As the punch line of plenty a hackneyed sitcom and amateur stand-up routine, the faked orgasm has long been relegated to the sphere of women’s work. That might be why, every time a new study about men’s feigned orgasms pops up, the internet reels in disbelief.
“WHAT? How did we not know this before?” wondered Cosmopolitan on Friday in response to a new Canadian survey of 230 men age 18 to 29 who’d faked orgasms with their current partners. On average, the men reported pretending to orgasm during a full quarter of their sexual encounters. In 2014, Time Out New York was “surprised” when a “whopping” 30.6 percent of its survey participants (fewer than 100 New York men) admitted to faking orgasms. But that number wasn’t too far off from the results of a 2010 University of Kansas study, which saw 25 percent of its 180 male respondents say they’d faked it. That figure rose to 28 percent when researchers narrowed it down to those men who’d had penile-vaginal sex. Some have used these facts to stir anxiety and self-conscious terror in women who have sex with men: “Has YOUR man ever faked his orgasm?” the Daily Mail asked when the Time Out survey dropped.
Luckily, this new Canadian survey doesn’t lend itself to knee-jerk sexual dread. Instead, it delves into the reasons why men fake orgasms and how those reasons correlate to their relationship satisfaction. Previous studies have shown that men’s rationales for feigning orgasm are not so different from the reasons why women play pretend in bed. Both have reported that they fake because they’re intoxicated, to arouse their partner, and to end sex sooner; the most common reason among both genders is preserving partners’ feelings. This new survey indicates that men who pretend to orgasm because they want to avoid having a talk about their sexual needs are less likely to be satisfied in their relationship and in bed. The study’s authors say these men “might be contributing to [their] own low desire and satisfaction by reinforcing unsatisfying sexual activity by feigning orgasm rather than communicating [their] sexual needs and desires.”
But the root cause of this problem—faked orgasms as sub-ins for honest conversations about sexual desires—lie in gender norms that compel men to strive for unrealistic benchmarks of sexual performance. “The image is that men are always up for sex, which makes you feel under pressure to perform even when you don't want to,” Harvard urologist Abraham Morgentaler said of men’s reasons for faking.
Those same improbable expectations have given rise to women’s pretend orgasms, too. The authors of a 2010 study that found up to 80 percent of women faked orgasms wrote that women often do so “because their men are so goal-directed they won’t stop until a woman climaxes.” Our social construction of sexual pleasure has pegged men’s orgasms as simple—inevitable, even—and women’s orgasms as complicated reflections of their male partner’s sexual abilities. The authors of the new Canadian survey write that these reductive ideals may encourage men to feign orgasm to “appear normal” and women to fake it so their partners’ egos don’t crumble. In fact, they argue, the entire phenomenon of fake orgasms is a direct result of a patriarchal culture that enforces stringent gender norms:
Orgasm simulation constitutes a “complex emotional response to the intensely patriarchal culture in which women have sex” where the relative invisibility of women's orgasm contributes to a constant cultural anxiety surrounding its authenticity. This anxiety, coupled with the cultural association of sexual technique with masculinity, creates an obligation for women to meet a standard of loud and exaggerated display of pleasure, providing fertile grounds for orgasm-simulation, which ultimately serve to privilege male sexuality.
At first, the knowledge that men, too, feel so much pressure to orgasm that they sometimes fake it makes the whole concept of the fake orgasm seem less insidious: Women aren’t the only ones who are sometimes more concerned with their partners’ feelings than they are with their own pleasure or desire to stop having sex. But when the rationale rests on gendered expectations, it still serves to uphold roles that form the foundation for toxic masculinity. It also paves the way for the profoundly sad possibility of repeated sexual encounters wherein both partners fake their orgasms to please or impress the other. That specter comes courtesy of a society that prizes orgasm over the complex reality of sexual pleasure.