For some couples, the penis and its penetration of one partner's body dominate in the bedroom and dictate every stroke of their sex life.
Men are 30 percent more likely to climax during sex than women, according to a 2017 study, suggesting that women are being let down by penis-centric sex education, pornography and even romance-driven media created for their viewing pleasure.
While for many people penis-focused sex is important, there is so much more to partnered pleasure than penis-in-vagina sex, especially for queer couples.
Historically, clitoral stimulation and G-spot stimulation often have been shrouded in shame, discouraging some women from reaching the heights of their pleasure potential. Lack of quality sex education for some men has created a female orgasm gap as well, as they fumble in the dark for "spots" they're fairly sure they'll never find.
"Sex remains penis-centric because of our patriarchal, sex-negative culture," said Emme Witt, a sex expert, writer and dominatrix living in Los Angeles. "For millennia, women were dissuaded from enjoying their bodies unless they were married. Even then, not much was known about the female orgasm—if it even existed. Female pleasure simply wasn't seen as necessary."
Men have been encouraged—if not celebrated—for exploring their sexuality and prioritizing penetration for their satisfaction, whereas women are often shamed for any attempt at sexual exploration.
As a result, penises have been dominated by base instincts and hyperfocused on penetration, as Eric Ridenour, a men's health researcher in Wyoming, explained.
"It's just primal instinct," he said. "It is the most basic thing even most children understand. For young people just beginning to explore sex, things can be confusing enough just with that basic process, so it's just where people are comfortable. People only learn the basics and have little interest in exploring further."
Prioritizing communication and self-advocacy
"Men absolutely need to be informed and interested in pleasing their partner," Ridenour said. "What men need to realize is sex is important in more ways than just getting an orgasm."
Prioritizing communication above all else is the key to decentering the penis. Partners must learn to open their mouths for something other than dirty talk, regularly check in with partners and listen to what they have to say—whether they have a penis or not.
"Don't just assume your partner will be OK with what you are doing," Ridenour said. "Use cues so they know what is coming next. You will be surprised to learn that anticipation of something pleasurable can often enhance the pleasure when it finally arrives."
'You will be surprised to learn that anticipation of something pleasurable can often enhance the pleasure when it finally arrives.'
However, the onus for "de-penising" sex also lies with people who have vulvas.
A 2022 study led by Rutgers University found that when men and women have frequent orgasms, they desire more, but the opposite occurs when climaxing occurs less often. As women orgasm less overall, these findings offer an explanation for why they deprioritize a climax when measuring sexual satisfaction.
To change the tide, women must take on a more proactive role in sex.
"Women need to be the ones to demand pleasure during sex," Witt explained. "They need to start viewing the orgasm gap as an injustice. When men get off and leave women unfulfilled, that's promoting gender inequality. They need to take ownership of their sexual pleasure."
Traditionally, in some people's view, a session of sex is considered over when the penis has ejaculated. If the other partner has had a satisfactory climax is mostly irrelevant. Biology makes this situation tougher to resolve because prolactin—a hormone produced by the pituitary gland at the base of the brain—is released following the male orgasm, triggering tiredness and resulting in detachment from the partner.
To revamp this tired sexual routine, redefining foreplay is an essential step. Foreplay should be a rewarding and fulfilling part of a broader sexual experience. It should not be a means to facilitate speedy penetration or a box to be checked on the way to male ejaculation.
"Men need to understand that the female body works differently than the male body," Witt said. "Though sometimes women can get turned on as quickly as men do, many women need longer to 'heat up.' Just because a guy is ready to put his penis inside a woman, this doesn't mean she's ready to accept it."
Instead, the focus should be on exploring each other's erogenous zones to maximize anticipation and sensuality. Penetration does not need to factor into sex at all. Oral sex, roleplay and BDSM are just a few ways to expand your horizons and decenter penetrative sex.
Plus, de-penising your sex life enhances male pleasure, too.
"I advise heterosexual people to begin to de-penis their sex lives by instead focusing on every part of the body that isn't the penis," Witt recommended. "Men have a lot of sensitivity in their nipples and anuses and can even experience orgasm that way. Why not stimulate those parts of the male anatomy as well?"
Learning self-pleasure benefits everyone
Although exploring new methods of pleasure is a crucial step toward de-penising any sex life, these options will have little impact on a person without a strong understanding of what pleasure looks like for them.
Self-pleasure is important for all genders, including women.
"A woman learning to self-pleasure will teach herself what she needs to do to get off," Witt explained. "Therefore, she will feel much more empowered to speak up during sex to demand that her vulva is sufficiently pleasured before a man ever puts his penis inside her. In this sense, she's the one who must de-penis sex. A woman needs to be more focused on her clit than on his penis."