Dividing her time between researching sexuality as New York University’s Adjunct Professor of Psychology and educating the public through her podcast, The Science of Sex, Zhana Vrangalova uncovers some of the assumptions and testimonies behind what good sex is. Her areas of interest range from casual and group sex to non-monogamous and non-heterosexual relationships. She runs The Casual Sex Project where people share their hook up stories. In this interview, Vrangalova goes into the ins and outs of what makes for good sex, scientifically.
Our August Issue is on The Good Life. From your research and reading, what is the role of sex in the good life? How much does sex matter in having a good life?
Sexuality is important to a lot of people, but not to everybody. Unlike other drives that we have, like food, water and sleep, we don’t die if we don’t have sex. And people come with different sex drives, ranging from the asexual to the highly sexual. And of course, the more sexual someone is, the more important that aspect is to their overall life satisfaction. But overall, research shows that sexual fulfilment is an important contributor to a sense of well-being and happiness.
But it’s not all sex that contributes to people’s sense of well-being. Rather, it’s good sex that brings happiness. From your research, what have you discovered that good sex means for different people?
Yes, sex comes in different qualities and varieties. Scientists have tried to decipher the different qualities of sex that make for a good experience.
Some of those elements include things like feeling competent – which is feeling like you’re capable of pleasing your partner; another element is autonomy – the sense that you have control over what happens in a sexual situation; another factor is communication – obviously that contributes to getting the things you want and offering your partner the things they want. So a level of assertiveness is important to get what you want and to set the boundaries regarding the things you don’t want. Then there is relatedness – the extent to which you feel connected to the person you are engaging with sexually. People often interpret this last point to mean that good sex has to be in the context of a loving relationship. But a sense of connectedness can exist in a casual interaction as well.
And, as an aside, these are human needs that we have in everything that we do, not just sexually. Sex is no different from other activities in this respect.
It seems like the factors you mentioned, such as confidence or relatedness, are quite subjective emotions. How challenging is it to scientists to measure these things? How far can scientists tell us about meaning?
It’s true that with these questions you have to rely on self-report and there’s a level of subjectivity in interpreting confidence, assertiveness etc. There’s always an amount of air that comes with those measurements because people might not be honest. But ultimately when you ask about these things, it is the subjective experience that people have that matters. That is what is going to affect their well-being. There is no objective truth out there in terms of how connected or confident someone feels. They feel as connected as they feel.
But we try to ask people questions that don’t just reflect the sense of how they feel. For instance, for assertiveness, we can ask: ‘are you good at?’, or ‘do you have trouble expressing your sexual needs and desires?’ Very often that’s all we have.
You talked about the competence to satisfy one’s partner. How does that relate to the orgasm gender gap? A study from the Archives of Sexual Behaviour showed that while heterosexual men orgasmed 95% of the time, straight women only did it 65%; lesbian women, on the other hand, came 86%. If a lot of men can’t satisfy their female partners in bed in helping them to get an orgasm, does that affect their self-image and sense of what good sex is? Or do we generally become quite selfish in bed?
It’s a complex question but I think that we generally try to satisfy our partners if we care about them. There is some research that shows that especially in very casual interactions there is more selfishness, especially on the side of men. But in long term commitments, most people would say that they care about satisfying their partners.
But competence is something that makes everyone happy. So if you ask people whether they’d rather have their partners walk away with or without an orgasm, the vast vast majority of people of both genders would say that they’d prefer that their partners would walk away with an orgasm.
"Ultimately when you ask about these things, it is the subjective experience that people have that matters"
The orgasm gap is such a complex issue. Part of it has to do with men not caring as much as women do especially in casual interactions. Part of it has to do with lack of actual skill and knowledge of what makes women or vulva owners tick and what gives them pleasure because there is so little education. Men tend to learn about sex from porn, and that’s not a good source of learning how to please an actual human being that’s not an actor or actress.
On the other side, we really teach women to not be very assertive about their own sexual pleasure, to not even know or explore what feels good, and even if they do, to not express that because we don’t want to hurt men’s egos, to make them feel like they’re not ‘the man’, and that they don’t have that magical ability.
A lot of the factors you just mentioned are cultural. Are there any cross-cultural variations that you’ve been surprised by, or come across, in your research?
In terms of reporting orgasm, men are pretty consistent around the world. But there are cultural differences in how much pleasure women report across cultures, and there are differences in sex drives and attitudes towards casual interactions. Some countries are more sexual – people report that they desire sex and they masturbate or think of sex more than in other countries. Some countries report more interest in casual sex than others. The orgasm gap is higher in some countries than in others.
It’s not that surprising but research shows that the more gender egalitarian a society is – the more access women have to political and economic power, as well as healthcare, the gap in attitudes to casual sex lowers. In places like Sweden or Norway or Iceland, men still desire more casual sex than women but that gender gap is smaller than in less egalitarian societies where men have significantly more power and resources than women do, like Pakistan or India.
