The Politics of Faking Orgasm: Saving Time, Saving Face

Men and women fake orgasms for similar reasons, both selfish and altruistic

Posted Nov 21, 2016

At first glance, faking an orgasm appears to be patently counter-productive. You deprive yourself of great pleasure for an empty show of it. You introduce a lie into an act based largely on trust, distance into an occasion for closeness, a cover-up into an experience of uncovering. More pragmatically, in providing inaccurate feedback about your sexual satisfaction, you are rewarding the very behaviors in your partner that have failed to produce actual sexual satisfaction.

Counter productive, I did mention.

Yet, many people fake orgasms, women mostly—some 50% or more of them at one point or another—but also men

By definition, fake orgasms don’t feel like real ones. But research indicates that they also don’t sound like real ones. For example, the British researchers Gayle Brewer and Colin Hendrie (2010) found that while actual orgasms were most commonly achieved through masturbation or oral-genital foreplay, “copulatory vocalizations” most often occurred “before and simultaneously with male ejaculation.” These data, according to the authors, indicate that, “there is at least an element of these responses that are under conscious control, providing women with an opportunity to manipulate male behavior to their advantage.”

Indeed, people don’t fake orgasms when they’re by themselves. Faking is reserved for partnered sex, suggesting that partnered sex is in some fundamental way a performance, an elaborate conceit rather than raw truth, scripted rather than spontaneous. In this sense, a fake orgasm is a manufactured special effect, a tool of the trade.

To the extent that sex is a performance, it is largely culturally produced, a dance we learn from and within our culture. Our sex script—the goals and expectations we have for sex and the gestures used to pursue them—both reflect and affirm our cultural affiliation.

At the same time, sex is also an evolved construction with biological underpinnings. It is our mechanism of reproduction. As such, prevalent sexual behaviors, including faking, may reflect a deep evolutionary design. Indeed, evolutionary psychologists have proposed that faking orgasm may be a mate retention strategy. Since they use their partner’s orgasm to gauge their own sexual prowess, and since female orgasm may function to increase the odds of fertilization, men are more likely to stay and have sex with a woman who orgasms. Thus a woman may fake orgasm in order to secure her mate’s loyalty and prevent him from straying. 

Distant evolutionary motives notwithstanding, most researchers in this area have focused on figuring out the more immediate processes, and the psychological calculus, leading sexual partners to fake their orgasms.

For example, research has linked the tendency to fake orgasm to cognitive factors such as distractibility

Personality too may play a role. For example, Machiavellianism, a personality type characterized by distrust, manipulation, and a willingness to exploit others, has been linked to a greater propensity to fake orgasm for the purpose of deceiving or manipulating a partner. 

The bulk of the research, however, has concerned itself with asking people directly about their own reasons for faking. Erin Cooper and her colleagues (2014) surveyed a group of 481 heterosexual undergraduate females (average age = 20.3 years) about their reasons for faking orgasm. They found four main reasons for faking orgasm during intercourse:

- Altruistic Deceit: faking orgasm out of concern for a partner’s feelings.

- Fear and Insecurity: faking orgasm to avoid negative emotions associated with the sexual experience.

- Elevated Arousal: a woman’s attempt to increase her own arousal through faking orgasm.

- Sexual Adjournment: faking orgasm to end sex.

In 2015, Mark McCoy of Oakland University and his colleagues employed a two-step approach in their attempt to discover the reasons for faking orgasm. First, 48 sexually active women (mean age = 29.2 years) were asked to nominate possible reasons a woman might fake an orgasm during heterosexual sex. The women came up with 303 reasons. That list was whittled down by the researchers to a final list of 95 potential reasons for faking. Among them:

- I am mad at my partner.

- Pretending to have an orgasm can get me more in the mood.

- I don't want to ruin the moment.

- I want to appear sexier for my partner.

- The things I do when pretending are considered sexier.

- I want to maintain a healthy sexual relationship with my partner.

- I don't want my partner to know that I don't feel emotionally connected enough to him to have an orgasm.

- I want to stop having sex with my partner.

- I don't want my partner to know that the sex is not pleasurable.

- I don't want my partner to think that I am having sex with another man.

- I want my partner to feel good about his sexual performance.

- I want to relax my partner.

- I don't want my partner to have sex with another woman (i.e., cheat on me).

- I want my partner to feel masculine.

- I don't want to disappoint my partner.

