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Sunday, June 19, 2011

What came first? the empathy or the orgasm

This is a terrifically written pop science article, one of the best writes up I have ever read. The topic is beyond intriguing and the study has a really great sample size and an elegant research design (for a human study of this kind). It also reminded me of the article "Empathy is what really sets vegetarians apart". So clearly this proves that vegetarians make better lovers ;) - MA


Does Empathy Make Us Orgasmic or Do Orgasms Give Us Empathy?

A paper published this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health turns our attention to a much under researched area of sexual health; pleasure. Specifically the authors, Adena Galinsky and Freya Sonenstein from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health used data collected by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and examined associations between individual reporting on sexual pleasure and self-reports of autonomy, self-esteem, and empathy.

The researchers point out that despite a growing acceptance of the idea that sexual pleasure is a key aspect of sexual health (and that sexual health doesn't mean simply an absence of disease or unintended pregnancy), science hasn't contributed much in the way of data on the relationship between feeling sexual pleasure and experiencing overall sexual, or general, health.

Here sexual pleasure was measured by three questions:

1. When you and your partner have sexual relations, how often do you have an orgasm? (answer options were: most of the time, more than half the time, about half the time, less than half the time, hardly ever)
2. How much do you like for your partner to perform oral sex on you? (answer options were: like very much, like somewhat, neither like nor dislike, dislike somewhat, dislike very much)
3. How much do you like to perform oral sex on your partner? (same as above)

Autonomy, self-esteem, and empathy were measured by having participants respond to statements such as "I defend my own beliefs, I am independent, I am willing to take a stand, and I am assertive." and "I am sympathetic, I am sensitive to the needs of others, I am understanding, and I am compassionate" indicated how true each is for them.

The researchers then examined the relationship between orgasm frequency/enjoyment with oral sex and the extent to which participants scored high or low on self-esteem, empathy, and autonomy.

Findings on Sexual Pleasure
There were 3,237 people (60% were women, almost three quarters were white, mean age was 22) all of whom had been in a sexual relationship with an opposite gender partner for at least three months.

The good news is that the majority of all respondents seem to be enjoying sex more than half of the time they are having it. While gender differences in this kind of research always need to be taken with a truckload of salt, it may be worth noting the discrepancy in regularity of orgasm. 87% of men reported orgasm most or all of the time and 47% of women reporting it most of the time.

Perhaps a less expected discrepancy was found in responses to who enjoys performing oral sex. 61% of men as opposed to 37% of women, reported enjoying performing oral sex most or all of the time.

Sexual Pleasure, Autonomy, Self-Esteem, and Empathy
When they compared people's responses statements about autonomy, and their enjoyment of sex, they continued to find gender differences. While regarding oneself as autonomous was connected for men to regularity of orgasm, it wasn't connected to enjoyment performing or receiving oral sex. For women it was connected to all three (although a weaker connection was found with the oral sex measurements than with the orgasm measurement).

Turning to self-esteem, for men it was only related to enjoyment of performing oral sex (that is men who rated self-esteem higher were more likely to enjoy performing oral sex). For women self-esteem was related to all three measures of sexual enjoyment, the strongest relationship was to enjoyment of performing oral sex (again, higher self-esteem rating, more likely to enjoy performing oral sex.

The one consistent finding for all participants was with empathy. For all participants empathy was significantly related to all measures of sexual enjoyment, although not equally, as empathy was more strongly associated with regularity of orgasm than with liking giving or receiving oral sex. Nonetheless, this finding held to varying degrees across all groups of participants.

Enough With the Numbers, How Can I Be Better in Bed?
Unfortunately pretty much all the news and bloggy coverage of the study has traded in basic science for a catchy headline. This study does not tell us that being more empathetic makes you a better lover or even enjoy sex more. The research can't know the direction of the correlation found, so it's impossible to know which came first, the empathy or the orgasm.

While most of the headlines proclaim that being an empathic person makes you a better lover, it's just as likely that the more orgasms you have, the more empathetic you become. Maybe it's the experience of being with someone experiencing intense pleasure, pleasure that you presumably had a hand (or some other body part in) that builds up your self-esteem or empathy. It's possible that being autonomous makes orgasms come easier because we're able to focus on our own pleasure and not the pleasure of the other. Maybe the more oral sex I perform on someone, the higher my self-esteem goes.

This research is exciting not because it delivers any sex tips or provides the foundation for another sex manual, it's exciting because of the questions it asks, and the directions the findings suggest for future research. Why, for example, does it seem that rating yourself high on self-esteem is more connected to enjoyment performing oral sex than receiving oral sex? What goes into us being able to enjoy receiving oral sex anyway? If you think it's all about anatomy and response, how come there's such variation?

As the authors themselves state, this study is just the beginning. Lucky for us, it's a clearly written and fairly presented beginning, which hopefully will inspire more research not just on this topic, but of this caliber.

Read more - HealthDay: Self-Confidence, Empathy May Make for Better Sex

Citation: Galinsky, A.M. & Sonenstein, F.L. (2011) The Association Between Developmental Assets and Sexual Enjoyment Among Emerging Adults. Journal of Adolescent Health 48: 610-615.


To examine the associations between three key developmental assets and an aspect of sexual health, sexual enjoyment, which has rarely been studied in young adults, although its importance is stressed in all recent sexual health policy statements.

Using data from wave III (2001–2002) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and multiple logistic and ordered logistic regression, we explored the associations between sexual pleasure and autonomy, self-esteem, and empathy among 3,237 respondents aged 18–26 years in heterosexual relationships of ≥3-month duration. We also examined the distribution of sexual pleasure across various socio-demographic groups.


Compared with young women, young men reported more regular orgasms and more enjoyment of two kinds of partnered sexual behavior. Sexual enjoyment was not associated with age, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Among women, autonomy, self-esteem, and empathy co-varied positively with all three sexual enjoyment measures. Among men, all associations were in the same direction, but not all were statistically significant.

A substantial gender difference in enjoyment of partnered sexual behavior exists among emerging adults in the United States. This study is the first to use a representative population sample to find a relationship between developmental assets and a positive aspect of sexual health − sexual pleasure.

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