Lessons From Women’s Sex Research
March is Women’s History Month, and it’s a time when people around the world celebrate the contributions of women to society, past and present. To commemorate this important month, I’m going to explore the history of women’s sex research in this article and the important role science has played in shaping what we know about women and sex.
The Kinsey Report: Where It All Began
People have been writing about women’s sexuality for ages, but the systematic, scientific study of women’s sexuality really began in earnest with the pioneering research of Dr. Alfred Kinsey. Prior to that, you could really only find case reports or narratives of individual sexual histories—nothing that really shed on what was happening in the broader population.
In 1953—just over 67 years ago—Kinsey published a groundbreaking book titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which presented findings obtained from in-depth, personal interviews with nearly 6,000 women from across the United States.
The brave women who participated in this research shocked the nation—and the world—with their reports. Kinsey’s findings revealed that women were far more sexual than most people at the time believed. Among other things, he found that many women were masturbating, having sex before marriage, and having affairs. He found that many women were having same-sex experiences and relationships, too.
Kinsey’s earlier book, which focused on men, was plenty controversial—but his book on women took things to another level. It was considered “obscene” for the way that it portrayed women. However, we now look back on it as one of the most important books of the 20th century because it forever changed the way that we think about women and sex.
This book helped people to understand that women—like men—are sexual beings with needs and desires. It also challenged popular ideas about the female orgasm. At the time, the prevailing view was one that originated with Sigmund Freud, who believed that there were two types of female orgasm: the “immature” clitoral orgasm, and the “mature” vaginal orgasm.
Freud believed that “mature” women were supposed to have orgasms from vaginal penetration and that those who were orgasming from clitoral stimulation were neurotic at best and dysfunctional at worst. However, Kinsey found that most women reach orgasm through clitoral stimulation and that this is perfectly normal. He even said that insisting on vaginal orgasm reflects “conceit as to the importance of the male genitalia.”
Put another way, he concluded that claims about the superiority of vaginal orgasm were rooted in men’s own insecurity about their ability to bring women to orgasm from their penises alone. In the 1950s, that was a revolutionary idea.
From Interviews to the Sex Lab: The Work of Masters and Johnson
In the 1960s, the scientific study of sex went from interviews to observational sex studies in the labs of William Masters and Virginia Johnson. They studied women’s sexuality from completely new angles, so to speak.
Masters and Johnson studied the physiology of sex—what actually happens inside the body from the moment of arousal through orgasm and beyond. Prior to their work, this is something that had only ever been studied in animals, not humans.
Through studies of women who volunteered to masturbate and have sex in a science lab with various pieces of recording equipment hooked up to their bodies, Masters and Johnson further transformed what we know about women and sex.
One of the key things they found was that women have a more variable sexual response pattern than men. For example, they found that following orgasm, most men seem to enter a “refractory period” during which arousal subsides and no additional orgasms are possible. For women, however, orgasm wasn’t an ending—it was often a beginning, with many women demonstrating the capacity for multiple orgasms.
The Survey that Shocked the World in the 1970s: The Hite Report
While the pioneering work of Masters and Johnson made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the physiology of sex, it neglected the psychology behind it. Tools and machines can tell us what is happening in the body, but not what we really want when it comes to sex, or what we do when no one is looking.
Enter Shere Hite, who surveyed 3,000 women about their sexual lives and practices for her 1976 book, The Hite Report. Hite’s work further challenged a number of popular assumptions about women’s sexuality, such as the idea that women necessarily take much longer to reach orgasm than men.
Hite found that 95% of women who masturbated said they could reach orgasm “easily and regularly, whenever they wanted.” If women can have orgasms so easily during masturbation, why aren’t they having them regularly during sex? She argued that it was because women’s pleasure isn’t a priority.
Hite also found that the typical sequence of sex reported by most participants wasn’t sufficient to give women the opportunity to orgasm. In other words, the way people were approaching sex wasn’t sufficient to meet women’s needs
Although The Hite Report became an international bestseller, like the work of her predecessors, it was extraordinarily controversial, resulting in death threats and some referring to it as “The Hate Report.”
The Modern Era of Women’s Sex Research
Research on women’s sexuality is less controversial today than it was in previous generations, but in many ways, it still feels like we’re playing catch-up because it is a subject that was not studied at all for far too long and faced so much social resistance.
In the last few decades, scientists from around the world have shed much-needed additional light on the subject. Here are a few of the key women scientists working today who have made landmark contributions to our understanding of women’s sexuality in recent years:
Dr. Lisa Diamond
In 2008, Diamond published a book based on a 10-year study of 100 women, which showed that women’s patterns of sexual attraction, behavior, and identity can shift over time. She coined the term “sexual fluidity” to describe this phenomenon. While men can also be sexually fluid, women tend to show more fluidity over the course of their lives.
Dr. Meredith Chivers
Chivers has conducted a number of studies showing that women often have a non-specific pattern of genital arousal. While studies of men tend to show that they are predominately aroused by erotica that lines up with their sexual identity, the results for women—and, specifically, heterosexually-identified women—are different: they demonstrate high levels of genital arousal in response to a wider range of erotic material (e.g., man-man, woman-woman, man-woman).
Her work further showed that genital arousal and psychological arousal do not show as much overlap in women as they do in men. For men, when their genitals demonstrate arousal, this usually goes along with actual feelings of arousal (i.e., when they have an erection, they tend to feel horny, too). For women, however, the correlation is much weaker. In other words, women are more likely to show a genital response without them actually feeling aroused.
In sum, although women tend to show genital arousal in response to a wider range of erotic material, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel turned on by everything that they’re seeing.
Dr. Debby Herbenick
Herbenick has conducted a number of nationally representative U.S. studies of women’s sexual behavior that have given us valuable insight into the sexual attitudes and behaviors of women today. Her work shows what women are doing in the bedroom, and what brings them pleasure—and it has helped to further expand our understanding of what is “normal” when it comes to sex.
One of her key studies shows that sex toy use is very common among women. In fact, a majority of American women say they’ve used vibrators before. Furthermore, she found that vibrator use is linked to improved sexual function. In other words, women who are using vibrators are less likely to report sexual difficulties.
Herbenick has also studied lubricant use among women, with her research finding that women who use lubricants during sex report higher levels of pleasure and satisfaction.
Women’s History Month represents an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come in our understanding of human sexuality and to recognize the women—both the researchers and the participants—who have made invaluable contributions to our knowledge. While much work remains to be done, we owe a debt of gratitude to the trailblazing women who have helped ensure that women’s sex research is a priority.
Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C., Lalumiere, M. L., Laan, E., & Grimbos, T. (2010). Agreement of self-reported and genital measures of sexual arousal in men and women: A meta-analysis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(1), 5-56.
Diamond, L. M. (2008). Sexual fluidity. Harvard University Press.
Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Hensel, D., Sanders, S., Jozkowski, K., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2011). Association of lubricant use with women’s sexual pleasure, sexual satisfaction, and genital symptoms: A prospective daily diary study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8(1), 202-212.
Herbenick, D., Reece, M., Sanders, S., Dodge, B., Ghassemi, A., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2009). Prevalence and characteristics of vibrator use by women in the United States: Results from a nationally representative study. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(7), 1857-1866.
Hite, S. (1976). The Hite report: A nationwide study of female sexuality.
Kinsey, A. C., Pomeroy, W. B., Martin, C. E., & Gebhard, P. H. (1953). Sexual behavior in the human female.
Masters, W. H., & Johnson, V. E. (1966). Human sexual response.