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The Lies Women Tell about Sex--And the Truths They Reveal
By Lux Alptraum
Read by Lux Alptraum
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When we talk about sex, we talk about women as mysterious, deceptive, and – above all – untrustworthy. Women lie about orgasms. Women lie about being virgins. Women lie about who got them pregnant, about whether they were raped, about how many people they’ve had sex with and what sort of experiences they’ve had – the list goes on and on. Over and over we’re reminded that, on dates, in relationships, and especially in the bedroom, women just aren’t telling the truth. But where does this assumption come from? Are women actually lying about sex, or does society just think we are?
In Faking It, Lux Alptraum tackles the topic of seemingly dishonest women; investigating whether women actually lie, and what social situations might encourage deceptions both great and small. Using her experience as a sex educator and former CEO of Fleshbot (the foremost blog on sexuality), first-hand interviews with sexuality experts and everyday women, Alptraum raises important questions: are lying women all that common – or is the idea of the dishonest woman a symptom of male paranoia? Are women trying to please men, or just avoid their anger? And what affect does all this dishonesty – whether real or imagined – have on women’s self-images, social status, and safety?
Through it all, Alptraum posits that even if women are lying, we’re doing it for very good reason — to protect ourselves (“My boyfriend will be here any minute,” to a creep who won’t go away, for one), and in situations where society has given us no other choice.
A Note on Language
THIS BOOK DEALS with historical and cultural ideas of womanhood and sex, many of which are born out of a conception of “women” as people with breasts, vaginas, and uteruses. However, nothing in this book is intended to imply that all people with vaginas are women, that all women have vaginas, or that there is one universal definition that encompasses all women. Sexuality, gender, and biological sex are infinitely complex topics, and any attempt at generalization will always be incomplete.
ON NOVEMBER 9, 2016, I awoke with a sense of despair. After a brutal, months-long presidential campaign, America had chosen its new leader. And rather than select a former secretary of state, senator, and first lady—perhaps the most qualified person ever to run for the position—we’d gone with a real estate magnate turned reality show star who’d risen to prominence on a wave of hatred, empty promises, and deceit.
To cap it all off, a significant number of voters had come through the election believing that it was Donald Trump who was the more honest and trustworthy candidate; that Hillary Rodham Clinton was, as Trump had cried numerous times throughout the year, just “Crooked Hillary,” a woman more worthy of a prison cell than a political appointment. Never mind that the award-winning fact-checking website Politifact’s scorecard calculates that Trump told the whole, unvarnished truth just 4 percent of the time (compared to Clinton’s 24 percent), or that former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson had declared Clinton to be “fundamentally honest and trustworthy.” In the eyes of a significant portion of the electorate, Clinton was not to be trusted.
That morning, as the reality of the election results began to sink in, I felt devastated, but not exactly surprised. As much as it broke my heart to see Clinton rejected in favor of Trump, the criticisms that had paved the path toward her defeat—that she was untrustworthy, manipulative, and duplicitous—were ones I was intimately familiar with. And not merely because they were accusations that had been hurled at Clinton for the entirety of her time in the public eye, but because being accused of dishonesty is a fundamental part of growing up as a woman in America.
The idea that women are liars is deeply ingrained into American culture—particularly when it comes to sex. In the common telling, women are duplicitous seductresses, gifted with a particular talent for bending the truth to pull one over on men. We alter our appearances to make ourselves more attractive, we erase whole sections of our sexual pasts in order to seem more demure. We feign disinterest, we fake our orgasms, and when it’s all said and done, we “cry rape” in an attempt to destroy whatever man has done us wrong.
When I first started thinking seriously about the topic of women and deceit, I was convinced that we women had merely been victims of a particularly vicious smear campaign, one that unfairly cast aspersions on our fundamental honesty. Surely, I thought, the idea of the duplicitous female was nothing more than an invention of men, one intended to discredit women and keep us in check and out of power. Surely, I thought, the notion that women are gaming the system was a vicious myth with little to no basis in truth.
