Thursday, July 26, 2012

Counting Orgasms

In a followup to an earlier article on "sex scripts in romance novels" (Ménard and Cabrera 2011, discussed here), Christine Cabrera and Amy Dana Ménard have now produced some research on orgasms in romance novels.

It should be noted that, once again, they base their conclusions about romance-novel-sex on "books that had won the Romance Writers of America award for
best contemporary single title romance from 1989 to 2009." They acknowledge that as a result "This study was subject to a few limitations, the most obvious being sample size (i.e., 16 books and 91 depictions of orgasm)" and potentially significant differences between contemporary single title romances and
novels from other romantic subgenres (i.e., historical, paranormal, romance/erotica); it is possible that novels from other genres might show greater deviation from the traditional sexual script. This sample included multiple novels from the same authors [...]; therefore, it is possible that results may have been influenced by the biases or preferences of said authors.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the article is the section in which romance-novel-sex is contrasted with real-world-sex:
Studies of the real-world sexual script tend to show that male orgasm is privileged over female orgasm. [...] Sexual behaviour surveys have shown that men are significantly more likely to have experienced an orgasm during their last sexual encounter than women (Richters et al. 2006). These results are contradicted in the present investigation, where the orgasm of female characters was prioritized and female characters experienced significantly more orgasms than male characters. The contrast between the central role of female orgasm in romance novels compared to their more marginalized role in real-world sexual experiences may have several explanations. For instance, romance writers might be creating an idealized, feminist re-imagining of the script to privilege womens’ orgasms over mens’. Or, authors may be producing material designed to give readers an enjoyable vicarious experience (similar to camera angle selection in pornography).
Whatever the reason, the prioritising of female orgasms in these novels would seem to contribute to a positive experience for female readers. However, there are aspects of romance-novel-sex which Cabrera and Ménard suggest may be less positive for certain readers: "Readers are likely to be impacted differently but it is possible that a portion of readers may derive unrealistic expectations or beliefs about their own sexual experiences from these novels."
Analyses of romance novel descriptions show that the orgasms of female characters were likely to be triggered by penile-vaginal intercourse or manual stimulation whereas the orgasms of male characters were almost always the result of penile-vaginal intercourse. This finding reflects the frequency of this behaviour in the general public, where penile-vaginal intercourse is the most commonly-endorsed behaviour in sex surveys (Herbenick et al. 2010; Richters et al. 2006). However, real-world women are unlikely to orgasm from penile-vaginal intercourse alone but also require oral and/or manual stimulation (Richters et al. 2006); this experience is not reflected in romance novels and may lead to false expectations and frustration, if these expectations are applied to real life sexual scenarios.
Another possible source of disappointment for anyone believing that real-world sex should always resemble that depicted in romance novels is the nature of the orgasms:
A large proportion of all orgasms occurred simultaneously for both sexes (45 %). While simultaneous orgasms are idealized in Western culture (Colson et al. 2006; Ellison 2001), many couples may experience difficulty with creating this scenario (Greenberg et al. 2011). Again, this may lead to false expectations and
and although
many women report feeling shame or a sense of inadequacy due to their difficulties with orgasm (Lavie-Ajayi and Joffe 2009) and difficulties with orgasm are the second most-commonly reported problem by American women (Laumann et al. 1999) [...] rapid and frequent orgasms for female characters in romance novels are considered the norm. However, rapid orgasms were never connected with male characters, most of who had significant control of their orgasm and could withhold orgasm for a significant period of time (during which the female character would experience multiple orgasms). Again, this stands in stark contrast to survey data indicating that rapid ejaculation may be a problem for some men.
The lack of variety in method of achieving orgasm and type of orgasm amongst male characters limited our analyses but was also an interesting finding. This result is inconsistent with findings within the sexual behaviours literature, which show that many men experience orgasm from receiving oral and/or manual stimulation from their partners (Herbenick et al. 2010; Richters et al. 2006). The absence of manual and/or oral stimulation of male characters in romance novels exemplifies female sexual passivity and traditional gender roles, suggesting that women may not experience pleasure from stimulating their partner and that the ideal male orgasm occurs though penile-vaginal intercourse.
As a result of this and the finding that
Male characters were frequently described as being responsible for bringing about their partner’s orgasm. This theme was present in 29 % of orgasm descriptions. [...] Far fewer descriptions reflected agentic behaviour on the part of the female character with respect to bringing about her own or her partner’s orgasm; only 3 % of extracts included this theme.
the authors suggest that
Traditional gender roles, i.e., male agency and female passivity, are reinforced within the sexual scripts for orgasm in romance novels. This may lead some readers to experience conflict between their own authentic sexual desires and those mandated by romance novels.
They are aware that they only studied romance novels and not their readers. Their hypotheses regarding the potential impacts of romance novels on certain readers are therefore unsubstantiated and they conclude by observing that areas for future
study might include readers’ introduction to romance novels, novel preferences, and the impact and influence of these novels on their sexual attitudes and behaviours. This would inform the ongoing debate regarding the influence of romance novels, i.e., whether they function to entertain readers, educate them or both.

  • Cabrera, Christine and Amy Dana Ménard. “'She Exploded into a Million Pieces': A Qualitative and Quantitative Analysis of Orgasms in Contemporary Romance Novels.” Sexuality & Culture, Online First™, 10 July 2012.
  • Ménard, A. Dana and Christine Cabrera. "‘Whatever the Approach, Tab B Still Fits into Slot A’: Twenty Years of Sex Scripts in Romance Novels." Sexuality & Culture, Online First™, 3 April 2011.

