Faking It

“So how does this discussion help us to make sense of women faking orgasm? We have argued that what is demanded of women in the technique/work narrative is proof of the value of the man’s work, of the soundness of his technique. Thus, women are expected to experience orgasm. But part of the “problem” with women’s sexuality is that women’s orgasm is not visible. Unlike men, women do not ejaculate visibly, and although in recent times it has been stated that women’s capacity for orgasm is at least multiple, their partners still cannot see what is going on.[Endnote 3] Thus, there is a demand for noisy and exaggerated display.

Sally: He’d probably love it if I started to, not faking it but he’d probably like it if I was a bit more , . . vocal about it, what I was experiencing. ‘Cause he sort of says I’m a silent achiever.

Interviewer: Oh yeah? [laugh]

Sally: But sometimes I think he’s too much of, it’s not that he makes a lot of noise either, but I mean . . . he vocalises a lot about how he feels and asks, you know, sort of asking questions all the time.

Interviewer: So you don’t actually like talking during sex?

Sally: Ah, I like talking but . . . not during it, and the only thing I like saying during it is sort of… what you feel about that person. . . . Not about sex, the mechanics sort of it. I feel like he sort of gets into the mechanics a bit of it.

As is clear in Sally’s case, the demand for display, for noise, is a demand for the affirmation of technique or “mechanics” as she puts it. The demand for noise also indicates that heterosexuality becomes an economy in which the woman’s orgasm is exchanged for the man’s work.[Endnote 4]

A scene from When Harry Met Sally (1989), where Sally illustrates to Harry – in a public diner – that women can fake orgasms all the time without men knowing. The director noted that in test screenings the women were laughing while the men remained silent.

This demand for noise as proof of orgasm not only indicates the limits of our male interviewees’ understanding of feminine sexuality, but shows the importance of cultural constructions of sexuality in individual’s experiences: cultural representations of women’s orgasm as overwhelmingly pleasurable and, therefore, loud are common in women’s popular magazines and pornography. Sally’s initial equation of this affirmation with faking orgasm is also very telling. For indeed faking orgasm can only work because of this representation – it is far easier to make a bit of noise than, for example, to fake a vaginal spasm!

This “orgasm for work” economy of heterosexuality however, is not unproblematic. For as we outlined earlier, women’s sexuality is seen as oppositional to men’s “natural” sexuality, and their orgasms are thus “unnatural.“[Endnote 5] This also springs from women’s alignment with the body: womens’ over immersion in the body – their lack of mind – means that their bodies are perceived as being chaotic and out of control. Women’s orgasms are thus seen as being difficult to achieve – bringing women to orgasm is seen by both men and women to require not only the correct state of mind (in fact a relinquishing of mind and a retreat into the body), but also a good deal of skilled masculine work.[Endnote 6] Thus the value of men’s technique is affirmed – if women do reach orgasm, their partner must be “good” at sex – but yet women’s sexuality is in some way contained – the difficulties women experience “prove” that women are not as “naturally” sexual as men.

The economy of heterosexuality, as we have already suggested, can also only operate because women provide background networks of love and nurturing. In focusing on maintaining relationships, women make sure there is a space for the smooth functioning of this economy. When the economy is disrupted, for instance, when the woman does not reach orgasm despite the man’s skilled work, there are disruptions also to the relationship.

Tracy: Like Jeff used to get really upset. Like he used to get so upset all the time . . . Cause he used to say, “Oh but why, why can’t I make you come?”. . . he used to talk about it all the time and it used to sort of piss me off because like I thought, “Oh well there’s something wrong with me”. . . . And then I realised that it’s not, it’s just something I’ve just got to live with. I’ve just got to work at it. So he’s, like we used to talk about it all the time ‘cause he’d go, “Gonna happen one day” . . . and he was like “OK, this is what we’re gonna do. [interviewer giggles] We’re gonna try all these different ways [giggles] and we’re gonna make you come,” and it was like – and he’d be talking to me the whole way and he’d be going, “Oh, just imagine,” he’d be going, “Imagine this, imagine that. Imagine your wildest fantasies,” and I’d be going “Oh, shut up!” [both giggle] . . .

Interviewer: Was it that important to you or was it . . .

Tracy: Yeah, it was, but it used to get me down so much.

Interviewer: You’d rather sort of just . . .

Tracy: Yeah, I guess, oh you know, like . . . it’s obviously a really good feeling, but you want it to happen all the time but it can’t . . . So it still gets me down sometimes now, but I just can’t let it get to me because I think, “Oh,” but I mean, it’s not everything.

Like Tracy, the women who had difficulties with orgasm reported experiencing a great deal of anxiety and spoke of numerous difficult encounters with their partners over the issue. When men “failed” to bring their lovers to this necessary “peak,” this was dealt with by both partners in one of two ways. One response, as with Tracy’s Jeff, was to assume that the “problem” was one of masculine technique, and thus the way to overcome it was with the  man’s ever renewed attempts, involving more and more complex skills. The other response was more pessimistic – here both partners assumed that the body of woman is simply faulty, that it is unrealistic to expect a woman to orgasm every time, and that it is better not to worry too much about it. This response springs from the previously mentioned cultural construction of women’s bodies as intrinsically flawed and is also reinforced by the cultural discourses of sexuality which suggest that women enjoy “foreplay” much more than “real” sex (penetration)[Endnote 7] anyway, and so will not mind if they do not reach orgasm.

Here we return to Cosmopolitan’s advice: if a woman cannot “achieve” orgasm she should fake one to please her partner and to avoid relationship problems. Hence, it is at the site of faking orgasm that the two narratives we have outlined – the technique/work narrative and the love/relationships narrative – intersect. Faking orgasm, as we stated in the beginning, is clearly involved with technique: the pretence techniques of the woman and the affirmation of masculine technical skills. However, it is also interwoven with the emphasis on relationships: The “reason” women give for faking is that it keeps the man happy and, thus, the relationship functioning.