In the second step, the researchers asked 286 heterosexual women (mean age = 32.7 years) currently in a sexual relationship for at least 3 months to report on the frequency with which they have used any of the proposed reasons for faking. Using a statistical procedure called Principal Component Analysis, a technique that identifies strong patterns in a large data set, they found that faking was motivated by three general reasons:

- Improve Partner's Experience: faking to increase the quality of the sexual experience for the partner. These women endorsed items such as:

- Pretending to have an orgasm can get me more in the mood.

- I don't want to ruin the moment.

- I want to appear sexier for my partner.

- The things I do when pretending are considered sexier

- Deception and Manipulation: faking to deceive the partner or manipulate his perceptions for other gains. These women endorsed items such as:

- I am mad at my partner

- I don't want my partner to think that I am having sex with another man.

- Hiding Sexual Disinterest: faking to spare the partner's feelings about the woman's lack of sexual excitement. This category included items such as -- 

- I don't want my partner to know that I don't feel emotionally connected enough to him to have an orgasm.

- I want to stop having sex with my partner.

- I don't want my partner to know that the sex is not pleasurable.

Qualitative research relying on in-depth interviews with smaller samples has by and large supported the conclusions of larger quantitative surveys. For example, Breanne Fahs of Arizona State University (2014), through in-depth interviews with 20 women, found that the main reasons for faking were to avoid hurting their partner’s ego or make him feel like a failure, to get sex over with, and to avoid appearing abnormal for being unable to orgasm.

A more recent (2016) qualitative study by Emily Thomas and a team of Canadian researchers found that women often fake orgasm to end unpleasant sex. “On one level” Thomas said, “faking an orgasm may be a useful strategy as it affords some control over ending a sexual encounter. “

For women, the converging evidence appears to show, fake orgasms constitute an attempt at an elaborate maneuver: avoiding a bad deal without alienating the trading partner; saving time (hers) while saving face (his), and keeping the peace (in the relationship). 

A recent Canadian study has shown that men fake orgasms for largely similar reasons. In the study, Lea Seguin and Robin Milhausen (2016) surveyed a sample of 230 men (18–29 years old) who have pretended orgasm with their current relationship partner at least once. “On average, participants reported feigning orgasm in approximately one-fourth of sexual encounters in their current sexual relationship, most commonly during vaginal sex.” Reasons for feigning orgasm included, “poor sexual experience or to poor partner choice,” as well as, ”to support a partner's emotional well-being” and, “because one was intoxicated, having undesired sex, or out of a desire to improve the quality of the sexual encounter.” 

In sum, in one broad, abstract sense, we fake orgasms to honor cultural convention, to remain within the good graces of our group by loyally performing its prescribed rituals. We fake orgasms for the same reason we fake smiles—these are the social tricks we perform to get along. Culture, after all, is the Universal God. All of us are cultural products and adherents. Thus, culture controls us even in our most private moments and shapes our most personal gestures. Our need to be is subordinate to our need to belong.

On the more pragmatic, immediate level, we fake orgasm in partnered sex for the same reasons we distort the truth in other contexts: to escape unpleasantness; to protect our self-esteem and the esteem of people we care about; to obtain some reward or achieve a desired end.

To the extent that it constitutes distortion of truth, faking an orgasm is a type of avoidance. Avoidance, psychological research tells us is a double-edged sword. Much like alcohol, it tends to solve problems in the short run but create problems over time. The more you use it, the more you come to depend on it, and the less likely you are to either benefit from it or be able to quit it. After a while, avoidance no longer works for you. You work for it. And a habit of faking orgasms may turn out to be awfully hard work. Deception, after all, does tend to corrode the soul.

A story has the Israeli writer David Grossman staying at a remote Galilee B&B while researching a novel. The B&B owner offers him a room with a Jacuzzi, but Grossman refuses, saying his stay was, for tax purposes, a work assignment. A room was a necessary work expense, but a Jacuzzi would constitute a personal expense. On the last day of his stay, after a week of hiking the hilly terrain, the weary Grossman finally requests the room with the Jacuzzi.  The next day, setting out to leave, he asks the owner for two separate receipts, one for the regular room and one for the room with the Jacuzzi. “Why not get one receipt for the whole week?” inquires the perplexed owner. “I assure you that nobody will know and nobody would mind.”

“I will know,” replies Grossman, “and I mind.”

Somewhere in there is one good argument for insisting on a real orgasm rather than settling for a fake one.

On that note, consider the Jacuzzi….