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Sex: Faking It

Why so many women give Oscar-worthy performances—in bed.

It's one of life's great mysteries, right up there with is there an afterlife and how do they get a ship inside such a tiny bottle. Research consistently shows that more than half of women resort to faking an orgasm at one time or another, even in long-term relationships. The question is why.

Empirical evidence is scant. Researchers surmise that women have many motives, depending on circumstances: to get the deed over with, to hide their own sexual insecurities, or even just to be nice. "A big one is protecting the male ego," says sex educator Betty Dodson. "A woman doesn't want to hurt her partner's feelings."

While nobody knows for sure what leads women to pretend, a study reported in Archives of Sexual Behavior offers a new theory: Women in relationships might be faking orgasms as part of a largely subconscious attempt to keep their partners faithful.

After surveying more than 450 women, a team of psychologists led by Columbia University's Farnaz Kaighobadi found that those who questioned their man's loyalty were far more likely to fake it in bed. Women who suspect they're with a cheater often engage in a number of tactics to hang on to their man, like monopolizing his time or flirting with others in front of him. Pretending to orgasm might just be one more mate-retention strategy.

Not everyone, however, thinks the threat of infidelity explains why women feign sexual excitement. Indiana University's Elisabeth Lloyd, author of The Case of the Female Orgasm, suspects that faking it has to do with changing cultural expectations. Historically, men have not cared about a woman's orgasm until recent times, she says. "Now we have a widespread belief in our culture that men like it when a woman orgasms," which means that women may feel pressured to either vocalize their pleasure or put on a convincing performance.

Women who fake it, in and out of relationships, may be responding to social pressure, say researchers at the University of Kansas. In a survey of college students, they noted a sexual script that both parties tend to follow. "Many women said that they pretended because their partner's orgasm seemed imminent," says Charlene Muelenhard, professor of psychology. "They generally endorsed a sexual script in which the woman was supposed to orgasm before the man, and when the man orgasmed, sex was over."

Sure, a few men fake orgasms, too, but why exactly anyone fakes it remains an open question. Whether it's to hold on to a mate or prevent embarrassment, most experts agree on one thing: Women should drop the act. "When a woman is really into sex and really having an orgasm," says Dodson, "an experienced man will know it—and there's not a bigger turn-on in the world."