Ever been mid-sexual experience and wondered to yourself, “wow this feels good, I wonder how they’re feeling”? What about whether people experience sexuality differently based on their bodies? If you’ve ever asked yourself questions like this, then this article is for you!
The common idiom may be “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” but in reality, there are more similarities in sexual desires, experiences and sensations than one might expect. The journey through a sexual experience might have different checkpoints, but the destinations are typically similar for many people. So what about the differences? How do men and women experience sex differently? You asked, and we will answer!
Sexual Desire and Ideation
Let’s start with sexual desire and libido, specifically how it can differ between men and women. It is actually a bit less black and white than some of the cultural stereotypes might suggest. Numerous studies throughout the years have determined that while male sexuality and men’s sex drive specifically might be more spontaneous, straightforward, and actively pursued, the same urges may also exist within women in a more nuanced way.
For example, a study found that the majority of men under 60 thinks about sex once a day, while only about 25% of women thought about sex at the same rate. However, yet another study found that men’s sexuality was much more rigid in sources of arousal, and that women tended to generally be more open to different sexual sources of arousal including both same-sex and opposite-sex experiences. Research has also shown that women’s sexuality can be more enigmatic and is more impacted by cultural and social factors (such as education, peer groups, religiosity), showing greater variance over the course of a woman’s life depending on where she is, who she is with and how she views the world. The same study also found that women are generally more consistent between the preferences they express and their actual sexual activity.
All that to say, sexual desire does vary between men and women in many cases, but not for the reasons one might expect. There is still much research needed on women’s sexuality, to extend beyond social and cultural myths and get to the facts. To read more about some of these topics, check out our blog post on common myths about women’s sexual pleasure here.
Getting Down to the Physical
Now that we’ve touched on some of the more mental, psychological, and emotional factors in sexual behaviors, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
We can start with the basic mechanics, like an owner’s manual. During a sexual encounter, both men and women will experience a rush of blood to the genitals as arousal escalates. People with penises will usually experience increased blood flow into the shaft of the penis leading to an erection, while those with vulvas may see an increase in the size of the clitoris, as well flush or light swelling of the labia (you might have heard them called “lips”), along with the excretion of moisture from the vagina. This arousal leads to increased heart rate, body temperature and sometimes contraction and relaxation of various muscle groups. It’s a full body experience!
As far as sensation and stimulation, the erogenous zones are actually very similar for all people. These include everything from the ears and neck to the inner thighs and lower back. There’s lots of hidden pleasure centers!
But it’s important to note that there is a gap in orgasm between men and women through penovaginal intercourse (or penetrative sex by inserting the penis into the vagina) that has led experts to an interesting conclusion. The friction and rhythm of penetrative sex can indeed be enjoyable for all involved parties, but the clitoris has the lion’s share of nerve endings in the vulva. In fact, it has over 8,000 nerve endings, which is double that of the penis. And it connects with thousands more nerve endings throughout the pelvis. It’s like the air traffic control of pleasure! The clitoris is not always being directly stimulated through penetration, which some speculate may be responsible for the orgasm gap. However, this gap lessons when other forms of sexual stimulation are integrated into the sexual experience. Coupled with what some have described as a “feeling of fullness,” stimulation of the clitoris either with hands, a sex toy or through oral sex can drastically increase the likelihood of orgasm.
Speaking of orgasm, some interesting differences and similarities emerge there as well. For example, studies have shown that people with penises average somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 minutes between the beginning of arousal and eventual ejaculation and orgasm. People with vulvas average closer to 10 or 11 minutes, comparatively. However, the refractory period (or time required to recover and start another sexual experience) for people with penises tends to be longer, while those with vulvas are more likely to experience multiple orgasms, sometimes on a rolling basis. Orgasms themselves though tend to feel similarly between men and women. Because it’s hard to put orgasms into words, the most common shared descriptors were words like, “pleasurable satisfaction,” “relaxation,” “emotional intimacy,” “ecstasy” and even “building, flooding, flushing, shooting or throbbing” sensations. Sounds pretty great, right?
Orgasm is often a sign that the sexual experience is successful (though not every sexual experience ends in orgasm). And remember, orgasms is not required for a wonderful sexual experiences.
But what about when the sex performance doesn’t go smoothly, and one of the involved parties’ experiences sexual dysfunction? Well that too can look different for people. Due to any number of factors, people with penises may find it difficult to maintain an erection or reach orgasm. Those with vulvas won’t experience the same outcome, instead they are more likely to experience symptoms like vaginal dryness and/or discomfort paired with difficulty reaching orgasm. One sexual dysfunction that tends to occur more frequently in those with penises is premature ejaculation, meaning the unplanned or unwanted arrival or ejaculation before it’s intended. Check our our blog topics on vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction for more information and tips.
So, let’s recap! As you can see, there are a wealth of shared human experiences throughout sexuality. Some of these include:
- Experiencing sexual desire and arousal from a variety of sources
- Being in a heightened physical state during sexual activity, with increased blood flow, heart rate, body temperature and sensation
- Having numerous erogenous zones throughout the body, from head to toe
- Enjoying the pleasure, relaxation, and explosion of orgasm
- Encountering (and hopefully overcoming) moments of sexual dysfunction
The differences that come to mind are relatively few, but by acknowledging them, informing oneself and being adaptive to them, can lead to a more fulfilling sex life for you and your partner(s):
- Women’s sexual desire can be more frequently impacted by social and cultural factors beyond their control
- Penetrative sex may not be enough by itself to help those with vulvas achieve orgasm, as the more external sexual super-centers are not always stimulated
- Orgasm may be achieved more quickly by men on average
- Sexual dysfunction can impact men and women very differently
A Note on Sex and Gender Identity
Before diving into any discussion about sex and gender, it is important to caveat that there is virtually as much diversity among those identifying as men and women, as there is between the two. Not to mention, there are millions of people worldwide who do not identify along a sex binary of male and female, or identify as nonbinary, gender nonconforming or transgender. In simple terms, identity is not anatomy and vice versa. Unfortunately, the medically reviewed research and available information around sexual health and gender is rather limited, especially beyond cis, binary terms.
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