I have to admit that I’ve been louder in bed than all of my male sexual partners. But women just make more noise in bed than men — don’t they? Or am I just loud?
Jennifer C., 30
You are not alone. I don’t say that because women necessarily do make more noise in bed than men, but because you assume that they do — as do most people, including just about every scientist who has ever looked into this question.
Not that there are many scientists who have tried — and for a long time these soldiers of knowledge couldn’t even pluck up the courage to ask men and women about their sex sounds, so they simply watched other primates going at it. Based on that method, they found that whether it was bonobos, baboons, or macaques, females make a lot more noise than males. The resulting assumption that ladies are always louder (flawed or accurate as it may be) has colored a lot of the subsequent research on humans.
I’ve found three key studies that look at how and why humans make sounds while they’re having sex — and, for what it’s worth, none of the researchers spent much time listening to men.
In 2006, Roy J. Levin at the University of Sheffield undertook to watch “explicit sexual videos” of heterosexual and lesbian sex, noting every time a woman moaned, groaned, gasped, grunted, screamed, or said something (e.g., “please,” “harder,” “deeper,” “faster”). Levin also tracked every penile thrust or tongue flick that may have been responsible for the above sounds.
And Jennifer, I can tell you that the women in these videos were plenty vocal. On average, they made 45 sounds per minute when they were having penile-vaginal sex and 48 sounds per minute when they were having penile-anal sex. Among lesbian pairs, clitoral-oral stimulation was accompanied by significantly fewer vocal noises — 34 per minute.
It’s not clear whether Levin’s videos were professionally produced porn or home recordings of couples having sex (I’ve written to him to ask but still haven’t heard back). If the women he was watching were actors, it might affect how useful these results are for you (depending on how well you think pornography reflects what people do in their off-screen lives).
In the abstract, it might be reasonable to assume that sounds made during sex are a result of experiencing intense physical pleasure. But research out of the university of Leeds in the U.K. suggests that’s not the case at all. A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2010 based on interviews with 71 heterosexual, sexually active women found that “orgasm was most frequently reported following self-manipulation of the clitoris, manipulation by the partner, oral sex delivered to the woman by a man, and least frequently during vaginal penetration.” But those same women said that they were loudest before and simultaneously with male ejaculation. When the researchers asked the women more directly “what percentage of the time do you make noise during sex, even when you are not going to have an orgasm?,” 80 percent of women said they did so at least half the time.
In the case of straight women, their male partners seem to rely on — and derive pleasure from — these sex sounds. According to Levin, men need auditory signals in the sack more than women do — presumably because, unlike a big ol’ erection, women’s arousal is simply harder to see. (Researchers note a “strong possibility” men, lacking any unmistakable visual cues, can’t reliably distinguish real female orgasms from fake ones.) Also, men apparently get more turned on by sex noises than women do. Levin explains:
“for males such sexual sounds (together with tactile stimuli) are the second most arousing sexual experience (visual experiences, real and imagined, are the first). This is not so for the female.”
Finally, I’ve got one last study that looks at why women fake orgasms. The 2014 paper — titled, appropriately enough, “The Faking Orgasm Scale for Women” — was based on the responses of 481 heterosexual undergraduate females. Four main reasons emerged that explain why women might moan when there’s not much to moan about.
Below are the descriptions of those reasons as well as the average scores given by women when asked about their importance on a scale of 1 (never relevant) to 5 (always).
1. Altruistic deceit: faking orgasm out of concern for a partner’s feelings (3.3 out of 5)
2. Elevated arousal: a woman’s attempt to increase her own arousal through faking orgasm (2.6)
3. Fear and insecurity: faking orgasm to avoid negative emotions associated with the sexual experience (2.1)
4. Sexual adjournment: faking orgasm to end sex (2.1)
Based on an extensive literature review, the researchers behind this “scale” note that it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about “normal female sexual functioning” because so many women fake pleasure and because a lot of women simply struggle to have any orgasm at all.
Do you see yourself in any of this Jennifer? Taken together, it’s about everything that clinical science has to say about the subject right now.
Before I leave you to get back to the bedroom on that slightly bleak note, I want to tell you about an experiment that took place in the early 1990s at a small, progressive college in Ohio. I think it’s relevant because it shows just how important honest vocalizations — if of a slightly different sort — can be.
Antioch College decided to rewrite the school’s sexual-consent policy to make it far more explicit. Consent for any sexual act had to involve an individual saying “yes” rather than not saying “no.” Whether it was undoing a blouse or touching someone’s genitals, consent had to be verbally stated. Any complaints of sexual misconduct were judged according to the policy, which was designed to prevent rape — so if someone hadn’t said “yes,” then guilt would be strongly assumed. The policy was heavily criticized in the media as “political correctness gone mad,” but many female students felt differently. They were able to develop a language that articulated their desires not only to their partners, but also to themselves. And they reported having better sex as a result.
So, Jennifer, I say yell all you want — just as long as you mean it.
Hope the numbers help,
Mona Chalabi is data editor at The Guardian U.S. You can send her questions for her “Dear Mona” column at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MonaChalabi
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