Performing pleasure: a dive into the phenomenon of fake orgasms

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

From inadequate sexual education to pressure from partners, there are many reasons people may fake orgasms

Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Fake orgasms are a lot more common than you might expect — in fact, data from the Journal of Sex Research indicates that nearly 70 per cent of heterosexual women report having faked an orgasm. With such a large population regularly faking it, there are a variety of rationales including a lack of understanding regarding female pleasure, a desire to please a partner, and expectations for sexual gratification created by the media. 

“I would just get bored of sex. It would be happening, and then I would just be like, ‘oh, my God, is this done yet?’,” said 23-year old Sam.* “I would just fake an orgasm, so they knew that they had done a good job — or so they thought that they had done a good job.” 

“It’s fun,” said Sam, when asked if the sex is enjoyable. “Physically, I don’t think it’s doing anything for me. But mentally, it is one of those ‘I just had sex’ confidence boost things.” 

Out of the 17 interviews conducted for this article, 16 people cited a desire for sexual activity to stop as a reason for faking orgasms. Many of them, including Sam, requested to remain anonymous because of the stigmas around talking openly about sex. 

Sexual miseducation 

According to Alexa Forigo, sex educator and co-founder of the body-safe and gender neutral sex shop Sensuale Intimate Wellness, the orgasm gap is not due to complexity or mystery of female sexuality but rather a lack of comprehensive sexual education.

“[In] your formative years, you learn exactly how a cisgender guy come,” Forigo said. “You learn exactly how that works. You know where it comes from, you know what it’s made of. You learn how that process is, top to bottom. We are not doing that for vaginal orgasms, or for cisgender female orgasms at all. Not only is the male orgasm for pleasure, it’s sex ed.”

For people who grow up in religious school systems, female pleasure can be even more stigmatized. When talking about her formative years, Alana* explains how a complete lack of sex education affected her perception of sexuality.

“I went to Catholic school, so I didn’t have sex ed at all. It was not something we learned about and obviously things like orgasms were something that I never learned […] It was all word of mouth from friends or the media,” she said. “Your biggest fear when you’re 16, 17, [or] 18, is feeling like an outsider and feeling alienated by having these experiences that nobody else is having. I just wish that people would talk about it more.”

Haley*, 23, also finds herself affected by the way media portrays sex. She feels as though television and porn gave her unrealistic expectations of instant gratification.

“There’s a culture surrounding sex, for women, where it’s not done for your pleasure. It’s done for the pleasure of a man,” Haley said. “That was something I struggled with. Because I was like, ‘I should just be ready. Why am I not turned on? Why am I not excited?’ Well, because nothing has made you excited. That leads to faking orgasms because you feel like something’s wrong with you for not getting there.”

Haley is not alone in feeling as if shame has led to unfulfilling sexual encounters. This stigma has prevented open dialogue with family, friends, and even doctors. 

Let’s (not) talk about sex, baby

Growing up in a religious family, Audrey*, 21, found themselves searching for answers but facing rejection. When they asked their mother about her sexual experience, Audrey was met with anger. 

“I think [faking orgasms] was also trauma related,” said Audrey. “There was just so much shame. There was so much tied into every time I had sex.”

For many, this stigma led to a sense of isolation even among close friends and peers. There is often a paradox between how sexual encounters are spoken about versus how they happen. For Donna*, 23, the performance extends beyond sex and into her social life.

“It’s a performance for [our partners], but then it also becomes a performance for our friends, to show that we’re the perfect woman,” Donna said, as she jumped into an imitation of her presented sexuality. “We’re like, ‘oh, my clit is on all the time! I’m always orgasming!’ No, that’s not the case. […] There are many examples I can think of with that, where I was just telling my friends like, ‘he rocked my world.’ No, we were in missionary. I don’t think he could.”

Forigo emphasizes the need for open discussion about female sexuality. After years of working in sex shops, she has seen the dangers of avoiding conversations about sex first-hand. “I remember a girl came in [to my workplace], and she’d gotten married and had never had sex before. Every time she had sex with her husband, it hurt so bad, and she was like, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on. I’m so into him,’” Forigo said. Ultimately, the client had vaginismus, a condition which makes penetrative sex painful.

“Why are we not talking about this? That’s a thing that could happen,” said Forigo. “You can separate the pleasure part of it, and talk about orgasms in a frank way.”

While inadequate sexual education and stigma may be the reason someone starts faking orgasms, it can be difficult to break the cycle when it becomes a habit, especially in long-term relationships. 

Faking it with partners

Beyond the internalized pressure, many people also face pressure in relationships and from partners. For Cheryl*, 51, it even affected her marriage.

“When I was married, for a long time it was compulsive, because it sort of became a rhythm. He couldn’t finish without my cues for a long time, until we really started talking about it. It took 12 years to try and get through that, which is really sad,” Cheryl said. 

Forigo is quick to stress the importance of honesty when communicating with long-term partners. 

“Your communication during sex is indicative of your communication in other ways,” she said. “You can’t just keep the peace for the ego of the other person. But I feel like especially with sex, we really do.”  

For Haley*, depression and anxiety led to a decreased sex drive, and faking orgasms became a way to remain safe with her partner.

“Men get angry. And then they can get mean,” she said. In a past relationship, she felt pressured from her partner to have sex when she didn’t want to, which led to painful sex.

“If you’re not comfortable with your partner and you’re in a relationship, it’s hard to tell them, because you don’t want them to be offended,” she said. 

Some experienced conflict over how it perpetuated a cycle of unsatisfactory sex. Lucy*, 21, considers this while reflecting on her own casual encounters.

“[With one-night stands], I feel guilty. Because now this man is going to go out there into the world. He’s going to meet a new girl, they’re going to go home together and he’s going to be like, ‘[Lucy] loved this,’” she said. “I just feel like I’m just training all these men on how not to please a woman, and then they go out into the world, and I’m like, ‘Great, I did that.’”

This comes up with Forigo, who discussed pushback from partners after giving constructive feedback. “For all we know that last person also faked their orgasm,” she said. “And then you’ve got these [sic] running around who think they’re sex gods. But it’s just these women who were  raised to be submissive that just want a shitty hookup to be over.” 

Forigo encourages the use of sex toys in intimate partnerships as a potential solution to this orgasm gap. 

“If I could shout it from the rooftops, I would,” Forigo said. “A vibrator is your teammate, not your competition.”  

Hope for an orgasmic future

Forigo believes that through healthy communication and understanding between partners, individuals can break the cycle of fake orgasms and lead more sexually fulfilling lives. For many, that work will also involve self-pleasure and masturbation. 

“The second you know how [your body] works, you have a much better chance of being able to say […] ‘a) this is what I like, and b) this is what I don’t like,’” Forigo said. 

Although it seems daunting to prioritize pleasure in a world that sees female satisfaction as optional, Cheryl is hopeful. Through exploring her sexuality, she has found that asking questions and being open about not always knowing the answer has created positive change.

“I think that’s something that younger generations are doing better. My kid is almost 20,” Cheryl said. “I can see how different their interactions are with their partner and their peers, and how much differently they talk about love and sex and relationships, compared to how it was for me 30 years ago.”

*Pseudonyms have been used to protect sources from retaliation and hostility, given the intimate nature of the subject matter.