Faux moans, simulated sheet grabs, exaggerated eye rolls. Fake orgasms are unlikely to be anyone’s first choice, but it’s not difficult to see how you might find yourself in a situation where it feels unavoidable.
It’s tempting to attribute the problem to a lack of skills among women’s partners, particularly if those partners happen to be members of the patriarchy. And that does come into it — the orgasm gap between men and women is real — however, it isn’t the whole story as it’s also common in same-sex pairings too.
Lack of enjoyment is one obvious reason. One woman I spoke to, Sarah*, told me: "Whenever I've faked an orgasm it's mostly because I wasn't really enjoying the sex, and wanted it to get over quickly."
A lack of understanding around female sexual pleasure can be the cause of unenjoyable sex. It’s something Tierra, another woman who opened up to me, says has made her fake it in the past. "In my particular case, I would like to call it 'unaware of my own body'. Most visuals of sex are of men and men only reaching climax. [I would say] most men having sex don't know how to make a woman reach orgasm. So until she understands and feels orgasm, she doesn’t know [any] better."
Sex and relationship therapist Krystal Woodbridge echoes the idea that certain portrayals of pleasure can make it harder for women to have a fulfilling sex life. "It could well be that [people] just have a lot of assumptions about sex that are probably a bit faulty, that come from the culture around sex in society and what the media portrays about it."
Although you might think faking is more likely to happen with a new partner or in a casual relationship, studies show it’s actually most common in long-term relationships, although less so in marriage.
This suggests that emotional factors could be at play, which is something Sarah experienced. "I didn't stop [unfulfilling sex] midway either because I cared for the partner and felt affectionate towards [them]," she says. "If I was with a partner I didn't really care about, I wouldn't bother faking it."
If you find yourself faking and start to fear the impact it’s having on you or your relationship, then it could well be time to talk. For those concerned about their partner’s reaction, Woodbridge advises being mindful about how you broach the issue.
"I think it’s important for [people] to ask themselves if it’s potentially damaging [to the relationship] to say to their partner that they have been faking orgasms," she says. "If they make it about themselves instead, without sounding like a bombshell or as if they are blaming their partner, they perhaps wouldn’t need to overtly say they have been faking at all."
She explains: "You can give guidance without [saying] 'I've been faking it all this time' or 'What you're doing is not working'. So you're basically saying 'I've got this issue that I've noticed more and more recently and I’m finding it more difficult to have an orgasm, so I wondered what we could do to work on that'."
Woodbridge believes the problem can arise regardless of how skilled a partner is, so it’s crucial to feel able to discuss your individual preferences. However, faking can be caused by a lack of understanding of what those preferences actually are.
For this reason, it can be helpful to take some time alone to explore what you find pleasurable, so that you feel more relaxed during sexual encounters and better able to guide your partner on what works for you. Woodbridge explains: "An orgasm starts in the mind, so how [someone] becomes aroused in the first place is to do with their own ability to understand their pleasure."
"We’re [all] aroused in different ways, it could be looking at erotic pictures or literature or it could be listening to certain music," she suggests. "Then you can start thinking about physical sensations. So what actually feels nice. And then once you've worked that out you might feel you can then share that with your partner."
It’s also important to ask yourself some questions about the cause of your faking. If you’re finding it difficult to unpick, or feel it’s the result of internalised sexual shame or past/present trauma, you might want to seek help from a qualified therapist. The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT) website has a directory where you can find accredited psychosexual therapists in your area.
Woodbridge states: "It depends on how long they've had the problem and whether it’s been with every partner or just a current partner, whether they can have an orgasm on their own but not with a partner, [and] how they feel about their own body. When they went through puberty were they able to enjoy exploring their body or was that frowned upon?"
An understanding of sexual pleasure outside of penetration, particularly for straight couples, can also be helpful, as only around 6% of women achieve orgasm through intercourse alone. Changing the focus and making sex less goal (orgasm)-oriented and more about a general sense of pleasure could help take the pressure off. "Even people who can achieve orgasm don't always have an orgasm when they have sex and they don't always want to," Woodbridge adds.
For Olney, being able to discuss faking it with a partner has been a useful indicator of the health of the relationship. She says: "[In] my last two relationships I was aware enough of what I needed to discuss, what I would like, even if they were unaware of what my needs were. But the fact that the very last partner was not into making sure it was a mutually rewarding experience [meant] I just moved on."
"Things don’t change when conversations are not being had. The discussion helped my partners help me orgasm, or the lack of discussion allowed me to realise [it was time] to move on."
Woodbridge also notes that if your partner has a problem with you struggling to orgasm or not wanting to, that’s on them, not you. "If you genuinely are happy whether you have one or not then your partner shouldn't be particularly worried about it. If they are, that is probably to do with their own pride."
While the desire to fake can be a sign that there are deeper problems in the relationship, talking about it can provide an opportunity for greater intimacy and a more fulfilling sex life.
However this approach isn’t always successful, as Rashawn discovered: "I'd never had an orgasm before and I felt inadequate, like something was wrong with me. I told him I had never had one so he made it his mission to make me. He tried and tried and since I wanted to please him, I faked it."
And while Woodbridge says that a partner can help, she advises that establishing a more fulfilling sex life involves owning your pleasure first.
"[That way] you're taking responsibility for your own orgasm and you're taking responsibility for your own pleasure and your own experience," she says. "You have to start with yourself. You can bring your partner into it, but you have to start with yourself."
*Some names have been changed