Faking It? New Sex Study May Rat You Out

Sex Survey Finds Surprising Changes Between the Sheets in America


Oct. 4, 2010—

The infmaous faked orgasm scene in "When Harry Met Sally" apparently still resonates with couples.

Now, an Indiana University survey has come along to put some confirming data on the faked orgasm phenomenon. Published Monday in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, the survey found that 85 percent of men said their partners climaxed during the most recent sex act, while 64 percent of women reported they actually did.

"There's this massive gap between men's perception and women's reality," says Debby Herbenick, co-author of the research and associate director at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the university. "It shows a lack of communication between partners, either by women faking it, or by men not asking or noticing if their partner [climaxed]."

The survey, which drew on data from nearly 6,000 participants between the ages of 14 and 94, covered a wide range of sexual behaviors, sexual health practices and sexual perceptions, and according to the center, it was the largest nationally representative survey on sexual health ever performed.

It's worth noting, however, that the survey was sponsored by the makers of Trojan condoms, which had some influence over the design of questions, particularly those covering condom use.

"Our primary goal was to capture contemporary sexual behavior. One of the frustrating things in sexual research up to this point is that the best data is from the early 1990s, and a lot has obviously changed since then," says Herbenick.

The new research offers a glimpse of what's going on between the sheets for Americans today and provides not only a wide range of information on sexual behavior but also how these behaviors shift over time.

As for the perceptual gap regarding female orgasm, this finding confirms past research on the subject, as well as cultural perceptions, says sex expert Pepper Schwartz.

"I think its a combination of people being too embarrassed to work out an issue or too careful about shaking up the system by giving accurate feedback. Men take a lot of pride in 'giving' a woman an orgasm ... so in the beginning, faking it could be about encouragement."

The Wide World of Getting It On

Teens are doing it, octogenarians are doing it, and if this national survey shows anything, it's that everyone's getting it on in one way or another. Some of the most striking findings among the Indiana University team had to do with the prevalence of certain sexual behaviors that had not been as frequently revealed in previous data. For instance, in the new survey, it was found that men performed oral sex almost as frequently as they received it, says Michael Reece, co-author of the study and faculty member at the Kinsey Institute.

"It hasn't really been part of our cultural script for a while, this idea that men are giving oral sex close to the amount that they receive it, but it looks like that's really changing," he says.

Flying Solo

Reece also believes that the survey's masturbation data for men, which show frequent solo masturbation throughout life, should help dispel some anxieties. "It's a normalizing thing for society to realize how prevalent it is," he says.

For most men of almost all ages, the percent who had pleasured themselves in the past month hovered around 60 percent, a number that declined to about 30 percent for those over 70.

"If I've heard that once from women, I've heard it a thousand times: "Why does he have to do that? Why aren't I enough?" says Schwartz, who is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "I try to tell them that you can like a five-course meal, but sometimes you want a snack. Wanting to [masturbate] says nothing about the quality or sexiness of the relationship, and these stats are a great way to say, 'See, it's OK.'"

Women were slightly less likely to give themselves a hand at any given point during their lives but still masturbated in substantial numbers. Nearly half of women in their 20s had masturbated alone in the past month, and this prevalence declined slowly to 20 percent for women in their 60s.

Calling in Sexual Backup

Anal sex was another big surprise for researchers, with many more survey participants, especially those in long-term, committed relationships, incorporating this sexual practice into their bedroom lives.

"In the early 1990s, about 20 to 25 percent of people had reported ever having anal sex," Herbenick says, "but now we find as much as 40 percent, and more than that for men and women in their 20s and 30s."

On the surface this stat shows that many couples are experimenting more and widening their sexual repertoire, Schwartz says, but it also highlights the need for more public health education about this sexual practice.

"If you're interested in experimentation, sooner or later you get to the anus. It's a sexy place, but it's a dangerous place as well and can increase the risk for bacterial, viral and sexually transmitted infections when incorporated into sex."

Those in the public health sphere "can't afford to be prissy about it," says Schwartz, "because it's not everyone's favorite thing to talk about."

Changing Landscape of Sex

So what has changed in America to influence some of these shifts in sexual behavior? Researchers can only speculate for now, but Herbenick says that the Internet plays an obvious role in how Americans perceive and become educated about sex.

Easier access to pornography as well as accurate and inaccurate information on sexual practices online has blown open the discussion of sex, allowing those young and old to learn about different sexual practices and techniques, and to learn more about sexual health. What was once relegated to a gym class "facts of life" discussion is now readily available (with pictures and possibly video) online, she says.

That doesn't mean this country doesn't need better public health education about sex, experts say. More people are using condoms, for example, but they still play a part in only one in three sexual acts, and many of those remaining two acts could benefit from condom use, Reece says. There are still many lessons yet to be learned about proper safety and communication during sex.