The Rules of Ooohs and Ahhhs (Hint: there aren't any)

I think that I am on my way to being ready to have sex with my boyfriend but I am just worried about the whole moaning thing...during masturbation I sometimes moan, but mostly keep it quiet. Are you supposed to moan when having sex? If so, is there a technique to what you are saying or do you just do it?
Heather Corinna replies:

One of the biggest messages I (and most other sex educators I know) wish everyone would receive and embrace is that when it comes to how you express yourself sexually with things like this, there is no "supposed to." All there is, and should be, is what feels true and real for you, what you find feels good for you and what you find doesn't.

It's hard for people to really create and nurture a sexuality and sexual life that feels like their own -- like an expression of who they are, rather than who someone else is, looks or seems like -- and they enjoy if and when they're trying to follow someone else's script or somebody else's idea of how to be or respond sexually. If we were making a list of the top ten things that tend to keep people from having sex lives they really enjoy, focusing on responding to sex in ways they feel they should, rather than going with how they are really, truly, feeling and responding would be right up at the top.

Human sexuality and sex are so diverse because people are so diverse. No one sex life, way of having sex or way of responding to sex fits all. The trick is to explore and experiment to find out who we are sexually, how we feel, what we want, what we like and what feels right for us, very individually. If anyone expects sex with one partner to be just like sex with another, or thinks that the way they watched one person responding to sex is how everyone else is going to respond, they're going to need to adjust those expectations.

By all means, there are some parts of partnered sex where we can't just do our own thing, because we're not the only person there. There are ways we need to do our best to be mindful about how we behave sexually with others and ourselves to help prevent and avoid physical or emotional harm, and with some of those things, we may need to adjust how we'd behave if we weren't thinking about those things. For instance, even if it doesn't feel 100% natural to ask others for consent and verbalize our own, it's very important to do that. We need to make sure the things that feel good to us also feel good to others, so we can't just go with our own flow completely when someone else is also part of what's going on, who doesn't have the same body we do and who isn't the same person we are. If we don't want to take big risks with our health, we also need to keep safety in mind with any sex that we have, doing the things we can to reduce the risk of injury and illness for ourselves and our partners.

But when it comes to how you experience pleasure and respond to it in ways that aren't about things like safety, consent, and how far someone's leg can really go back behind their head or what they really do or don't want to risk with their life or body, there are no rules like you're thinking. No one is going to be harmed if you do or don't shave your legs, if your partner likes to keep his socks on or not, by what words you use for your gender or body parts or if you moan or you don't. (Well, not unless you're so loud you put someone at risk of being evicted from their apartment. Then you might want to turn it down a bit.) But otherwise? There's no supposed-to here: just what feels okay to you and to your partner on the whole and in the moment.

What's the technique with making sounds (or not)? You experience sex however you do at a given time, and if sounds feel like they want to come out of your mouth, you let them out. If they don't, you don't try and force it. You just be you, having whatever experience you're having, and you just let your vocal chords reflect that, like the rest of your body and the ways you express yourself. And you think about it enough to just make sure that whatever is coming out of your mouth isn't something likely to hurt the other person's feelings or make them feel unsafe.

It should always be okay to express yourself as you're feeling and as who you are sexually, even if it's different from who the other person is, what their previous partners have been like, or from what they might expect from you for some reason or another. So long as the way you express yourself sexually involves kindness, consideration and room for anyone else engaging in any kind of sex with you, sex is a place where you get to be yourself.

The fact of the matter is that, for the most part, sex is something with very few rules and regulations, unlike so much of the rest of life. For instance, there usually aren't any rights or wrongs with sex about things like:

  • what sounds to make or how soft or loud they are
  • how you dress or how much or how little you want to be undressed
  • whether your eyes are closed or open
  • how to groom yourself (like what you do with the hair on your head or anywhere else on your body, or if you do or don't wear lipstick)
  • what to ask for or not to ask for, unless a partner has expressed boundaries about anything unwanted or off-limits for them
  • what words to use for your own sexuality and identity
  • what to like or what not to like; what to want and not want
  • what to reach orgasm from or not to reach orgasm from and when to reach orgasm
  • when to start a sexual activity and when to stop, or how to position or touch someone else or yourself, beyond what feels good, comfortable and otherwise okay for each of you (and again, let's make sure we remember safety: ideally, you don't want to injure yourself or anyone else, physically or emotionally)
  • how to feel

Sometimes you might find that any of those things or other things like them influence a partner's comfort or arousal (how turned on they are). That's the way in which you or someone else might have rules, boundaries or preferences with this stuff, and/or where you or someone else may need to make adjustments sometimes so you both feel able to be your real selves without stepping on the other.

If something you want to do or don't makes someone else feel unsafe or physically or emotionally uncomfortable, you can talk it through together, creating middle ground and/or boundaries that work for you both. Some things you or a partner might want to like might make the other so uncomfortable or turned off that you just don't do those things with that partner. You or a partner might sometimes need to make some adjustments so something that works for you but doesn't for them can work for you both. For instance, maybe you will find a partner is very quiet during sex, and while you're cool with that, it leaves you with less communication than you need or less responsiveness than you want. If that were the case, you could both brainstorm to find other ways to do those things that do work for both of you, like, for instance, having your partner talking about what they enjoyed most after sex, using words instead of moans, or engaging in more direct eye contact.

