In a recent episode of "I Am Cait," newly out trans woman Caitlyn Jenner receives a lesson in faking it—the “it,” of course, being an orgasm. Though the workshop included participants of different genders, the implication of a transgender woman learning the intricacies of convincingly faking pleasure were clear: As TMZ succinctly put it, “Caitlyn Jenner is learning what it means to be a woman.”
In our culture, female sexuality is deeply entangled with a presumption of deceit. When women aren’t being accused of faking our orgasms, we’re assumed to be lying about the nature of our ejaculation or misleading the world about our virginity or, in the most chilling instances, putting forth false accusations of rape.
The message is clear: When it comes to sex, women just can’t be trusted. Caitlyn Jenner isn’t the only woman presumed to be faking an orgasm—men’s magazines are full of tips for how to turn sexual pleasure into a criminal investigation by surveying your partner’s every bodily response to detect whether she really came. Presumptions of female infidelity led to the development of the paternity test (which, in turn, led to an entire genre of television). And dozens of women had to come forward before anyone would believe Bill Cosby might be a rapist—an assertion, it should be noted, some still deny.
No matter what firsthand experience women might bring to the table, it’s almost never considered indisputable proof. But why is the female experience of sex considered suspect? Where did this distrust originate? Are there real reasons not to believe what women say about what happens between the sheets—or is this inherent assumption of female deceit merely one more sign of our culture’s deeply ingrained sexism?
Perhaps the most obvious explanation for this suspicion involves the female body itself, which—unlike our primate cousins—does not readily reveal information about its sexual status.
While chimpanzees and bonobos advertise their fertility through visibly swollen genitals, human females experience concealed ovulation. Our bodies mask their readiness for impregnation from the world—and, in many cases, from us, as an entire industry of apps and gadgets devoted to tracking fertility makes clear.
Then there are the physical differences between human men and women. While male arousal is often signified by a noticeable erection, female lubrication and labial engorgement aren’t exactly easy to detect. And when it comes to orgasm, common wisdom tells us that the male orgasm reveals itself through the expulsion of semen from the penis, while female orgasm runs its course leaving no physical evidence behind. In pornography, male pleasure is signified through the ever-present come shot, while female performers writhe and moan to communicate their enjoyment to the camera. Female orgasm requires theatrical embellishment because, unlike its male equivalent, it is not self-evident.
“Questions exist because there’s not a ready source of answers,” says Hanne Blank, a scholar who has spent decades researching the cultural history of sex and penned numerous books on the topic. Compared to men, she told me, women’s sexual responses lack a “superficial physical transparency.”
And so, in the absence of obvious information about female sexuality, society creates its own answers and explanations to make sense of its confusion, developing just-so stories about the role female pleasure plays in conception, or what the circumference of the female neck says about sexual purity. Sometimes, these explanations involve stories of feminine deceit.
But can our biology alone explain our culture’s persistent suspicion of women’s sexual experiences? Of course not. And even our biology isn’t as straightforward as we usually assume—after all, consider the fact that some men are able to orgasm without ejaculating, while women whose erotic climax includes squirting or vigorous vaginal contractions might not agree with the notion that their bodies offer no physical “proof” of their pleasure.
We believe what we’ve been conditioned to believe—including, perhaps most dangerously, the idea that women are inherently chaste beings whose sexuality exists solely for the benefit of a husband, says Chris Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships.
This fallacy has set the stage for generations of women to conceal their sexual urges.
For centuries, cultural assumptions that women are “naturally” pure have forced us to curtail our natural sexual response, reshaping our desires into something more socially acceptable. Even today, many young girls are taught to see their sexuality as someone else’s property, an item to be jealously guarded by their fathers until it is passed on to their husbands–a transaction symbolically represented by purity balls, promise rings, and, of course, the white wedding.
When your sexuality is considered the property of your socially sanctioned mate—a mate to whom you may not always be attracted—it can be difficult to truly feel in touch with your own arousal and orgasmic response. If your sexual response is only “supposed to” be triggered by your husband’s touch, sexual urges that occur outside the marital bedroom can be confusing and off-putting, rather than a pleasure to be explored. And if you never feel desire for that socially sanctioned mate, you might easily convince yourself that sexual pleasure simply isn’t something that you’re capable of—or that your sexual frustration is a medical condition, rather than a basic human experience.
“Women have been forced into a position where they’re out of touch with their biological response, because the culture’s been so prohibitive against it," Ryan says. When women aren’t allowed to honestly explore their sexuality, or even learn the workings of their bodies through masturbation, how can they be expected to understand how their bodies work?
And it doesn’t help matters that a number of prominent voices in psychology, sexology, and medicine have conditioned us to believe that female sexuality is far less straightforward than male sexuality. Blank notes that respected scholars—including pioneering sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose twentieth century writings offered early scientific perspectives on homosexuality and transgender identity—have upheld the idea that female sexuality is in greater need of deciphering than male sexuality, reinforcing the notion of the male experience as “normal” in the process.
