Stroking Egos

“For some young women, getting it over with entailed, as Cynthia put it, “stroking men’s egos,” by telling their partners that they were enjoying painful or even abusive encounters, when in fact they were not. Stroking male egos was a way for participants to remain “pleasing women” by not complaining or disrupting men’s pleasure with an acknowledgement of their own pain […]

Describing her decision not to tell a partner that intercourse was painful for her, she [Darla] said,

He was nervous enough as it was, and, you know, women fake orgasms and feel they have to. Even now, with my last boyfriend, I think I’m just particularly small or tight, and sometimes we would have problems, and I’m always the one that’s like, “Just relax, it’s okay,” and it’s always me. I always take on that role, and I think women just do, you know? That’s why women fake orgasms and men are allowed to just get all excited and get crazy, and I always feel like, I don’t know. I don’t want to think it’s like this, but it almost seems that we put them before us. I don’t know if I do, but ever since I was fifteen, I’ve always taken on that role. I don’t know why. I know my friends do it. I just talked to a friend of mine and she had an experience like this where it was painful to her, but she wanted him to be happy, so she totally didn’t say anything. And I yelled at her for that. I was like, “don’t,” you know? But two or three years ago, I would have done the same thing. (Darla, 19, “heterosexual,” “white”)

Similarly, Heidi described a sense of responsibility both for men’s physical pleasure and for their feelings of adequacy. She said she sometimes had sex when she did not want to because she felt sorry for a man who was aroused and then not brought to orgasm.

It’s usually that I’m not really into it, but I might do it anyway because I feel like I have to get him off, you know, I have this responsibility. Or I’m just in it for the physical feeling, and I just want it to be over, you know? I don’t want to have to deal with it, I want the person out of my bed. . . . I just felt really bad, you know, this poor guy, he’s suffering [but] I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do. . . . [I faked orgasms] all the time, because I wanted him to stop. I’d be like, I wish he would just hurry up already. And I kind of had to do it because I loved him and I wanted to make him happy. (Heidi, 21, “bisexual,” “white”)

Heidi and Darla stroked male egos to shorten the duration of, or manage their ambivalence about, sex in which the pain inflicted was presumably unintentional and unknown to the men involved. While one might argue that men have a responsibility to find out whether an encounter is pleasant or painful for their partners, few would consider such situations victimization. However, for some women, encounters involved violence or humiliation that was deliberately inflicted by their partners. Even in such situations, many women attempted to stroke men’s ego to end the encounter as safely and gracefully as possible. Rachel, for instance, described using this strategy in situations where a partner was intentionally demeaning and causing her physical pain. Reluctant to hurt her boyfriend’s feelings, and fearful that he might turn on her if she complained, she dealt with his mistreatment by getting it over with as best she could.

My boyfriend would like to hit me and call me a slut and other mean names during sex. He would pretend he was raping me and that I was loving it and just couldn’t get enough of him. He wanted to tie me up and stuff, and he liked to dominate me during sex. I didn’t know how to handle it, so I thought I should just pretend I enjoyed it too, you know, so we wouldn’t get into a hassle. I guess it was partly because I was afraid of him turning on me, but it was also because he was my boyfriend and I thought I should just try to grin and bear it. This was my first really sexual experience, and I thought that was just what I had to do. The sex didn’t last that long, so I always thought, “Well, if I can just wait it out and like I like it. . . .” I don’t know, I just never thought I could say something, because he needed to think he was so great in bed. I never told him I was humiliated and hurt. I just didn’t dare to hurt him. (Rachel, 21, “heteroseuxal,” “white)

Cynthia also spoke to the potential physical and emotional consequences of failing to please a man by appearing to be pleased herself. She found that the “hassle” of stroking egos was less distasteful than dealing with being considered a “domineering bitch” or having a man “go ballistic.” Apparently seeing these as her only two choices, Cynthia was willing to stroke egos when feeling hurt rather than risk getting “in even more trouble.”

I guess it’s a hassle always stroking their egos, like, you know, “Oh, you’re so great,” and “Oh, I really love what you’re doing,” you know, even when you didn’t. But believe me, it’s more of a hassle not to. Because then you have to feel guilty and everything. Because then it’s like you have to take care of the fact that he might feel bad, or inadequate, or something. And it’s just easier to keep them feeling good about themselves. I think maybe the main thing is that I don’t want him to see me as a cold bitch. And if I don’t act like, “Oh, this is really good for me,” then I think men see you as a domineering bitch. So I guess it’s like, men get their needs met directly, but women need to get their needs met indirectly. I guess it sort of sucks, but it’s better than taking the chance of pissing them off. If you piss them off, even if you’re the one who’s getting hurt, you could be in even more trouble. So he could take it out on you that you’re implying he’s a bad lover, and then he could make the pain you were feeling during sex seem like nothing. Some guys just really go ballistic when their male sexual egos are bruised. I just can’t be about taking their chance. (Cynthia, 22, “bisexual,” “white”)

Cynthia felt that in order for her to be honest about her lack of pleasure, she would have to face being perceived as a “cold bitch” by her partner and take a chance of “pissing him off,” consequences she was not willing to risk. Since she was well aware of the potential for volatility in hetero-relational encounters, it seemed worth it, to Cynthia, to take her own pleasure, even when she was in pain, in order not to experience the potential wrath or abuse of an angry male partner.

For these women and others, stroking male egos was not simply a goal in itself, it was also a means to an end. That is, it seemed to them more expedient, as well as psychologically and/or physically safer, to fake their own pleasure than to tell a man that they wanted to end an encounter or preferred to do something else. Stroking egos allowed women a way to navigate the tension between the pleasing woman discourse and the male sexual drive discourse and to meet the social and developmental pressure to avoid seeming ambivalent in hetero-relational encounters. As Sara put it, “this way everybody wins.” Unfortunately, “winning” for these women needed to happen indirectly, and it was equated with enduring an encounter rather than enjoying it.

While perhaps providing short-term benefits, this strategy reproduces the privileging of men’s emotional and sexual needs over those of women. As Sandra Bartky (1990) [Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression (New York: Routledge)] points out in her provocative essay [the seventh and final chapter of Femininity and Domination] “Feeding Egos, Tending Wounds,” by encouraging deference to men’s wants and needs, feeding egos fuels inequality in hetero-sexual relationships:

Insofar as the emotional exchanges in question are contained with a gendered division of emotional labor that does not require of men what it requires of women, our caregiving, in effect, is a collective genuflection by women to men, an affirmation of male importance that is unreciprocated. The consistent giving of what we don’t get in return is a performative acknowledgement of male supremacy and thus a contribution to our own social demotion. (109)

By prioritizing men’s egos and sexual desires at the expense of women’s right to determine the conditions of their hetero-relational encounters, stroking egos subordinates young women’s desires and discourages hetero-relational reciprocity. While this strategy may feel useful in the moment, it also helps to reproduce power asymmetries in young women’s relationships.”

Phillips, Lynn M. 2000. Flirting with Danger: Young Women’s Reflections on Sexuality and Domination. New York: New York University Press. Pp. 137-140.

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