Study into why women fake orgasms reveals harmful sexual norms

Some Canadian women are consenting to sex they don't want for troubling reasons, according to a new study. Rex Features/CP Images

A Canadian study has uncovered a troubling trend when it comes to females faking sexual pleasure.

The fact that some women, and men, feign orgasm isn’t exactly new. Some people do it because they’re too tired or under the influence and don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings, which relationship experts have said isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

What’s of concern is the women who fake it after consenting to sex they didn’t want in the first place. Not only do they seem to succumb to pressure from their partner, but sometimes they don’t even tell him they’re in pain while they pretend to climax.

The finding is based on a small sample of 15 women, aged 19 to 28, examined in the new paper Faking to finish: Women’s accounts of feigning sexual pleasure to end unwanted sex.

The participants were originally recruited to talk about their consensual sex experiences. However, they unwittingly highlighted the big gap that can exist between consent and desire, and the lack of communication about it.

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After researchers from St. Thomas University interviewed the women, it was noticed that each of them had faked an orgasm to end an unwanted sexual experience (defined in the paper as intercourse that is not “enthusiastically consensual and wanted”).

The idea of stopping the unwanted sex without faking an orgasm didn’t even seem to occur to the participants, some of whom were in long-term relationships.

“I think that would just be, almost too awkward?” one woman told the interviewer.

“We were shocked,” lead author Emily Thomas, of Ryerson University, said of the findings.

READ MORE: ‘We don’t talk about female pleasure’: women’s quest for better sex

She and two researchers from St. Thomas University found that even though the unwanted sex left some women distressed and upset, they never talked about it to their partner.

When discussing it with researchers, the women refrained from “using the explicit language of rape or coercion, despite the fact that several descriptions could be categorized as such.”

They also minimized or excused the unwanted sex when describing it to the researchers.

“I find that if I’m just laying there and he knows I’m not enjoying it, it’ll take longer,” a participant named Laura said.

 “When… I had a yeast infection, sometimes I would pretend as hard as I could that it wasn’t really hurting me,” she admitted. “Just so that… he could finish. Because… it took him longer if he thought I was in pain.”

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‘Faking orgasm may be a useful strategy’

The paper argues that faking it can actually sometimes be “helpful” by giving women the power to determine when the sexual encounter ends.

It also concludes, in part, that in situations of potential violence, “faking may be the only viable solution to end an unwanted sexual encounter without… inciting anger in one’s partner.”

“Direct refusals aren’t culturally normative” in our society, Thomas explained.

“Even if a friend asks you to do something,” she said, “you feel compelled to give a reason.”

READ MORE: Why we all lie to get out of socializing

Experts have previously touted the benefits of faking it in more typical situations, and found that it actually happens more often in committed relationships.

If “your partner is giving, attentive and open-minded and you simply find that you’re too exhausted, stressed, drunk, distracted, depressed or medicated to reach orgasm —and you still want to have sex — a fake orgasm may, in fact, feel good for both of you,” sexologist Jess O’Reilly told Global News in April.

O’Reilly compared it to the white lie of telling your partner you love a meal he or she cooked, even if it’s not exactly your favourite.

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WATCH: Men in relationships are faking orgasms much more than we thought

Click to play video: 'Men in relationships are faking orgasms much more than we thought, study suggests'
Men in relationships are faking orgasms much more than we thought, study suggests

University of Toronto researcher Amy Muise, who specializes in sexual motivation research, argued in 2013 that if your partner is in the mood for sex and you’re not, taking one for the team by giving in is a recipe for disaster.

“It really does seem like if you give it up to avoid upsetting your partner, over time, that’s going to have a negative impact. It seems like the partner is somehow picking up on this and the sex is less enjoyable,” Muise said then.

Let’s talk about sex

These latest findings also point to a lack of available language for women to talk about these experiences.

Thomas believes it’s particularly important for counselors to recognize the complexities of unwanted and painful sex, and that it isn’t just passed off as sex that’s simply “not pleasurable.”

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“We need to address this lack of language and to engage in a conversation that promotes open, safe and honest sexual experiences for both partners,” Thomas said.

Just because there’s consent for sex (which, by law, can be withdrawn at any time) doesn’t mean it’s wanted, she added.

READ MORE: 2/3 of Canadians don’t fully understand sexual consent

Thomas believes the distinction is one that should be taught in middle school as part of sex ed.

“Then it becomes an easier conversation to have.”

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