About a year ago, I ran into a guy I’d been on two dates with at a Metric concert. I’d declined the third date because I wasn’t really feeling it, but that night I wanted someone to sleep next to.
So I accepted an invitation to come home with him on the grounds that we really just cuddle.
We ended up making out, which I felt okay with. But I wasn’t okay with him waking me up in the middle of the night and getting a condom without any discussion.
I kept my legs closed to his advances, and he got the message and gave up.
But in the morning, he was at it again. I let him finger me, telling myself it did feel kind of good – but not good enough for me to stay. So, I made a few noises intended to imply an orgasm – or a TV one, at least.
“Hmm?” he said, as if to ask if that was what he thought.
“Hmm?” I pretended not to know what he was asking, got up, and put on my clothes, eager to get back to my own apartment and shower this experience off me.
Look, I know that I’m not the only one who has ever faked an orgasm.
One study found that among college-aged people, half of women and a quarter of men have faked it, and other research suggests those numbers get higher over time.
While people of all genders and sexual orientations do this, it seems disproportionately common among women and even more common among women who sleep with men because of several societal problems that I’ll get into.
Some blame women for this, saying they’re reinforcing bad technique or fostering dishonesty in their relationships.
Coverage of one particular study accused women of using faking orgasms to “manipulate male behavior” – even though the study was on vocalizations outside of orgasm more broadly, which may mean a lot of things.
But, as my story shows, it isn’t that simple. Many women who fake orgasms feel like they have no choice.
Sure, I could’ve abruptly gotten up and said “I’m not into this.” But he probably wouldn’t have taken that well. Society has trained us to be uncomfortable with that kind of blunt communication during sex.
Society has also trained us that we owe our partners an orgasm. The fact that I felt obligated to orgasm for this near-stranger’s sake just shows how women have been taught that other people, particularly men, own their bodies and their pleasure, real or fake.
Even when we’re supposedly the ones being pleased, we still feel our duty is first and foremost to please our partners. And whether due to pressure our partners exert directly or more general societal pressure, we don’t feel permitted to leave until we’ve paid that due. We don’t feel free.
A lot of the reasons women fake orgasms, like my own, tie back to the way patriarchy enslaves women in their own bedrooms. Here are some of them.
1. To Put an End to the Whole Thing
Given my own experience, I wasn’t surprised to learn that a common reason women cite for faking orgasms is to provide an excuse to get out.
One study even found that women were faking orgasms to speed up sex that wasn’t consensual.
Nobody wants to have to fake an orgasm in this situation. But the decision is understandable: Given that these women’s partners didn’t care if they consented in the first place, why would they care if they wanted to stop?
Any means justify getting out of a sexual assault, so how can we judge this one?
Whether or not someone views a negative sexual experience as an assault, the desire to get out of plain old bad sex is also understandable.
We don’t live in a culture where everyone will accept “I’m not into it anymore” – or where that’s easy to say.
We’re not taught to communicate during sex, and we’re sometimes even taught it’s undesirable to speak up. When women sense that saying something isn’t an option, they use the options available to them to end the sex.
And if faking an orgasm is the only feasible choice left on the table, we can’t fault women for that. We need to fault those who taught them there was no other escape route.
2. We Don’t Want to Let Our Partners Down
Women get taught from a young age that their pleasure is for other people. In this regard, we learn our orgasms serve a dual function: as a turn-on and an ego-booster.
While women who sleep with all a/genders will feel this, it’s particularly present for women who sleep with men, since it’s so tied up with their sense of masculinity and with the male gaze.
A recent study found that when men were asked to imagine a sexual encounter, they felt more masculine and had higher self-esteem if the woman in it orgasmed.
That’s a lot to put on women who sleep with men. It means we enter the bedroom knowing that if we don’t orgasm, our partners may have a diminished sense of self-worth and masculinity.
When we’re sleeping with men like this, faking an orgasm can be an act of mercy. And it’s yet another way women are expected to perform emotional labor for men’s sake.
Then there’s the idea that watching, hearing, or feeling a woman orgasm is the ultimate source of pleasure.
In a Women’s Health article titled, “8 Reasons Guys Love it When You Orgasm,” a man lists reasons like: “We like to feel accomplished. Big ‘O’s’ bring us closer. We get a private show. Your voice sounds amazing at that volume.”
The implication is that a woman’s orgasm is a show for men – and if it’s more like a quiet conclusion than a spectacle, it’s disappointing.
