The other day, I was engaging in some nonreproductive coitus with my partner when I suddenly became aware of a strange sensation. Between my intermittent moans and the requisite heavy breathing, there were these heavy, elongated periods of near-deafening silence — the kind I wasn’t exactly used to hearing. I looked down, and there he was, laying there in repose like a slumbering… I don’t know, mountaintop? My worst fear is fucking someone to death, so I quickly stopped and — somewhat frantically — gasped out, “Holy shit, are you dead?” His eyes fluttered open and his face reanimated with a life it was lacking just a few seconds ago. “Keep going!” he said. “Feels great!”
Now, I’m not the first person, and definitely not the last, to get dead-fished by a guy during what should be perfectly moan-worthy sex. All the usual corners of the internet like Reddit and Quora are brimming with complaints about this, and quiet, inanimate men were the scourge of the internet after a firestorm of #scaredtomoan memes went viral earlier this year. There’s even a whole genre of male sex noise videos on YouTube for people who need emotional and spiritual support when dealing with a quiet partner, the likes of who, as many people seem to agree, can be filed under the genus of “trash.”
Harsh, but it makes sense why someone might think that — as psychotherapist, sexuality counselor and author Ian Kerner explains, “When partners are quiet, it’s not always clear they’re enjoying what’s happening. Vocalizing is an important part of sexual communication because it tells our partners when something feels good and when to keep going.” It also makes our partners feel good about themselves: one study found that a major reason women moan so loudly during sex is to boost their male partner’s self-esteem, not because they’re any closer to orgasm.
To anyone who’s familiar with heterosexual sex, this shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a well-accepted fact that female members of most primate species — including our own — tend to be more vocal than men in bed. “If male orgasm is a muffled crash of cymbals, female orgasm is full-on opera,” writes Christopher Ryan in the much-acclaimed monogamy takedown book Sex at Dawn. “But if the roles were reversed, [it] wouldn’t be funny — it wouldn’t even make sense.”
Why is that, though? Who decided it was women’s job to — as Ryan puts it — “sing opera” while men just awkwardly slow clap in the back? And what about couples who aren’t heterosexual? Are their silent male partners “trash,” too?
If you’re looking to point the finger at someone (or something), you could blame evolution. There are tons of evolutionary theories that attempt to explain an area of research called “female copulatory vocalization,” the leading being that women evolved to raise the roof in order to foster something called sperm competition. I’ll save you the science lesson, but basically, it involves many men having sex with one woman so the strongest of their sperm can battle it out for eggy glory. (This same theory is often used to rationalize why people are turned on by gangbangs and might not be innately monogamous.) How this relates to how loud each gender is during sex is simple: the louder the moans of the lucky lady, the more men she’ll invite to the party, and the more likely she is to be fertilized by the strongest, beefiest, bestest boi sperm.
By that logic, men’s relative silence might be an evolutionary adaptation to keep said woman to themselves. By making less noise, they’re more likely to keep their little tryst to themselves, thus ensuring it’s their sperm that wins the race. Put more crassly, it might be an effort to keep a date night from turning into a gangbang. Romantic!
However, not everyone buys what former American Psychological Association President, masculinity researcher and author Ronald Levant refers to as “that bullshit.” To him, evolutionary theories like those say more about how well contemporary researchers can apply their beliefs and stereotypes to ancient people than it does about what those ancient people were actually doing. “Decades ago, I looked at the evolutionary psychology stuff, and decided it was garbage,” he says. “All it does is confirm modern stereotypes we have about gender, then put forth some teleological rationale for why. There’s absolutely no evidence humans behaved in these ways — it’s purely theoretical.”
A better way to look at men’s sexual silence, he says, is to examine the way certain masculine norms have restricted their ability to express emotions. “Some men are taught from childhood that if they’re sad, they shouldn’t cry,” says Levant. “If they’re happy, they shouldn’t show it. If they love their mom, they shouldn’t show attachment emotions like fondness or affection lest they be called a ‘momma’s boy.’ So boys who grow up in homes that conform to traditional masculine norms tend to get the message that you just don’t express what you’re feeling, which may explain why some men have trouble expressing pleasure or enthusiasm during sex as adults. To them, it’s ‘wimpy’ or ‘feminine.’” Meanwhile, many women get the message that sex should be performative, and that emotional expression is a-okay. This early gender grooming has a tendency to extend into adulthood where it can materialize — consciously or otherwise — in the way we fuck.
Nick, a 30-year-old director and editor who tells me he’s “too embarrassed to make noise” when he’s having sex, says he’s stealth-quiet during the act because he feels making a lot of noise “isn’t manly.” When I counter with the observation that being too afraid to make noise might not be terribly “manly” either, he regales me with a tale about how stoic his father was and how much he admired dad’s apparent invulnerability. “I think I just associated silence with strength,” Nick says, vaguely trailing off like he’s having some sort of realization. “Also, I wasn’t expecting to get psychoanalyzed like this.”
