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In the movie "When Harry Met Sally," Meg Ryan's character demonstrates exactly how easy it is for women to give the impression of pleasure.
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/30/2010 8:13:14 AM ET 2010-06-30T12:13:14

In college, I lived next door to an agonizingly pretty cocktail waitress. Late at night, after she’d come home from work, her boyfriend — he drove a Porsche, naturally — would arrive for his nightly booty call. The walls were thin. Soon, like clockwork, her voice would pierce the drywall like a steam locomotive’s whistle: “hehehehehe” followed by “yesyesyes!” and then an explosion of high-pitched “ohmigodohmigodohmigod!”

While I was envious at the time, now it seems that all her ecstatic vocals might have been just the female equivalent of “Your butt looks great in those jeans, Babe. Honest.” A study released last month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior shows that those seemingly uncontrollable “ohmigods” during apparent orgasm are often play-acting meant to “manipulate” men.

The scientists, Gayle Brewer of the University of Central Lancashire and Colin Hendrie of the University of Leeds, asked 71 women between the ages of 18 and 48 a series of questions. They broke down the vocalizations into categories that included “silence,” “moan/groan,” “scream/shriek/squeal,” “words” (such as “Yes!” or the partner’s name, and “instructional commands” like “more.” Other questions asked why the women made the vocalizations and at what point they themselves had an orgasm, if they had an orgasm at all, and, if not, why they were doing all that shouting.

Well, it turned out that “women were making conscious vocalizations in order to influence their partner rather than as a direct expression of sexual arousal,” Brewer told me.

Women seek to speed things up
In the paper revealing these results, Brewer and Hendrie use the phrase “manipulate male behavior to [the women’s] advantage” which sounds like the women were trying to wrangle a pair of diamond earrings out of the guy.

But that’s not really what they meant. For example, “women reported using these vocalizations to ‘speed up’ their partner’s ejaculation due to boredom, fatigue, discomfort, time limitations,” Brewer said.

In other words, the sounds the women emitted were not because they were out-of-control excited. Indeed, when they were most excited, say during oral sex when they were more likely to have an orgasm, they didn’t do much of the old scream-n-shout.

Rather, it was a tactic they used to induce their man to do something, like get it over with. In most cases, they were also trying to be nice. “Importantly, 92 percent of participants felt very strongly that these vocalizations boosted their partner’s self-esteem,” the paper stated, “and 87 percent reported using them for this purpose,” like the hilarious scene from the 1975 movie “The Stepford Wives”: “You’re the king, Frank!”

Vote: Does loud mean faking it?

Of course, as Meg Ryan proved in another movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” women can use their voices to fake an orgasm, too. In Brewer’s survey, more than 25 percent of women routinely used vocalization to fake it. They did it about 90 percent of the time they realized they would not climax. About 80 percent faked using vocalizations about half the time they were unable to have an orgasm.

Women do this because their men are so goal-directed they won’t stop until a woman climaxes, the authors say.

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That does not surprise Charlene Muehlenhard, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. In a 2009 study she co-authored in the Journal of Sex Research, called “Men’s and Women’s Reports of Pretending Orgasm,” she explored the idea that men and women tend to follow scripted roles. Men are supposed to give a woman an orgasm “and her orgasm proves the quality of his work,” she said. Because women do not ejaculate, men have to rely on some other outward sign, like a woman singing “Oh Sweet Mystery of Life!” (“Young Frankenstein”) to know we’ve done our job.

So women vocalize as a way of saying “attaboy” even if they weren’t all that excited. As one woman told Muehlenhard, “I pretended to have an orgasm so that my partner would [finish]. He couldn’t [finish] until I orgasmed.”

Even men fake it, though not as much
(Men fake, too, though we do it much less frequently. In Muehlenhard’s study, 36 percent of men who did fake it at least once used “vocal acting” whereas 61 percent of women who faked it at least once used vocal acting.)

This behavior could have deep evolutionary roots. “We are biological creatures,” Muehlenhard said. “The biological origins of making noise during sex, though it is hard to study, can be explored by looking at animals.”

For example, a 2008 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found that female macaques “influence the likelihood of ejaculation by calling versus remaining silent and by adjusting the timing of call onset.”

Male macaques thrust at a higher rate when females vocalized in certain ways. It was not the thrusting that induced the calling, it was the calling that induced the thrusting.

The females controlled the males with their voices. When the females did not issue the right kind of vocal calls, males tended not to ejaculate. The human take-away message? If you want a man to have his own climax, say the right things.

Of course, as Muehlenhard explained, “our culture lays on top of our biology. There is a lot of evidence that biology and socialization and culture work together to influence” our behaviors, especially the way we have sex.

Sadly, culture and socialization do not necessarily teach us accurate lessons. Studies consistently show that men and women think they know just what the other gender desires, but that we are often wrong. So we end up trying to outguess each other. That’s why Muehlenhard thinks there could be a downside to the kind of manipulation Brewer found.

There's a downside to all that noise
“It seems problematic to make arousal noises when one is actually bored or in pain,” she said. “That would be likely to convey misinformation to one’s partner, who is likely to think that this sexual activity is pleasing and should be repeated next time. I think that in general, honesty is the best policy.”

Which is not to say that giving our lovers a little dash of confidence with some extra “hehehehe” and “ohmigoohmigodohmigod” (or, as one woman I know described her husband’s recent outburst: “Duuuude!”) even if you aren’t really feeling it is always a bad thing. “People think that it’s O.K. to do things to arouse their sexual partners and to make them feel good,” Muehlenhard said. “If making noise arouses one’s partner, that might be O.K.”

But just so you know, your butt really does look great in those jeans.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction," now in paperback.

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