Compatibility can also be an issue here: we're not going to be a good sexual fit with everyone we have sexual, romantic or other feelings for. We're also not going to be super-turned on by absolutely everyone, and everyone isn't going to be super turned-on by us, either. If you ever find that however your sexuality and/or someone else's is just really doesn't seem to work for one or both of you -- whether that's about not feeling comfy or safe, not feeling able to be who you are, or just not feeling the buzz -- that's okay, too. You just will probably need to shift that relationship to one that's not sexual and seek out sexual partners who are a better fit for either of you.

What you will want to make sure you do, however you do it, is to communicate with partners in some clear way and that they do the same with you.

Without some ways of communicating, you can't do a good job of keeping each other safe and knowing what's working for each of you and what isn't so that you can enjoy yourselves. When you're masturbating, not only might you feel and respond differently than with sex with a partner, you don't need to communicate with anyone, since you can hear yourself in your own head. It's a different story with a partner.

Making noises is one way of communicating, sure, but since "Ooooh" can also sound a lot like "Oooof," and they tend to express two very different things, moans and groans alone only get us so far with communication, anyway. So, if you do find you're not a moaner, don't feel comfortable doing that or it takes you a while to feel comfortable making noises with someone, it's not like that means you can't communicate. Even if it turns out moaning and groaning feels great for you and you do it constantly, to have good sexual communication, you're going to need to say more than "Mmmm," or "Yeah, baby." The very clearest way to communicate with sex is with words, not just monosyllables, in whatever language you and your partners share and both understand. Ideally, we want to do that before, during and after sex in some way that lets everyone involved feel filled in.

My best advice with this as with so much of your sexual life is just to be authentic. In other words, to behave in whatever way feels real to you, feels really reflective of what you're feeling, rather than being something you fake or put on or do because you think that's what you should be doing. Chances are that during your life, with any kind of sex you're having, there will be times when you'll feel quiet, and times you'll feel loud. There will probably be times you choose to be one way or another and also times when you just do either without even realizing you are because you're deep in the moment. Aiming for authenticity also means making sure you're leaving room for a partner to respond (or not) in the ways that feel true and real for them, too.

That said, sometimes people enjoy being theatrical during sex -- and sometimes being so can feel like what's real in the moment, rather than someone trying to pretend to be someone they're not out of insecurity -- and there are a lot of ways to do role play, some of which include different ways of talking of vocalizing than we might do otherwise. So, don't feel like this isn't something you can't experiment and play with sometimes if you want: just like a lot of different parts of sex, it's always okay to try things differently now and then to see what they feel like for you.

I understand that having a lot of freedom of expression or being without clear direction can sometimes feel intimidating or even scary. Know that when a sexual scenario or partnership is really right for us, and we're doing a good job with consent and care for each other, it's always going to be okay and feel okay for us to experiment with things like this, even if we are a little vulnerable or even make an ass out of ourselves now and then. Like, if you find you're more quiet most of the time, or are mostly a gentle sigh-er, but one time feel the urge to yell "COWABUNGA!" to express your feelings during sex, it should be okay. Hilarious, sure, but still okay. It's okay (and usually fun!) to laugh or be goofy during sex. It's sex, after all, not a funeral service.

Now and then a partner may also ask you to try something that you wouldn't think to try yourself, and when that happens, you can either try whatever that is or decide not to. Sometimes we'll want to step a little out of our sexual comfort zones because we think it could be a good thing, while other times we won't, either because whatever that involved doesn't really rev our engine, or because even if we think it might, we're just not comfortable doing it. All of that is also okay, and once more, your best bet is just to lead with what feels most right for in in general and at that time, in that place, with that person.

If this or other things around your possible sexual responses still feels precarious to you or has you feeling insecure, you can talk together with your boyfriend about it. You could tell him that you are often quiet in your own masturbation and aren't sure about what sounds you will or won't make during sex with him, and need a little reassurance sounds or no sounds are okay, maybe even talk about how you are going to communicate together, which is a great idea, anyway, and would be even if you were the loudest moaner on earth. If you want to feel free in exploring what sounds you might make, you could ask for support in doing that, maybe giving him the same kind of permission and reassurance to explore what sounds he does or doesn't make, too. He may be thinking or worrying about this stuff just like you are, after all.

Last, but not least, if you find you're feeling pretty self-conscious about this, and really worried about doing sex right or wrong, you might just want to check in with yourself about your readiness for sexual activity with this person at this time in your life, relationship and sexuality.

How long or quickly it takes any of us to get comfortable being sexual with others is as individual as every other part of sex, and sometimes we may really want to be sexual with someone, and feel all the way there in some ways, but not others. For sure, it's common to be nervous or unsure about anything that's big and new to us, but if you're finding that you're really worried about things like this, and talking together doesn't really help, what you might want to do is just hold off a little longer or take more time with the ways of being physical or sexual you're already doing and feeling comfortable with to build more trust, comfort and confidence. If and when we ever think we might need a little more time before doing anything sexual, it's always a good idea to give ourselves that time.

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