Plot twist! Daniel Crook, a musician and artist who often uses masculinity as inspiration for his work, says he sees a lot of Nick in the men he has sex with. “My theory is that there’s a fear that making noise or expressing pleasure will be seen as effeminate,” he tells me. “Silence makes it easier to play the role of ‘man.’” (Of course, it also makes it a lot harder to know when something feels good, hurts or needs to change.)
Similarly, my colleague C. Brian Smith says he’s inaudible in bed because of what he dubs “unresolved self-loathing and internalized homophobia.” In his colorful sexual history meeting guys on apps and Craigslist, he’s found the sessions to be “nearly silent,” an observation Levant says might have something to do with what’s called “discrepancy strain,” or the discomfort caused by comparing their own behavior to internalized masculine norms. (It doesn’t help that Smith’s roommate sleeps like, 10 feet from his face.)
That said, Randy, my 31-year-old best friend, sounds like a chihuahua with hiccups when he’s getting fucked (I know, I’ve heard it from across the house). “I guess some of that might have to do with bottoming and taking on the more stereotypically ‘feminine’ role as the receiver (which is a dumb way to look at it — gender isn’t defined by sexual positioning). But really, it just feels good. If you’ve ever had someone touch your prostate, it’s not as easy to play dead fish as you’d like to think.” Also important to note is the actual environment sex takes place in. As Smith notes, “My gay friends in long-term relationships report having much louder sex, particularly those in homes with private pools.” (Well, a private pool will make you scream for anything.)
It would be wrong, though, to blame all of men’s sexual silence on gender roles and masculine norms. There are plenty of other reasons why the pleasant sound of moist genitalia slapping together might be the only sound in the room. According to Ian Kerner, some guys aren’t necessarily being silent, they’re just distracted by the sex itself or “trying” really hard. “When asked why they don’t talk or make more sound during sex, a lot of my male clients say they’re just really immersed in what they’re doing, or that they’re feeling really connected and present,” he explains. “So, I wouldn’t necessarily say that not vocalizing is subtractive of their pleasure.”
Redditor modestspade backs up this theory: “I have to consciously make noise during sex. Otherwise I’d just sit back and enjoy it. Especially blowjobs, I’d love to just soak it in, but I have to make sure to fake some moans or say ‘yeah, that’s great,’ or ‘oh baby.’”
Other men are just quiet, thoughtful people whose quiet thoughtfulness extends into their sexual personality. Ian Lecklitner, another MEL colleague, says for him, it’s less about shame or masculinity’s stranglehold on his emotions, and more a reflection of who he is in life. “I’m just not the loudest or most vocal person in general, which might translate to the bedroom,” he says. Forty-one-year-old stay-at home dad John agrees: “I’m an introvert, so it just feels more natural when other people take on that role.” That, or they’d just rather give the floor to someone else, as Redditor j0hnd0 writes in an r/sex thread about men’s lack of moaning, “I guess I’m in the minority, but I often do shut up so I can hear the sounds that my lady is making.”
What’s more important than the reasons men are silent, though, are the responses to it. Because it’s such a derisive and sensitive topic, experts like Kerner do think men’s sexual vocalization needs to be taken more seriously by men who might not realize the negative effect their silence can have (though hardly anyone could realistically argue someone is “trash” for innocently slacking on that realization). “Provided they’re comfortable doing so and being louder wouldn’t create any pressure or anxiety, I try to encourage my male clients to be more vocal during sex,” says Kerner. “It’s an important part of sexual communication. If you can find ways of signaling arousal and pleasure, it gives your partner the opportunity to respond to what feels good to you and build upon that arousal.” Plus, it makes them feel like a champ, which can heighten the passion and enthusiasm all around.
It doesn’t have to be small dog-like yelps, a Howard Dean scream or anything even remotely resembling this guy’s orgasm noises; it could just be some light moaning, exhaling loudly, groaning or just simply saying what feels good or what you want done to you (which is a crucial part of dirty talk). “Whether it’s sharing fantasies, vocalizing in the moment, being able to jump into a language of sex that’s more primal, eroticizing, objectifying, sexually appreciative, those are all sexual exciters that are additive to the sexual experience,” Kerner says. The payoff for at least trying to pipe up a little bit is pretty big, too — studies show that people who make more noise during sex tend to report greater sexual satisfaction than their more reserved counterparts.
Of course, lots of men already know this. There are truly as many men online bragging about how loud they are as there are partners of men lamenting their quietude, so it may only be a matter of time before the dead fish come back to life.