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Faking it

Emily Thomas

Master’s student Emily Thomas’s research explores desire, consent and harmful sexual norms. Photo: Clifton Li.

When talking about troubling sexual encounters, some women mention faking sexual pleasure to speed up their male partner’s orgasm and ultimately end sex.

This is one of the findings of a qualitative study led by Emily Thomas, Ryerson master of arts student in clinical psychology, part of a larger study on women’s accounts of feigning sexual pleasure conducted by Monika Stelzl and Michelle Lafrance at St. Thomas University.

“Participants were initially recruited to talk about feigning sexual pleasure in the context of consensual sexual encounters,” said Thomas. “It was very surprising to us that all of the participants spoke explicitly of faking an orgasm to end at least one negative or unwanted sexual experience. Moreover, they described the experience not using the explicit language of rape or coercion, despite the fact that several descriptions could be categorized as such.”

As part of the study, 15 women (aged 19 -28) who had been sexually active for at least one year were interviewed about their experiences of feigning sexual pleasure. Despite being recruited to talk about consensual sex, all women spoke explicitly of at least one negative sexual experience. Interviews were analyzed to explore how these women negotiated and accounted for experiences of problem sex in the context of exaggerating sexual pleasure and faking orgasm.

Analysis showed that the women often employed indirect or roundabout ways of describing negative experiences, using terms such as “bad” to describe sex that was at times unwanted, non-pleasurable and/or painful. The women spoke of faking orgasm as a means to ending these troubling sexual encounters. In other words, faking orgasm provided a solution for ending sex they didn’t feel comfortable ending any other way.

“The research highlights some very interesting cultural issues, such as why women may consent to sex they don’t desire,” Thomas said. “It also highlights dominant and widely accepted norms such as the ‘appropriate’ way to end a sexual encounter. Finally, it points to the lack of available language to describe women’s experiences that acknowledges, names and confronts the issues women spoke of in our interviews. On a societal level, we need to address this lack of language and to engage in a conversation that promotes open, safe and honest sexual experiences for both partners.”

Thomas is conducting her work as part of Ryerson’s Sexuality Hub: Integrating Feminist Theory (SHiFT) Lab, under the supervision of Maria Gurevich, lab director and psychology professor. The SHiFT Lab examines the cultural, medical and political forces that shape sexual meanings and practices. A key focus is the role of specific sexual technologies—sexuopharmaceuticals, pornography, digital dating and sexual expert advice — in changing conceptions of sexual normalcy and satisfaction.

“Ms. Thomas’s research is timely as it shows how culturally circulating messages about what constitutes satisfying sex interacts with people’s sexual experiences,” said Gurevich. “Medicine, marketing and media act as key conduits for the transmission of such messages about sexual health and satisfaction. This research, and other studies undertaken by the SHiFT lab, can stimulate broader conversations about changing sexual scripts, consent and desire beyond simple dichotomies about normalcy and health.”

The paper, entitled Faking to finish: Women's accounts of feigning sexual pleasure to end unwanted sex is in press with Sexualities (SAGE Publications). It was co-written with Monika Stelzl and Michelle Lafrance of St. Thomas University, and presented earlier this summer at the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Women annual conference in Windsor, United Kingdom. Funding for this research was provided by a St. Thomas University research grant.