- “I’ll Have What She’s Having”Fake Orgasm, Affectation, and Other S(t)imulations
Affects may dissemble, but they can be very hard to fake. Take, for example, orgasm. Understood as an affect, or a series of intersecting affects bundled under the auspices of a named intensity, orgasm presents useful problems regarding apparent oppositions between simulation and authenticity, intentionality and reflex, fake orgasm and the “real thing.” The most iconic representation of fake orgasm in popular American culture is likely Meg Ryan’s magisterial performance at Katz’s Deli in When Harry Met Sally. Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Ryan) are proud of having defied convention by building a sexless friendship across gender lines, though they both recognize the fragile indeterminacy of such a relation. Sally’s fake orgasm begins over sandwiches, precipitated by Harry’s apparent callousness toward women: he beds them and leaves them before the sun comes up. Initially, Sally wants to shame Harry for his selfishness in the wake of intimate encounters, denouncing his post-coital flightiness as “a human affront to all women.” Then Sally shifts the conversation to fake orgasm, staging an assault on Harry’s manhood by disrupting his fantasy of sexual connoisseurship. When Harry defends his late-night departures by bragging that he doesn’t “hear anyone complaining,” Sally wonders how he could possibly know that the women he sleeps with are really having “an okay time,” as he smugly attests.
What do you mean, “How do I know?” I know.Sally:
Yes, because they…Sally:
And how do you know they’re really… ?Harry:
What are you saying? That they fake orgasm?Sally:
Get outa here.Sally:
Why? Most women, at one time or another, have faked it.Harry:
Well they haven’t faked it with me.Sally:
How do you know?Harry:
Because I know. [End Page 116]Sally:
Oh. That’s right, I forgot—you’re a man.Harry:
What is that supposed to mean?Sally:
Nothing. It’s just that all men are sure it doesn’t happen to them, but most women at one time or another have done it, so you do the math.Harry:
You don’t think that I could tell the difference?Sally:
Get outa here.
Sally then acts out a raucous spectacle of feminine ecstasy, complete with moans, shouts, convulsions, and invocations of God. As her performance builds momentum, surrounding conversations hush and Sally’s climax draws the rapt attention of every deli patron, one of whom deadpans to her waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
What exactly is it that Sally is “having” which inspires the woman next to her to “have” it too? Can the enigmatic quality of her simulated pleasure be understood as more than a spectacle for others’ consumption? And in what ways do the conventions of her affectation (the moans, shouts, convulsions, and invocations of God) mimic the lived conventions of orgasm itself, determined reflexively by simulated representations of orgasm they aspire, or have been disciplined, to match? To what extent does the nearby patron’s desire to “have what she’s having” express the contagious property affect and its mimetic other, affectation?
I take fake orgasm as this essay’s primary analytic instance because, I argue, the enigmatic enjoyments it produces are affective consequences of simulated affect. In other words, its pleasures are occasioned by, rather than antithetical to, affectation. The relationship between affect and affectation turns on the question of intentionality, a highly contested concept in recent literature associated with the diverse field of affect theory.1 The scholarly interest in affect has proven particularly influential in the study of gender and sexuality, in some ways reformulating feminist theory’s long-standing attention to lived experience. At the same time, affect theory marks a significant site of interdisciplinary engagement between the hard sciences and the humanities, shifting away from expressive models of affect toward theories of biological autonomy. In this context, the term “affect” names autonomic corporeal manifestations akin to reflex insofar as they are cognitively unintentional. Affect is not “unconscious” in the systematic, Freudian sense; rather, affect registers somatic...