But as I began to dig, it quickly became apparent how wrong my initial assessment was.
It’s true that the world is full of women who, like Secretary Clinton, are presumed to be peddling fiction when we’re actually offering up fact. But it’s also true that—whether it’s fake orgasms, artificial hymens, or suspiciously spotless sexual pasts—there are many instances in which women are lying. And while a number of honorable women have been unfairly slandered as dishonest, it’s the lies that many, if not most, of us are telling on a daily basis that offer the greater insight into the female experience.
We lie because it makes our day-to-day lives easier; we lie to keep ourselves safe; we lie because no one believes us when we tell the truth. But most of all, we lie because the world expects us to live up to an impossible standard—and frequently, lying is the only way to get through life with our sanity intact.
The question isn’t whether women are trustworthy. The question is why women lie—and what those lies are trying to tell us.
I Just Came
A SHORT WALK from my home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan lies Katz’s Delicatessen, one of the neighborhood’s biggest tourist attractions. It’s possible you’ve heard of Katz’s because of its famous pastrami sandwiches. But it’s equally likely you know it for reasons completely unrelated to its food: Katz’s is the site of the famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene from When Harry Met Sally, a moment so iconic the restaurant even has a sign noting where, exactly, Meg Ryan’s famed fake orgasm took place.
It’s strange that a brief scene from an old film defines a place that’s been featured in over a dozen movies and TV shows. But the staying power of the When Harry Met Sally scene is almost definitely due to its unabashed look at a topic that manages to be intriguing, taboo, and incredibly controversial: the faked female orgasm. Whether you think it’s a harmless fib or a major faux pas, there’s no denying that “faking it” is inextricably connected to our ideas about female sexuality. When newly out trans woman Caitlyn Jenner received a lesson in fake orgasm in the second season of reality show I Am Cait, the implication was clear. As TMZ succinctly put it, “Caitlyn Jenner is learning what it means to be a woman.”
The specter of feigned female pleasure is ever present, with women’s magazines and sex educators chiding women who turn to ersatz orgasm when the real thing remains elusive, and men’s magazines so preoccupied with tips for determining whether a partner is truly enjoying herself that it often seems like men are convinced that any woman who seems to orgasm might, in fact, be faking. Occasionally there’s even a personal essay from a woman who’s finally fessing up to her fakery, usually with a healthy dose of contrition.
But while all this obsession with orgasmic authenticity is at least partially justified—faked orgasms can, and do, happen during sex—much of the conversation around faking it seems to be missing the point. Sussing out the real orgasms from the fake ones, or getting women to take a solemn oath never to fake again, might feel like minor victories, but they don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the truly important question here. Namely: Why do women even fake orgasms in the first place?
The typical read on fake orgasms is a simple one: women fake because they’re having subpar sex and want to get it over with. In this version of events, women don’t understand their bodies, or are bad at communicating their needs, or end up partnering with men who don’t listen, and the result is unsatisfying sex (at least for the woman). Hoping to keep the peace with her partner—or perhaps just get some bad sex over and done with—the woman spares everyone embarrassment by mimicking the signs of sexual pleasure. Women are crafty manipulators, but it’s ultimately to their disadvantage: sure, they’ve tricked a man into thinking he’s done well, but at the cost of their own sexual fulfillment.
It’s this interpretation of faked pleasure that’s led to so many campaigns against faking it. If only women could be more in touch with their physical pleasure, could speak about their needs more, could advocate for their own orgasms, no one would need to fake. Taken to the extreme, this argument means women who fake aren’t merely letting themselves down: they’re actively traitors to the feminist movement, upholding mythical ideas about what women want from sex, and convincing legions of men that their selfish sexual technique is that of a giving, generous lover.
