Emily Harris (University of Queensland) about her research on benevolent sexism and orgasm frequency in women

Orgasms are great. AmIright? But it’s a lot more difficult for a woman to orgasm compared to a man – on average. Yes – we have different machinery – men have penises and women have vaginas. This is a biological fact. But there is more to the story than only biology.


Some women orgasm every time they have sex. Heck, some women orgasm from a nipple-stroke! And on the other hand, there are lots of women who find it much harder to orgasm. This has to be about something more than biology – these women have, for the most part, the same biological machinery. There is likely a psychological component to it. That is what my research is all about. 

My key research question is: Does our understanding of gender impact our sexual experience? We all have assumptions about the ways in which men and women should act in the world (hereafter referred to as ‘gender role beliefs’) – women should be adored, men should be adoring; women should be pretty, men should be muscular. These are ‘traditional gender role beliefs’ (not to mention highly heteronormative). 


I argue that these ideas may impact our sexual experience. If we have socially conservative gender role beliefs, perhaps this constrains how we feel about sex, and how much we can enjoy it.


In my research, I investigate the impact of heterosexual women’s traditional gender role beliefs on their personal orgasm frequency.


Traditional Gender Roles and Benevolent Sexism


Traditionally, women are regarded as passive, and men as dominant. This idea is central to a type of sexism known as ‘benevolent sexism’ -  a set of attitudes that undermine women’s competence by romanticizing female passivity. Benevolent sexism appears complimentary towards women, (e.g. ‘women have a quality of purity that few men possess’), and also affords women special treatment from men (e.g. 'women should be cherished and protected by men'). However, these statements not only suggest that women should be looked after by men, but also that women need to be looked after by men.

Benevolent sexism is particularly pernicious. Its positive tone means that both men and women are likely to endorse these attitudes at similar levels. This is a problem, not only because it is discriminatory, but also because it has been shown to have a number of negative effects for women. For example, women who are exposed to benevolent sexism are more likely to de-emphasize their task-related competence and academic-related competence, while emphasizing their relational warmth.


Benevolent Sexism and Orgasm Frequency


We proposed that women who endorse benevolent sexism would experience fewer orgasms. This relationship might exist for two reasons.

First, women who endorse benevolently sexist attitudes might be more likely to think that men only care about their own orgasm.

We base this assumption on the idea that, if women are expected to be more pure, moral, and more culturally refined than men, that makes men less pure, moral, and refined. One conclusion that could be derived from this might be that men are driven by their sexual urges; that they are more carnal than women and more driven by the “pleasure principle”. So, when it comes to orgasms, men are naturally driven to get theirs, and a woman’s orgasm is merely an afterthought. Hence, women’s benevolently sexist beliefs might lead them to conclude that men are selfish in bed.


Second, we suggest that if a woman thinks men are selfish, they are less likely to specifically ask their partner for sexual pleasure. This link is rather intuitive: If men don’t care, why bother?


Finally then, women’s decreased willingness to ask for sexual pleasure might lead to fewer orgasms. Again, this makes sense – women who don’t communicate with their partner about what gets them off, are going to miss out on some orgasms.


To sum up, we suggest that women higher in benevolent sexism think that men only care about their own orgasm, and that this would lead women to silence their sexual requests, which would lead to fewer orgasms.


In two studies we surveyed heterosexual women in relationships about the degree to which they endorsed benevolent sexism, their beliefs about men and sex, their sexual communication, and of course, how many orgasms they have per week, on average.


What did we find?


We found an indirect relationship. While benevolent sexism did not directly predict women’s orgasm frequency – and this is important! – we did find that women high in benevolent sexism are more likely to think that men are sexually selfish. As predicted, women who believed that men were sexually selfish were less likely to ask their partner for pleasure, and as a result, experienced fewer orgasms. However, benevolent sexism, on its own, did not predict women’s orgasm frequency.


This suggests that benevolent sexism isn’t all bad when it comes to orgasms. Rather, it suggests that while it has the described negative effects - it may also have some positive effects. For example, women high in benevolent sexism may have more masculine partners. Having a more masculine, dominant partner has been shown to increase women’s orgasm frequency. So, while women high in benevolent sexism are endorsing attitudes that dampen their orgasm frequency, they may also have a masculine partner, which works to increase the number of orgasms they have.




For readers looking to increase their orgasm frequency, the clearest message our data conveys is: talk to your partner about what you like and don’t like during sex. This is not a new message, but it is powerful.


For my readers who are also interested in the more nuanced bottom line for feminists in the bedroom – for now, I haven’t got a simple message. What my studies do suggest is that restrictive gender attitudes can impact our sex lives, if indirectly so. Research on this topic is in its infancy, and I look forward to keeping you updated on future findings so that we can better understand how our beliefs about men and women may enhance or constrain our sexual experience.


~Please reference: Harris, E. (2016, December 21) Gender roles in the bedroom. Retrieved from


 Barreto, M., Ellemers, N., Piebinga, L., & Moya, M. (2010). How nice of us and how dumb of me: The effect of exposure to benevolent sexism on women’s task and relational self-descriptions. Sex Roles, 62, 532–544. 

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491–512. 

Harris, E. A., Hornsey, M. J., & Barlow, F. K. (2016). On the link between benevolent sexism and orgasm frequency in heterosexual women. Archives of sexual behavior, 45(8), 1923-1931.

Puts, D. A., Welling, L. L., Burriss, R. P., & Dawood, K. (2012). Men’s masculinity and attractiveness predict their female partners’ reported orgasm frequency and timing. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33, 1–9. 



Emily Harris