Illustration by Amber Vittoria
by Justin Lehmiller
Humans are a noisy bunch when it comes to sex. But have you ever wondered why? It’s not just our flair for theatrics—there are actually scientific reasons for all those gasps and moans and screams.
The technical term for the noises we make during sex is copulatory vocalizations. Scientists have been studying these vocalizations for decades in humans and animals, from chimps to birds to squirrels. The body of research so far suggests that these noises occur for all kinds of reasons.
The first and perhaps most obvious function of copulatory vocalizations is sexual communication. Noises convey to a partner what feels good and what doesn’t. They can convey a range of emotions from fear to pleasure to surprise to discomfort. In other words, making noises during sex helps to ensure that we get what we want. When your partner does a trick with their tongue that you really like, your moaning provides positive reinforcement for that behavior. Research finds that people who engage in more nonverbal communication during sex (like moaning and panting) are more sexually satisfied.
But despite the important role that vocalizations play in instinctual sexual communication and satisfaction, not everyone makes them. Our willingness to vocalize during sex is in part due to social and emotional factors.
87% of women said they had made noises during sex in order to give their partner an ego boost.
One study suggests that people who are more anxious and nervous talking about sex in general tend to make fewer noises in bed. This same research shows that people who are less confident in their sexual skills vocalize less, too. If we’re not comfortable with our sexual selves, we’re unlikely to make noise when we have sex—and this, in turn, makes it harder to achieve sexual satisfaction because it leaves our partners guessing.
People also vocalize during sex for the benefit of their partners because we know it turns them on. If vocalizations were simply about our own pleasure, we would expect that people would be loudest around the time that they themselves orgasm. However, at least for women, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Research shows that women who have sex with men are noisiest just before and during their male partner’s orgasm. Some women appear to consciously time some of their vocalizations to enhance their partner’s pleasure.
This isn’t to say that women are only noisy when their partners are climaxing—they make vocalizations throughout the act. But why do they make more of them when their partners are at peak pleasure?
In a study that looked at the timing of women’s copulatory vocalizations and their reasons for making them, 66% of the women surveyed said they have used vocalizations in order to speed up their partner’s orgasm because sex was uncomfortable, they were tired or bored, or they had somewhere else to be. Likewise, the vast majority of women felt their vocalizations boosted their partner’s self-esteem—and, in fact, 87% said they had made noises during sex in order to give their partner an ego boost.
There doesn’t seem to be research to suggest that men who have sex with women use copulatory vocalizations for similar reasons. (There is also a dearth of research about vocalizations among non-heterosexual and/or non-cis people.) The research that does exist suggests that women tend to be more vocal in bed than men overall and that men tend to enjoy hearing vocalizations more than women. What accounts for this gender difference?
Some research shows that, across animal species, females tend to be louder than males during sex.
The explanation could be cultural. Porn and popular media depictions of women’s sexuality suggest that they’re “supposed” to be loud, which may lead women to feel pressure to perform vocalizations during sex. When women are shown coming in porn, moaning loudly is the single most common sign that they’re having an orgasm. Given that most porn is made by men for men, and that younger people are increasingly turning to porn to fill in the gaps in their sex education, this could potentially affect expectations around women’s sex sounds.
But another possibility is that women evolved to be the noisier sex. Some research shows that, across animal species, females tend to be louder than males during sex, and the specific vocalizations they make appear to offer clues to their fertility status. For example, in certain monkeys (such as Barbary macaques), males can actually distinguish between the sounds females make when they’re at their most fertile period versus other parts of their cycle. Female macaques are essentially “announcing” their fertility, perhaps as a way of inviting more male suitors and thereby creating sperm competition—a “survival of the fittest” situation that increases the odds of viable offspring. (Some, including Sex at Dawn author Christopher Ryan, have argued that evolutionary biology may also be behind why human females tend to be louder during sex, as well, but there isn’t yet conclusive evidence to back that up.)
Although researchers are still exploring the reasons why women tend to make more copulatory vocalizations than men, what we do know is that people regardless of gender tend to be noisy during sex—and those noises tell us a lot. They say something about our level of comfort with sex, and they have the potential to increase pleasure for both the vocalizer and the listener.
The takeaway? You shouldn’t be afraid to be loud in bed. In fact, noisy sex just might be better sex.
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the popular blog Sex & Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller or Instagram @JustinJLehmiller.