Perhaps the most famous female orgasm ever depicted in a movie was not, actually, a real orgasm. I’m talking, of course, about Meg Ryan’s Sally Albright convincing Billy Crystal’s Harry that he couldn’t actually know if the women he’d been sleeping with had “had an OK time.” He was skeptical.
“But how do you know,” she presses, as Harry insists, “Because I know.” To prove her point, Sally fakes an orgasm all the way through — from a slow warm-up to ecstatic shouts of, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” — before taking a nonchalant bite of salad, wearing the smirk of a woman who knows her point has been proven. Harry is convinced. The woman who asks to “have what she’s having” is convinced. I, however, am not convinced.
Is that what orgasms sound like? Is that what my orgasms are supposed to sound like? It is one thing to know that movie sex and TV sex is not like real sex, and another to truly believe it. Nobody on TV has to pause and scramble for a condom. Nobody jumps up to clean up or run to the bathroom. Nobody talks about the sex they’re currently having. And everybody orgasms at the same time. Everybody knows this is not realistic. But it doesn’t stop everyone from believing, somewhere deep down, that this is what it really should be like if the sex is good. And more specifically, this is what good sex is supposed to look and sound like. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I have found myself occasionally late-night Googling, “Is it normal to be completely silent when you orgasm?”
In those instances in TV and movies when a woman is shown having an orgasm, it tends to go pretty much one of two ways. If the situation is romantic, her partner barely has to touch her before she emits a series of extremely tasteful moans. If the situation is less than romantic, the woman is magnificently, hilariously loud. One thing she never is: silent.
Shows like Girls and Sex and the City specifically portray heterosexual sex from a woman’s perspective, and yet there is very little variation in the way supposedly genuine orgasms sound (with the possible exception of Samantha’s enthusiastic screams) in these shows. Compare Marnie’s throaty moans in Season 4, Episode 1 of Girls when she’s on the receiving end of a rim job to Charlotte’s increasingly loud vocalizations in Sex and the City when she’s on the receiving end of “Mr. Pussy” in the Season 2 episode “Freak Show.” Then compare those to orgasm scenes specifically played for laughs. Think Samantha on Sex and the City and her extremely noisy dalliance with the farmer or Tara Reid getting oral sex on American Pie. This isn’t limited to heterosexual depictions either. Think of Soso screaming with pleasure while getting oral sex from Nicky on Orange Is The New Black. These women are loud and, we’re supposed to think, a little ridiculous.
On TV right now, there is perhaps no show with more explicit sex than Outlander. The show has been praised for its female-centric approach to sex scenes, as well as the fact that these scenes are indisputably hot. In the now infamous “Wedding” episode in Season 1, on Jamie’s (count ‘em) second time ever having sex, Claire involuntarily cries out, provoking Jamie to check on her to make sure she’s alright. She tells him it only happens “if the man is a good lover.” In the wide world of sex scenes, Outlander’s are pretty good, but this still implies that good sex is always going to provoke some noise from a woman.
The thing is, as pointed out in an article on Thrillist, there is evidence to suggest that vocalizations aren’t a reflexive consequence of orgasm in women. Meaning, all of those “Oh God!”s women are supposed to make automatically might be part performance. But that doesn’t mean they're not natural.
I took a quick, extremely informal poll of a few of my friends to find out if they had ever been involuntarily inspired to scream, “Oh God, yes!” when achieving orgasm. The responses varied. Some of my friends said they were, indeed, loud during sex. Others said they might moan a bit but nothing spectacular. One friend, let’s call her Annie, says that she does make noise during sex and while some of that is a natural reaction, another part is performative. “Perhaps as performative for myself as it is for my partner, though — I identify as heterosexual, but when it comes to porn of any kind, I am most turned on by pleasure noises (for lack of a less cringe-y phrase at hand) from women," she explains. "So, there are many layers to my moans: natural reaction, how I think I should be reacting given media (not really porn, I don’t watch much) influence, and how I choose to perform to heighten the experience for myself and my partner.”
