Not every sexual encounter is going to be mind-blowing (especially when you’re fitting it in while your kids watch Netflix in the other room). But if you’ve been feeling like something’s off in the bedroom — say, uh, your partner seems like she’s acting, and maybe even faking orgasms — a new study suggests it could be because she sees you as insecure.
For the study, published today in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers set out to find out whether women would censor their sexual communication to protect their male partners’ sense of masculinity. The answer is a resounding yes, according to the 152 women they surveyed about their sex lives.
Overall, participants said they orgasmed during 64% of sexual encounters. But when they didn’t, they faked orgasms 18% of the time. Those who made more money than their partners — a near surefire way to make a man insecure — were twice as likely as those who didn’t to fake an orgasm (27% of the times they didn’t orgasm compared to 13%). Women who were considered their partner to have fragile masculinity tended not to speak up about what they didn’t like in the bedroom — which, as you could guess, meant they were far less satisfied with their sex lives.
In many cultures, men feel they have to work hard to earn masculinity — and once they attain it, that they can lose it if they’re not careful. The bedroom is one place where insecurity about masculinity — precarious manhood, as researchers call it — plays out. One 2019 study found, for example, that heterosexual men’s self-esteem and sense of masculinity plummet when they imagine a female partner not reaching orgasm during sex.
Women are, of course, just as aware of this: Previous research has found that when a woman doesn’t orgasm during sex, she’s likely to be concerned about her man’s ego. The new study confirms exactly how far women are willing to go to protect their partner’s sense of masculinity — and avoid awkward conversations about bad sex.
“While we already knew women were aware this was a cultural issue, this is the first study to my knowledge that looks at whether women participate in helping men maintain their masculinity,” says Jessica Jordan, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Southern Florida and the study’s lead researcher.
It’s hard to know why, exactly, women want to protect their male partners’ perception of their manhood. Jordan suspects for many women, the decision is a result of a cost-benefit analysis: Maybe it feels better to perform an orgasm than to make a male partner feel threatened (and to deal with the potential fallout of anxiety or aggression after the fact).
Protecting a male partner’s ego might help in the moment, but it comes at a cost. Research suggests that open and honest sexual communication predicts greater sexual satisfaction and more orgasms for women. Fear of speaking up has the opposite effect.
“When women withhold sexual feedback, and they don’t want to tell their partners what they prefer, they risk their own sexual satisfaction in the process,” Jordan says. And although she hasn’t researched the topic specifically, Jordan says it stands to reason that open and honest communication about sex could benefit other aspects of a romantic relationship too.
If you want more honesty (and hopefully, more actual orgasms), Jordan suggests talking with your partner about sexual needs and preferences frequently, before a potential issue arises. After the act, it might even benefit you to ask for feedback every once in a while. If your partner airs her grievances, be mindful about how you respond to that not-so-flattering feedback. Even if it sucks to hear, it was probably tough or even anxiety-inducing for her to speak up, Jordan says.
Society doesn’t exactly make it easy to separate manhood from amazing sex, so it’s up to you to decide not to take critiques as a threat. If that’s hard to do, it doesn’t hurt to ask a therapist for support, or at least take more time to reflect on why bedroom suggestions feel so earth-shattering. Asking tough questions about your sex life can feel vulnerable for both partners. But hopefully, more conversations breed more intimacy — both in and out of the bedroom.
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