I'll Have What She's Having

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Mary Roach's revelations about orgasm and sex research are many things: shocking, funny, intriguing. Unfortunately, there was little mention of it's faux counterpart -- the fake orgasm. Thanks in part to those lovely "self-help" books from the 1940s, the widely publicized findings of Kinsey and Masters and Johnson in the '50s and '60s, and Hollywood's depiction in nearly every television show and movie imaginable, we have come to expect that when men and women have sex, the woman will experience an orgasm so intense she gives Meg Ryan (in the Katz Deli scene) a run for her money before her partner (having fulfilled his manly duties) can climax. Yeah, right.

Research has consistently found between 50 and 67 percent of women fake orgasm (Darling & Davidson, 1986; Hite, 1976; Wiederman, 1997; Muehlenhard & Shippee, 2010). Given the emphasis on female orgasm as a key component of sexual activity (Tiefer, 2001), and the "female's age-old foible of orgasmic pretense," (Graham, 2010, p. 259) established upon the widely accepted idea that a visible female sexual response increases the amount of pleasure experienced by the male partner (Masters & Johnson, 1966), it is not surprising that women may feel pressure to "perform" during sexual activity by demonstrably reaching orgasm. Unfortunately, previous research suggests that 60-80 percent of women do not consistently orgasm during sexual activity with a partner, and approximately 10 percent of women do not orgasm at all (Burr, Cherkas, & Spector, 2009; Graham, 2010; Lloyd, 2005).

I believe a complete, unbiased understanding of sexual functioning is critical to understanding sexual expression and romantic relationships.- Erin Cooper

Chances are, a faked orgasm has been part of your sexual experience at some point in your life, yet it is rarely talked about in any serious way (only joked about in women's magazines and romantic comedies). Even in the psychological community, faked orgasms are rarely addressed. It is not included in any therapeutic assessment measures designed to evaluate relationship or sexual functioning and satisfaction. Few research studies collect data on the topic. College textbooks on human sexuality may mention it in passing, but most do not. My own research (currently under review) has found that there are several reasons women may have for faking orgasm: to protect their partner's feelings, to end sex, to avoid experiencing negative emotions around their sexuality or sexual functioning, and to increase their own arousal. The first two reasons seem almost obvious; these are the motives of women that are commonly accepted and are the topic of countless advice columns. The last two, however, require more investigation. Understanding why some women fake orgasm as a method of avoidance while others fake orgasm to make their sex life more fun is important. These are factors that may have a significant impact on women's self-esteem and romantic relationships.

As a clinician, researcher, and educator of sexuality and relationships, I have received many reactions to my work. The responses range from pure delight, to quizzical interest, to unwavering disdain. I don't get it. Sex, in its various biological, psychological and sociological constructs, is a cornerstone of our culture. Sure, it's salacious and sensational, but it's also part of our daily lives. Whether you're engaging in the physical expression of it or not, sex is part of who you are. When I began this line of research, a famous and well-respected researcher suggested that the reason this topic had not been studied much previously was because it wasn't important. While I appreciate that research of this sort isn't curing cancer, I think any behavior that nearly two-thirds of women (and 25 percent of men!) engage in is worth a little time and effort. I believe a complete, unbiased understanding of sexual functioning is critical to understanding sexual expression and romantic relationships. Unfortunately, if researchers, clinicians, and educators continue to exclude this piece of the puzzle, I'm not certain we will ever fully understand this important aspect of our lives.

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