Since the story of Adam and Eve, women have been stereotyped as the inherently deceptive sex, particularly when it comes to matters involving sex. Obviously, that image of women is both false and damaging, but author Lux Alptraum argues in her new book, Faking It: The Lies Women Tell about Sex — And the Truths They Reveal, that it's equally simplistic to deny that women do tell lies about sex.
Instead, Alptraum analyzes the way women lie about everything from the orgasms they're having and the number of sex partners they've had. She explores the way women tend to have very good reasons for the lies they tell and asks readers to think beyond snap moral judgments and take a look at the larger social traps women are put in that make them feel lying is necessary at all.
I spoke with Alptraum recently about our gendered assumptions about truth and lies, the paradox of sexually experienced purity, and, of course, faking it in bed.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I remember you telling me about this book proposal at a party a couple years ago, and I thought it was fascinating. Why did you want to focus on the topic of stereotypes about women being liars or fakes?
I was really starting to notice this pattern of women being called liars, usually when it had to do with their sex or dating lives. When I first started thinking about this topic, I was really convinced that women probably weren't lying. We were just getting a bad rap.
As I investigated it, I found that it was a lot more complicated. What was actually happening was not that women were never lying — which is a really overly general and broad statement that kind of robs women of our humanity — but rather that women were often put in positions where we had no choice but to lie, either because we weren't being believed or lying was necessary for our safety.
Then because we were being forced to lie, those lies have been used to fuel this falsehood that women are inherently untrustworthy.
Although I was working on this before the election, I was wrapping up a proposal right before the actual election. When Donald Trump won, it just really hit home how much people have bought into this idea that women can't be trusted.
Because that was so close to when I actually started writing the book, Hillary Clinton was really top of mind. This is what happens when we believe that women are lying. Women who are fundamentally honest get slapped with this.
With men, it's usually the opposite, like you see with Brett Kavanaugh, where he absolutely lied. But then we want to believe men, so he gets put on the Supreme Court. Now that he's on the Supreme Court we hear, “Oh well, he can't be a liar because he's on the Supreme Court.”
With men, their lies are ignored, because we want to believe them. They’re put in positions where we just reaffirm their trustworthiness, because of the positions that we put them in. Women are put in positions where we are forced to lie, and then that is used against us to confirm this idea that we can't be trusted and should never be believed.
This idea that women are basically forced to lie is certainly going to challenge a lot of readers, but I think it's well-argued. For instance, you have a couple of chapters, one about virginity and one about sexual experience generally, about the lies women tell about their sexual histories. Why do women feel like they have to lie about their sexual histories?
The standard, in relationships especially, is this expectation that you simultaneously be amazing at sex, but also never have had sex. That's not feasible. Generally speaking, you only get good at something with practice, and sex is one of those things.
Women who want to be good at sex will go out and get practice, and then kind of hedge about how they happen to get their sexual skills, because they don't want to be the undateable woman. That's part of why you have these hedges, like technical virginity or this idea that oral sex doesn't count. Women want this freedom to get some experience, to be this supposed “ideal partner,” but then they want to also have a way of still presenting their identities as dateable or marriageable or not a slut.
With virginity, it's even more punishing, especially in cultures where purity is often violently enforced. Sometimes, if you look at places like Egypt, and having your virginity or at least the appearance of your virginity is literally a life or death matter for some women.
That one can also be even more fraught, because virginity is so often “proven” by the hymen. Not only can the hymen be destroyed by activities that have nothing to do with sex, but some people just don't even have a hymen that conforms to the expectations to begin with.
I'm very sympathetic to someone who is in a relationship, and it's a great relationship. Both people love each other. Everything that's going in the current relationship is ideal, but they know that if they happen to say,“I had a threesome ten years ago that meant nothing to me but I did it,” then that might end the relationship. I can understand that person not wanting to disclose that, and perhaps even lying about it, because it's irrelevant information that they're still being judged by.
In the book, you actually mentioned the movie "Chasing Amy," which is about exactly that. Kevin Smith is not the greatest director, but I was thrilled to see the mention of that movie, which I really like.
I think that movie gets a bad rap. People think it's a movie about queer women's experiences. Really what it’s about is straight male insecurity. It's a movie that smartly condemns the protagonist Holden for holding his partner to these ridiculous standards, for thinking not only does she have to be the “perfect girl” for him, but he also has to somehow be her first and that if she has a complicated past and still decides that he is the person she wants to be with, that's not enough.
It's just really insightful about the ways that male insecurity punishes women and often sabotages male happiness as well. Just this idea that we have that you have to be the best sex your partner has, which doesn't even mean anything, and really ignores the fact that wild and crazy sex doesn't necessarily make for a relationship that you want to be in.
You interviewed a lot of women for this book. They were really honest with you about the lies they've told. Did women seem to feel that lies were more justifiable if they were under this kind of just no-win pressure?
Nobody that I spoke to was like, “I love lying. I really want to trick people.”
I spoke to a young woman who was just talking about how she'll pretend that she forgot to take her birth control, to encourage men she's having one-night stands or casual sex with to use condoms. She had some hesitation around it, where she's just like, “Well, look, this is how I get to have the casual sex that I want, where I'm still being taken care of and I'm having the safe sex that I want to have.”
She was doing it to ensure her own physical safety. The one time she didn't do something like this, she had sex without a condom, and she got chlamydia. For her, it was literally her safety or her honesty. Her safety matters more.