According to couples' therapist and sexologist Isiah McKimmie, making noise on purpose really can be helpful to your sex life. “I’m also a tantra teacher and sound is one of the things that we teach, that sound can actually lead to an enhanced orgasmic experience,” she tells Elite Daily. “We’re biologically wired to be turned on by the sounds of copulation.” McKimmie also posits that the tendency to orgasm quietly might be a learned behavior, perhaps from shame or because during puberty, most people had to be as quiet as possible when masturbating or having sex.
This leads to the other problem — that people literally have nowhere to go to learn about how people have sex outside media, porn, or perhaps a romance novel. But all of these are flawed in their own ways. Cindy Gallop, entrepreneur and founder of the “social sex” site MakeLoveNotPorn, says her own sexual experiences inspired the project. Gallop, who is in her 50s, is totally open about the fact that she enjoys casual sexual relationships with men in their 20s. And while she says all of these men are lovely, many of them learned everything they know about sex from porn. This sometimes leads to awkward conversations including phrases like, “Please do not come on my face.”
On MakeLoveNotPorn, regular people submit their own sex videos, kind of like dirty Instagram. The idea, Gallop says, is to show “a window into the funny, ridiculous, glorious, beautiful, comical, awkward sex that we all have every day in the real world.” She hopes her project will help facilitate communication, consent, good sexual boundaries, and good sexual behavior.
While Gallop was primarily interested in the way pornography influenced what people learned about sex, she also notes that TV, movies, and romance novels all contribute to misunderstandings and myths about what orgasms look and sound like. Of the videos submitted to MakeLoveNotPorn, Gallop says, “We have every shade of orgasm, from complete quietness (you wouldn’t even know she’d come) all the way through [to] vocalization and communication,” noting that this is as true for men as it is for women.
Another friend I polled says that while she is loud during sex she doesn’t feel like it’s because she was influenced by media. “I’m a big exhibitionist, so being performative in my sex just feels good and sexy and freeing to me,” she tells me, adding, perhaps rather specifically to her, that through voice training she’s learned to access certain pelvic sensations through vocalizing, which she can use to calm herself down or rev herself up. “Sometimes just making a lot of noise will help me turn myself on, kind of like faking it till I make it.”
I was interested to know if the people on MakeLoveNotPorn orgasmed differently with partners than by themselves. After some research, curator Bex Caputo from MLNP says, “I'm noticing that our members are often more expressive during their solo orgasms. I'm not sure this would be the case if they weren't filming their #MeTime, as I think many experience any solo play as a race to the finish line, but the presence of the camera encourages our MakeLoveNotPornstars to savor the moment and take more time to explore their pleasure.” He also notes, “While they are playing with their partners they are (quite rightly) just as concerned with their partner's pleasure as their own, if not more, but when they are alone, their focus can be exclusively on what they enjoy, and we often are our own best lovers.” All of this is to indicate that while many women may ham up the sex moans, it is as often for their own benefit as much as their partner’s.
But of course, depictions of female orgasms influence what people expect from their female partners. While in my own experience, I’ve had men not believe I had an orgasm because I do it "too quietly," Gallop tells me she recently had an encounter in which her partner was surprised by the amount of noise she did make. Both Gallop and McKimmie tell me they find women might be afraid to get loud during sex because they’re worried about being judged — perhaps like Kim Cattrall’s character “Lassie” in Porky’s, so-called for her loud response to pleasure. And so we come, as we always do, to a woman’s double standard. How loud, exactly, are we supposed to get in bed?
The answer, of course, is as loud as you feel like getting. Instead of relying on performative cues picked up from TV and movies to let your partner know they’re on the right track, try just telling them. And if you feel like you’re holding back because you believe your orgasm will not be sufficiently ladylike, I encourage you to scream your head off, make funny faces, go full Sally Albright in Katz’s Deli.
But we all have another job — as a society, I mean. And that’s to make sure kids in future generations have more resources for what real sex looks like. If sex education classes tackled biology, orgasms, consent, and communication in addition to condom usuage, maybe people wouldn’t have to learn all they know about sex from Game of Thrones. The truth is, there is no such thing as normal sex, and getting the most out of your encounters is going to require some communication. Actually learning to talk about likes, dislikes, etc is way more likely to result in a genuine, shameless, totally free orgasm. And I ask you: is there anything hotter?