But is it really quite so cut-and-dry? Is the female urge to fake purely about preserving male ego at the expense of a woman’s access to enjoyment—or are there other, more complicated reasons why a woman might feign an orgasm when she isn’t actually feeling it? Is the act of faking an orgasm truly a betrayal of the fight for women’s sexual liberation, or is it, perhaps, a way of claiming control over a sexual situation? Why is the authenticity of anyone’s orgasm worth discussing to begin with?
What is an orgasm? What does it feel like? How do you know if you’ve had one?
If you have a penis, the answers to these questions are presumably straightforward. An orgasm is the sensation that accompanies ejaculation, and it feels, you know, pretty great. Because male orgasm is associated with ejaculation,1 few men devote much time to worrying about whether or not they’ve actually had one. The proof is—if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase—in the pudding.
If you have vulva, on the other hand, the situation is a bit different. During the mid-twentieth century, pioneering sexologists William Masters and Virginia Johnson attempted to map out the “typical” female sexual response cycle, dividing it into four distinct stages: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Under the model, the female sexual response cycle can be broadly understood as analogous to its male counterpart: penises get erect; vulvae lubricate. Muscles in the genital regions swell and contract, then release in a series of orgasmic pulses; post-orgasm, the body begins to cool down and relax.
There is value in the Masters and Johnson model, and it certainly describes the physical experience of some women (certainly enough so that doctors are still making use of it to diagnose sexual disorders). Yet in the decades since its debut, this linear, four-stage model has come under a great deal of criticism. It makes broad assumptions about the similarities between male and female sexual response. It primarily focused on women who were able to orgasm during penis-in-vagina intercourse, reinforcing the idea that that one particular sex act is central to female sexual pleasure while simultaneously devaluing the nonorgasmic pleasures derived from penis-in-vagina sex. In the decades since, a number of other sex researchers have attempted to map out female sexual response with other models: circular rather than linear models and models that include desire, emotional intimacy, and other nonphysical aspects of sexual pleasure. But even as these models improve on the work of Masters and Johnson, it’s still difficult to create one model of sexual ecstasy that can assuredly guide a woman on the path to orgasm (and guarantee that she’ll know when she’s had one) because of one very simple fact: there’s no one universal sign that serves as an indicator of female sexual ecstasy.
This fact can create a challenge for aspiring female orgasmers, particularly since orgasm isn’t an experience that we’re easily able to describe. “How would you describe what tickling feels like?” asks Charlie Glickman, a Seattle-based sex and relationships coach with two decades of experience in sex education, including a stint as the education program manager at San Francisco–based sex shop Good Vibrations. “How can you describe what chocolate tastes like? We don’t actually have a definition for these things. All we can do is give someone a piece of chocolate, or tickle them, and say, that’s the sensation that I’m talking about.”
But orgasms aren’t as readily available, or easily distributed, as bars of chocolate—and if you’re a preorgasmic woman, desperate to figure out how you’ll know when it happens, it’s understandable that you might turn to porn or romance novels or Cosmopolitan or even Our Bodies, Ourselves in search of some information that might help you better understand what, exactly, the elusive O is, and how you’ll know when (or if) you’ve achieved it.
I was introduced to the concept of orgasm not by a lady mag or swoony romance novel but by Peter Mayle’s Where Did I Come From?, a seventies-era entrant into the genre of sex ed books for kids. If you haven’t had the privilege of leafing through this classic, it is very seventies, with a straightforward approach to the facts about doing it and a whole lot of illustrations of a chubby, vaguely Semitic-looking couple whose naked bodies are presumably intended to stand in for those of your parents.
Where Did I Come From? does not shy away from topics like pleasure. Sex, Mayle wants children to know, is a very lovely experience—akin to “a gentle tingly sort of tickle”—one that culminates in “a tremendous big lovely shiver” for everyone involved (Mayle is rather bullish on the possibility of simultaneous orgasm). For readers still curious to know what, exactly, this “shiver” feels like, Mayle follows up with an aside that notes that “it’s not easy to tell you what this feels like. But you know how it is when you have a tickle in your nose for a long time, and then you have a really big sneeze? It’s a little like that.” On the opposite page, there’s an illustration of a sneezing baby accompanied by a caption that reads, “It feels a bit like this, but much better.”
