The Man’s Definitive Guide to the Female Orgasm
Ian Kerner and Kenneth Play are obsessed with getting men to fuck better. They bring monomaniacal devotion to this topic in their self-help-cum-sex-education books — She Comes First (by Kerner, published in 2004) and Beyond Satisfied (by Play, published in 2022). The two have very different personas; Kerner, a licensed psychotherapist with a doctorate, sings the praises of monogamy and getting to know one partner intimately, while Play, a sort of autodidactical sex savant, has (self-reportedly) had sex with thousands of women in the play parties he hosts with a Brooklyn sex-positive community.
(A note on terms: when Kerner and Play refer to men and women, they imply cis and hetero.)
To hear them tell it, women could be multiorgasmic goddesses, but instead they’re stifled by porn-addled men who grope their partner’s breasts for a minute of barely passable foreplay before jackhammering, ejaculating, and falling asleep. They’re not far off. Research on sexual outcomes has found a severe discrepancy between rates of orgasm, even with a familiar partner, for heterosexual men and women — close to 86% for men, versus 61% for women. (Meanwhile, lesbian women are doing great.)
Attention to this disparity has risen over the past couple decades. A Google Ngram search shows that incidences of “orgasm gap” in the English corpus began in the late 1990s and increased dramatically after 2010. In August 2020 PornHub even ran a campaign, produced by multinational advertising agency Ogilvy, called “End the Orgasm Gap.” As part of this campaign, PornHub interrupted several videos popular among straight male demographics when the videos had reached the 40% timestamp, to represent women who did not reach orgasm in their sexual encounters with men. In an animated video describing the campaign, the voiceover narrator says, “Today, women are still tackling the wage gap, but for some straight women, the problem starts way before stepping in the office.” Through invoking the fight for equal pay, the campaign implies that female orgasm is socially and politically significant: the bedroom, and not only the boardroom, is a site for feminist achievement.
The belief that a woman’s orgasm during hetero sex is a metric of feminist advancement is probably also behind a rash of self-help texts, instructional videos, and smartphone apps that have launched in the past few years. Many of these sex resources, like Dipsea’s erotic audio stories or wellness app Emjoy, are targeted at women. As Hannah Frith writes in Orgasmic Bodies, there is a “neoliberal imperative to ‘work’ at sex”; happiness is an individual responsibility, and erotic pleasure becomes a project with a constellation of performance indicators. Katharine Smyth, writing in The Atlantic, decried the way individual women experience this project as an obligation, terming it the “female-orgasm industrial complex.” In Diagnosing Desire, the sociologist Alyson K. Spurgas calls the panoply of practices individuals can develop to improve their sex lives, like classes, therapy, and mindfulness techniques, “sexual carework.” Relationship-optimizing content is disproportionately aimed at, and consumed by, women; in one recent paper, researchers found that find male readers tend to seek out texts on career development over relationships.
Women do so much preparation for sex, oftentimes thanklessly. Consider the simple unfairness of the contraceptive burden: all the available forms of birth control aside from condoms, abstinence, and sterilization place the weight of potential side effects as well as expending time (e.g., research, taking pills, going to medical procedures) onto one partner’s shoulders.
I’ve been socialized as a woman. Perhaps because of this, the impulse to do a lot of studying up on sex and emotions — which, with its worksheets and color charts, can feel a bit like elementary school homework — is default to me; I have to think (and not click on the posts that various algorithms recommend to me) in order not to do it. My sister and I have had a lot of conversations over the years about men, especially when they’ve hurt us with indifference we didn’t have a good word to describe. Maybe the men weren’t indifferent, exactly, so much as discomfitingly at ease. My sister and I mused why it seemed like we were always running a race, while they were content to stand in place. We were not worse than the men we loved, so why was it that we kept reading advice columns and watching reels by Instagram therapists and trying to be better?
