Everyday Economics

The Economics of Faking Orgasm

No, really.

Hugo Mialon is a graduate student who spends a lot of time thinking about orgasms. This by itself is perhaps not terribly atypical. But Mialon, at least part of the time, thinks about orgasms in connection with his dissertation research.

Like so many before him, Mialon was led to focus on orgasms through the study of constitutional law. More specifically, he was thinking hard about the Fourth Amendment, which makes it harder to get a conviction when the police search a suspect without probable cause. As a budding economist (one who is just completing his Ph.D. at the University of Texas), Mialon asked all the right questions: How does the Fourth Amendment affect incentives for both criminals and police, and how do those incentives affect behavior?

The answers aren’t obvious. For example, does the Fourth Amendment make the police more or less zealous in their search efforts? On the one hand, it discourages searches by raising the possibility they’ll be thrown out of court; on the other hand, it (indirectly) encourages searches by increasing the crime rate. On net, should we expect more or fewer searches? Mialon’s answer is “it depends,” and he gives a detailed analysis of exactly what it depends on.

He then turns from the Fourth Amendment to the Fifth, and the defendant’s right to remain silent during a trial. The Fifth Amendment increases the number of wrongful acquittals (which is bad) and reduces the number of wrongful convictions (which is good). Is that bad or good on net? I addressed this question once before in Slate, where I pointed out that lawyers are wont to say asinine things like, “It is better to let 10 guilty men go free than to convict one who’s innocent,” as if a sufficiently bold statement obviates any need for a supporting analysis.

Mialon provides the analysis, weighing the costs of living in a world without Fifth Amendment protections against the costs of living in a world where more criminals roam free. So what’s the bottom line? Is the Fifth Amendment on net a good thing? Once again, it depends, and once again, Mialon analyzes exactly what it depends on.

I won’t go into the details, because I know you’re eager to get to the bit about the orgasms. But Mialon’s key point is that you can’t analyze the Fifth Amendment without considering the fact that defendants sometimes lie, and juries sometimes try to figure out when they’re lying. That’s where the orgasms come in. Lovers sometimes fake orgasms, and their partners sometimes try to figure out when they’re faking. So it’s only natural that an intellectual journey around the Fifth Amendment should include a side trip into the economics of faking orgasm.

According to the 2000 Orgasm Survey (did you know there was a 2000 Orgasm Survey?), 72 percent of women have faked at least once in their current or most recent relationship, and 55 percent of men say they can tell when their partner’s faking.

Apparently someone’s deluded, though it’s not clear whether it’s the woman who overestimates her acting ability or the man who overestimates his perceptiveness. Be that as it may, Mialon uses game theory to investigate why women (sometimes) fake and why men (sometimes) doubt them. I’m not sure I buy all his assumptions, but he makes a reasonable first pass at the problem.

The obvious reason to fake is to please your partner. But what about a woman who doesn’t particularly care about her partner? Might she still fake? Mialon concocts a scenario—though a contrived one—where the answer is yes. Suppose Adam is very insecure and always suspects Eve of faking. Suppose the one thing Eve really hates is having a partner who’s always wrong. Then since Adam always thinks she’s faking, she has to fake to make him right. Eve’s fakery reinforces Adam’s skepticism and Adam’s skepticism reinforces Eve’s fakery, so we have what economists call equilibrium.

On the other hand, this equilibrium holds up only if Adam has a good reason to be insecure in the first place. Why might Adam be insecure? Well, it’s thought that women reach the peak of their sexual responsiveness around age 30. So if Eve is very far from age 30 in either direction, her age might be enough to trigger Adam’s insecurity. Thus Mialon predicts that very young and very old women are more likely to fake than women in their 30s.

Things get much more complicated—and much more realistic—if Adam and Eve are in love, in which case they care about each others’ happiness and care about keeping each other interested. A bit of elementary game theory leads Mialon to conclude that women are more likely to fake when they’re in love, and that this effect is magnified when women are far from the age of 30.

And yes, some men fake orgasms too—24 percent of them, according to the Orgasm Survey. Mialon’s game theory tells him that love has less effect on men’s probability of faking than on women’s. These and other testable predictions are borne out by the results of the Orgasm Survey, which also reveals the curious fact that highly educated women are the most likely to fake their orgasms.

And there’s more. Orgasms are not infrequently associated with conversation, either before or after. The next chapter of Mialon’s dissertation is on the economics of conversation—the way sentences convey information and our decisions about how much information we want to convey.

My old friend Steve Zucker (now a math professor at Johns Hopkins) used to say that sex and academic research complement each other nicely, since you can do either one while thinking about the other. I don’t know what Hugo Mialon thinks about when he’s having sex (perhaps if he were asked, he’d take the Fifth), but he’s certainly thought about sex in a highly original way, which, after all the attention the topic has gotten these past thousands of years, is no small accomplishment.