I frequently faked my orgasms when I first started having sex. Part of me just liked to stroke someone else’s ego — I’m a kiss-up in bed. Another part of me just wanted the incessant jackhammering to be over.
One night, I was having sex with a guy who I had just met. I was annoyed that he begged me not to use a condom. I became even more annoyed once I realized that he was waiting for me to moan for him. I wanted the sex to be over, so I faked an orgasm, writhing and gasping in the way that I know I do when I actually climax.
My more sensible self should have known it would be suspicious if I had an orgasm out of nowhere, but I faked it anyway because I was bored. Afterward, he asked me if I actually came; I told him I did not.
It would be an understatement to say he did not react positively, but I still didn’t expect him to be as upset as he was. Since men often come quickly and easily, it’s a woman’s prerogative to fake it every now and then, if only to let him off easy. At least I was doing him (and the rest of his sexual endeavors) a favor when I told him the truth. The mindless jackhammering doesn’t actually feel that great.
Still, it hurt my feelings when he raised his voice at me. He said if I was going to fake it, then I should at least have the decency to lie when he asked me if it was real. The implication was that I should have just protected his ego at the end of the night. For some reason, this made me feel unbearably guilty: Sex with men like him always seemed to be about their egos.
When I think back on sexual experiences like these, I don’t typically recall how good or bad the sex was. All that comes to mind is this immense pressure to perform. Performing in bed means looking a certain way, acting a certain way, sounding a certain way. It means doing all of these things regardless of whether you mean it or not.
For me, this pressure is rooted in an incredible investment in my partner’s pleasure. I like to make my partners feel good because it makes me feel beautiful and powerful. But at an even more fundamental level, I care just because that’s the way I am.
Caring takes a lot of work. Even outside of the bedroom, I am always doing the bulk of the free and invisible emotional labor in my relationships. Arlie Hochschild, a professor emerita of sociology at UC Berkeley, coined the term “emotional labor,” describing it as inducing or suppressing feelings in order to make the people around you more comfortable.
Doing this work doesn’t just mean remembering birthdays or setting up dates; it means being attuned to other people’s emotions, sharing their struggles and thinking of how they might feel if you did something for them. In bed, it doesn’t just mean being the first to give oral. For me, it means making myself sound a little hotter right before my partner climaxes. Or, it means faking an orgasm because I don’t want to have sex anymore but don’t want to hurt a guy’s feelings.
Performing emotional labor entails being thoughtful and open, which are qualities that aren’t traditionally associated with men. This does not mean, however, that men should be let off the hook when it comes to performing emotional labor. Nor should men be applauded when they do. Every meaningful relationship is a two-way street that requires all parties to be just as thoughtful and open as I strive to be.
The gender expectations that come with emotional labor have trickled into the lives of the women I know. I act as the impromptu therapist for my friends with male partners who don’t do enough. At the dinner table, my mother initiates a conversation with my father, who doesn’t hear her because his nose is buried in a newspaper. My sister plans a detailed vacation trip to Japan for my family and bursts into tears when we are all in Tokyo because she is stressed about making good family memories.
Women are expected to be nurturers. They’re the glue in romantic and familial relationships, fixated on everyone else’s satisfaction but their own. They disavow their own pleasures, oftentimes, for those of a man. And they do it silently, wistfully, without gratitude.
These performances of emotional labor and the expectations that come with them have worn me down.When cracks in my performance surfaced, I found myself too tired to fix them — too tired to explain my tears, too tired to do the work for someone else. Constantly doing things for others left me with little desire to pursue anything for myself in my relationships. Recently, I came to the conclusion that it isn’t my responsibility as a woman to carry someone else’s weight.
I won’t fake anything anymore. I’ve swapped out my performances for honesty — so yes, I will tell you if I did not orgasm in bed. More importantly, I won’t stroke your shoulder or offer a half-smile when I deliver this news.
Laura Nguyen writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected]