Female Orgasms Revealed to Be Evil Plot to Take Over the World
There's a study in the most recent issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior titled Evidence to Suggest That Copulatory Vocalizations in Women Are Not Reflexive Consequence of Orgasm that's been generating some attention on the internet this past week or so. Io9.com published an article on the study, based on what seems to be a relatively shallow reading of the paper, titled Scientists try to prove that women manipulate men with noises during sex, and then nerve.com picked up the story and titled their brief summary (which, as far as I can tell is based on even less information from the actual paper than the io9 write-up) The female orgasm is revealed to be a man-controlling ruse. It's like an internet game of telephone, with the summaries getting more sensationalized and farther from the actual study with each iteration. The study itself is not without problems, but it's not quite what these reports are making it out to be either.
The original paper looked at the survey responses of 71 women to questions about when they experienced orgasm (during self-masturbation, masturbation by a partner, oral sex, or penetration), when they were most vocal during sex, and their reasons for vocalizing. The results indicated that the women surveyed were more likely to orgasm during masturbation, foreplay, or afterplay than penetrative sex, but that they were most vocal during sex, especially just before or at the same time as their partner's orgasm (it isn't entirely clear from the paper, but it seems that the study focused specifically on heterosexual women, so the partners in question are assumed to be men). The researchers concluded that the timing of sex vocalizations are unrelated to the woman's orgasm and are instead a way to "manipulate male behavior to their advantage." That brief quote is what's causing a lot of the misunderstanding in the reporting of this study. Scientists tend to use words in technical write-ups like this one in very specific ways that aren't necessarily the same as their more colloquial meaning. Here, manipulate just means "to control or influence." There's no assumption on the part of the researchers that the women are behaving in a devious manner, but since "manipulate," tends to have a negative connotation in most contexts, that seems to be the way people are reading it. Given our culture's lingering (and obnoxious) assumption that women use sex primarily to manipulate men (in the negative-connotation way), it's understandable that this terminology causes a knee-jerk reaction from casual readers of the study, but the study's results and conclusions are actually pretty innocuous.
That said, this study is pretty questionable in my opinion. First of all, 71 is a ridiculously small sample size. Any results based on a sample this small are likely to have some pretty large errors, and it's impossible to draw any sort of hard conclusions from such a sample. Second, the survey was conducted using "opportunity sampling," which basically means that the researchers went around asking people they ran into whether they would take the survey. This is a relatively easy way to get responses, but it doesn't exactly yield a statistically random sample. Then again, few surveys about sex have a decent chance at that, given the general population's reticence about the topic, so it's tough to tell how much of an effect this method would have on the results. More importantly, the reasons for the non-orgasm related vocalizations aren't very well explored. Sixty-six percent of the women surveyed reported that they used such noises to speed up their partner's orgasm in order to "relieve discomfort/pain, boredom, and fatigue." There's nothing in here that says these women are faking orgasms specifically, by the way, just that they are being loud during sex to help things along, presumably because they aren't big enough assholes to just say, "Are you finished yet?" Nor does the paper indicate how often these women do so (i.e. if this is something they do every time or just occasionally). That's the sort of information needed to really analyze results like these accurately.
The researchers also found that 87 percent of the respondents used sounds to boost their partner's self esteem, but again, no details are given, in terms of frequency or deeper motivations. This could be women deliberately advertising their enjoyment to their partners or it could involve women faking enjoyment to keep their partner happy - the paper doesn't distinguish between these possibilities. Sadly, there's also no exploration of other possible reasons for such vocalizations, and it doesn't appear as if the initial survey asked directly about any other possible reasons (unless an "other" option counts). Off the top of my head I could suggest several additional potential reasons for these vocalizations - like that sex feels good even when you aren't cumming; that some women view sex as performance art and are vocalizing to turn on their partner in order to boost their own self esteem; or that women are using vocalizations deliberately to signal that something feels good so their partner keeps doing whatever it is that stimulates them (a perennial suggestion of lady mags, possibly the only useful one).
None of those reasons, by the way, are necessarily mutually exclusive. Probably the truth for many women involves a complicated mixture of some or all of those things. It seems pretty sloppy to me to neglect all these possible reasons, but it's possible that this study was deliberately designed to just address the very narrow question of whether women tried to influence the timing of their partners' orgasms. The evidence does suggest that not only do men respond to these vocalizations, but that the timing of male ejaculation is related to vocalizations in other primates as well. The researchers, by the way, are careful not to read too much into their results. The discussion section of the paper, in fact, merely states that, "at least one component of female copulatory vocalizations is not a reflexive consequence of orgasm," (italics mine).
So yeah, men get off faster when their partners sound like they're enjoying sex, and women sometimes use this to influence the timing of men's orgasms. That's not exactly a controversial claim, and while I do think the statistics of this article are suspect, I don't doubt that this is in fact a relatively common practice. Similarly, the idea that women might try to signal to their partners that they are enjoying fucking them by exaggerating the sounds they make during sex is neither surprising nor particularly alarming. In my experience (warning! Anecdotal evidence ahead!), men do this too. A lot of men tend to be naturally quiet in bed, but many train themselves to be more vocal for the benefit or their partners. After all, it's just as disconcerting for women to not be able to tell if their partner is having fun or just going silently through the motions, so some men accommodate women's egos by deliberately vocalizing. Maybe to a lesser extent than women do, but there's no reason to think this is something exclusive to women. It would be interesting to see a study that investigated this question more in depth (and with a much larger sample size), one that looked at other possible reasons for vocalizations of both women and men, and included those who don't identify as straight.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.
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