By Lux Alptraum
A short walk from my home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan lies Katz’s Delicatessen, one of the neighborhood’s biggest tourist attractions. It’s possible you’ve heard of Katz’s because of its famous pastrami sandwiches. But it’s equally likely you know it for reasons completely unrelated to its food: Katz’s is the site of the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally, a moment so iconic the restaurant even has a sign noting where, exactly, Meg Ryan’s famed fake orgasm took place.
It’s strange that a brief scene from an old an old film defines a place that’s been featured in over a dozen movies and TV shows. But the staying power of that scene is due to its unabashed look at a topic that manages to be intriguing, taboo, and incredibly controversial: the faked female orgasm. Whether you think it’s a harmless fib or a major faux pas, there’s no denying that “faking it” is inextricably connected to our ideas about female sexuality.
The typical read on fake orgasms is a simple one: women fake because they’re having bad sex and want to get it over with. In this version of events, women don’t understand their bodies, or are bad at communicating their needs, or end up partnering with someone who doesn’t listen, and the result is unsatisfying sex. Hoping to keep the peace with her partner — or perhaps just get some bad sex over and done with — the woman spares everyone embarrassment by mimicking the signs of sexual pleasure.
Women are crafty manipulators, but it’s ultimately to their disadvantage: sure, they’ve tricked a man into thinking he’s done well, but at the cost of their own sexual fulfillment. It’s this interpretation of faked pleasure that’s led to so many campaigns against faking it. If only women could be more in touch with their physical pleasure, could speak about their needs more, could advocate for their own orgasms, no one would need to fake. Taken to the extreme, this argument means women who fake aren’t merely letting themselves down: they’re actively traitors to the feminist movement and upholding mythical ideas about what women want from sex, and convincing legions of men that their selfish sexual technique is that of a giving, generous lover.
But is it really quite so cut-and-dry? Is the female urge to fake purely about preserving male ego at the expense of a woman’s access to enjoyment — or are there other, more complicated reasons why a woman might feign an orgasm when she isn’t actually feeling it? Is the act of faking an orgasm truly a betrayal of the fight for women’s sexual liberation, or is it, perhaps, a way of claiming control over a sexual situation? Why is the authenticity of anyone’s orgasm worth discussing to begin with? What is an orgasm? What does it feel like? How do you know if you’ve had one? If you have a penis, the answers to these questions are presumably straightforward. An orgasm is the sensation that accompanies ejaculation, and it feels, you know, pretty great. Because male orgasm is associated with ejaculation, few men devote much time to worrying about whether or not they’ve actually had one. The proof is — if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase — in the pudding. If you have vulva, on the other hand, the situation is a bit different.
During the mid-twentieth century, pioneering sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson attempted to map out the “typical” female sexual response cycle, dividing it into four distinct stages: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Under the model, the female sexual response cycle can be broadly understood as analogous to its male counterpart: penises get erect; vulvae lubricate. Muscles in the genital regions swell and contract, then release in a series of orgasmic pulses; post-orgasm, the body begins to cool down and relax.
There is value in the Masters and Johnson model, and it certainly describes the physical experience of some women (certainly enough so that doctors are still making use of it to diagnose sexual disorders). Yet in the decades since its debut, this linear, four-stage model has come under a great deal of criticism. It makes broad assumptions about the similarities between male and female sexual response. It primarily focused on women who were able to orgasm during penis-in-vagina intercourse, reinforcing the idea that that one particular sex act is central to female sexual pleasure while simultaneously devaluing the nonorgasmic pleasures derived from penis-in-vagina sex. In the decades since, a number of other sex researchers have attempted to map out female sexual response with other models: circular rather than linear models and models that include desire, emotional intimacy, and other nonphysical aspects of sexual pleasure. But even as these models improve on the work of Masters and Johnson, it’s still difficult to create one model of sexual ecstasy that can assuredly guide a woman on the path to orgasm (and guarantee that she’ll know when she’s had one) because of one very simple fact: there’s no one universal sign that serves as an indicator of female sexual ecstasy.
This fact can create a challenge for aspiring female orgasmers, particularly since orgasm isn’t an experience that we’re easily able to describe. “How would you describe what tickling feels like?” asks Charlie Glickman, a Seattle-based sex and relationships coach with two decades of experience in sex education. “How can you describe what chocolate tastes like? We don’t actually have a definition for these things. All we can do is give someone a piece of chocolate, or tickle them, and say, that’s the sensation that I’m talking about.” But orgasms aren’t as readily available, or easily distributed, as bars of chocolate — and if you’re a preorgasmic woman, desperate to figure out how you’ll know when it happens, it’s understandable that you might turn to porn or romance novels in search of some information that might help you better understand what, exactly, the elusive O is, and how you’ll know when (or if) you’ve achieved it.
