Using Qualitative Surveys for Sensitive Sex Research

Victoria and Virginia, in collaboration with students Emily Opperman and Cassandra Rogers, used a qualitative survey to examine experiences around, and meanings related to, orgasm—a topic that is, perhaps surprisingly, given its centrality to sexual activity, rarely researched. The text-based survey contained 16 open-ended questions related to the meaning of orgasm, meanings and experiences around orgasm frequency, self-versus partner-orgasm, orgasm timing, faking orgasm, pleasures associated with sex, and descriptions and evaluations of participants’ own typical (or last) orgasm experience (the full survey is published in Opperman et al., 2014). Our convenience sample consisted of 119 young adults (18-26). Data were analysed using thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2006) and five main themes identified:

  • ( 1) Orgasm was described as the goal, and end-point, of sex; people were understood to engage in sexual activity in pursuit of an orgasm, and orgasm was the marker of success for sexual activity. The achievement of male orgasm in particular signalled the end of ‘sex’.
  • (2) Participants prioritised their partner’s experience of orgasm over their own, often reporting feeling responsible for whether or not their partner achieved orgasm and frequently framing orgasm as something ‘given’. Negative feelings were associated with a failure to ‘give’ an orgasm and implied poor ‘sexual performance’.
  • (3) Participants described orgasm as the ultimate sexual pleasure and this ‘peak’ experience was felt to enhance feelings of intimacy when having sex in the context of an on-going, ‘committed’ relationship. Despite this, sexual pleasure and feelings of increased intimacy were also noted in the absence of orgasm.
  • (4) Orgasm was described as a contextualised physical response, facilitated or inhibited by a variety of physical, relational and psychological factors such as a feeling of psychological ‘comfort’ with one’s partner.
  • (5) Faking orgasm was common: more than half the participants reported doing it, most often for the benefit of their partner—to create feelings of pleasure and satisfaction or to avoid their partner feeling upset.

These meanings attributed to orgasm and sexual pleasure resonated with the scant existing literature, evidencing the way young adults, fairly early in their sexual lives, already have strongly socially patterned sexual meanings, underpinned by dominant assumptions about sexuality.

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