The Thonga of Africa* don't kiss. In fact, the mere sight of two people kissing is enough to invoke uproarious laughter and remarks like, "Look at them; they eat each other's saliva and dirt." On Ponape, a South Pacific island, typical foreplay would involve a man placing a fish in his lover's vulva. He would then slowly lick it out (1). These exotic anecdotes show that sex and sexual practices vary from culture to culture. And if sexual practice varies from culture to culture, so must sexual response.
15,000 people answered our orgasm survey, giving us a big proverbial peek into the bedroom. We learned that 45% of men orgasm every time they have sex, while only 9% of women are assured orgasm each time they open their legs to a lover. To understand this disparity, we must first step back and take a look at sex from a global perspective.
Religion, tradition, sexual attitudes, and gender roles all affect what happens when two people "get down and dirty" between the sheets. The following descriptions are provided to give some picture of how sex is perceived and practiced in other cultures. In this way, we can situate ourselves in Earth's hodgepodge of human sexuality.
Inis Beag is a small island off the coast of Ireland. The inhabitants of the island have never heard of french-kissing, kissing the breasts, hand to penis contact (hand-jobs), cunnilingus (going down on a woman) or fellatio (going down on a man). Sex education is virtually non-existent, and it is assumed that newly-weds will just figure it out. The husband always initiates sex, which only takes place with the man on top. Female orgasm is a foreign concept, doubted to exist. And if it does exist, it is considered deviant (2).
In Mangaia, an island in the South Pacific, sex is actively encouraged. Mother's are proud of their daughters multiple sex partners. The average "good" girl has had 3-4 boyfriends between the ages of 13 and 20 and ALL women learn to have orgasms. A boy of 13 years gets serious sexual instruction. He is taught, at this tender age, how to perform cunnilingus and how to bring his partner to orgasm (perhaps several times) before he has his own orgasm. After this theoretical training, he has sex with an older, experienced woman. She gives him the practical training required for his sexual future. She shows him various positions and teaches him how to hold back until his partner is on the cusp of orgasm (3).
In many countries in Africa, in Oman, Yemen and in the United Arab Emirates, clitoridectomies (the surgical removal of the clitoris) are quite commonly performed on girls. There are several different procedures, but all of them are exceedingly painful and mutilating. The risk of infection is often very high, and girls do die from complications. These operations are generally performed between infanthood and adolescence. There are many intricately ensnarled reasons for female circumcision, including traditional customs, religious beliefs, curbing sexual desire, protecting virginity and preventing immorality. Female circumcision, as anyone can imagine, seriously impedes or totally extinguishes any potential enjoyment of sex for the woman (4).
In Maori society (New Zealand), gender roles differ from our own. Here, women initiate romantic relations and sex (5). While it is becoming more common for women to "make the first move," our society generally operates on the principals that the male is the aggressor, the main instigator of the couple. This brief overview of sex across the world is enough to suggest that we are certainly not the most repressed culture, but nor are we the forerunners of sexual liberation.
There are stereotypes about how the sexuality of men and women differs. We tend to assume that men have a greater sex drive: that the mere reference to sex can result in an eager erection. We are prone to thinking that women, on the other hand, are more likely to be coaxed and cajoled into sex. Another consideration that may affect the difference in sexual experience for men and women may be that a sexual peak occurs at radically different ages. It is commonly understood that men reach their sexual peak at the age of 19, while women only do so in their thirties. Perhaps it takes women so much longer to peak because they have to overcome deeply imprinted ideas about their own sexual desire and behavior. It has also been suggested simply, that the anatomy of a woman (genitals hidden between the legs) make understanding sexual function and pleasure a little more elusive for her. The only way she can get a good look at her vagina and its construction is with a mirror. Men are much "closer" to their penises (an erection is hard to ignore) and thus are more likely to masturbate and to explore their own sexual pleasure.
*Names of specific places and people may be made up to protect the real inhabitants/cultures. The facts remain the same.