sex scenes where women receive clitoral stimulation in their sexual encounters, whether that’s before, after, or during intercourse. “We need to start showing realistic depictions of women’s orgasms—specifically clitoral stimulation, either alone or combined with penetration—rather than portraying women having fast and fabulous orgasms from penetration alone,” she says. We couldn’t agree more. Hopefully, mainstream media will continue to catch up, and we’ll see more accurate and empowering depictions of female orgasms on screen in the years to come.