Meg Ryan did it so convincingly - and hilariously - in When Harry Met Sally. Cynthia Nixon pulled it off with panache in Sex and the City. But should you try 'faking it' at home?
The answer suggested by a recent study: if you're trying to convince your partner that his or her sexual performance is more satisfying than it actually is, you may be wasting your dramatic talents.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario asked 84 committed heterosexual couples to come into their lab and answer written questionnaires about both their own levels of sexual satisfaction and that of their partners. When they compared self-reports of satisfaction to partners' perceptions of satisfaction, they were a little surprised to find that, on average, both sexes were fairly good at gauging their partners' sexual satisfaction.
"The results don't necessarily speak to 'faking it' per se, in terms of faking orgasm," says lead author Erin Fallis, a doctoral student in the department of psychology's clinical division. "But they do help us understand how well people do at gauging, is their partner generally fairly satisfied with their sexual relationship - or maybe not so satisfied with that sexual relationship?"
The correlation between the self-reports of satisfaction and the partner's estimated reports was .67 when men were doing the estimating and .66 when women were doing the estimating, Fallis says. Perfect correlation would be 1.00. The study found that people who reported better sexual communication with their partners had more accurate perceptions of their partners' satisfaction.
But even when sexual communication within the relationship was poor, those with good emotional recognition fared better in gauging their partners' satisfaction. The study was published this spring in the journal Archives of Sexual Behaviour. Earlier research had suggested that people overestimate partners' satisfaction. Fallis and her co-authors cite a study reported in the 1994 book The Social Organisation of Sexuality, in which 28.6 percent of women reported always experiencing orgasm with their primary partners, but 43.5 percent of men reported that their primary partners always experienced orgasm with them. Among the possible explanations for the discrepancy: men might be misinterpreting their partners' sexual cues, they might be over reporting a desirable outcome, or the women might be successfully faking orgasm.
A British study, published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy in 2000, found that 69.9 percent of men reported themselves sexually satisfied, while 78.2 percent of women reported their partners were sexually satisfied. Men were better at reading their partners: 82.9 percent of men reported their partners were sexually satisfied, while 79.5 percent of women said they actually were sexually satisfied.
Those studies looked at individuals, rather than couples, and the first looked at orgasm, rather than the broader concept of sexual satisfaction. "We looked at slightly different things, and we were looking at slightly different research questions," says Fallis, adding that the new findings are encouraging. "Overall, we were finding that people are fairly accurate and unbiased."
What's next? The next question for the authors of the University of Waterloo's study on sexual satisfaction and perception: "Does an accurate perception of your partner's sexual satisfaction bode well for your sex life?" They're doing follow-up research in which they are looking at how the couples in their study fared in the bedroom.
"Couples tend to have a sexual script; we tend to develop patterns and routines with our sexual partners, especially in long-term relationships," says lead author Erin Fallis. "What we're predicting is that having those accurate and unbiased perceptions of your partner's satisfaction will help you make decisions about whether you might want to try something new, or maybe stick with your current sexual routine. Having that information will hopefully (improve) your sexual satisfaction over time."
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