Research casts doubt on women’s pleasure

// 17 August 2011

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Scream.jpg

It has recently been reported that researchers at the University of Central Lancashire have indicated that the noises women make during sex are not necessarily linked to orgasm. A variety of sources have picked up on this story, including the Daily Mail, predictably resulting in a total of over 100,000 Google results over the past few days for “why the sounds women make in bed have little to do with her orgasm.”

Unfortunately, it seems there is limited access to the full details of the research but a sample of the original paper can be found underneath the abstract at Springerlink. This backs up reports that the findings of Brewer and Hendrie’s study were based on an analysis of 71 heterosexual women with a mean age of 22. Along with this, the Daily Mail has the following details:

Each participant completed a questionnaire about their sexual behaviour, which included details about how they reached climax and at which point they were most likely to express themselves vocally.

Most women polled said they reached orgasm during foreplay, but were most likely to vocalise their enjoyment during their partner’s.

Aside from the use of the obviously limiting term “foreplay” (seen in the abstract for the research, as well as the Daily Mail piece), there are already a few concerns on the basis of this information. For a start, this seems like a very small sample and not representative of women in general, bearing in mind the average age for participants and seeing as they all identified as heterosexual. I also wonder if some participants gave this answer because they preferred (for whatever reason) to present their sexual noisemaking as deliberate rather than involuntary? Could it be that some women would find it more socially acceptable to admit to putting on a sexual performance but not to “losing themselves” in the moment of orgasm? In my view, it isn’t the authenticity of women’s sexual expression itself that perhaps needs to be questioned on the basis of this study but the ways women might be compelled to present it afterwards.

Again, I haven’t been able to access the whole paper but, on the basis of what I’ve looked at, it doesn’t seem that the researchers for the study are concerned with such questions. According to them, the conscious control of responses can be explained to be “providing women with an opportunity to manipulate male behaviour to their advantage.” Unfortunately, much as I’d like to believe they’re talking about horny women urging men onto orgasm so they can -in turn- get off on seeing it, I don’t think that’s what the researchers are getting at here. Luckily, Annalee Newitz has given more detail on the research in her article over at i09.com so you can get more of an indication of where the researchers are coming from. I would urge you to read all of it, as I think her assessment is spot on:


OK, so let me get this straight, my science-loving friends. Somehow the fact that women make noises of pleasure when they aren’t having orgasms is manipulative? Apparently it did not occur to these scientists that noises of pleasure can be caused by things other than your own personal orgasm, such as the orgasm of your partner…

…The authors first report what the women actually say (they want to boost their partner’s self-esteem), and then put their own gloss on it, which is that this means the women want the men to give them things (resources and protection). Quite a leap from “making a partner feel good” to “manipulating men into giving things to you.”

The main problem I have with the framing of this research is that it seems to perpetuate the all-too-common view that women don’t really enjoy sex. It also seems to sit alongside the sexist mainstream media’s focus on the variety of more unsexy reasons some women have given for having sex in order to imply that, unlike men, simple pleasure is not generally our priority. This culture for relentlessly negating female desire surely means any sexual behaviour a woman who has sex with men exhibits, such as “copulatory vocalisations,” is less likely to be accepted as an expression of her own pleasure or a direct attempt to increase it. (Anyone who has found themselves letting a rather ridiculous noise out during orgasm or, alternatively, managing to maximise an orgasm by consciously cheering it on will know what I’m talking about here!) I think this, coupled with the need to tackle the obvious pressure we’re under to perform a narrow kind of sexiness, potentially effects how we view each other as women. Indeed, I’ve often heard people, including feminists, expressing suspicion about the amount of noise some women make when they have sex and suggesting a number of them perhaps feel obliged to put on a show for their partners.

I appreciate it’s not unreasonable to wonder if a few of those moaners and yellers might not actually be overcome with passion. It certainly makes sense to suggest such behaviour can sometimes be part of an “idealized sexual script” or a response to “what women believe their male partner wants.

