Have you ever faked an orgasm or moans? Hidden your kinks? Felt overly concerned about what your partner thinks of your sexual performance? Stayed in positions longer than you wanted to or endured discomfort because you wanted your partner to have a good time?
Yes? Same. These terrible tendencies can be chalked up to the fact that I’m a (recovering) people-pleaser. This means that I chronically prioritise other people’s needs and desires at the expense of my own.
Dr Oriowo says that one of the causes of people-pleasing — in both our everyday lives and our sex lives — is to feel safety and belonging.
"People-pleasing is the act of taking into account – as the main source [of information] – what other people think, and needing them to like you or approve of your actions," says Dr Donna Oriowo, LICSW, certified sex therapist.
Day to day, this looks like saying yes to a party that I absolutely don’t want to go to, or overextending myself to help others while leaving nothing in the tank for myself. When it comes to sex, people-pleasing manifests as suppressing my desires in order to satisfy my partner.
I used to overdramatise my moans in an effort to boost my partner’s ego (and perhaps try to convince myself that I was enjoying sex more than I was). I have lost count of the number of times I’ve stayed in 'doggy style' (a painful position for me) because I knew my partner liked it. I’ve faked so many orgasms to spare my partners any feelings of inadequacy.
Perhaps it’s glaringly obvious but people-pleasing didn’t end well for me. I did not enjoy sex. I thought this meant there was something wrong with me and I was deeply insecure about my sexual performance because I rated how good or bad sex was by what my partner thought of me.
Things like pretending to have an orgasm, being sure to satisfy your partner or performing your sexuality for other people are examples of acting out what we've learned we must do to fit in or be liked.
Codependency recovery coach Hailey Magee explains that if you’re a people-pleaser, you may find you have a hard time setting boundaries, knowing what you like in the bedroom or receiving pleasure. You may also be overcritical of yourself (Hailey has just summed up my entire sex life).
"As a people-pleaser I definitely struggled to say no, especially when it came to sex," Oli, 29, tells me. "I came out as bisexual quite young and there was a lot of other people’s desires I seemed to fulfil. Doing things like making out with girls for guys to like me or sleeping with girlfriends for their experimentation often left me feeling empty – but at least people liked me."
Dr Oriowo says that one of the causes of people-pleasing – in both our everyday lives and our sex lives – is to feel safety and belonging. Things like pretending to have an orgasm, being sure to satisfy your partner or performing your sexuality for other people are examples of acting out what we’ve learned we must do to fit in or be liked.
Miranda, 26, another self-identified people-pleaser, describes situations (although entirely consensual) where she pushed past her boundaries in order to satisfy others. "I have in the past not said what I want and I’ve remained in situations that I don’t want to be in," she says. "I always have on my mind that I’ll be okay if I’m a little unhappy post-sex or during sex, but the other person needs to have the best time and be consistently enjoying themself."
People-pleasing can take a major toll on your sex life but these patterns of behaviour are not permanent. You can recover from people-pleasing and bring pleasure (and perhaps even orgasms) back into your sex life.
Sarah Casper, founder of Comprehensive Consent, says you can start to break people-pleasing patterns by "practising tuning into your body and asking for what you want in everyday settings". For example: "When your partner asks you what you want for dinner or your friend asks you what time to meet, take a moment to pause, breathe and ask yourself: What sounds really good to me right now?"
This means I’ll be saying I want pizza instead of "I’m down for anything!" when my friends ask me where I want to go to dinner, and you’ll see me leaving the party when I want to instead of at the 'polite' moment.
They might sound like small feats but these brief moments of asserting your desires do help you to have better sex. Telling your partner where you want to eat out gives you the practice and skills to tell them what you want them to eat out in the bedroom (yes, that).
To break my people-pleasing tendencies, I’ll also be employing my all-time favourite strategy: one-word requests, which I learned from Allison Moon, author of Girl Sex 101. One-word requests are for all the people-pleasers out there who are terrified to say anything at all in the bedroom. This strategy allows you to ask for a lot with only one word: slower, deeper, higher, lower, faster.
Dr Oriowo adds that one of the best ways for a people-pleaser to improve their sex life is by filling out a yes/no/maybe list. A yes/no/maybe list has a bunch of sexual activities on it. You and your partner separately fill out the list by marking your interest in doing each sexual behaviour as yes, no or maybe, she says. At the end you have a list of the activities that each of you does and doesn’t like.
Honestly, breaking your people-pleasing patterns will be difficult. But to be quite frank, there’s no fucking way I am bringing people-pleasing into the bedroom in 2023.