Interviewer: Do the guys you know sort of worry about giving a girl an orgasm, like they sort of (oh yeah), or do they just. . .

Jane: Oh yeah, did you get off, did you get off, did you get off.

Megan: Yeah.

Jane: ‘Cause otherwise it says something about them I think.

Liz: Yeah it does.

Jane: And if I say “No,” then that means like he wasn’t good or. . .

Megan: Yeah, they feel inadequate.

Jane: So in a sense they’re more worried about themselves. And so you think they’re worried about you enjoying it but, I mean, (they’re not) it’s sort of, they’re more worried about if they were good or not.

Megan: Yeah.

Alison: That’s why I think girls fake it, so that they can sort of like get it over with.

Jane: I fake it sometimes. Just . . . ‘cause my boyfriend gets really worried. . . because. . . he wants to know that he’s giving me pleasure too. And so sometimes I’ll just fake it, if I’m not really in the mood . . .

Alison: Yeah, I used to do that a lot.

Jane: I just, you know, just sort of fake it a little bit. I think everyone does sometime.

Interviewer: So that he won’t get upset?

Alison: Yeah.

Jane: Not upset, but so he won’t feel inadequate.

It is clear that as the site of intersection between the two narratives, faking orgasm generates anxieties and difficulties for both men and women. Women worry that it is unfair to their partners to fake, but, yet, are not willing to risk upsetting them by admitting the “truth” about their enjoyment. Men are concerned about their partners faking orgasm because of its connections with poor technique which they read as a questioning of their masculinity. The fact that faking orgasm is a well-known “syndrome” also creates further anxiety for men by touching upon the culturally prevalent fear that women’s desire is in essence unknowable and insatiable. If women are faking orgasm, it might be that masculine technique is in itself lacking. Even worse, women could be experiencing some undetectable pleasure during sex which is not dependent on the man’s skills.

Thus, we can see that faking orgasm is a site where cultural inscriptions of sexuality are played out – faking orgasm reaffirms women’s position as the passive recipients of masculine technique. Paradoxically, however, (and this may also have something to do with both men and women’s high anxiety levels surrounding faking orgasm) faking orgasm is simultaneously a disruption to the traditional alignment of women with the passive side of the binarisms – when women fake they are being active and are using their minds to perform (being) the body! This paradox shows the complexity of sexed subject positions: Women’s position on the passive side of the binary is shown to require their activity.”

Roberts, Celia, Susan Kippax, Catherine Waldby, and June Crawford.  1995. “Faking It: The Story of “Ohh!”” Women’s Studies International Forum 18(5/6): 523-532. [From the section, “Faking It,” pp. 528-530. Notes and references by Roberts et al. below:]

3. In pornographic films the “come shot” or “money shot” (a picture of male ejaculation) stands in for both men and women’s orgasm (Williams, 1989). Our women interviewees also suffered anxiety as to whether they actually had experienced orgasm, and some time was spent in at least one of the women’s groups discussing whether what they had experienced actually was an orgasm.

4. Gilfoyle, Wilson, and Brown (1992) also see heterosexuality as a kind of economy, but for them orgasms are a gift men give to women in exchange for women’s offering of their own passive bodies. The notion of heterosexuality as an exchange is also argued on a more general conceptual level by Luce Irigaray (1985) and Carole Pateman (1989) who suggested that western culture is based on the exchange of women’s bodies between men.

5. For a discussion of the historical development of this positioning of women’s orgasm as “unnatural” see Laquer (1990) and Spongberg (1992). The positioning of men’s orgasm as “natural” uncharacteristically positions men on the natural side of a culture-nature binarism. We would argue that this is an interesting and quite specific instance, as in fact the story of technique/work shows. During sex, men are seen to be driven by “nature,” however, this is only in relation to their own orgasm. Their sexuality in every other respect is seen to require technique/work, which, as we argue in the text, repositions them on the culture side of the nature-culture binarism. Men’s nature, as opposed to women’s, is always seen in terms of possible or probable (mental) control. The men who are perceived to be unable to exercise control over their nature are usually considered criminals or deviants, or are excused by extenuating circumstances (such as provocative dress).

6. Both the men and the women we interviewed had numerous stories which they used to explain women’s ability or inability to orgasm. These ranged from the psychologistic to the “scientific” and statistical, and from the practical and technical to the emotional. These complicated explanations, however, usually boiled down to the two basic “truths” outlined in the text: Women find it inherently “difficult” to orgasm (for either psychologistic or physiological reasons) and that it is men’s technique which can, in some cases and where various conditions are “right,” bring women to orgasm. Some women did feel a responsibility to help their partner in his endeavour by providing the information to help their partner “fine tune” his technique and to assist by getting themselves in the “right frame of mind,” but the actual physical stimulation was seen to be the man’s job.

7. Nearly all of our subjects defined “having sex” as vaginal penetration.

Gilfoyle, Jackie, Wilson, Jonathon, & Brown. (1992). Sex, organs, and audiotape: A discourse analytic approach to talking about heterosexual sex and relationshipsFeminism and Psychology, 2, 209-230.

Irigaray, Luce. (1985). This sex which is not one. New York: Cornell University Press.

Laquer, Thomas. (1990). Making sex: Body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pateman, Carole. (1989). The sexual contract. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Spongberg, Mary. (1992). The sick rose: Constructing the body of the prostitute in nineteenth century medical discourse. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Sydney, Australia.

Williams, Linda. (1989). Hard core: Power; pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Invisible.” Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.


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