You know how we’re taught that good kids don’t go for second helpings of food? I carried that training into my sex life
Illustrations by Saloni Goel
A year ago, during a casual conversation with my colleague, I made a joke about faking orgasms. She was shocked that I should have faked an orgasm. I was shocked that she never had. That’s when I started to think about orgasms a whole lot more.
I am not sure when I began faking my orgasms. I do remember that my first sexual experience, when I was 19, was a very lovely one. I am not sure if I had an orgasm (and I can’t remember if I faked one) the very first time, but I enjoyed the sex. Perhaps I did exaggerate the amount that I enjoyed the entire thing, though. I mean, we were seeing each other after six months and had booked a hotel room, and there was so much build-up and investment that I think it seemed imperative that the ‘climax’ was good too. But I do remember one thing clearly from that day: we smoked Cuban cigars later that night, and it made me cough, and I decided that I didn’t like Cuban cigars.
We practiced having sex a lot in the coming days, and it was incredibly enjoyable. Some days more so, and some days less. Some days I checked out midway. Some days I was not so excited by the idea of it, but I went along with it anyway. Some days I orgasmed, some days I wasn’t sure if I did, and some days I certainly didn’t come. Every time, I acted like I did.
The funny thing is my partner was very good to me, and though I don’t know how he would have reacted if I had told him directly that I hadn’t orgasmed, I suspect it wouldn’t have been so bad. But it never occurred to me that that was an option.
I am not sure what exactly put the idea in my head that I could – and should – fake it.
Although I was just beginning to excitedly exploring sex, the truth is I knew very little about it. I remember moving to Delhi from a small town when I was 15 years old. At that time I did not even know how sex worked – the largest and the most relied-on source of what sex was supposed to look like, for me, was Hindi films. The image that sticks most in my mind is that familiar and common close-up of the heroine’s face as the hero smells her neck, and she knits her eyebrows as if she has been given a particularly difficult math sum to solve. As though she is almost in pain, but liking it. I also got my ideas about sex from American TV shows like Gossip Girl and The OC, where teenagers always had racy, wild sex which was edited to fast music.
All the cool girls in Gossip Girl were having a good time, having sex in amazing clothes in the bathrooms at parties they were attending. Or people would start making out, then get into the bedroom, then clothes would be taken off (all with the steamy making out still going on), and then the girl would – that’s right – knit her eyebrows and tilt her head back in pleasure. Then they would get under the sheets. Fade to black.
In my first relationship, I was the one who broached the subject of sex first, I was the one who booked the hotel room, I even bought some cheap red lacy undergarments from the market at Delhi’s GKI. All the good couples on TV were having great sex all the time. So I suppose I wanted to make that my narrative too.
And that is true for all other aspects of my relationships and my life – like most people, I suppose I need to be liked and need to fit in. I choose a popular ideal to strive for, and keep trying to get my life to go according to that script, but that rarely happens. When it’s not about sex, I am aware of the possibility of things going off script. When it comes to sex, though, I know of no in-betweens. In all the movies and TV shows I’ve seen, there has only been amazing sex – the kind that makes people wake up the next day smiling, or the kind where it’s so awful that you have to leave in the middle of the night. There is nothing about the million ways sex can turn out differently every time. So if I had learned from what I was watching that sex has to be had in a certain way, I also learned that if the sex is not good, it’s a total disaster. I didn’t want my relationships to be a total disaster!
Maybe being honest about not orgasming every time I had sex would have been like accepting that my relationship and sexual life were not perfect, and perhaps that’s one reason I didn’t examine what I was doing too much. I was able to be honest with myself about smaller things – like disliking Cuban cigars – but not about the bigger things that really mattered. I remember confessing to my partner that I wasn’t sure I even had an orgasm, because I wasn’t sure if what I was experiencing was an orgasm. He wasn’t particularly disappointed to hear that. But that didn’t make a huge difference to my sexual behaviour.
It’s been many years since that relationship ended. The number of orgasms or the amount of sex is not what I remember, I remember only that it was full of love, it was passionate, it was fun because we were both learning and exploring every day. And most times, even when I didn’t come, I enjoyed sex.