The "O" images were all taken by chrisinplymouth and were found at Flickr. They are all used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. The images, from the top row to the bottom (starting at the left and ending at the right of each row) are:
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1b 2b 3b 4b 5b 6b 7b 8b 9b
1c 2c 3c 4c 5c 6c 7c 8c 9c
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  1. This is an impressive study. Lots to think about. Thanks for posting this.

  2. It occurs to me that if in m/f romances generally "the orgasm of female characters was prioritized," "Male characters were frequently described as being responsible for bringing about their partner’s orgasm" and "Traditional gender roles, i.e., male agency and female passivity, are reinforced," that might help explain both why female virgins are so common, and male virgins are so rare in f/m romances.

  3. I am not certain that the function of orgasm changes if the hero is virgin or not -- the same sort of language, I think, is still found. Just taking two examples:


    “Alex,” she whispered, “I’m so close.” Her eyes were shut, her breath coming in little rasps.
    He kissed her softly.
    “It’s so perfect,” she said, opening her eyes to reveal a shimmer of tears.
    “Of course,” he told her with gentle confidence. “It’s love.”
    She cried out then, and he lost himself in her, letting go at last to something beyond both of them. (Katherine Kendall’s First and Forever, 1991)


    The moment when he took her would live vividly in her memory forever. The shocking reality of his first thrust stilled them both. He lay, his chest shaking, half across her body, his head buried in the curve of her neck. Surely, he wasn’t going to stop now, thought Grace hysterically as her body slowly adjusted to the agonising fullness, and she felt the involuntary ripples of tension begin to absorb him even more deeply into her being. She plunged a hand into his sweat-drenched hair, and pulled his head back. (Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, 1992)


    In both, we find the same types of language, I think, that Cabrera and Ménard address in their article. Of course, virgin narratives in romance fiction often enough do not reflect the "reality" of the experience. What is, however, likely happening, is a reconsideration of the virgin's representation in romance, i.e. what happens when it is the hero who is a virgin?

  4. I wasn't thinking of the "function of orgasm" (it seems a separate issue to me) but more about the context in which that outcome is deemed to be most likely and most pleasurable for the heroine. Here's a quote from Mercedes Lackey's The Fairy Godmother (New York: LUNA, 2004) which seems relevant:


    "It's the custom among my people for young men of my rank to be - ah - initiated by ladies of experience." He blushed. "There's a slightly crude saying in Kohlstania; 'two virgins in a bed is one virgin too many.'"

    Fine, so he wasn't a virgin - as if she hadn't figured that out a long time ago.

    "And I've just recalled a certain set of instructions that lady gave me regarding this situation. So I'm going to do something you might find rather peculiar, but it's for a reason."

    She had no time to ask what on earth he meant, for he went right back to where he left off, and it wasn't until he'd stolen up her skirt and suddenly his head was - good heavens! What was he doing between her legs - [...]

    And then the world exploded. [...] When it was over, she lay there panting and spent, and opened her eyes again to see him grinning like a boy who has just stolen an entire cake.

    "What - exactly - did that lady tell you?" she managed to get out.

    He resumed the place beside her that he had temporarily abandoned.

    "She said, 'Someday, you will find yourself with another lady, an untried lady, whether your new bride or your new lover, and she will be a lady you wish to make as pleased with her first experience as you were with yours. Now, this is not possible in the conventional sense, but I will teach you the unconventional, so that she will know, truly and completely, that there is very great pleasure waiting for her once the pain that is sadly inevitable for an untried lady is over.'"

    "Oh." She thought about that for a very long moment. Plenty of kitchen-tales about "first times" flashed through her mind. The maids had seemed to take as much glee over telling them as they did over tales of childbirth that went on for days. So now she knew what she could expect once the whole painful business of "deflowering" was done with. [...]

    "Is there any way I could thank her?" (419-20).

    It seems to me that perhaps the authors of romance novels in which "the orgasm of female characters was prioritized and female characters experienced significantly more orgasms than male characters" were thinking along somewhat similar lines to that lady.

  5. Are there romance novels (which contain an orgasm) in which "the orgasm of female characters [is not] prioritized"?

  6. Yes, Crusie's Faking It, at least the first time the main couple have sex. And some romances give equal priority to the hero and heroine's orgasms. And then, of course, there are the romances which don't feature a female protagonist at all.

  7. Yes, obviously romances that don't include a female protagonists. Having not read the Crusie novel, it will be interesting to consider this particular question of the orgasm (or lack, though there isn't a total lack).

    An interesting article:

    Jagose, Annamarie. "Counterfeit pleasures: fake orgasm and queer agency." Textual Practice 24.3 (2010): 517-39.

  8. Hi,

    I'm glad you liked the article. If you have any questions or comments at all, Christine and I are more than happy to address them. As a clinical psychologist (in-the-making), I am always interested to read perspectives from fields other than my own.

    A. Dana Ménard

  9. a comparative look at f/f romances (of which Bold Strokes Books publishes approx 60 a year) would be interesting. Our sex scenes feature more masturbation, more oral sex, and less frequent simultaneous orgasms than m/f sex scenes. Also agency, relative to the lesbian hero/heroine paradigm, tends to be shared and more fluid.

    1. Len, I can imagine it would indeed be interesting. The impression I have is that m/f romance fiction (and society in general, probably), works with a somewhat Bill-Clintonesque definition of "sex"; it seems to me that, on the whole, oral sex in f/m romances is treated as little more than a kind of foreplay/a prelude to the "real" sex.

      I could be wrong, of course, but if not, it would seem that f/f romances would pose something of a challenge to those attitudes.

      I just posted today about a call for contributors to an encyclopedia of romance fiction and it strikes me that you'd have the kind of expertise to tackle quite a lot of the topics. Just thought I'd mention it in case you were interested and didn't come across the post.