It’s easy to mock this notion of orgasm as a sneeze, only better (I myself have mocked it on many, many occasions). But Mayle’s attempt to describe the sensation of coming is about as good as most others, especially when you factor in that he’s somewhat stymied by the fact that he’s trying to offer R-rated insights to kids.
And the idea of orgasm as a sneeze-plus is at least less vague—and much more realistic—than a number of the other conceptions out there. Here are some of the descriptions of orgasm I’ve heard in my discussions with women: Mia, who learned about orgasm through watching porn, told me she’d been primed to expect a “big ordeal that came with bells and whistles” that served as a “big finish” to the act of sex (though what, exactly, was causing that big ordeal, or what exactly it felt like, remained pretty mysterious to her). Ruby told me that as an adolescent, she knew orgasm “was supposed to feel like a ‘build up and release’ and that there would be full-body pleasure,” while Rebecca, a twenty-seven-year-old sex blogger, had heard it was “an explosion that ran through your body,” but was convinced it could only happen during penis-in-vagina intercourse. Amanda Rose, a twenty-three-year-old PhD student who’d been sexually active for a few years before learning about orgasms in her late teens, wrote in her high school journal that she’d heard orgasm was “a tingly feeling all over your body” and “like you really have to pee.”2
Not surprisingly, the most vivid descriptions of orgasm tend to be found in romance novels. A thirty-year-old social worker told me that her adolescent exploration of the genre gave her “a vague, if somewhat glorified idea of what an orgasm was. It seemed like such a mind-shattering, earth-breaking thing when a woman had an orgasm, and I was reading [about] it, so it must be true, right?”
If you’ve never delved into the genre yourself, here’s a sampling of what sort of orgasmic descriptions are on offer. Some writers opt for airborne metaphors: orgasm makes you “grow wings, defy gravity and your soul slips quietly across the universe like a shooting star” (Chloe Thurlow). Others are drawn to more fiery descriptions, offering that it feels like “searing heat, electric pulses surging through my body and my soul, as our orgasms burst forth together, a million nerve endings suddenly flashing like twin rockets exploding fireworks, the multitude of sparks joining with a billion stars in the heavens above” (Simone Freier). Still others go the floral route: “something blossomed deep within and opened almost like the multiple petals of a rose, pushing back the tension in rippling waves as they bloomed until she surrendered to relaxation with a soft exclamation of surprise” (Mary Balogh).
A Cosmopolitan piece surveying women about their experience of the big O isn’t much better: opening with a somewhat snide comment about women who “think” they’ve had orgasms (“if you have to use the word think, it ain’t happening”), the piece goes on to offer descriptions as vague and variant as “an overwhelming feeling of tingles throughout your body,” “like a volcanic eruption… but down there,” “every ounce of sexual energy being sucked from my body,” “like filling a glass of water until it overflows,” and “a blend of dancing and riding the craziest rollercoaster ever.”
You could be forgiven if all this orgasm talk makes your head swim (the same way your head presumably swims during orgasm), and you could especially be forgiven if it leaves you feeling more confused than ever about the dynamics of sexual climax. If you’re young and preorgasmic, learning that orgasm is like a sneeze but also fireworks and flying and definitely something you’ll recognize when you experience it (assuming you don’t get confused and accidentally wet the bed), and, most importantly of all, the greatest and best experience ever, isn’t particularly helpful—especially if most of that doesn’t quite turn out to be true.
Yes, in spite of all the hype, there are plenty of orgasms that aren’t all that exciting, let alone awe inspiring or life changing. The notion of an underwhelming orgasm goes against everything we think we know about sex, but climaxes that aren’t particularly explosive are much more common than we think. Granted, it’s rare to find women speaking publicly about the phenomenon—but that’s likely because, well, admitting your orgasms aren’t amazing feels a bit like branding yourself a failure.
