The experience of faking orgasm during sex is one to which most women can relate. In fact, in one of the most famous Seinfeld episodes of all time, “The Mango,” Elaine admits to pretending to have orgasm when she and Jerry had sex (“fake, fake, fake, fake”). This award-winning episode, watched on 29% of all American televisions in use at the time, clearly resonated with millions of women. Over 20 years later, with all the changes that have occurred in society’s acceptance of female sexuality, is faking orgasms still common among women?
According to Western University psychologists Claire Salisbury and William Fisher, the answer would seem to be "yes." They report that the majority of women (70%) do not experience orgasm during intercourse, compared to the vast majority of men (90%) who do. Younger women are even less likely than their more experienced older counterparts to climax during intercourse. It takes time, apparently, for women (and their partners) to figure out the magic formula for stimulating a woman to orgasm during male-female intercourse.
This situation presents a dilemma for the average women, again, particularly for the younger woman. Romantic depictions of heterosexual intercourse consistently emphasize the importance of men and women having an orgasm not only during the same interaction, but virtually at the same time. Indeed, the earlier the woman can finish, the better for all concerned. As shown in popular shows today, such as “Scandal,” male-female sex scenes result in almost instantaneous orgasm for both partners despite the lack of foreplay or even removing very much clothing. Exposed to these depictions, the woman who doesn’t experience orgasm quite so readily, or even at all, may feel she has no choice but to emulate Elaine’s “fake, fake, fake, fake.”
Media depictions of women might contribute to the likelihood that women fake orgasm, then, but Salisbury and Fisher decided to put the question to the test. The researchers formed small focus groups of undergraduate women and men (separated by gender) and asked them to talk about their beliefs and experiences surrounding lack of female orgasm. There were a maximum of five participants per group, so each member had the opportunity to have his or her views represented.
The focus group method produces a large amount of qualitative data that are not as readily subjected to statistical analysis as survey or even structured interviews. Salisbury and Fisher’s job was to take the verbatim recordings of the sessions and translate them into understandable themes. These are the 6 prominent themes that they identified among women's responses, along with explanations of each:
1. Women are responsible for psychologically preparing themselves for orgasm. According to the focus group members, men are responsible for the physical stimulation, but women need to get their gameface on in order to achieve orgasm. Whether it’s better to carry the physical vs. the psychological burden is a debatable question. However, because it’s their responsibility to get in the right frame of mind (focused attention, receptive to the man’s actions), if women don’t achieve orgasm, it can be seen as a lack of emotional commitment not to be swept away by their partner's adroit moves.
2. Female orgasm isn’t necessary for a woman to be sexually satisfied during sex. For a sexual encounter between a man and woman to end “successfully,” so the participants thought, it’s only the man who needs to achieve orgasm. It’s a “bonus” if the woman does as well. According to one participant, “An orgasm would be the icing on the cake” (p. 621).
3. Women need to boost the male’s ego during sex . Paradoxically, though orgasm would clearly be pleasurable for the woman, these participants believed that the man benefits more from the woman’s achieving climax during sex than she does herself. If a woman doesn’t have an orgasm, so the thinking goes, her male partner’s ego is hurt. Women, instead of focusing on their own pleasure, then, are wondering if they’re going to be able to satisfy their partners by showing the “right” response. As one woman stated: “Sometimes you have to [fake orgasm] because you’re going to upset the person.”
4. Women assume they’re being judged by the man, but rarely communicate this concern. Saddled with their beliefs that they are psychologically responsible for orgasm, don’t need it to experience pleasure, and have to fake it to please their partners, it’s natural for women to assume that their partners are judging them on how well they contribute to a positive outcome. Too embarrassed or unsure of themselves, women avoid letting their male partners know he’s “failed.” Interestingly, the men their own focus groups reported that communicating about the sexual experience was important to them, though only in committed (vs. casual) relationships. Women may be surprised, then, to learn that the man they care about also cares about their sexual pleasure.
5. Women place more value on the man’s pleasure than their own. Because they don’t want to bruise their partner’s ego, women are inhibited from acting on their own desires to be stimulated to orgasm in ways other than intercourse. We may see this as a function of their age and relative inexperience, but at least for the women in this sample of undergraduates, the request to follow up sexual intercourse with manual stimulation seems to have the potential to be “devastating to a man’s self-esteem” (p. 622).
6. It’s more acceptable to fake orgasm in a casual encounter. Women, like men, value communication about sexuality in a committed vs. casual relationship. Faking orgasm, they believed, was not acceptable in a committed relationship. However, women still find it difficult to communicate their concerns to their close male partners.
Salisbury and Fisher see the motivation to fake orgasm in women as reflecting the belief they share with men that it's the man's job to be the successful performer in the sexual encounter. Women, consequently, worry more about making their partners feel inadequate than about their own sexual satisfaction.
Ironically, if men realized that women view orgasm as the frosting on the cake, rather than the cake itself, it would take the pressure off of them and, ultimately, their partners. Both partners could, as a result, become more mindful and present in the moment rather than weighing themselves down with expectations and fears about the meaning of their encounter.
The second source of irony in male-female sexual interactions is the woman’s belief that her partner won’t want to stimulate her to orgasm. The men in the Salisbury and Fisher sample stated that they were “turned on” when their partners were, no matter how their partners became aroused to climax.
In summary, a woman fakes an orgasm to preserve her partner’s feelings and, quite possibly, the relationship. However, the study suggests that the path to preserving the feelings of both partners, and the relationship, lies not in faking but in establishing honest and open communication. Given the added meanings we impute to sexuality, such communication may be difficult, but in the long run will promote lasting emotional as well as sexual fulfillment.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Salisbury, C. A., & Fisher, W. A. (2014). “Did You Come?” A Qualitative Exploration of Gender Differences in Beliefs, Experiences, and Concerns Regarding Female Orgasm Occurrence during Heterosexual Sexual Interactions. Journal of Sex Research, 51(6), 616-631. doi:10.1080/00224499.2013.838934