There is a famous anthropological study on the Mangaia, a Polynesian culture that may not exist in that form because it’s been westernised and colonised, but the early anthropological evidence (by Donald S. Marshall) from that culture suggests that because of the way men and women were socialised, women’s sexual pleasure was valued very highly. As boys were growing up, they were taught how to please their female partners – their right of passage to adulthood consisted in being introduced to an older and experienced woman in their tribe that they had sex with and that they had to orgasm three or four times before they themselves orgasmed. Reports showed that in that culture women experienced orgasm on a regular basis.
These things suggest that while biological forces and hormones and genes certainly play a role in how sexual we are, there’s still a lot that culture affects.
Were the Mangaia quite egalitarian?
From what I remember, it was quite an egalitarian society.
You mentioned women’s smaller desire for casual sex. Beyond the cultural factors that discourage women from casual sex like the fear of being seen as a 'whore' rather than a 'stud', might women’s reduced interest in casual sex come from the fact that they’re just less likely to get much pleasure from sex with a man who doesn’t care about them?
The lack of pleasure that women get from these interactions is an additional factor that keeps some women from seeking casual sex. But that’s a result of society, just like double sexual standards for men and women. If women were being just as selfish or if men were being just as giving in casual situations as in more romantic experiences, that would even out the orgasm gap. There’s no physical factor for why women come less than men do.
So are you saying that women’s sexuality is not more complicated than men’s, but it just needs to be understood and expressed?
There’s nothing about women’s bodies that prevent them from orgasming. If anything, many more women are more capable of multiple orgasms than men. So physically speaking that shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s pretty easy to overcome our cultural understanding that sex is basically penetration if we teach everybody that women are less likely to orgasm from it, and so we have to incorporate oral sex, manual sex, toys – whatever that vulva wants – whether it’s with the partner we’ve been with for 25 years or someone we just met in a forest, so that she walks away just as pleased as the penis owner does.
Is it a myth then that women take longer than men to come?
Yes, that’s true in partnered sex but not in masturbation. Studies asking women how long it takes them to come while masturbating shows no difference to men. This tells us that there is no physiological difference, but only a dissimilar state of mind.
Women say that it takes them longer to relax. There are so many more pressures on women about how we need to look a certain way, so that when women have sex with their partners they have all these distracting thoughts like, ‘Is my body looking ok?’, ‘Am I pretty?’, ‘Is there something hanging?’ That’s called self-monitoring. So when you’re self-monitoring, you can’t enjoy yourself. Men don’t get bombarded with all of these messages that they have to be Adonises.
As women, we also have more concerns about pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, in addition to the factors we discussed above - we lack knowledge about our bodies, communication – and that makes us less likely to just relax and be fully present in the experience.
But physiologically, there is no reason why it takes us longer to come than men.
But men have quite a lot of pressures put onto them as well that can lead to erectile dysfunction, for instance?
Nowadays, yes, I think porn has contributed to men’s expectations that their penises have to be ten inches long, that their cum load needs to be a bucket full of sperm, that they need to cum three or four meters afar, that they need to last for an hour and a half. These myths generate anxieties because there is no real education to counter porn.
Whether it’s related to performance or looks, anxiety will prevent us from having a pleasurable experience.
When scientists interviewed people about what good sex is, often what comes up is the focus on the process and not necessarily having this goal-oriented approach to sex.
Is there more variability among women than men in terms of how they get pleasure and if so, why?
Yes, there seems to be more variability in women’s sexuality in general. Women’s desires, attitudes, drives. The thinking is that women are more fluid or have more erotic plasticity – they’re more susceptible to both social and biological factors that shape their sexuality, whereas men might be a little bit more rigid and more shaped by their biology. We see that because 20% to 30% of women struggle with achieving orgasm ever and we have women who are multi-orgasmic pretty much every time they have sex. Most men orgasm at least once every time they have sex.
There’s some physical difference. For the vast majority of men the primary source of orgasm is stroking the penis. Obviously that happens in different ways, whether inside in a vagina, anus, hand or mouth.
For women, you have the external clitoris on one hand, and then the internal clitoris on the other hand, and depending on how things are wired, and how you can reach, and from where, that adds variability in what will be pleasurable to vulva/vagina owners.
Finally, what does gay sex say about human sexuality generally? And can gay or lesbian sex teach us anything about heterosexual sex?
That’s a great question. Talking about women, we now have pretty good evidence using nationally representative samples that women who have sex with women are much more likely to orgasm than women who have sex with men. That shows that how we have sex and how much attention we pay to non-penetrative sex, duration and connectedness affects the quality of the sex. That’s something that we can all learn from.
There are very few differences in orgasm frequency in gay men compared to straight men. Lots of straight guys are not going to like this, but I think that reaching the prostate through anal stimulation in men clearly suggests that men of any sexual orientation have something to enjoy in terms of receptive anal sex.
We have this notion in our society that receptive anal sex is gay but that behaviour is irrelevant because the orientation comes from who you want to have sex with. A lot more men might find additional pleasure in their bodies if they opened up to receptive anal pleasures with their female partners.