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Sex Sounds

What We Know About Human Sex Sounds

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Updated June 27, 2014

Sex sounds have long been a subject of interest to entertainers -- particularly filmmakers, stand up comics, and writers for TV. It’s a classic sitcom gag to have a scene where “everyday” sounds heard from behind a closed door are misinterpreted as sex sounds. Sex sounds mostly seem to matter to regular people when a partner doesn't make any sex sounds, Surprisingly there is almost no scientific research on sex sounds (what researchers call "vocalizations during sex").

It may be that researchers haven’t studied sex sounds because they assume they are nothing more than a by-product of sexual excitement. It also seems to me that sexual sounds are so visceral and intense that it may be something researchers are uncomfortable confronting. Nonetheless, a few brave and unashamed scientists have stepped forward, and here’s what they have to say about the sounds we make during sex, and why we might be making them.

Different Kinds of Sex Sounds

When you’re in the heat of the moment it may all sound the same, but we can distinguish two different kinds of sex sounds.

The first are words we use. Sometimes this takes the form of “dirty talk” or it may be random or intentional "directional" words (more, faster, oh my god, now, etc…).

We also make sounds that aren’t words (what researchers call non-linguistic sounds). We sigh, moan and groan, and when we’re breathing fast we can also make sounds like gasping for air. Finally, at the point of orgasm some people will scream. In his famous study of female sexual behavior Alfred Kinsey suggested that these kinds of sounds at the point of orgasm are involuntary. A more recent small laboratory study, however, suggested that women could stop themselves from making sex sounds.

Why We Make Sex Sounds

Roy Levin, a biomedical scientist and sexologist, wrote one of the most extensive discussions on the subject of human sex sounds. In it, he suggests that there are at least four possible reasons we make sex sounds.

Conveying Information. We may consciously or unconsciously use sex sounds to offer our partner important information about what’s going on. We can make noises to indicate how much we like or don’t like what’s happening, that we want more or less or a different kind of stimulation, that we are approaching orgasm and/or ejaculation, and that we’re experiencing orgasm. A survey of 400 college students found that the majority of men and women said that they understood sex sounds to be an indication of sexual pleasure.

Increasing Sexual Arousal. Sex sounds may add to our sexual arousal both when we make them and when we hear our partners making sounds. This may be truer for men than women. In a survey of 300 college students who were asked to rank which senses added to their arousal during sex, men ranked sexual sounds as the third most able to arouse (after sight and touch/feel) whereas women ranked it second to last in importance (touch/feel and sight were #1 and #2). In a different survey, however, both men and women said they liked it when their partner made sexual sounds (which should be encouragement for anyone who wants to but is embarrassed or worried about a negative reaction from a partner).

Enhancing Pleasure. Scientists have a great term for this, “hedonic amplification,” which essentially refers to something that increases feelings of pleasure. A few researchers suggest that sexual sounds may achieve this not because of the noise but because of the impact on breathing. When people become highly aroused and near orgasm, the increased sex sounds may be linked to hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is known to lead to anything from changes in body experience and mild euphoria (giddiness, lightheadedness feelings which are common to sexual arousal) to “profound alterations” in mood and consciousness (the experience of a trance-like state). One researcher has noted that people are more likely to have their mouths open during partner sex versus masturbation -- and that a combination of open mouth and sex sounds lead to hyperventilation, possibly enhancing the sexual experience. Much more research is needed before drawing any conclusions on these ideas.

Facilitating Central Arousal Systems. Citing another researcher, Levin suggests that there may be far more subtle things going on behind our sexual sounds. He hypothesizes that making sexual sounds may be a way of synchronizing our other arousal systems; essentially sending a variety of different kinds of messages (movement, sound, touch) to our bodies with the end result that the arousal felt in response to these messages may be enhanced.

While nothing detailed has been written about it, it’s probably also worth noting that our sex sounds change during a sexual encounter. We may start with words or moans and may be very aware of what we’re doing, but as we move deeper into the experience we may lose both inhibitions and awareness of what we’re doing, resulting in different kinds of sex sounds. And researchers have pointed out that the sounds we make during orgasm are likely related to the muscular contractions that accompany the experience of orgasm.

Sources:

Herz, R.S. and Cahill, E.D. “Information in Sexual Behavior as a Function of Gender” Human Nature Vol. 8, No. 3 (1997): 275-286.

Levin, R.J. “Vocalised Sounds and Human Sex” Sexual and Relationship Therapy Vol. 21, No. 1 (2006): 99-107.

Passie, T., Hartmann, U., Schneider, U., Emrich, H. “On the Function of Groaning and Hyperventilation During Sexual Intercourse: Intensification of Sexual Experience by Altering Brain Metabolism through Hypocapnia.” Medical Hypotheses Vol. 60, No. 5 (2003): 660–663.

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