Why We Moan and Scream During Sex
When noise is bliss, and silence is toxic.
Posted Apr 16, 2019
“Moan or screamer? Well, neither . . . probably more of a moaner . . . I think I have a more guttural grunt when I orgasm . . . but fairly quiet until that point.” —A married woman
“I believe that screams are not genuine. I expect men to express their pleasure only in a few moans.” —A married woman
Many people associate moaning and screaming with pain. Why, then, should people make these noises while experiencing sexual pleasure? Are we not embarrassed to have such sounds coming out of our mouths?
Moans, screams, and noise
“When I have feelings inside of me, they need to get out—making noise is a great way to do that.” —A woman
“I am a restrained woman, and so was my ex-husband—thus, we had complete silence in bed. Now with my new partner, I moan in a low voice, while my partner moans very loudly. I am a bit embarrassed to moan loudly.” —A divorced woman
The link between such noises and pain is longstanding: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a moan is “a long, low sound made by a person expressing physical or mental suffering or sexual pleasure”; and to scream is “to make a loud high cry because you are hurt, frightened, or excited.”
These definitions correspond with the characterization of noise as a loud or unpleasant sound that causes a disturbance. Can such sounds be part of enjoyable sex?
How can pain generate sexual pleasure?
“If I'm screaming, it's because my SO and I are having particularly rough and painful (in the good way) sex.” —A woman
Let’s first tackle the conceptual puzzle of how negative experiences, such as moans and screams, can be part of—and even enhance—positive sexual pleasure. Two phenomena are most relevant here: the feasibility of emotional ambivalence and the mechanism of arousal transfer.
In my book, The Arc of Love (2019), I emphasize the ambivalent nature of emotions in general and love in particular. Such ambivalence, which refers to experiencing negative and positive emotions at the same time, is common due to the partial nature of emotions. Emotions are partial in two senses: (a) They are focused on a narrow target, such as one person or very few people, and (b) they express a personal and interested perspective. Accordingly, each (partial) perspective may be appropriate, while no single perspective expresses an overriding emotional perspective. Thus, a widow attending the wedding of her daughter feels joy, but also sadness that her late husband, the father of the bride, is not present. Similarly, a sexual experience can involve both pleasure and suffering expressed in moaning.
In arousal transfer, arousal in one situation generates arousal in another. Thus, makeup sex takes place after an unpleasant, heated fight with a partner has created a gulf between the two and threatened the existence of the relationship; makeup sex reestablishes their bond in a very tangible manner. The high arousal state associated with the fight is transferred to a high arousal state during the makeup sex. Likewise, when one partner acts wildly, and even sadistically, the arousal underlying his anger can be transferred into sexual arousal. A subtler manner of increasing sexual arousal is teasing, which involves a gentle and humorous argument (simulating a “fight”) that increases sexual arousal.
The arousal transfer can also arise from positive emotions, such as enjoying a good dinner together and then experiencing intense sexual arousal.
Is noise a sexual turn on?
“From beginning to end, I love the sexy voice exchange that whispers and purrs with heavy sighs of intensity and the sweet moaning of pleasure.” —A married woman
“Moaning is a way of reassuring your lover that he or she is pleasing you. You use all of your senses to have sex, and your audial senses should not be ignored! It’s important to make noises of pleasure so your partner isn’t put off thinking the wrong thing by silence.” —Trina
Moans and screams are types of noise; moans are low noises, whereas screams are loud ones. Noise, which is unwanted sound judged to be unpleasant, loud, or disruptive to hearing, has been described as the price we pay for getting what we want. Moans and screams seem to be types of noise, expressing pain and suffering. Is such noise essential for pleasurable sexual experiences, or is it a price we have to pay for getting sexual satisfaction?
A major benefit of sexual noises is that—if genuine—they demonstrate that the partner is not indifferent; in this sense, any noise is better than complete silence.