Here are some of the descriptions of orgasm I’ve heard in my discussions with women: Mia, who learned about orgasm through watching porn, told me she’d been primed to expect a “big ordeal that came with bells and whistles” that served as a “big finish” to the act of sex (though what, exactly, was causing that big ordeal, or “what exactly it felt like, remained pretty mysterious to her). Ruby told me that as an adolescent, she knew orgasm “was supposed to feel like a ‘build up and release’ and that there would be full-body pleasure.” Rebecca, a 27-year-old sex blogger, had heard it was “an explosion that ran through your body,” but was convinced it could only happen during penis-in-vagina intercourse. Amanda Rose, a 23-year-old PhD student who’d been sexually active for a few years before learning about orgasms in her late teens, wrote in her high school journal that she’d heard orgasm was “a tingly feeling all over your body” and “like you really have to pee.”
You could be forgiven if all this orgasm talk makes your head swim, and you could especially be forgiven if it leaves you feeling more confused than ever about the dynamics of sexual climax. If you’re preorgasmic, learning that orgasms are like sneezes, but also fireworks and definitely something you’ll recognize when you experience it, and, most importantly of all, the greatest and best experience ever, isn’t particularly helpful — especially if most of that doesn’t quite turn out to be true. Yes, in spite of all the hype, there are plenty of orgasms that aren’t all that exciting, let alone awe inspiring or life changing. The notion of an underwhelming orgasm goes against everything we think we know about sex, but climaxes that aren’t particularly explosive are much more common than we think.
“We’ve gone from ‘People have sex for procreation’ to ‘People have sex to have orgasm,’” says Erin Basler, MEd, a staff member at Rhode Island’s Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. Basler notes that she doesn’t really think that either of those sexual motivations has ever been universally true. The long history of birth control makes it abundantly clear that making babies has never really been the primary reason modern humans have pursued sex with one another. But if orgasm isn’t the primary motivation for getting busy, then what, exactly, is?
Basler offers up a number of different reasons why someone might enjoy, or pursue, sex that they’re pretty sure won’t lead to orgasm. There’s the thrill of physical intimacy, the desire to make another person happy, the stress-relieving potential — and, of course, the fact that the nonorgasm parts of sex can feel pretty good too. Fundamentally, we have sex “because touching erogenous zones feels good,” she tells me — and while we’ve been conditioned to see the experience as a task-oriented one, it’s also possible to treat it as an “experimental process” or “a journey that may just loop back around on itself,” Möbius strip style.
Conversations I’ve had with women about their sex lives back up Basler’s assertions. Julia, a 32-year-old based in London who’s more easily able to achieve orgasm through masturbation than sex, noted that “a sexual experience for me is about everything but the orgasm.” What does that include?
The ego boost of watching a partner get turned on by her body, the feeling of skin-to-skin contact, the pleasure of having someone celebrate and admire her vulva. Ruby made a distinction between her “sex drive” and her “orgasm drive,” explaining, “When I have sex, I certainly require pleasure, but I don’t require orgasm. So as long as my partner’s penis is hitting me at a good angle for a good amount of time, I’m happy.” That appreciation for penetration was echoed by Amanda Rose, whose ability to orgasm is directly correlated to where she is in her menstrual cycle. As she told me, “getting rhythmically banged out” can still feel great even when she knows orgasm isn’t likely, or even possible; on nights when she wants to sleep well, but isn’t feeling particularly horny, orgasm-free sex can be a useful way to relieve tension, relax, and get herself to sleep. Barbara, a 22-year-old designer from Venezuela, described the thrill of “you and your partner in a naked tangle of limbs nuzzling and kissing and licking, exploring each other’s bodies and whispering inside jokes and love words, smelling their hair and smacking their butt — orgasms I can have all by myself, but not that.” Other women talked up sex as an opportunity to provide a partner with pleasure.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that faking orgasm is not the sole domain of women. Men can — and do — fake orgasms, albeit not in quite the same numbers as women. A 2010 study appearing in the Journal of Sex Research found that a full 25% of male participants had faked (or, in the lingo of the study, “pretended”) orgasm at some point in their sex lives; though that number is low in comparison to the 50% of women who reported faking it, it’s far greater than the zero percent that most people would assume. When men fake, they tend to rely on the same strategies as women, using moaning and exaggerated body motions to feign a climax. Why do men fake? Largely for the same reasons as women. The above-mentioned study found that pretend orgasms occurred when a genuine orgasm was deemed unlikely, but the faker was ready to be done with sex and wanted to avoid hurting his partner’s feelings. Most of the men I spoke with shared stories of faking that could just as easily have come from women: they were exhausted and ready for it to be over; the sex was subpar, but they still felt pressure to perform; they were hoping to bring an early end to a nonconsensual experience.
So while it’s tempting to write off faking as an easy out at best — or a betrayal of feminists at worst — perhaps we should be a little more generous toward the fakers among us. There’s so much pressure on women to live our best sex lives: to be enthusiastic, adventurous, always up for it, and, of course, easily orgasmic. Yet there’s so little space carved out for women to actually understand what that best sex life looks like for them, personally, as individuals, to buck against the narrative of acceptable sex and pleasure. Sometimes a fake orgasm is just a way of closing the gap between expectation and reality.
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