Maybe I should appreciate She Comes First and Beyond Satisfied for this reason: their whole target demographic is men who are trying to be better. These authors recognize the orgasm gap in hetero sex is not a “women’s issue” alone. No “women’s issue” really is. I think about this every time I overhear an ostensible first date between a taciturn man who only answers a woman’s questions but doesn’t ask any, or when someone manspreads on the subway, or mansplains. Why can’t they express curiosity about another person? Take up less physical space? Practice humility about their own understanding in relation to others’? Maybe the heterosexual orgasm gap is something like this, too: a simple problem that men, with better willpower and training, can solve.
Ian Kerner and Kenneth Play treat women’s pleasure as an optimization problem with moral overtones. To men, they say: your female partner should be orgasming, possibly more than once per session. If you care enough to develop a specific set of competences, you can make it happen. How, exactly? Kerner advocates extensive cunnilingus before penis-in-vagina sex, going down on a female partner for as long as it takes for her to have an orgasm. Play has a more comprehensive set of tactics: his book’s “Sex Hacking Techniques” section includes chapters on foreplay, fingering, oral sex, squirting, vaginal penetration, anal, and an introduction to kink. He’s particularly well-renowned for his techniques to make partners squirt; an instructional PornHub video on the topic (link is NSFW) that he made with the adult film star Riley Reyes has more than 8 million views.
But training men how to engineer a particular kind of female sexual response is not a matter unburdened by history and culture. When I read Kerner and Play’s books, with their graphic illustrations of vulvas and cross-sections showing fingers inside vaginal canals, I thought of the early European anatomists who split cadavers apart with scalpels to expose their shadowy interiors and solve the mysteries of the female body — that “ultimate natural secret,” to quote historian of science Katharine Park. La petite mort has been the subject of men’s fascination, revulsion, and inquiry for centuries. In 1559, the anatomist Renaldus Columbus described the clitoris as “protuberances” that are “the seat of women’s delight,” “a sort of male member,” and when rubbed or touched “semen swifter than air flows this way and that on account of the pleasure.”
I suggest She Comes First and Beyond Satisfied are doing something we’ve seen before: focusing on a woman’s body, and not her testimony, to make her physical response the proving ground of a man’s control, knowledge, and ultimately masculinity. “Skillful” hetero sex becomes a site of producing gender, again and again and again.
The word “control” appears 26 times in She Comes First and 58 times in Beyond Satisfied. A man’s ability to control his physiological reactions during sex is described as key. Losing control means coming too fast. In one of many curious citations of wise men from distant lands sprinkled throughout She Comes First, Kerner quotes the “ancient words of Taoist master Wu Hsien” — “The man must keep the situation in control and benefit from the communion without undue haste.”” (Kerner’s use of foreign sages is consistent with larger trends of Orientalism in English-language sex manuals; consider, too, pop culture versions of the South Asian Kama Sutra.)
Kerner’s present-day expertise is a far cry from the humble beginnings he describes at the start of the book, in his introduction titled “Confessions of a Premature Ejaculator”: “I was hopeless, pathetic. Just the sight of a woman’s naked body could make me lose control.” Cunnilingus, for Kerner, provided an alternative. Unlike the ornery penis, “the tongue […] is under our direct control, has no time constraints, and can be manipulated with expert precision.” He writes later in the book: “One of the main advantages of cunnilingus over intercourse is that you can remain levelheaded and in control throughout the entire experience.”
Maintaining control is the prerequisite for the journey mirrored in both books, from premature ejaculator or “skinny-fat Asian immigrant kid” to self-confident sexual maestro. Even more, Play suggests that “self-mastery” turns sex into a field for self-actualization, a place to “explore our human potential” in the same way many people use sports. His background as a personal trainer who owned a Brooklyn gym comes through in these comparisons to athletics, as well as his exhortations to recognize parts of one’s inner anatomy (e.g., the solar plexus and pelvic floor) to gain the ability to control them. His advice isn’t limited to the male partner’s body; he also suggests exercises with female partners, like this:
You can do a little exercise to experiment with turning these involuntary impulses into voluntary actions. Insert your finger into your partner’s vagina, and ask her to squeeze your finger as if she’s trying to suck it in. Then ask her to bear down on your finger as if she’s trying to push it out. Repeat the motions until she has conscious control over the action of these muscles.
