If you’ve ever wondered whether your sexual performance leaves something to be desired, a straightforward Google search can reveal dead giveaways that someone is faking it. But new research from the University of Kansas aims to tell us why exactly some women—and men—do it in the first place.
Previous research has shown that 28 percent of men and 67 percent of women report faking orgasms during intercourse; the underlying explanations as to why fall into three broad categories. Circumstantial reasons are specific to situations, such as feeling tired or bored or wanting the encounter to be over with because you realize it just isn’t going to happen. Internal reasons have to do with your psychological or emotional state, such as wanting to spare your partner’s feelings or to avoid coming across as sexually inadequate. Relationship-related reasons are for the purpose of maintaining the status quo; for example, to keep your partner happy or to prevent them from looking elsewhere (also known as mate retention).
The current study involved a total of 1,472 participants who answered a range of questions about their experiences faking an orgasm and their specific reasons for doing so. Faking it was defined simply as “acting as if you had an orgasm when you did not” or “[telling] your partner that you had one when you did not.”
Both men and women fake orgasms, but having an orgasm shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of sex.
Indeed, it turns out that both men and women fake orgasms, although those who fake them are more likely to be female and younger in age. The most common reasons were because it makes the person faking it feel good, it pleases their partner (and helps their partner orgasm), it fosters emotional intimacy, the person faking it doesn’t enjoy sex, it buffers personal insecurity (so that a person doesn’t risk coming across as “abnormal” or being rejected by their partner if they don’t orgasm) and it can be used to gain power within the relationship (by using it as a bargaining chip—pretending to enjoy sex in order to get things they want from the other person).
Women were more likely to fake it for reasons around their partner’s happiness, while men were more likely to fake it for reasons pertaining to emotional intimacy, insecurity and gaining power.
The elusive female orgasm is a topic of notorious fascination; you may have heard about a study from earlier this year that found straight men are the most likely to experience la petite mort during sex, while straight women are the least likely to do so. Together, these research studies paint a clearer picture of the “orgasm gap” and what we can do to close it.
First of all, let me backtrack and say that having an orgasm shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of sex, because not everyone needs or wants to experience one in order to have a good time. If you’re having sex with someone and they don’t climax, it’s important to not take it personally, because it isn’t necessarily a reflection of you or your ability. Focusing on orgasms as a goalpost adds unnecessary pressure and can lead a person to feel like they need to fake it to satisfy their partner—and after pretending one time, to continue pretending in the future.
Now, if you do want an orgasm and you aren’t having one—and I’m speaking mostly to my fellow ladies here—sometimes you need to take it upon yourself to require it of your partner to make it happen. By this, I mean being assertive in asking for what you want and offering (gentle) feedback when something does (and doesn’t) feel good. Know your body and what makes it tick, because if you don’t know, it’s unlikely someone else is going to be able to figure it out.
I’ll never forget the time one of my friends asked me for advice after testing the waters for over a year with his girlfriend. I asked, “Well, how does she do it?” and he said, “She’s never given herself one.”
The fact that people fake it for many different reasons highlights why communication on this subject is so crucial, because the solution isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing, and there are often other issues going on beneath the surface. Failing to discuss them openly and honestly also affects the quality of a relationship, because very basic emotional and physical needs—likely on both sides—aren’t being met.
The good news is a little creative brainstorming can often find you a fix. If you’re feeling bored and looking for sexual novelty, role-playing or sex toys can help; if you’re too tired for a bedtime frolic, you could have sex in the morning instead. The truth of the matter is, life is short, and much too short to be faking it.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.