“For someone who watches porn on mute, I appreciate a little noise in my own bed so long as it is natural and not forced. I also appreciate feedback and moderate dirty talk.” —A woman
“I like my partner to be silent. How else can they fully focus on doing a good job? ;-)” —A woman
“My favorite noise that a woman makes in bed is a sudden declaration of "YES!!" As if her team just won a goal.” —A man
“I don't really care much if they're vocal or not. Even if they were vocal, I wouldn't hear it, because I'm probably the most vocal person during sex.” —A woman
“I prefer my partner to be mostly quiet. Noise interrupts my headspace. I loathe talking, especially dirty talk. I need to focus in order to have an orgasm. The occasional moan or sigh is fine.” —A woman
“I'm weirded out by people who don't make any noise during sex. I need some indication that you like what we're doing, c'mon.” —A woman
“I like a moderate amount of noise, also laughter is the best.” —A woman
“I don't mind a little noise, but if it turns into full-blown screaming, I don't think I would respond positively to that.” —A man
“I need noise, I need to hear moans, I need to know I'm doing the right things.” —A woman
“I'm not turned on by screaming, at all. It's distracting and unnecessary. Noise itself is fine, but I would doubt that anyone has such a strong orgasm that they're screaming.” —A man
“LOVE when my partner moans! I love a guy that makes noise in bed. Silence is strange.” —A woman
“Enough noise to get the mood just right. If he sounds like a buffalo, he gots to go.” —A woman
“Every little involuntary noise she makes when we have sex is solid gold. The more noise the better.” —A man
Most respondents consider the noise of moans and screams to be valuable communication. It seems that for most people, moderate noise is bliss, while complete silence is toxic. When it comes to sex, silence is far from golden.
Are moans and screams genuine?
“I'm dating a half-Japanese model. All good, as you'd expect. Except she hardly does more than sigh when she comes. Is it cultural, or am I, in fact, missing the mark?” —Anonymous man, cited in GQ magazine
We have seen that moderate moans and screams are quite beneficial for enhancing sexual satisfaction. However, are most moans and screams genuine? Apparently not.
Gayle Brewer and Colin Hendrie in their study of why women make noises during sex found that 66 percent of the respondents moan just to speed up their partner’s orgasm, while 87 percent moan to pretend they are reaching their peak. Brewer and Hendrie show a dissociation of the timing of women experiencing orgasm and making copulatory vocalizations, indicating that these vocalizations are at least partly under control, thus providing women with an opportunity to manipulate male behavior to their advantage. The study also shows that women moan whenever they are getting bored, tired, or uncomfortable during sex, just so the man gets turned on and climaxes faster. Thus, while female orgasms were most commonly experienced during foreplay, copulatory vocalizations were reported to be made most often before and simultaneously with male ejaculation (Brewer & Hendrie, 2011).
The following are a few examples of perspectives on the genuineness of moans and screams in sex (cited in Reddit).
“Screams are totally awesome, assuming it's natural. Otherwise, it's just fake porn BS.” —A man
“Fake screaming is not fun. Real screaming, where you can hear their most basic, instinctual passion, can be hot." —A man
“I'm not performing or thinking about the noises I make, it just happens.” —A woman
“I feel like screaming does not sound genuine. That is why it is a turnoff.” —A man
“It's hot if I can tell it's genuine, and not too loud.” —A man
People agree concerning the destructive value of faking. Nevertheless, in the above study, 87 percent of women admit that they moan in order to pretend they reach their peak. How can we make sense of this puzzle?
One explanation may be that it is difficult to distinguish between faked and genuine moans—it is somewhat easier in the case of extreme screams (and moans). If we combine this idea with the greater value of noise over silence in the sexual sphere, it seems that faking (moderate) moans can be quite beneficial. Moreover, such moans and screams not only increase the excitement of the partner; they can also increase that of the moaner/screamer. In this sense, they are valuable self-fulfilling prophecies.
“I love to vocalize my feelings in the language of love that builds incredible confidence in my lover, praising his touch and performance, while simultaneously heightening my own excitement. And for those out-of-this-world exhilarating emotions that are so intense, I may curse using descriptions only a sailor would use!!!” —A married woman
In profound love, actions speak louder than words, and “well done” is by far better than “well said.” Unlike sex, in profound love, where the heart leads the way, screams, and less so moans, are of lesser weight. Noise is beneficial for sex. Being silent may make your partner wonder whether you enjoy the sex. Although noise is for many people helpful in sex, it is not the case that the more noise you make, the better sex you will have. The right balance is vital here. Too much noise may make your partner question your sincerity; and there are many people who just cannot stand screaming—in bed or anywhere else.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2019). The arc of love: How our romantic lives change over time. University of Chicago Press.
Brewer, G., & Hendrie, C. A. (2011). Evidence to suggest that copulatory vocalizations in women are not a reflexive consequence of orgasm. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40, 559-564.