Just as exercise provides a site for consumption, Play’s sex advice is littered with QR codes to suggested products for purchase and casual allusions to sex toys that I’d never heard of before (like the “Sybian,” allegedly the most powerful rideable vibrator in the world). When I saw a picture of this instrument, I thought of Mark Greif’s lines in “Against Exercise,” “With the gym we import vestiges of the leftover equipment of industry into our leisure. We leave the office, and put the conveyor belt under our feet, and run as if chased by devils. We willingly submit our legs to the mangle, and put our stiffening arms to the press.”
I wonder how Greif might describe those machines for sexual optimization to which people joyfully submit. These devices can be expensive: the Lelo Sila clitoral sucker, which Play recommends at the start of his chapter on oral sex, costs $169. For sex accoutrements that are larger or less subtle than the sleek Sila (like the Sybian) it not only takes money to buy them but to find space that is private and secure for them. With an activity like rope play there is an investment of time to learn safe practices, and you might have to live in a city of a certain size to have access to workshops and classes. But the existence of systemic obstacles to achieving a certain sexual standard isn’t something Play engages in his book.
Kerner and Play’s attitude towards sex dovetails neatly with the neoliberal responsibility to work at one’s own happiness. There is little room in either’s imagination for factors outside of individual failings that may keep people from having happy partnered hetero sex. Reading Kenneth Play’s writing in particular, I feel a heady blend of youth pastor earnestness and CNBC financial pundit after a couple of energy drinks. Play writes enthusiastically about dating as a problem of finding the “right ‘market fit”; the “more you invest in yourself, and build your skillset around what you most desire, the more attractive you’ll be in the market of that desire.” For Play, being able to live an authentic life comes down to rational analysis of costs and benefits:
The gay Mormon boy has to decide whether his faith and community are more valuable to him than his suffering. It might be worth it to him to stay in Utah. Or he could say fuck it to religion, move to New York City, and be gay as fuck.
For both writers, control is situated in the individual body — a body that seemingly exists outside of geography, money, or disability (although there is one strange moment when Kerner describes his younger self as a “sexual cripple”). Kerner and Play both advocate applying self-discipline, practice, and time to sex in a way that obfuscates who usually has the ability to do so. And although their books are focused on the role of men who have sex with women, they also imply strong prerequisites of women’s bodily training in order to orgasm in certain ways. Kerner says women who masturbate regularly orgasm during oral sex more easily because they’ve “wired” themselves to come; in his chapter on why some women won’t have an orgasm during cunnilingus, he writes, “perhaps she simply hasn’t ‘trained’ her body to experience orgasm in this manner.”
It’s easy to feel whiplash sometimes. On one hand, there’s so much language of training, discipline, and control, Kerner’s “levelheaded” oral sex and Play’s muscle isolation. On the other, they’re fixated on orgasm, a moment that many experience as a loss of control. Maybe their pendulum swings on control make sense: we want to understand that which seems confounding, and when something happens that we like, we want to figure out how to make it happen again. But Kerner and Play translate this curiosity into descriptions of bodies that are objectifying and reductive. Play describes how a keyboard, mouse, and screen let you control the functions on a spaceship and says the vagina and vulva are the same thing for your partner’s body. In another passage, he compares using kink techniques in the bedroom to accessing “super user” level, which is what employees at Apple’s Genius Bar do when they fix your phone.
Similarly, there are ways to get access to your internal system—or your partner’s—through sex. Kink is one way to get deep into someone’s mind and body and access their primal desires and subconscious urges.
In one of Ian Kerner’s classic florid metaphors, he says that some call oral sex “mouth-music,” then,
it wasn’t until I met my wife that I found my Stradivarius—unique, beautiful, and priceless. If she is my violin, then I am her bow. I encourage you to find your Stradivarius. And when you do, protect, cherish, and remain constant to it, for then you will be able to play as a master.