Despite Cosmopolitan’s conviction that any woman who’s had an orgasm absolutely knows for sure, the extreme hype around erotic release leaves a number of women baffled that what feels like a sexual finish isn’t living up to the hype. As Ruby told me, “When I had my first clitoral orgasm, I didn’t even realize I’d had one.” Contrary to what she’d been led to expect, her first few dozen orgasms were rather unimpressive—so weak, in fact, that after they occurred she attempted to soldier on in pursuit of that magical explosion, deterred only by the fact that her post-orgasmic clitoris was far too sensitive to continue stimulating. “There was a build-up, but the peak was so faint and so pin-point—nothing like the crazy full-body experience I’d heard about,” she told me.
Ruby isn’t the only woman to experience a less-than-mind-blowing orgasm. Another woman’s description of her early orgasms—posted in the LiveJournal community Vagina Pagina—notes that “at a certain point, when everything feels really good, it feels like my vagina (and inner parts) hiccup repeatedly, rhythmically, and involuntarily. Afterwards, my bits continue to randomly twitch for about ten minutes or so, or at least it feels like they twitch.” (I’m a bit partial to this description of orgasm as it’s reminiscent of my inaugural orgasmic experience—one that left me more befuddled than awash in the sort of warm glow that erotica had primed me to expect.)
Many women who feel led astray by the orgasm glorification complex are confused when sexual sensations don’t live up to the storybook explosions and over-the-top thrashing and moans. Sarah, a thirty-seven-year-old 911 dispatcher whose first orgasm arrived during an erotic dream—“I woke up to my body spasming, and I had all the other physical indicators of having orgasmed,” she told me—felt deeply confused after discovering the reality of orgasm. “My anticipation of orgasm was more of the moaning, screaming type that is depicted in [soft-core pornography]. I did not expect any of the feelings I had, the physical and the emotional, and I didn’t expect it to be so ‘quiet,’ for lack of another term.”
And the disconnect can be even greater for women who experience orgasm before they’ve been educated about what, exactly, it is and how it relates to sex. Hannah, a twenty-eight-year-old artist, discovered the joys of self-pleasure in early childhood, bringing herself to orgasm through the rhythmic contraction of her pelvic muscles. It wasn’t until her late teens that she realized that this activity (which she’d long thought of as “stretching”) was actually a sort of proto-masturbation. Realizing that the much hyped experience of sexual climax was little more than her childhood relaxation strategy was, she told me, “a bit of a letdown.”
“There was a bit of ‘Oh, that’s it? That’s an orgasm? That’s what everyone’s so obsessed with?’” she explained. “I thought that what people were feeling when they orgasmed must be a huge, massive, life-changing thing to justify how much it influenced people’s actions and caused them to chase it so much. Realizing orgasms were really the same as this little thing I would do when I was bored left me so confused at society’s obsession with it.”
Lady mags and sex advice columnists often treat women who come forward about their underwhelming O’s as objects of pity or people in need of a fix—better technique, perhaps, or breathing exercises or a deeper emotional connection with a partner or a different kind of vibrator. Yet while solid B orgasms might not be the kind of thing you hear about in Cosmo (I checked: none of the respondents refer to the feeling of orgasm as “kind of weird, like my vagina wants to grab things but keeps losing its grip,” the way a teenage me might have), they’re no less legitimate an orgasm than all the exploding showers of rose petals we keep hearing about.
Because an orgasm, as it happens, isn’t one specific thing. To the extent that orgasm can be assigned any singular, universal categorization, it’s that—as Emily Nagoski writes in Come As You Are—“orgasm is the sudden, involuntary release of sexual tension,” a description that, yes, feels about as underwhelming as those introductory orgasms women told me about.
