Faking it

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUN 4, 2004

Can I stop him from going by pretending to come?


Dear Cary,

I am an attractive young woman who is married to a man I love and trust very much. I love sharing my life with my husband, coming home and telling stories of our day, cooking dinner together, going on trips together, laughing, bitching, cuddling, hiking, shopping, and having adventures together. ‘Til death do us part.

I also love making love with my husband — though with far less frequency than when we first got together three years ago. But here’s what’s weird: I never have an orgasm. I’ve had sex with several men before my husband and though I also enjoyed sex then — same thing. I can probably count on one hand the number of times that a man has brought me to orgasm at all.

That’s not the real problem, though it’s a problem, to be sure. The problem I want to discuss is the fact that my husband doesn’t know any of this. I mean, I fake it. I always have. Why? Now that I’m with him, a man I can share so many things with — it seems sad and silly. But I faked it when I started having sex in high school because I was in high school and I didn’t know any better. Then I faked it in college because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t actually have an orgasm and it would be just so exhausting to try and I wanted to save guys the effort and the weirdness of having sex with someone who’s never really totally present.

Finally, when I met my husband several years ago, I knew he was different. I didn’t want to lie to him. I faked it early on but convinced myself that I just needed to try harder and to focus more and I could do it. Without involving him. I managed a few times, but far more often, it’s just easier to enjoy sex on the level that I’m accustomed to: enjoying the closeness, the pleasure — but not the intense physical pleasure of orgasm. But then it was too late to tell him. He takes such delight in my pleasure that I can’t imagine what telling him now would do to him and his self-esteem.

Obviously there are a lot of issues here, physiological and psychological ones, like why I’m unable to orgasm with a man (but perfectly able to do so myself) and why I feel the need to fake it. But the real question I want answered is: Is it possible that my marriage is as good as I believe it is? How weighty is this secret, really? Isn’t it possible that — though this does bother me — I am still capable of having a happy, healthy marriage? Or am I in denial that this is always going to be a huge roadblock in our marriage?

I don’t know what to think about this problem, let alone do! Please help!

Cold Fish

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Dear Cold Fish,

First I will try to answer the question you want answered. Then I will try to answer the question you don’t want answered.

I will do this because questions can be a form of control, and if control is part of the problem (as it is in your case), then it’s time to take a little of that control away from you, to tie you up a little, to shush your mouth and find a place in that quick and agile brain of yours for a new and contrary idea.

The question you want answered is: Can your marriage be as good as you think it is, even though you have been deceiving your husband in this way? The answer is yes, it may be as good as you think it is, even with the deception. Your inability to have an orgasm during intercourse with your husband is not necessarily some dark indicator of a fundamental rift, but simply, for the moment, a common physiological fact. It’s one you share with many women. Basically you can stop worrying that failure to come during intercourse means there’s something deeply wrong with your marriage.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something deeply wrong, however — which brings us to the question that you don’t want answered: Is it your role to shield your husband from the truth about you? This is the new and contrary idea that perhaps you don’t want to hear. No, it’s not your role to shield your husband from the truth about you. Such “protection,” however well-intended, is a form of control and disrespect. It is not as benign as you might like to believe. It may have larger implications beyond the bedroom.

It’s easy to understand how you got into this mess. A friend of mine was startled to find, when she took a poll at a dinner party, that she was the only woman there who had never faked an orgasm. She was the only one who even felt that it was a big deal. When she asked a prostitute friend of hers about the issue, she got another interesting fact: “I only fake it when I’m getting paid,” said the prostitute — which has some interesting implications, doesn’t it?

Sex between men and women often begins as mercenary barter in which each party, by seeking maximum pleasure and minimum pain, in effect makes an economic choice to minimize disclosure and maximize deception.

This is true as regards human vanity, in which a man may suck in his belly and a woman hide her thighs; it is true as regards emotional attachment, in which each party maintains the maximum of ambivalence lest unwanted commitments arise; and it is true as regards our desire to appear to be utterly sated, to exaggerate the pleasure we have derived from the encounter.

Why should this last form of deception be so important? It is, but why? Showing the other that we are pleased maximizes our options for repeat encounters. If we show displeasure, we limit our future chances. Furthermore, there is nothing creepier than bad sex, but bad sex is only truly bad sex when it is mutually acknowledged. Even the worst bad sex can be passed off as only mildly bad sex if both parties pretend, with great intensity, that it was really, really great.

So sex itself is far from a raw unpeeling of our true selves; more than many of us care to admit, it involves great deception.

At least that’s how it often is in the beginning, especially between two people who really don’t know each other all that well. As sex progresses, however, in a relationship — and this is what we all know about its legendary capacity — it does have the power to radically strip us of every shred of pretense and bare our souls to each other and to the heavens as nothing else can. So naturally as a sexual relationship progresses, if the heavens do not open and the deception does not fall away but instead endures and indeed, because it must, increases in its variation and virtuosity, then naturally the sense that something is wrong does become sharper with every episode.

What happens, it seems to me, is that the various ways we deceive each other during sex become, after a while, a tool of emotional control in the relationship. Or at least it seems to have become so in your case.

Since women are often assigned the role of emotional caretaker in a relationship, a woman can gain power by “protecting” a man from the truth about her emotions and her body. Men collaborate in this deception by giving women a hard time when the truth is finally told.

We men can change that over time, but it takes work. We need practice in coaxing out the difficult truth and welcoming it, giving it a home, living with it. We need to work at doing this and get better at it so that the great knowledge women harbor becomes more available to us. Women know more than we can ever get out of them, but we have only touched the surface of the reservoir so far. And that is the area in which I believe you are doing your husband a great disservice: You are allowing him to wallow in his ignorance. He deserves the truth.

We all deserve the truth from the women in our lives but we will get it only if we work at it. We have to offer rewards to the women who tell us the truth. No woman wants to tell the truth if it’s met with scorn, resentment, defensiveness or abuse. So we men have to create an environment in which women can and do tell us the truth about how they feel and what they want.

But it’s a 50-50 proposition. And in this case, I think you have to come clean.

The problem with “having a talk” — you know, sitting at the kitchen table all evening drinking tea and trying to “understand” each other — is that talk sometimes makes it worse; it makes the next sexual encounter awkward and fraught with anxiety. So I suggest, though it sounds a little nutty, that you disclose this fact during the act of sex itself. The next time you’re having sex, instead of acting out an orgasm, act out your disclosure with the same thespian enthusiasm; let loose with your confession at the top of your lungs: “I’m not coming! I’m not faking! I’m not coming! I’m not faking!” Don’t interrupt the sex act. If your husband pauses, just say “Harder! Harder!”

Later, when he says, “What the hell was that?” you can tell him, with genuine contrition, that you were afraid all these years that if he knew you weren’t coming he might think you were inadequate, or that he himself was inadequate, and now you know neither one of you is inadequate but that your orgasm could be a goal you could work on together. Now you know your only inadequacy is your fear of losing him. Your only inadequacy was your mistaken belief that you could stop him from going by pretending to come.

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