However, I also know there have been plenty of times when my own enjoyment during sex has been somewhat muted -if you’ll pardon the pun- precisely because of having to hold back and “keep it down” in a house where I’m told the walls are thin. More to the point, I’m also aware that such reticence is not only down to trying not to disturb people’s sleep but also a sense that excessive noise could give the impression I’m faking an orgasm (a thing my feminist pride would never allow me to do). This new spotlight on the so-called “truth” about the sounds women make during sex doesn’t help. Overall, there seems to be a common view emerging that the quiet and controlled approach normally expected of men is somehow an indication of what sexual authenticity looks like.

Is yesterday’s “slut” in danger of becoming today’s dupe? Is it actually helpful to feminism if we become sceptical about women’s -both our own and others’- sexual behaviour? Probably not and, if it can provide another means for regulating women’s sexualities, I suspect it will suit the sexists just fine.

Photograph of a close-up of a woman in red lipstick yelling (with just the lower half of the face visible) by madamepsychosis, shared under a creative commons licence.

[Addendum: “Whore” changed to “slut”, as I think it fits the context more appropriately.]

Comments From You

Laurel // Posted 17 August 2011 at 7:27 pm

now lets think, you could be turned on, breathing differently because there’s a hefty weight on you, or indicating to your partner what feels good. those things not good enough?

Jennifer Drew // Posted 17 August 2011 at 8:44 pm

I wonder what noises (if any) men make when they are reaching the climax of doing ‘real sex’ – no foreplay here of course because real sex is always penis in vagina/anus or even both at the same time! Remember folks it is a myth that penis in vagina/anus is what gives women sexual pleasure because women unlike men have that wonderful sexual organ the clitoris – but that doesn’t prevent male supremacist research from constantly re-defining female sexuality from the perspective of male sexual pleasure.

Sigh yet more phallocentric research masquerading as researching women-centric sexuality because it is essential women always put men’s sexual pleasure first second and last. Researchers need to read Shere Hite’s research to gain an understanding that penis in vagina is not the sin que of female heterosexual pleasure but it is certainly the sin que of male sexual expression because the myth of mighty penis bringing a woman to orgasm via him thrusting forcibly in her vulva/vagina/anus proves to him he is a real man!

Then there is the issue of malestream pornography wherein women are always misportrayed as screaming with sexual pleasure whenever the male penis shows up and irrespective of what the man/men do to the woman/women in porn the woman/women are always constantly writhing with pseudo female sexual pleasure – or rather pain and longing for cessation of this pain and torture. But that is why porn exists because it reinforces the old, old male-centric myth women are just ‘sex’ and exist to sexually serve men in whatever manner or way men demand.

Then we should not ignore fact women learn as girls that their sole value and worth is in finding a man and ensuring his sexual pleasure and sexual rights(sic) are met 24/7 and this means women must not express any autonomous sexual desires of their own but attempt to make their sexual desires fit the male-centric myth of what supposedly passes for heterosexual female sexual expression. Women must not be too loud or too quiet but rather constantly ensure their male sexual partner is ‘getting his rocks off at her expense.’

Holly Combe // Posted 18 August 2011 at 3:20 pm

@Jennifer Drew. I think the question here is how we foster a culture where we can more freely express those “autonomous sexual desires of our own.” Personally, I think it’s important that our challenges to the pressure to conform don’t end up dismissing some women’s genuine expressions of pleasure as “what supposedly passes for heterosexual female sexual expression.” Surely the point is to challenge the constraints placed on us that stifle our sexualities, not create more?

I’m with you in your criticism of what constitutes “real sex” and the common centralisation of PIV sex as the be-all-and-end-all in sex. Sadly, there does seem to be an agenda to make sure this elevation continues and I agree that research such as Hite’s has done much to expose this idea for what it is. However, I also think we should be careful not to write off any woman’s enjoyment of penetrative sex (anal or vaginal) as “a myth.” Again, I think we need to respect individual women’s sexual preferences –regardless of where they might come from- and would suggest challenging conventional ideas about so-called sexual dysfunction is part of this.

I assume you’re being sarcastic when you say penis in vagina is “the sin que of male sexual expression”? After all, we know not all women are the same so it must surely also stand that not all men are either?

As a sidepoint, I disagree pornography solely exists for the reasons you give. Not all the porn I’ve seen fits your description but I note your initial highlighting of “malestream pornography” and, for me, this does evoke some of those visions (i.e. all that moaning and writhing as a matter of course)!