In a Cosmo article titled, “8 Reasons He Really Wants to Make You Orgasm – Nay, Needs to Make You Orgasm,” another guy includes: “It’s a testament to our manhood. It means we can finally finish. We just want to be the best.
And these are from the sources meant to empower us. Move over to men’s magazines or porn, and women’s orgasms are depicted merely as sources of enjoyment for men.
When we learn all this, appearing to orgasm gets put into the same category as touching our partner’s genitals or wearing sexy lingerie. We feel like we’re depriving them of pleasure if we don’t.
Some guys really will throw it in our faces if we “deny” them this supposed turn-on and badge of honor. See this Twitter thread by Everyday Feminism’s managing editor Melissa A. Fabello to understand how that can go down.
Heck, some will even get bothered if we do orgasm but it’s not as loud and overblown as they’d hoped. Read Everyday Feminism contributor Ginny Brown’s account of being mini-orgasmic for an example of this.
Partners like these aren’t even looking for an orgasm. They only want the appearance of one – or, more specifically, of the kind they fantasize about. By faking it, we’re just giving them what they’ve insisted on.
3. We’ve Been Taught Orgasms Are Obligatory
Magazines, movies, and everyday conversations teach us that orgasm is the goal of sex, and if we haven’t orgasmed, we have had bad sex.
So, if we feel bad about our partners trying to get us to a point we’re just not going to reach, we may fake it as a way of saying it’s okay to stop.
Just saying “It’s okay to stop” should always be acceptable, but not everyone will take it well. Not all partners get that you can stop before orgasm and still consider the experience good.
The view of sex as a rush toward orgasm reflects the way Western capitalist society fixates on achieving goals. Whether we’re talking about sex or careers, we’re taught that every journey must have a destination, and it’s the destination that counts.
If sex appears to be a destinationless journey, both we and our partners may feel like we’ve failed. Faking orgasms can save a couple this sense of failure.
4. Sometimes There’s Just No Chance We’ll Actually Orgasm
Some of the other reasons on this list would just be reasons to have an orgasm, were it not that a depressingly low number of women are getting the attention they need to do that.
A recent study found that straight women have the fewest orgasms: 65% said they usually do, compared with 95% of straight men. If the main reason for this were physiological, we’d probably expect the numbers to be the same for people of different sexual orientations. But in fact, 86% of lesbians and 89% of gay men usually orgasm.
So, it appears that the orgasm gap largely has to do with many women’s male partners not giving them the necessary stimulation.
It’s easy to see why, given that sex education teaches us very little (if anything) about pleasure that doesn’t belong to cis men. And the media is full of myths about vagina-owners’ orgasms, like the idea that they should occur through penis-in-vagina intercourse.
And education aside, we’ve been taught to privilege men’s pleasure. This leads to less attention on women and other a/genders and disproportionate attention focused on men. People of all a/genders may further this double standard.
Combine that with the discomfort many people have around communicating in the bedroom, and it’s a miracle so many cis women do orgasm with their partners.
I’m happy to say the scenario I described at the beginning of this article is the only time I’ve ever faked it. Not happy because I’m proud of myself, but happy because that means I’ve been in a good situation since.
That is, my partner pays attention to what I like, is willing to devote time to me, and doesn’t take it personally if I don’t orgasm. These things aren’t a given. If I were in a different situation, maybe I would be faking it, and maybe that would be for the better.
Yes, it’s true that faking an orgasm doesn’t teach someone how to actually make you orgasm. But that’s not our responsibility. And many women sense that their partners wouldn’t even care if they tried to teach them.
Not everyone wants their partner(s) to come. Some just want the benefits they get from it: the ego boost, the performance, the permission to stop – minus the orgasm itself.
This is yet another way we’re taught that our bodies don’t belong to ourselves. We’ve been socialized to neglect our own pleasure, put on a show, and do whatever it takes to satisfy our partners, especially if they’re men.
So, fake orgasms are exactly the kind women are socialized to have: devoid of sexual pleasure, full of emotional labor, and catering to the male gaze.
Instead of asking why women fake orgasms, maybe we should be asking how women manage to have actual orgasms. That’s pretty remarkable when it goes against (cissexist) gender norms that say we have no sexuality, we should be selfless in bed, and our bodies are “too complicated.”
Yet, we do because, thankfully, many of us sense deep down that this is all sexist bullshit.
In order for us to stop faking orgasms, our partners also need to realize this: Stop acting like our orgasms are for you, and value our genuine pleasure.
Until you stop demanding a glamorized, seductive, and ultimately fake version of our pleasure, don’t be mad when we give you what you asked for.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss. Read her articles here.
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