She wasn't like, “Oh, I'm getting one over on these dudes.” Nobody really seemed to take some joy in lying the way that you will see on these alt-right, Reddit pickup artist boards, where there will be this idea of like, “Oh, I lied to this woman to master her.”
I saw people who really wish they could be honest, but were in a situation where it wasn't necessarily feasible.
I can tell you I have told that lie, that I'm not on the pill when I am, because I didn't want to deal with the condom whining. Do you think that that's common? That was the first time I've ever seen that in print.
I suspect it is very common. I suspect it is not discussed at all.
When I was younger and having more casual sex, I know that was something that I felt really ashamed about. I think there's a lot of shame and a lot of pressure on women, and especially women who have sex with men, to make the “right choice” and gate-keep appropriately.
You see these messages that are like, “Well, if he doesn't want to use a condom, then you shouldn't have sex with him.” That makes women uncomfortable about speaking about this, even with other women.
But I know that every conversation that I've had where I've mentioned this, people will be like, “Oh yeah, I know what it's like to lie to some Tinder hookup about being on the pill because I don't want to have that conversation.”
You have three choices: Throwing them out, which means you don't get sex, which you might really want. Not using a condom, which a lot of people are not comfortable with. Or this trickery, which basically gets you what you want, but with a little bit of strategy involved.
Women in that situation, for better or for worse, are embracing their apparent duty to control men's behavior. They're just using effective techniques and then everyone gets mad at them for it.
Somebody asked me at one point about what can women do to get out of this. A lot of it's going to have to be on men.
Women are in this bind, where if men persist in behaving badly, then women are expected to stop interacting with men entirely, which is not feasible. I think this kind of lying to subtly get men who act badly to act in the way that you want, for many women, that is the best option.
If we want to get out of that trap, women can raise awareness about this, which is obviously what I'm trying to do with the book.
It's not really on women to stop lying. It's not really on women to announce, “I'm going to stop saying that I have a boyfriend to every guy who comes up to me at a bar.” While maybe that’s some moral high ground, you have to get to a point where men are going to listen to, “I don't want to talk to you.”
There's so much anger at women who employ the “I have a boyfriend” lie in bars. I always thought of that as a social lie. When somebody calls you and asks you to go out for drinks, and you don't want to go, you tell them, “I have a prior engagement.” We all accept that that's OK, but if a woman tells a guy she has a boyfriend to let him down gently, we get all in our feelings about it. Why do you think we have this double standard?
There’s anger from women, where it's like you're betraying us. You're reinforcing the idea that our boundaries only matter if we’re taken.
I think you see this anger from men, because men don't want to feel like they cannot have a single woman. Obviously, #NotAllMen, but the men who get very angry about this really want to feel like they have access to any woman who is not already spoken for. A woman then making up an imaginary boyfriend is a woman who is rejecting them, which they then feel is a betrayal.
Let's talk about the thing that comes to mind when people hear the title of your book, "Faking It," which is orgasms. The fake orgasm. Everybody says it's wrong. Women do it anyway. Why?
I'm a defender of the fake orgasm. Certainly, the best scenario is to be in a situation where you don't feel like you have to fake. That situation is one where you have a partner who can hear that maybe you don't need an orgasm, can hear that you're enjoying sex that doesn't always end an orgasm, can hear that they are doing something that you don't like and not lose their mind over it. It requires it being in a much more generous sexual situation than many people find themselves in.
Some of this is perversely comes from feminists too, which is weird to say. I think you had decades, probably centuries or maybe even millennia, of nobody really caring about female sexual pleasure. With the rise of feminism, you have this awareness that female sexual pleasure matters as well.
But because female pleasure is this very nebulous concept, you end up getting all of this importance attached to orgasm. Suddenly, whether or not your orgasm becomes the measure of whether or not you enjoy sex.
Sexual pleasure for everybody is way more complicated than orgasm. An orgasm doesn't necessarily mean that you're enjoying sex. Lack of orgasm doesn't necessarily mean that you're not enjoying sex. When you reduce what is an admirable goal, which is people enjoying the sex they have, to this one very specific and very small part of sexual pleasure, you create this new trap, where women should have pleasure in this very specific way.
Some people, sex is very pleasurable, but masturbation is where they get their orgasms. Maybe their orgasms are so intense that they don't always want to have them. Maybe they're anorgasmic and fine with that. There’re many scenarios where orgasm is not going to happen or not desired. Because we've created this idea of like orgasm as the standard, you often see straight men now pitting their ego on whether or not their partner has an orgasm.
If you don't want to have this conversation, it's like, “Oh baby, I really like it. I promise,” etc., faking it just becomes a way to keep everybody happy.
Of course, there are the situations where you're faking it because the sex is bad and you want it to end. Even that, if that gets you out, then great.
If you're in an ongoing relationship, where you plan to continue having sex with that person, and you're faking it, even though you're not getting any pleasure, that's not a great relationship. If you're having like a one-night stand and you just don't want to see that person again, faking it seems like a really great way to exert some agency over the situation and end it and not have to go into a deep conversation that you don't want to have.
The argument against faking it that I hate the most is this responsibility-to-the-sisterhood argument. I’ve seen people say like, “Oh, but if you fake it, then you're teaching this guy to do things that other women don't like.”
That assumes this universal female sexual experience of sexual pleasure, which is bizarre to me. There's a lot of things that are really uncomfortable [to me] that other people love. There are things that I love that other women hate.