A woman's genes might affect her ability to achieve orgasm, British researchers report.

They haven't found an "orgasm gene," and they don't dismiss other influences (such as cultural, social, and psychological traits). They also say they know they're wading into a "highly speculative and controversial" topic.

However, Kate Dunn of London's St. Thomas Hospital and colleagues say science has overlooked female sexuality for too long. "Until recently, little research has explored female sexual function, and yet women commonly report sexual dysfunction," they write in the journal's early online edition of Biology Letters.

The lack of scientific interest in the topic may stem from the previous consensus that the female orgasm plays no role in reproduction, they write. Recent research has challenged this concept, showing that orgasm plays a role in sperm retention.

Click here to read Web MD's "The Science of Female Orgasms."

Not a Secret Anymore

Glance at a newsstand of women's magazines, and the blaring headlines about hot sex tips and steamy affairs may make you think there's no problem in the bedroom. But that's a far cry from real life for many women.

Take the 2003 study cited by Dunn and colleagues. It showed that more than half of British women reported at least one sexual problem lasting a month or more during the previous year, and around a quarter rarely had orgasms, at best, in the previous three months.

Dunn's team sent confidential surveys to women in a U.K. registry of identical and nonidentical twins. That approach has been used in studies on many topics. It's thought that genetic influences would show up in identical twins, who share their genes, as well as upbringing.

Click here to read Web MD's Prescriptions for Sexual Frustration

Study's Findings

About 4,000 women completed the questionnaire. They were about 50 years old, on average.

The survey showed that orgasms were rare for many of the women:

—About 32 percent said they were unable to achieve orgasm during intercourse more than a quarter of the time. Half of those women never reached orgasm during intercourse.

—14 percent said they always achieved orgasm during intercourse.

More women were able to orgasm during masturbation:

—34 percent always reached orgasm.

—21 percent were still unable to orgasm more than a quarter of the time, two-thirds of whom never achieved orgasm during masturbation.

There was no difference between the proportion of identical and nonidentical twins who never or infrequently reached orgasm by either method.

However, there was less variation for the frequency of orgasm during intercourse and masturbation in identical compared with nonidentical twins, suggesting a clear genetic influence for both.

Click here to read Web MD's "Sex Talk Changing With the Times."

Genetic Influence

"We found that between 34 percent and 45 percent of the variation in ability to orgasm can be explained by underlying genetic variation, with little or no role for the shared environment (e.g. family environment, religion, social class, or early education," write the researchers.

"Our data lend support to the idea that variation in female orgasmic ability has a biological basis," say Dunn and colleagues.

Click here to visit WebMD's "Healthy Sexuality Center."

Researcher's Orgasm Advice

Recently, WebMD hosted a discussion with Jennifer Berman, MD, co-founder of the FemaleSexual Medicine Center at UCLA. Berman is also the director of female urology and sexual medicine at the Rodeo Drive Women's Health Center in Beverly Hills, Calif.

During the discussion, a 22-year-old woman said she had never had an orgasm during sex and asked Berman's advice. Here's what Berman said:

"In reality, only 30 percent of women experience orgasm with penovaginal intercourse. If you can experience orgasm through other ways such as oral sex, self-stimulation, or other, that is great and normal. For you to achieve orgasm during intercourse, you are going to need to have sufficient clitoral stimulation.

"If it is important for you to achieve orgasm during intercourse, I would encourage you to focus on increasing the level of foreplay prior to sex and try positions that increase clitoral stimulation and even consider incorporating a vibrator," Berman continued. "That being said, you should not feel pressured to achieve orgasm during sex."

Click here to read Web MD's "The Golden Age of Sex."

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Dunn, K. Biology Letters, early online edition. WebMD Live Events Transcript: "Secrets of the Sexually Satisfied Woman." News release, The Royal Society.