When male sexuality is considered self-evident, there’s no room for deceit. We simply “assume that whatever any given man does is what men do,” Hanne Blank told me. The comparative opacity of female sexuality renders women capable of deception—and thus assumed to be deceiving. “Women’s sexuality becomes that thing that must constantly be examined and questioned and validated or invalidated."
This isn’t merely an academic rhetoric. Anyone who’s engaged in heterosexual sex is likely familiar with the dynamic of “complicated” female sexuality versus the “simple” male counterpart. The more primed we are to see women’s sexual experiences as a source of confusion, the more readily we assume that they offer the potential for deception.
And then there’s the fact that, in some cases, women do lie about sex.
Therese Shechter, director of the award-winning documentary How to Lose Your Virginity, points out that, in some situations, honesty about one’s sexual experiences isn’t the best policy. In societies where women are held to unrealistic standards of sexual behavior—and severely punished if they don’t adhere to them—lying about sex can be a woman’s only way of ensuring her safety. Muslim women growing up in the United States or Europe may be raised with more lax attitudes toward premarital sex; if they wind up in a more traditional Muslim marriage, faking virginity might be an act of self-preservation.
Of course, this line of thinking is less about some feminine tendency toward deceit and more about the unfair, and often unwinnable, situation that women find themselves in when they’re expected to be sexy but not sexual, available yet chaste, madonnas who still know the tricks of the whore.
Male desire to control female sexuality has led to a plethora of strategies designed to “prove” whether a woman’s sexual response, or sexual purity, is as genuine as she claims: Vaginal lubrication is deemed an indisputable sign of arousal and interest, bleeding upon penetration becomes required proof of virginity, and a woman’s sexual past is presumed to have bearing on her ability to be sexually assaulted.
But these strategies are often based more on wishful thinking than biological fact, which can place women in an uncomfortable position. As Shechter explains, “One of the reasons [some] men think women are lying about their sexual histories is because the tests that men have devised to determine [facts about female sexuality] don’t make any sense, so the results of the test don’t actually tell them what they need to know.”
Some of these “tests” can be quite literal. In many parts of the world—including Turkey, India, Egypt, and South Africa—virginity tests are not uncommon. Even in America, the idea that virginity can be physically “proven” remains popular: Witness the story of Elizabeth Raine, a 27-year-old medical student who put her virginity up for auction, promising physical evidence of her purity to the highest bidder.
The fundamental problem? These tests are often based on the incorrect assumption that a vagina that has yet to be penetrated by a penis will have an “intact” hymen, and will thus bleed upon first intercourse. And yet that’s far from true. Not only is the hymen as most people understand it a myth, but whether or not a woman has an “intact” one offers little clarity about whether or not she’s engaged in penetrative sex.
And yet, when a woman who hasn’t engaged in penetrative sex doesn’t have a hymen, or fails to bleed during her first sexual experience, she’s the one perceived (by her partner, her family, or potentially the entire internet) to be at fault—not the faulty test.
If an Egyptian woman—whose life might be at risk should she fail to shed the telltale blood on her wedding night—opts to use an artificial hymen, or have her labia stitched up by a doctor, in the hopes of “proving” something that’s actually true, is she really “lying,” or merely taking precautions to pass a ludicrous test that holds women to an impossible standard?
“When we’re calling women liars, by and large what we’re doing is blaming the victim,” says Ryan. “Women have spent thousands of years being literally executed for openly expressing their sexuality. We call them witches, we call them whores, we call them sluts.” When the stakes are so high (and sometimes, literal stakes), is it any surprise that women would sacrifice honesty in pursuit of safety?
In a society where men retain power over women, there is strong incentive for women to lie to protect their reputations, their physical safety, or even their lives—and for men, in response, to suspect them of deceit. So how, then, do we fix it? How do we—in the words of so many feminist activists—teach the world to trust women?
One approach might be to explore men’s sexual responses and experiences as rigorously as we do women’s. “We can make a concerted effort to question everybody’s sexuality and to pry it apart,” Blank suggests. “What is it doing, who is it doing it for, what purposes does it serve, how does it work?”
Treating men’s sexuality as a worthwhile topic of inquiry, and researching the complexities, nuances, and mysteries that exist across genders, can help to chip away at the notion of women in particular as a source of confusion and deceit. If we see each other as individual people, rather than representatives of an entire sex, we can dispense with gendered generalizations and learn the truth of each other’s sexual experiences, and sexual responses, straight from the source.
And on an individual level? “Refusing to play the game is a very fine strategy,” Blank says—and indeed, it may be the most viable one there is, at least when it comes to sexual pleasure.
In a world where women are primed to lose, why seek out external validation for deeply personal experiences? If no one believes your pleasure is real, the sanest response may be to stop trying to “prove” it. Ultimately, the most important part of a woman’s sexual experience is how good it feels to her, and not what anyone else may think of it—and the more we can keep that in mind, the better off we all will be.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.