After that I had another partner with whom I had a very good sexual relationship. But that was only at first. He was much less kind. As I got more and more sad in the relationship, I faked orgasms more. By this time I was aware that I was doing it, by this time I knew I wasn’t enjoying myself at all, but I did feel scared of him. I would carefully calculate when it was enough time to say that I was done for it to be convincing enough. This time, the sex was hurting me emotionally, and I knew it, but I faked it (in sex and rest of the relationship) till I couldn’t take it anymore. I wonder if that comes from a gendered conditioning – that women have to be self-effacing and soothe men’s egos. Or maybe it comes from how I had been conditioned about romance – that you don’t give up on love. Well, I did love him, but I wish someone had told me then that you can and should give up on love. I could have saved myself a year of misery.
In my experience of heterosexual sex between cis people, we put a lot of the pressure of performance on the man, and that is unfair. Sex is for the pleasure of both people and the onus of pleasure should be on both people. Like many women I know, I didn’t take responsibility for my own pleasure but relied on the generosity of men, and then blamed them for being selfish in bed. We don’t take our own pleasure seriously, even if we talk the talk of sexual freedom online. When I did not feel much pleasure, I just said to myself, “Aah, it’s okay, it doesn’t matter so much.” But that goes beyond sex for me, and I think it is so for many of us.
I think how we behave in bed has a lot to do with how we are as people. I am mostly mild-mannered and non confrontational. I think I faked orgasms for many years of my sex life only to be polite. I don’t think I was being honest enough with myself, I don’t think I asked for more or better, just in the way I was taught that good kids don’t go for second and third servings of snacks that are served when you go to someone’s house. I carried that training into my sex life until I learned that many women around me were not following the same logic. I realised I was being dishonest about I truly wanted, and I was keeping myself in a lower position than my partner when it came to sexual pleasure.
With casual sexual encounters years down the line, I would still fake my orgasms, but I was able to tell my friends more easily that sex was bad. The language I used was based very heavily on unfair expectations of a guy’s ability to perform. I did not take the initiative to communicate my preferences. In these new, shorter relationships, the stakes were low, and I barely ever orgasmed. I understand now that I enjoy sex more when I have a strong emotional and romantic connection with the person. The more loving aspects of intercourse are pleasurable for me, so casual encounters were not so enjoyable. But by then I had found a new narrative I was trying to fit into: the single-girl-about-town. If I was single and not having sex, or single and trying to date but having not great sex, I would be going off script. Looking back, what I really wanted was to be in love with somebody and for somebody to be in love with me. Instead, I acted as if I was not looking for commitment and I was unbothered by casual sex. I told my friends about all the different boys I was seeing and acted cool about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, but that it was less out of my own heart’s desire and more out of a desire to play the part of a young, cool, single, independent girl in a big city. Maybe the attempts to fit the script, maybe the idea of faking anything – orgasms, happiness, control over our circumstances – comes from the belief that if you act like it for long enough, you can will it into being true.
A year ago, I decided I would stop faking orgasms. Initially in casual sexual encounters, when I was asked if I was done, and I said no, it was followed by disappointment, which was followed by a conversation where I explained why I didn’t orgasm, or don’t always. But it was liberating to tell my straight male partners that they were not ‘killing it’ in bed, and that they were not giving an exam in which only the highest score mattered. That was something I had to unlearn for myself. Sex ends when the guy comes – that’s been another important unlearning for me.
I am now in a relationship that is kind. The sex is great, I don’t fake my orgasms, and we often have conversations about what we like and don’t like. To say, “Yes, more of this!” and “ No, none of that please,” feels so good. I am able to introspect about my own sexualness through our conversations. I am abIe to be truthful – it doesn’t come to me naturally, but I try. I’ve explained to my partner that I experience pleasure on a scale, that I feel pleasure right from the moment I am touched, so not reaching orgasm is not disappointing for me – it is not the ultimate medal. I have had good sex before, but now I am trying to have honest sex, and I must say, I like it very much! It has helped me be honest in other aspects of my relationship with my partner too.
However, my relationship with myself has been tougher to work on. I still, inside and outside of sex, feel unable to ask for more from people. I am an “it’s okay” and “yes, thank you” person – I say these things without thinking. But it’s important to me that I keep working to change this behaviour. The pursuit of the ideal is an unnecessary burden we often carry, and the truth is that we do not just land on the ideal, we arrive at it – or somewhere near it – with some trial and error. It’s like the first time you hold someone in bed: you don’t quite get it right, you need to arrange yourself, move an arm, lift a leg, fix the quilt, shift the pillow, rearrange yourself, and then maybe you will find a position to lie in comfortably. But that, too, will be transient, and you will have to start again to find what suits you. I suppose that, just as in sex, the fun of trying to reshape oneself can lie as much in the process as it does in the finish.
Umang is a film-maker, a delusional optimist and wants to change the world.