Of a specific partner at a play party, Kenneth Play wrote, “she was super sensitive and responsive; kissing her was like driving a Ferrari.”
Hardware input devices, phone user interfaces, violins, and sports cars don’t have their own beliefs, fantasies, resentments, and desires. You put something in and you get something out. Is the female sexual partner’s objectification a necessary prerequisite to treating sexual discipline and mastery as a skill? You can get better at doing something to an object — lifting weights, for example — but it’s hard to get tangible metrics from something that isn’t an object, because sentient actors don’t spit out outputs predictably in response to certain inputs.
Kerner and Play want to be the masters of their fates in the bedroom, so there is little room in their formulations for orgasms that come about with assistance from factors outside of a man’s bodily control of a woman. While Play sings the praises of learning about kink, particularly domination, and Kerner devotes a supportive passage to fantasies, what goes on in someone’s head is — probably because of its opacity — minimally described in the books compared to physical actions. Man drives Ferrari. Man plays violin. Man fucks woman. Subject verb object. Is the experience of orgasm really so unidirectional, or might it sometimes be something unpredictable and wending and collaborative?
THE SECRETS OF WOMEN
Scientific discourse on female orgasm presupposes that orgasm can be evaluated in binary terms, an on-off switch, a presence or an absence. Individuals steeped in the assumptions about the female orgasm that have percolated through the sciences and into popular culture begin to ask themselves if they or their partners have experienced orgasm as it is defined by narratives of anatomical certainties. The first time you had an orgasm, did you know what it was? How did you arrive at that name for the experience you call orgasm now?
Google “how to tell if a woman orgasmed” and though some results will point to unknowability, others will declare vaginal contractions and other involuntary responses are surefire tells. The obsession with finding tangible physical evidence evidences widespread suspicion of women’s spoken testimony. Play and Kerner both reference the specter of the duplicitous woman who lies about having an orgasm. Kerner:
Many women can duplicate the characteristics of orgasm, including the contractions of the PC muscles, although it’s unlikely she could manufacture eight to ten of these contractions in less than twenty seconds, especially in combination with all the other visible characteristics. […] But, in truth, most women know that they needn’t bother portraying a convincing facsimile of the real thing when they can simply offer up an ersatz performance of those characteristics that are most likely to fool and please men. In short, lots of sound and fury, which, in the end, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. This is a broad generalization, but it’s the screamers and the thrashers who are very often the fakers. (emphasis Kerner’s own).
Both Kerner and Play offer up graphic diagrams of sexual organs, remark on what areas to stimulate, and how to tell when orgasm will be close or inevitable. Implicit is the prior assumption that an individual saying they’ve experienced an orgasm is not sufficient evidence.
This dynamic — skepticism of experience that leads to rigorous physical inspection — is explored in historian of science Katharine Park’s book about European holy women towards the end of the Middle Ages who were dissected after their deaths as part of quests for empirical evidence that they really were miraculous. These women had “their bodies opened and their viscera inspected” while no cadavers of holy men in the same period were subjected to the same treatment. Why did authenticating sanctity take on such physical dimensions when it came to these holy women? Park writes about this as a response to a blooming culture of female religious life which challenged (male) religious authorities. Park writes,
[The religious authorities] had doubts about the wisdom and appropriateness of large numbers of laywomen leaving their families to live autonomous and sometimes highly visible penitential lives. These doubts were magnified by the strong visionary and ecstatic element in this movement, which began to produce charismatic women known not only for their extreme asceticism but also for their trances and prophetic revelations.
What made a particular holy woman’s body a likely candidate for an intensive medical inspection could include her supposed sanctity not fitting within dominant masculine models, and not having male witnesses to her miracles or the holiness of her life.
Whether in the Middle Ages or the modern day, experiences of ecstasy religious or sexual, the message seems consistent: women lie, but their bodies don’t.