Holly Combe // Posted 18 August 2011 at 3:52 pm

…And, yes, it would be interesting to see the results of a piece of research into men’s sexual noisemaking. However, I’m guessing the stereotyping of male sexuality as predictable, unquestionable, un-erotic and not so much everybody’s business would mean there’s less call for it. (Links welcome if actual research has taken place.)

For the record, I don’t think it’s that unusual for men to make a noise when they have sex. Some might even do it intentionally to help arouse a partner!

Merryn // Posted 19 August 2011 at 12:38 am

Sexuality is not an ‘autonomous sexual desire of our own’ it is formed through a complex relation between ‘the subject’, the social and the body. We cannot in the doing of our experience / in the being of everyday life, tease these things apart to find a somehow pure moment when desire, sexual or otherwise, is ‘ours’. We ‘do’ sex together and alone but we don’t create our own sexuality in a vacuum, to put it crudely. Nor is this ‘research’ conducted in a vaccum. What makes this ‘research’ most interesting is the idea that the vocal is considered to be a more female domain of sexuality (most men make noises and speak during sex but the meaning of this is not interesting to the scientists) and that this domain can be used by women to indicate their pleasure (perhaps it can be used for many things such as fun, to tease, to relax as mentioned above etc). This (untheorised) concept of feminine vocal expression once established by the scientists can then put to use by the learned scientists as a kind of truth barometer. The plausibility of women’s sexual pleasure is not what is being called into question here (for the article attests that women do in fact experience sexual pleasure and orgasm) what is being called into question here is women’s credibility as trustworthy and truthful people in the context of heterosexual couplings. The motive for their untrustworthiness is assumed (they do it to manipulate men). The scientists are actually using this data to show that women cannot be trusted for even when they do reach orgasm they still take the opportunity (any opportunity) to lie about so they are able to use men. What I find ammusing, to an extent, is that a great many men probably would not care either way! Of course studies about whether most men care if women achieve orgasm are thin on the ground……

Holly Combe // Posted 19 August 2011 at 12:05 pm

@Merryn. But surely an experience of pleasure, having been formed through that complex relation, becomes a person’s own to enjoy and claim ownership of? I see what you’re saying about autonomy and I think it’s important we continue to look at the constraints that can lead us to act in the way we do but there seems to be a very fine line between this and certain behaviour being seen to lack any authenticity at all (i.e. that the person has been duped). As you say, we do sex together and alone so I think it’s important that the “alone” part of women’s sexual experiences aren’t too easily written off in the fight to address the disproportionate pressure on us to do it for others.

You’re right that the research itself doesn’t directly call the plausibility of women’s sexual pleasure into question. However, I would still maintain the implication is there in its focus on the deliberate making of noises that could be taken to indicate orgasm/direct pleasure (but in that instance don’t). Certainly, the subsequent framing of the research in the Daily Mail plays up to such a view.

Merryn // Posted 19 August 2011 at 2:15 pm

Ah we are now touching on a deeper problem – the problem of claiming the truth and authenticity over/of an experience. Here scientists (once again) claim to know the truth (‘our’ truth) and do so by presenting ‘evidence’ in the form of women’s ‘own’ accounts. It is the situatedness of the scientists interpretation / their ‘own’ knowledge of those ‘own’ women’s accounts that we are calling into question…. Authenticity and the desire to claim ones own experience is very much a male Western trope and one which feminists have had a long and tension filled relationship with. On the one hand feminists have long argued that to claim to own any experience is an attempt to speak with authority and disconnect social relations in order to ultimately make a claim toward power (now considered ’empowering’ one-self). ‘We’ feminists (rather than I) have dismantled male authority and ‘own’ership over truth and power by situating all autonomy (the ‘I’) within the social, all individuals within their shared reality. And on the other hand, feminists also seek to claim personal power by making claims on their own individual experience – the ‘I’ am the story writer of my ‘own’ reality. You are trying to do both…. You are saying that the scientists claim to truth must be situated within the patriarchal social structure that they derive power from (and indeed it must) whilst at the same time you are saying ‘I’ have an autonomous sexual desire that I ‘own’ independent of such structures. What you get when you do this – particularly within your psychic life and often played out within the realm of sexuality, is conflicting, contradictory and painful experiences / sexual identities whereby ‘we’ are very hard on ourselves and fucked up about our heterosexualities precicely because we cannot ‘own’ our ‘own’ sexuality – it is co-constructed. It gets out from under our control and symbolically interacts with the social, particularly through fantasy, despite us wanting it to (the illusion of control is a strange beast). There has been some amazing feminist writing about this (particularly French feminism) which discusses the terrible bind femininity is in in regards to sexual desire. A part of this bind is the desire for an autonomous sexuality that can never ever be. I hear your desire for this and I understand it but it doesn’t mean that ‘I’ or ‘we’ can ever experience it. It’s the real conundrum for feminism xx

