Not every sexual encounter is going to be staggering (especially if you fit it in while your kids are watching Netflix in the other room). But if you’ve felt like something’s down in the bedroom – say, uh, your partner looks like she’s acting, and maybe even faking orgasms – a new study suggests it may be because she sees you as uncertain.
For the studypublished today in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science, researchers aimed to find out if women would censor their sexual communication to protect their male partners’ sense of manhood. The answer is a resounding yesaccording to the 152 women they interviewed about their sex lives.
Overall, participants said they had orgasms during 64% of sexual encounters. But when they did not, they imitated orgasms 18% of the time. Those who made more money than their partners – an almost certain way to make a man insecure – were twice as likely as those who did not fake an orgasm (27% of the times they did not have an orgasm compared to 13%). Women who were seen as their partner as fragile masculinity tended not to talk about what they did not like in the bedroom – which, as you might guess, meant that they were much less satisfied with their sex lives.
In many cultures, men feel they have to work hard to earn masculinity – and once they achieve it, they can lose it if they are not careful. The bedroom is one place where uncertainty about masculinity plays – uncertain masculinity, as researchers call it. One 2019 study found, for example, that heterosexual men’s self-esteem and sense of masculinity decline when they imagine that a female partner does not reach orgasm during sex.
Of course, women are just as aware of this: Previous research found that when a woman does not orgasm during sex, she is probably worried about her husband’s ego. The new study confirms exactly how far women are willing to go to protect their partner’s sense of masculinity – and to avoid awkward conversations about bad sex.
“While we already knew that women were aware that this was a cultural issue, this is the first study to my knowledge that looks at whether women participate to help men maintain their masculinity,” says Jessica Jordana doctoral student in psychology at the University of South Florida and the study’s lead researcher.
It’s hard to know why, exactly, women want to protect their male partners’ perception of their masculinity. Jordan suspects for many women, the decision is the result of a cost-benefit analysis: Perhaps it feels better to perform an orgasm than to make a male partner feel threatened (and to avoid the possible outburst of anxiety or dealing with aggression afterwards).
Protecting a male partner’s ego may help at the moment, but it comes at a price. Research suggests that open and honest sexual communication predicts greater sexual satisfaction and more orgasms for women. Fear of speaking has the opposite effect.
“When women withhold sexual feedback and do not want to tell their partners what they prefer, they risk their own sexual gratification in the process,” says Jordan. And while she has not specifically researched the subject, Jordan says it goes without saying that open and honest communication about sex can also benefit other aspects of a romantic relationship.
If you want more honesty (and hopefully more real orgasms), Jordan suggests that you talk to your partner regularly about sexual needs and preferences, before a potential problem arises. After the act, it may even benefit you to ask for feedback from time to time. If your partner airs her grievances, be mindful of how you react to that not-so-flattering feedback. Even though it’s bad to hear, it was probably difficult or even frightening for her to speak, Jordan says.
Society does not exactly make it easy to separate masculinity from wonderful sex, so it is up to you to decide not to accept criticism as a threat. If this is difficult to do, it does not hurt to ask a therapist for support, or at least to take more time to reflect on why bedroom suggestions feel so earth-shattering. Asking difficult questions about your sex life can feel vulnerable to both partners. But hopefully more conversations cultivate more intimacy – both in and out of the bedroom.