Kerner and Play want women to have orgasms that they can recognize and they can understand, orgasms that are legible within contemporary scientific knowledge. Both Play and Kerner cite scientific research about orgasm throughout their books. A message that the sciences should be considered an infallible source of true, correct, and static knowledge about the experience of pleasure elides the reality that scientific research is conducted by people and institutions who have ideological biases. It also ignores what philosopher of science Ian Hacking calls the “looping effect,” the feedback loop between categories that are developed by scientific knowledge, individuals and their experiences, and the research itself. In the hands of researchers deemed expert by institutions, individuals’ bodily experiences are used with or without their verbal input to produce narratives of “objective” truth about orgasm that are then marshaled to classify all women. Sometimes those narratives are hit-or-miss.
Conventional evolutionary biologists who develop explanatory narratives for human sexuality, for example, do not fully acknowledge their field’s heteronormative and pro-monogamy biases. Evolutionary biologists who chose to study female orgasm used chimpanzees as representational primates. However, another option would be bonobos — like chimpanzees, they are closely related to primates. Unlike chimps, bonobos’ sexual practices are famously prolific, casual, and social in nature. Philosopher Nancy Tuana writes it’s unsurprising “that our mostly male evolutionary theorists would pick the chimp over the bonobos to model the evolution of human sexuality. A female chimpanzee may have sex with more than one male, but at least she modestly reserves her passions for procreation.”
Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud famously drew a line between the immaturity of the clitoral orgasm and the normative vaginal orgasm. Until the middle of the 20th Century, “hysteria” was pathologized, its cure a “paroxysm” not to be induced by the self but only to be expressed under medical supervision — doctors armed with the earliest vibrators. “Frigid” women found themselves stigmatized for the inability to achieve an orgasm through a method (penis-in-vagina penetration) that works for a minority of adult females.
Kerner and Play disparage some sexology of centuries past, particularly Freud’s take, for being limited in its outlook, but they also rely heavily on scientific discourse from their contemporaries with no critical lens. What does it mean to describe and classify women’s sexual experiences in the ways that doctors, psychiatrists, and biologists have? It creates limits on the possibilities we imagine for ourselves: as Ian Hacking writes, “We are not only what we are but what we might have been, and the possibilities for what we might have been are transformed.”
MEN ARE MADE NOT BORN
Play writes in Beyond Satisfied that “Great lovers are made, not born.” After Beauvoir, we might also say one is not born, but becomes, a man. Both Kerner and Play assume their audiences are cis men who want to be “good men” and great lovers; they situate self-discipline, attention to your partner’s pleasure, and the studious development of sexual prowess as crucial components of this project.
Isn’t it possible to want to engage in sexual practices that bring another person pleasure while not reinforcing one’s own sense of gender performance? Indeed, I can think of many cases in which the wrapping of gender detracts from the gift underneath Kerner and Play’s work. Someone who wants to have sex with their nonbinary partner who has a vagina could possibly learn something from Ian Kerner’s cunnilingus tips or Kenneth Play’s fingering techniques, but be alienated by the relentless messaging around what manhood is and women as sex “goddesses.” For that matter, so could a straight vanilla couple who just doesn’t like playing up their respective gender roles so much. The reach and usefulness of these books is minimized by the way they delimit the audience on the basis of gender identity.
Beyond the reach argument, there’s also the question of whether it even makes sense to write advice “for men” versus advice “for women.” Philosopher and literary critic Becca Rothfeld writes in her Substack, “is there a coherent way of saying masculinity normatively requires X, without saying that women should not display X, where X is any positive trait?” If there is value to Play and Kerner’s choice to address men specifically, maybe it’s the reparative value of acknowledgement: that something is rotten in the state of hetero sex right now, and sometimes, it’s rotten because a man needs to do something better.
In x+y, her book on inequality, the mathematician Eugenia Cheng advocates for a new way of thinking about gender inequality. Instead of relying on essentializing statements about what men are like and what women are like, people might notice where “ingressive” (individualistic, competitive, brash) versus “congressive” (collaborative, consensus-building, collective-oriented) traits are valued and rewarded, and seek to create more opportunities to appreciate and award traditionally undervalued (often congressive) traits. For books about sex, there are other vocabularies from the worlds of kink and queer sex that could be useful or interesting. What does it look like to be a good dom, sub, switch, top, bottom, or vers partner? How do the ways we’ve been socialized affect what we might desire, or feel comfortable voicing, in the bedroom?
As a sociologist, I have to admit I’m loath to give up entirely on the use of a social category that still yields important empirical data. At the moment, the majority of people call themselves men or women, and those identities are correlated with a lot of facts about the ways we live and the opportunities we have. So I have sympathy for Kerner and Play, for the projects they are taking on in these books, in working with the words we have closest at hand right now. But I hope that tomorrow’s version of the man’s definitive guide to the female orgasm will be different. I hope they won’t be for men. I hope they won’t be about women. Most of all, I hope they won’t pretend to be definitive. That would be a disservice to all those moments that, at their best, elude capture.
 Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
 Nancy Tuana, “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance,” Hypatia, Vol. 19, No. 1, Feminist Science Studies (Winter, 2004), 2004, 40.
 Ian Kerner, She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, 1st ed, New York: ReganBooks, 2004, 13.
 Kerner, 17.
 Kerner, 29.
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 Kenneth Play, Beyond Satisfied: A Sex Hacker’s Guide to Endless Orgasms, Mind-Blowing Connection, and Lasting Confidence, Place of publication not identified: Lioncrest Publlishing, 2022, 201.
—-and Riley Reyes, “G Spot and Squirting 101 with Kenneth Play & Riley Reyes (Sex Hack How To),” 2018 https://www.pornhub.com/view_video.php?viewkey=ph5a2072ef46f34. (NSFW)
 Play, 119.
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 Kerner, 144.
 Play, Beyond Satisfied, 136.
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 Play, Beyond Satisfied, 209.
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 Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, 55.
 Tuana, “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance,” 220-21.
 Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674016071.
Riese Bernard, “Lesbian Sex Gets Women Off At Astronomical Rates, Our Sex Survey Shows,” Autostraddle, April 29th, 2015 https://www.autostraddle.com/lesbian-sex-comes-out-on-top-in-the-orgasm-game-287729/.
Eugenia Cheng, x+y: A Mathemetician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender, New York: Basic Books, 2020.
Hannah Frith, Orgasmic Bodies: The Orgasm in Contemporary Western Culture, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Justin R Garcia, Elisabeth A. Lloyd, Kim Wallen, Helen E. Fisher, “Variation in orgasm occurrence by sexual orientation in a sample of U.S. singles,” The Journal of Sexual Medicine, August 18th, 2014, doi: 10.1111/jsm.12669.
Mark Greif, “Against Exercise,” n+1, Issue 1: Negation, 2004 https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-1/essays/against-exercise/.
Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Kapell, Brandi, and Scott McLean, “She Reads, He Reads: Gender Differences and Learning through Self-Help Books”. European Journal for Research on the Education and Learning of Adults 6 (1):55-72, 2015, https://doi.org/10.3384/rela.2000-7426.rela0138.
Ian Kerner, She Comes First: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman, 1st ed, New York: ReganBooks, 2004.
Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Kenneth Play, Beyond Satisfied: A Sex Hacker’s Guide to Endless Orgasms, Mind-Blowing Connection, and Lasting Confidence, Place of publication not identified: Lioncrest Publlishing, 2022, 201.
Beca Rothfeld, “men: an addendum,” a fête worse than death, July 17th, 2023 https://afeteworsethandeath.substack.com/p/men-an-addendum.
Katharine Smyth, “The Tyranny of the Female-Orgasm Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic, April 26th, 2021 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2021/04/weaponization-female-orgasm/618680/.
Alyson K. Spurgas, Diagnosing Desire: Biopolitics and Femininity into the Twenty-First Century, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2020.
Nancy Tuana, “Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance,” Hypatia, Vol. 19, No. 1, Feminist Science Studies (Winter, 2004), 2004, 194-232.