When sexual research and sexual therapy collide


Sex has been a taboo subject for so long that only in recent decades has it been possible to research different aspects of it. Comments abound, such as “Why would you want to research thisor on finding grants and funding, “Who will fund this?” and even personal attacks on the researcher, “Why you do you want to study this? were barriers. Fortunately, all of that is changing. But sex research can create clinical complications for us sex therapists.

I was recently asked, “How long does it take for a woman to orgasm?” And I sighed. Because, while this may seem like a simple question to answer from a sex research perspective, it is not a simple or straightforward question to answer from a sex therapy perspective.

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Turns out the person who asked me “How long does it take for a woman to orgasm?” did what most people their age do now when they have a question: they typed that question into the Google search box, then hit enter. And, sure enough, a bunch of articles popped up in their search and they found an answer to their question. Interestingly enough, science has indeed studied this question, but as researchers acknowledge, much remains to be determined, even within this seemingly singular question.

For example, the sex-savvy critical thinker reading this will instantly say that we need to define what an orgasm is. What exactly are we measuring? When I, your friendly sex therapist, ask about my clients’ orgasms, they each describe orgasms a little differently from individual to individual. In his book come as you areauthor Emily Nagoski insists that female orgasm can occur from clitoral stimulation, vaginal stimulation, nipple/breast stimulation, thigh stimulation, no physical stimulation , etc. You can begin to see how complicated this question is.

This is problem number one. Problem number two is usually the following. The person who asked me the orgasm question and then Googled it had a deep emotional and psychological reaction to what they found. She became critical of herself because it took her longer than this research said. As a result, she concluded that she “wasn’t normal.” She described herself as “outside the meaty part of the bell curve” on this issue and how it made her feel “less than”.

Yeah. This research data evoked all sorts of emotions and even memories of sexual shame not associated with her ability to orgasm. So she and I went to work on her thoughts and feelings about her body, her sexuality, her sexual “performance,” as well as the tangled relationship dynamic between her and her partner that initiated this issue. Why is this question even important to her and/or her partner?

I get how the curious mind really wants to know how long it takes for a woman to reach orgasm. Again, sex is still taboo to some degree, and asking a question like that seems reasonable. But this experience reminded me that when a client asks “How long does it take for a woman to orgasm?” the single explanation that Google might return can cause problems. Turning to external research may provide an answer that is unrelated to the individual’s body or pleasure, or the context of their sexual encounter or sexual relationship.

Instead, the best answer to the question “How long does it take for a woman to reach orgasm?” is, in fact, “however long it takes you.“And then, in sex therapy, we work together to help the client manage their viewer, their anxiety, their frustration, any possible relationship dynamics, etc.

In this case, the problem was obviously not the search results. The problem was my client’s (and possibly her partner’s) reaction to the search results. We need to create a culture where a person can be “non-normal” or exist outside of “the meaty part of the bell curve” and not suffer negative consequences.


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