Illustration: Janet Sung
Thirty years ago, a single scene in a romantic comedy changed sex lives forever.
I wasn’t sexually active quite yet, but I remember watching When Harry Met Sally with intrigue. In an iconic moment, the will-they-or-won’t-they couple is in a New York City delicatessen, debating whether women ever fake orgasms. Harry, certain as ever, says that women never fake orgasms with him. If someone did, he continues, he’d surely be able to tell.
In response, Sally puts down her sandwich and puts on a show to make a point. For a full minute, she groans, moans, tosses her hair, slams the table, and tops it all off with an orgasmic finish. It’s a pseudo-sexual tour de force, a marvel of deli dramatics — after which she goes right back to her lunch with a sly smile, as if nothing had happened. Harry is stunned, as is everyone else in attendance.
Ever since the release of that film, the question of whether women occasionally fake orgasms has become commonplace, feeding the anxieties of men everywhere. I can’t speak for all women, but the short answer is: hell, yes. Current peer-reviewed research reveals that 58% of American women have faked it at least once (whether any of those instances took place in a restaurant is anyone’s guess). The numbers don’t lie. But the real question is why?
No harm in a little white lie in the form of convulsions and speaking in tongues, right?
There are a few probable reasons. Personally, I blame porn. Watching pornography led me to believe that men and women always orgasm at the exact same time. It took me a long time to figure out that it’s not only unlikely for a couple to orgasm simultaneously — it’s also unnecessary. If your partner’s perception of sex has been informed by porn, she may think that you’re expecting some kind of cataclysmic duel ending, and thus fake her way through it.
Alternatively, a woman may fake it due to libido. Let’s just say she’s not in the mood, but her partner is. She may agree to have sex and play pretend with some theatrics for his benefit — it’s not like she wants to seem like she’s not in the mood. No harm in a little white lie in the form of convulsions and speaking in tongues, right?
Furthermore, a woman’s orgasm is a mystical thing. It can come and go in seconds or it could last for several minutes. (No, really. It happens.) It’s hard to predict. So if a man is pulling out all the bedroom tricks and fancy moves, yet a woman can sense that this voyage won’t take her to the promised land, she might fake it to spare a man’s feelings. A woman may not want her lover to feel inadequate, which of course is not the case, but some egos are more fragile than others.
That reality goes both ways. On the FXX show Dave, the titular character is in a loving, committed relationship with his girlfriend, Ally. Yet in the series’ third episode, “Hypospadias,” he fakes an orgasm during sex due to performance anxiety sparked by Ally’s request to experiment with dirty talk. Once she’s fast asleep, he pulls out a waist-down-only sex doll and heads to the bathroom to finish up. Of course Ally discovers the doll, but Dave keeps it real with her: Sometimes, he just wants an inanimate object — as he explains, something with no expectations — to bring him to the brink. It’s an unexpected flip on the conventional bedroom script.
Personally, I’d freak out if I found out my partner occasionally preferred a sex doll to me, an actual human. But if I can write this and tell men that it’s okay if women stretch the truth a bit, then I have to accept that men are validated in doing the same — even if that means pulling out a semi-figurine from the closet for solitary quickies. (Except no. Severed sex dolls are definitely not okay.)
That scene on Dave is cringeworthy, but it helps to put things into perspective. As a collective culture, we’ve come a long way since Harry and Sally in that deli more than 30 years ago. We all should understand that women may not have a loud and explosive orgasm every time. Sometimes, it may not happen at all; likewise for men. Yet if things don’t end with an eruption for both parties, that doesn’t mean the session is any less powerful, romantic, or appreciated.
It’d be valuable for men and women to unlearn false ideals of sexuality so we all can just skip the melodrama in bed. After all, pleasing your partner is as much about the journey as the destination. Nothing fake about that.