I recently finished reading The Sex Myth by Rachael Hills. While the book was fascinating, there was one particular idea that I’m still pondering ages after the final page has been turned. This was the concept of the Performance of Pleasure.
In the book, the author suggests that people, women in particular, feel pressured to perform pleasure. By that, she means that during sexual activity women feel obliged to act as though they are enjoying themselves, with a series of facial expressions, moans and bodily cues, even if they aren’t truly as turned on as their performance would suggest they are. This performance is seen as an integral part of sex, and so many women don’t even realise that they are doing it.
This chapter hit me like a punch in the stomach. When I read those words, I realised how true they were for me, and that I was one of those women who puts on a sensual performance in bed, completely unaware that that’s what I was doing. I don’t always do it though, there are times when I’m completely caught up in the excitement that I lose myself and the curtain is dropped. But there have definitely been times when I’ve pretended to be more aroused or excited than I actually am, particularly when engaging with a new partner. I’m not talking about faking orgasms here. What I’m talking about is a subtle tweaking of my body language and verbal cues to suggest that sex is having a stronger effect on me than it truly is. It’s not even a deliberate act, it’s something that I’ve learned to do over time, to encourage my partner and to avoid causing offence.
I think back to one of my first sexual experiences with a partner. I am with my first serious boyfriend in my bedroom. Nirvana is playing on my stereo and a half hour of kissing and touching has turned to heavy petting. My boyfriend and I have partially undressed and he is using his fingers to play with my labia. It’s the first time anyone other than me has touched this part of my body and it feels strange. Good, but strange. I’m getting over the self-consciousness of letting another person be this intimate with my body. I’m anxious about my parents hearing us, and I’m enjoying the new sensations and being close to someone I care this much about. After a while, it’s time for us to part so that my boyfriend can head home.
On the phone that same night, we talked about our experiments from earlier. My boyfriend asks “Did you enjoy yourself?” and I assured him that I had. His response confused me “It’s just….it didn’t seem like you were enjoying yourself”. I asked why he thought that, and he responded that I hadn’t made much noise, and I hadn’t given much of a physical indication that I was feeling pleasure. After our conversation, I considered this carefully.
There was no doubt in my mind that I’d enjoyed his touches. Although I hadn’t been close to orgasm, it felt lovely and I definitely wanted more. And it’s true that I had been quiet, but that was partially because I was very aware that my parents were in the house and also….it hadn’t felt good enough for me to make any involuntary noises. I was worried because I didn’t want my boyfriend to think that I wasn’t having fun. And I certainly didn’t want to be one of those girls who just “lay there”. I wanted to make sure that our sex was good.
And so the next time we played together, I kept this in mind. When he touched me I let out a little whimper of pleasure, and saw him smile. I ran my hands through his hair and used my nails to claw at his skin, as though I was ravenous with desire. I arched my back and bit my lip. Even though I was relatively inexperienced, I knew how to act out this pleasure because I’d seen so many films and television shows that portrayed this performance. I knew which marks to hit, which noises to make to indicate that I was having fun.
The important thing to note here is that I genuinely was enjoying myself. His hands on my body felt good, great even. But they weren’t making me as turned on as I appeared to be. But he seemed more satisfied this time that he’d shown me a good time.
Over time, these little nuances became a part of my sexual repertoire. They weren’t even a conscious act, just a few tweaks that I’d throw in to show that I was enjoying myself. As I said earlier, they were more about encouraging a partner, indicating that something felt good, than actually pretending. But now that I’m writing about it, it feels dishonest. It feels wrong and shameful, like faking an orgasm. And yet, on occasion when I’d drop the act, I had partners ask me if I was enjoying myself, if they were doing the right thing.
I got to thinking also about why these responses to sexual touch were expected. Why my boyfriends (always boyfriends) seemed to believe that a single touch in a particular spot should make me weak and the knees and gasping for breath. And I think I have the answer. It’s a vicious cycle really. When blokes are inexperienced in the sexual realm, their main sources of reference for sex and porn and films that feature sex scenes. And on the screen, the women who are being pleasured are usually very vocal, and tend to show their pleasure with overt body language. This is because it’s what looks good, what is entertaining and exciting on the screen. And when these boys touch a real women for the first time, they expect her to react like that. And if their partner has learned that performing pleasure is an important part of sex, then his expectations are confirmed. And if she doesn’t…..then he feels like he’s done the wrong thing or his partner hasn’t enjoyed herself.
So we’re all cheating ourselves with this cycle of expectation and anxiety. Women are cheating themselves out of an honest sexual experience and men are cheating themselves out of the opportunity to genuinely enjoy their partner’s pleasure. I believe that the time has come to be gentle with ourselves and our partners, and drop the act. Be vocal about what you enjoy and get into the habit of telling your partner what you want in bed. Learn to communicate honestly and openly in your relationships and be genuine in your sexual expression. It’s not something that can be done easily or quickly, but I think looking at our own behaviour and admitting to ourselves if we are performing pleasure is the first step to a better sex life and more genuine sexual relationships.
Huh, I never really thought about it. I guess I just assume that if my partner doesn’t like what is happening they’ll tell me and if I ask and they say they had a good time then I just accept that. I never thought I was odd for doing that but if people feel they have to put on a show and it’s a discussion point in a book I guess it is. I think I would be unhappy with the show. If my partner makes noises or screams or whatever, I want it to be real.
That’s fair enough, and I think that a lot of people would feel disappointed if they realised that their partner was performing for them. But the thing I find most interesting is that this performance of pleasure seems to be an ingrained part of female sexuality in our culture. And that a lot of women don’t even realise that they’re doing it.