The hottest days of the year call for a Summer Fling. This week, we're deep-diving into sex, dating, and relationship drama, here.
Lauren, 33, remembers a Valentine’s Day date night with her ex, early on in their relationship. “It was super romantic,” she recalls. “We had a multi-course dinner with champagne, flowers, and candles. It was the first time we had sex, and despite the sexy vibe I just couldn’t get aroused.”
She certainly tried. And he tried. But even though he was totally her type, their physical connection was not an insta-wow, and oral and vaginal sex were failing to get her quite there. “At some point, I just knew it wasn’t going to happen for me,” Lauren says. “But he wanted me to orgasm. Because I didn’t want to disappoint him, and also because I eventually just wanted it to be over, I faked it.”
As most women know, Lauren’s not alone. According to a study in the Journal of Sexual Research, 67 percent of women fessed up to having faked a climax. Men fake it too, though less frequently; the same study puts that number at 28 percent. Yes, the Orgasm Gap — a.k.a. the reality that men come a lot more frequently than women do — is alive and well, thanks to an enduring social and cultural focus on male pleasure. Researchers have found that 91 percent of men orgasm almost every time they have partnered sex, compared to just 39 percent of women.
In Lauren’s case, after she fatefully mimed that orgasm, her ex seemed “pleased with himself,” she remembers, and he took that first encounter as a sign that he was doing something right. “It sort of set the tone for the rest of our sexual relationship,” Lauren says. She did try to make some suggestions during future romps. “I would have loved to coach him, but he happened to be the kind of person where it hurt [his feelings] too much,” she explains. “There was one time where I tried to tell him to stop doing something. It was tickling me and turning me off. When I said stop, he just looked so sad.”
As a result, Lauren stopped trying to communicate about sex. She wound up faking her orgasms throughout the six-year relationship, which ended in a broken engagement. During that time, she estimates she might have climaxed five times.
When they broke up, Lauren was convinced it was for different reasons. But, “looking back, the lack of sexual arousal with this person, and our inability to communicate openly about how to be better in bed, which stemmed from other things, really signaled a separation between us that we just could not bridge,” says Lauren. “No matter how outwardly ‘together’ we were — living together, engaged — there was always a distance.”
Why Women Fake It
Some women might not be able to fathom a six-year relationship with just five orgasms — but Lauren says she felt like the happy times with her ex outside of the bedroom outweighed the reluctant performances she put on between the sheets; after all, relationships are a combination of pros and cons, she reasoned.
According to Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor and couples therapist in Chicago, many women start faking orgasms because they think, 'It’s okay that sex isn’t perfect now because it’s early and it could totally get better.'
“They are perfectly content with the emotional connection with their partner, and they’re less focused on the sexual connection at that time,” she says. “What matters most in a relationship is also unique to each person; some value sex more than others; some value emotional connection.” But most soon discover that the issues of bad sex and faux enjoyment are complicated.
While an orgasm marks the peak of physical pleasure, there are also emotional components tied to it, like intimacy, self-esteem, and ego — especially, perhaps, for men. In a study in the Journal of Sex Research, men were asked to imagine a variety of sexual scenarios; they reported feeling more masculine and having higher sexual self-esteem when they envisioned their female partner reaching the big O. “At least subconsciously, women have been taught that a male partner takes it as a direct insult to his manhood if he can’t get her to climax,” Ivankovich says. These gendered expectations are part of the reason why orgasms are more frequent among lesbian women than straight and bi women, whereas there is no difference in climax rates based on sexual orientation among men, according to a 2014 study.
Isabel, 27, says she feels pressured to act like she’s super into penis-in-vagina sex in particular (see also: porn). She says she fakes enjoyment regularly. “I try not to do it in a long-term relationship, but it depends how much time I want to invest in the guy to actually be way better in bed,” she explains. Isabel recalls a recent six-month relationship, in which she faked pleasure a lot. “I think it really affected our relationship,” she says. “It’s hard to be attracted to someone sexually when they’re just not great … and I don’t know if I’ve ever transitioned [from faking to great sex] successfully.”
When the multi-layered, sometimes-elusive female orgasm is linked to a man’s feeling of sexual achievement instead of a woman’s experience of pleasure, it can be difficult for that woman to enjoy the sex at all. Katia, 28, knows her body well. She says that it generally takes a while for her to get comfortable enough with a new partner to reach orgasm. Early in her sexual life, she assumed she’d take the pressure off and enjoy the encounter more if she told new partners this. “But if I did give some kind of warning, I would notice men making it their mission to make me orgasm — which made it even more impossible because of the added pressure,” she explains. “I have found that it’s easier to fake it sometimes, rather than make the sex uncomfortable.”
It’s common for women to start to feel anxious if arousal isn’t instantaneous, which takes them further out of the moment, says Laurie Watson, a sex therapist and podcaster of FOREPLAY Radio Sex Therapy. “There’s a misconception, in heterosexual relationships especially, where women just think they’re too slow,” she explains.