There are as many different types of orgasm as there are female bodies. Some orgasms are brought about by vaginal stimulation, others by the much ballyhooed clitoral stimulation, still others by nipple play or anal sex or even just standing around in the rain. Some women have the ability to orgasm by thinking themselves off—bringing themselves to sexual ecstasy just through sheer concentration. And while many of these climaxes are accompanied by the telltale vaginal contractions often associated with orgasm, that’s not a guarantee (if it was, this chapter would be much, much shorter).
The one thing uniting all these orgasms? A certain sense of completion, which may or may not be accompanied by an explosive, overwhelming, full-body sensation. Yet it’s rare to hear orgasm discussed as, “You know, that feeling when you’re having sex and everything feels super exciting and tingly and then suddenly your body relaxes and is all, ‘Nope, I’m done now,’” perhaps because that doesn’t really make for the most exciting copy for a romance novel.
But perhaps we should start rethinking that. Because our intense romanticization of the grand climax isn’t just inaccurate but actively works to prevent people (and, in particular, women) from enjoying sex. Not all orgasms are elaborate, intense affairs, but when we discuss them in that way, we create one more potentially unattainable goal for women to live up to. It’s not enough to just focus on what feels good and leaves you happy and relaxed and connected to your partner. If your pleasure isn’t dialed up to eleven each and every time, are you really living your best life?
Well, if you’re feeling fulfilled and happy with the sex you’re having, then absolutely, yes. Even if—blasphemous as it may sound—that fulfilling sexual experience doesn’t actually end in orgasm.
“We’ve gone from ‘People have sex for procreation’ to ‘People have sex to have orgasm,’” says Erin Basler, MEd, a staff member at Rhode Island’s Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. Basler notes that she doesn’t really think that either of those sexual motivations has ever been universally true. The long history of birth control makes it abundantly clear that making babies has never really been the primary reason modern humans have pursued sex with one another. But if orgasm isn’t the primary motivation for getting busy, then what, exactly, is?
Basler offers up a number of different reasons why someone might enjoy, or pursue, sex that they’re pretty sure won’t lead to orgasm. There’s the thrill of physical intimacy, the desire to make another person happy, the stress-relieving potential—and, of course, the fact that the nonorgasm parts of sex can feel pretty good too. Fundamentally, we have sex “because touching erogenous zones feels good,” she tells me—and while we’ve been conditioned to see the experience as a task-oriented one, it’s also possible to treat it as an “experimental process” or “a journey that may just loop back around on itself,” Möbius strip style.
Conversations I’ve had with women about their sex lives back up Basler’s assertions. Julia, a thirty-two-year-old based in London who’s more easily able to achieve orgasm through masturbation than sex, noted that “a sexual experience for me is about everything but the orgasm.” What does that include? The ego boost of watching a partner get turned on by her body, the feeling of skin-to-skin contact, the pleasure of having someone celebrate and admire her vulva. Ruby made a distinction between her “sex drive” and her “orgasm drive,” explaining that, “when I have sex, I certainly require pleasure, but I don’t require orgasm. So as long as my partner’s penis is hitting me at a good angle for a good amount of time, I’m happy.” That appreciation for penetration was echoed by Amanda Rose, whose ability to orgasm is directly correlated to where she is in her menstrual cycle. As she told me, “getting rhythmically banged out”3 can still feel great even when she knows orgasm isn’t likely, or even possible; on nights when she wants to sleep well, but isn’t feeling particularly horny, orgasm-free sex can be a useful way to relieve tension, relax, and get herself to sleep. Barbara, a twenty-two-year-old designer from Venezuela, described the thrill of “you and your partner in a naked tangle of limbs nuzzling and kissing and licking, exploring each other’s bodies and whispering inside jokes and love words, smelling their hair and smacking their butt—orgasms I can have all by myself, but not that.”
Other women talked up sex as an opportunity to provide a partner with pleasure. Sarah, who notes that “I’m not really a physical touch person but my husband is,” compared sex to the household tasks her husband performs for her to make her feel loved.4
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