Holly Combe // Posted 19 August 2011 at 4:56 pm

… at the same time you are saying ‘I’ have an autonomous sexual desire that I ‘own’ independent of such structures.

I didn’t actually say our sexual desires are somehow independent of such structures. I suggested our experience of pleasure, having been informed by those structures, becomes our own to enjoy and claim ownership of. I really don’t see why collectively critiquing and acknowledging the systems of domination that constrain us should mean we have to view the hold those systems have over us as inevitable. This isn’t about claiming “empowerment” and refusing to admit those things ever restrict our lives. It’s about holding those constraints up and then giving people space to make the final judgment call about their own lives. It’s about respecting people’s subjectivities, without trampling all over them and crowing that, bless them, they’re in denial and we know better. Why should dismantling male authority be reliant on submitting to yet another rigid system that renders us as passive objects that require definition by an apparent authority?

While I accept there is a degree of ongoing tension between the need to critique dominant structures and the desire for autonomy, I’m not sure I agree this necessarily makes us “hard on ourselves” or “fucked up about our heterosexualities.” I think it’s possible to feel quite reconciled -as a feminist- with the non-standard parts of one’s sexuality that seem to have triumphed over what is expected and the parts that conform but nonetheless feel good. Come to think of it, any psychological pain I experience in this respect tends to relate to the necessary concealment of those triumphs from conventional society, rather than feminist guilt over the areas where I do fit in. (You mention fantasy and I’d suggest that one’s even easier. I suspect a lot of my fantasies could be viewed as “feminist friendly” but I don’t think I’d be too hard on myself about it if they weren’t. Whatever works!) Feminism is surely about liberation, not yet another way for us to berate ourselves and each other or echo patriarchy by telling other people we know them better than they know themselves.

Merryn // Posted 19 August 2011 at 6:29 pm

While I partially agree with the ‘becoming’ aspect of what you are saying and in particular I think subjectivity is (very much in the West) centred on historically contingent concepts of agency V’s structure, I ‘feel’ that feminine heterosexuality is ‘often’ expressed in contradictory ways. I guess what I’m saying is is that the scientists claims are just that, claims. The way the ‘data’ is interpretated is an attempt to discredit women’s voices no doubt, but I think using a counter claim that attempts to create another truth about women’s voices is problematic – an attempt to use ‘the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house’. Feminism is no doubt about liberation and a part of that liberation is to be ‘fucked up’ about heterosexuality (of which many men also claim to be) as I know a great many women feel. Maybe the women in the study feel conflicted about their sexual coupling (we don’t know) but the scientists iron that out into a flat version of (what is surely) multiple subjectivities that tend to be lived as contextual and muddled. I’m not sure I ever have moments of truimph over any aspects of my ‘self’, or my socialisation influences for me it’s more a hotch potch of feelings, interactions and relationships. For me feminism is about exploring those and actually letting go. I think this can be a difficult zone for feminists and for women who wish to align themselves with the ‘movement’ – a sore point if you will. I think works like ‘Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality’ really explores the gritty elements of this conundrum in both feminist theory, writing and thinking and in the lives and psychic and embodied realms of women and girls. But I do think, for me, we do need to explore and open up how sexuality can be a really conflicting realm and reality for many women, perhaps also for the women in this study. Wanting, needing and being aroused by mainstream patriachial constructions of feminity and sexual desire is one of those (for some very difficult) elements of being a feminist today that is often contextually negotiated and not settled upon prior to events (where feelings and the ‘mess’ of relations are mixed in) and for me an open engagement about this (should include) both a discussion about ‘non standard’ sexualities and patriachial constructions of feminine sexuality swirl about in a persons messy existence.

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