As “people-pleasers,” women are conditioned to make the best of situations, says Sunny Rodgers, a clinical sexologist and certified sex coach. The faking charade is generally not ill-intentioned. “They don’t want their partners to feel like they can’t provide them with an orgasm,” she says. “A couple of moans later, and they feel they’ve helped create a bond with their partners and assure them of their prowess.”
The Fauxgasm Trap
Isabel eventually got trapped in a faking-it “cycle,” she says. She would weigh the pros and cons of faking vs. fixing, leaving vs. staying, but the longer she’d been putting on a show, the harder it was to course-correct. Some women, like Lauren, accept it as a normal dynamic in relationships because it bolsters their partners’ self-esteem.
Sarah Hunter Murray, PhD, a sex researcher and relationship therapist, says feigning pleasure is most problematic in that exact scenario — when it’s a habitual action. “At best, your partner thinks they are more sexually skilled than they actually are, but there are even more downsides,” says Murray. “An orgasm is an indicator to your partner that what they are doing feels good and that they should keep on doing it. So, if you’re faking your experience of pleasure, you are reinforcing their behavior in a way that does not actually satisfy you.”
Murray calls faking it twistedly “altruistic.” It usually stems from a place of empathy, she explains, but “women are putting their partner’s ego ahead of their own sexual pleasure.” And in turn, the behavior becomes expected — and a normalized part of the female sexual experience.
Chances are, especially if you’re with a male partner, he’s not even going to notice that your dramatics are just that. Rodgers says most men still assume the female orgasm works just like theirs. “Men have a very hard time faking an orgasm, and their bodies react differently to vaginal intercourse, allowing them to climax the vast majority of the time. Women, however, are not always guaranteed an orgasm without additional clitoral stimulation.” According to recent studies, fewer than 25 percent of women are able to climax from penetration alone.
In longer relationships, says Murray, the damage of faking it is twofold.
“Faking orgasms deprives you from receiving pleasure and your partner from knowing how to turn you on and touch you just right,” she says. “If you’re faking your enjoyment, you’re not being authentic during a sexual encounter, and research consistently finds that authenticity is a key component of great sex.” Eventually, this can lead to resentment in your relationship, if your partner is orgasming all the time and you never do.
That said, it’s a difficult lie to fess up to without breaking your partner’s trust. Murray says it can be “really damaging to someone’s self-esteem” to think they’ve been authentically connecting and pleasing you during intimate moments, only discover the opposite is true. So, the great cycle of faking is born.
How to Break the News Without Breaking Up
What started as a little white lie is now an elaborate charade. So, how do you begin experiencing orgasmic sexual pleasure without hurting your partner’s feelings?
All the experts actually recommend you don’t start with the most direct approach. If you just lay it out there and state that you haven’t been orgasming, your partner will likely take it as a betrayal — feeling misled is an even harder pill to swallow than the ego bruise.
Instead, start with research. To be a top-notch teacher, you’re going to need to become the foremost expert on what it takes for you to come. Rodgers regularly gives her patients “homework assignments.” She has some patients who, through increased masturbation, have discovered that they’d never actually orgasmed before. Even if you’re not in that camp, experimenting with different types of stimulation — without a focus on reaching orgasm — will not only make you a better coach, it’ll likely rev your sex drive altogether, as a result improving your sexual experience within your relationship. According to a 2011 study, even just taking time to think sexy thoughts can release testosterone, increasing desire.
Next, suggest a new approach to sex with your partner, expanding your repertoire and slowing things down, says Watson. Instead of wondering why it’s suddenly taking you so much longer to come, your partner may be intrigued by the idea of exploring together. “Say you’ve read that you need more clitoral stimulation to have even stronger orgasms, and it might take a while to really get there,” Watson suggests. “I like the 20:20 approach, which is 20 minutes of foreplay, slowly removing clothes and warming up, along with 20 minutes of direct clitoral stimulation to reach climax.”
Use some gentle, in-bed guidance while you experiment together, says Murray. “Focus on your experience of sexual sensations,” she says. “Pay more attention to what you like, and what isn’t working so well, and then use positive reinforcement accordingly.” If your partner does something that actually feels good, tell them directly. With words! “Like, ‘It feels great when you touch me like that,’ coupled with nonverbal indicators like moaning or heavy breathing,” says Murray. “If they start doing something you don’t like, guide them back to the sexual activity that was working for you.”
If your partner isn’t picking up on your cues, though, you may need to be more direct outside of the bedroom; after all, they either didn’t notice that you’ve been faking it all this time or they don’t care, which is worse. Rather than using the phrase “faking it,” you might choose to say that you feel like you’re not reaching your full sexual potential. “Approach the conversation, not by stating your partner has been doing something wrong this entire time,” says Rodgers, “but from a place of wanting their help to make things better between you sexually.”
Rodgers adds that often, women are surprised by their “very patient and supportive partners, who are eager for them to work toward their sexual goals.” But if they’re not open to feedback, or you cannot communicate about sex, you have to ask yourself whether this is the right partner for you. Because even worse than feeling perpetually unsatisfied in bed is discovering that your partner doesn’t care that you are.
*Names have been changed.