Happy Valentines Day! Some Thoughts on Sexual Pleasure Equity from a GC Professor

February 10, 2023

A psychologist shares her findings and advice on creating strong, satisfying romantic relationships.

2023 Valentine's Day Story
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Women are quite a bit less likely than men to experience an orgasm during heterosexual partnered sex, says Professor Cheryl Carmichael (GC/Brooklyn, Psychology). Carmichael studies the science of relationships and has received significant funding from the National Science Foundation for her research on how nonverbal communication — tones and touches — can affect relationships and people’s sense of well-being.

Cheryl Carmichael
Cheryl Carmichael 

For Valentine’s Day, she filled us in on a new study she is conducting with Ph.D. student Carly Wolfer (Psychology) to better understand and bring more parity to men’s and women’s sexual pleasure.

The study is based on the theory that in close relationships, partners become interdependent.

“My thoughts, feelings, and behaviors depend not only on what happens to me, but also on what happens to my partner and how my partner feels,” Carmichael said. “Instead of putting our own immediate needs first, we might sacrifice some of our own needs to focus on meeting our partner’s needs because when our partner is happy, that’s good for the relationship. And having a good relationship is good for us on an individual level because the relationship is something of value to us.”

Learn more about the Ph.D. Program in Psychology

Carmichael and Wolfer are using these principles to figure out whether people’s goals and motives surrounding their own and their partner’s orgasm might be instrumental to uncovering why there’s sexual pleasure inequity in heterosexual relationships.

Carly Wolfer
Carly Wolfer

So far, they have asked more than 100 heterosexual, romantically partnered participants to complete a daily survey for 21 days. For each sexual encounter they had with their romantic partner, participants told the researchers about their goals to achieve an orgasm, their goals to help their partner achieve orgasm, and their perception that their partner made an effort to help them achieve their own orgasm.

“We find a couple of things,” Carmichael said. “First, replicating past work, men are significantly more likely to orgasm during partnered sex than women. What we find about goals is especially interesting.”

People’s own goals to have an orgasm influence whether or not they have an orgasm and how satisfied they are sexually, she said. So, the stronger a person’s motivation to orgasm, the more sexually satisfied that person will be.

What’s even more interesting, she said, is that over and above the effect of a person’s own goals to orgasm, the perception that his or her partner is trying to help them reach orgasm is associated with greater sexual pleasure.

“In other words, the more I think my partner is focused on helping me orgasm, the more satisfied I am,” Carmichael said. “The big missing piece right now is the partner’s report of how much effort they are putting in to help the participant achieve orgasm. Because we only asked one member of each couple, we can’t tell whether goals to help a partner achieve their orgasm are actually related to the partner’s orgasm and sexual pleasure. We are planning to conduct some work with couples in which we can get reports from both partners to fill in that missing piece.”

Carmichael offered some advice for cultivating great romantic relationships and friendships.

“Keep in mind the idea that in close relationships, we are interdependent, and our behavior has an effect on our partner,” she said. “Sometimes it can go a long way to prioritize a partner’s needs.”

She offered some additional tips for creating strong relationships based on her research.

“Provide those close to you with some affectionate touch. Respond to their news with interest, thoughtfulness, and enthusiasm. Express your gratitude for the nice things your partners, friends, and loved ones do for you in a way that recognizes their thoughtfulness rather than what you got out of it.”

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