There's a cultural stereotype that women tend to fake orgasms. But the truth about whether women actually "fake it" is more complicated — and more problematic — than we might think.
According to a recent study, many women are indeed faking orgasms. But they're not doing it because they want to stroke their male partners' egos, as implied by movies like When Harry Met Sally. Instead, some women are faking orgasms because they're uncomfortable and want their partners to finish — or because, in some cases, they didn't even want to have sex in the first place.
The small study featured interviews with 15 women between the ages of 19 and 28, all of whom had been sexually active for at least one year. Last Friday, Canadian researchers presented their findings at the British Psychological Society's Psychology of Women.
The study's lead author, Emily Thomas, told Mic in a phone interview that the researchers initially set out to interview women about the reasons why they faked orgasms during consensual sex. Yet they found that the women were faking orgasms as a way to get out of troubling, or, in some cases, borderline nonconsensual, sexual encounters.
"The women never used terms such as rape and coercion to refer to their own experiences," the study's press release said, "despite their descriptions of events that could be categorized as such...The women spoke of faking orgasm as a means to ending these troubling sexual encounters."
What women described as "bad" sex often fell into two categories: unsatisfying or unwanted. The reasons why the sex was unsatisfying varied widely, from pain due to pre-existing health issues to just poor male sexual performance. Yet the women who described sex as unwanted described being pressured by their male partners, who ranged widely from husbands and boyfriends to one-night stands.
"Some women said '[The sex] was consensual but I didn't want to do it', 'He kind of forced me,' things like that," Thomas said. "One woman said he [the partner] would ask and beg repeatedly."
Although the researchers did not ask the interview subjects about why they chose to have sex if they felt unaroused to begin with, there was a common sentiment throughout all of the narratives: "It's easier to fake [an orgasm] than to outright say no or refuse sex," Thomas said.
More comprehensive studies have already proven that both men and women have been known to fake an orgasm when sex turns out to be dissatisfying or uncomfortable. And Thomas did say that a few women even reported faking orgasms to help increase arousal while having sex. But overall, the Canadian report reminds us that women are still too afraid to speak up about their desires during sex, highlighting the limited amount of agency women feel during sex in general. After all, what does it say when a woman thinks faking an orgasm is a more effective way to "get it over with" than simply saying no?
However, the most disturbing aspect of the study isn't that women are faking orgasms to end bad sex — it's that they're faking it to end sex that they consented to but didn't actually want, or felt coerced into having.
Coercive sex is usually defined as someone using drugs, alcohol, or social pressure to convince someone to have sex against their will. Many state laws say that consent is invalid if the person is "forced, pressured [or] manipulated" into having sex, or compelled by fear of physical danger.
Yet these young Canadian women explicitly labeled their sexual encounters as consensual, even while describing them with words like "awful" and "horrible." While Thomas mentioned that some of them used "hedging" language and other verbal patterns common among assault survivors, the Canadian women did not self-identify as rape victims.
"You can have consensual sex that is unwanted...it's more about listening [to the women]," Thomas said. "There are other sexual experiences that are problematic and harmful but aren't viewed as sexual assault...sometimes people don't label experiences because of the legal implications. People don't always feel [legal labels] fit their experiences."