At about 3 p.m. one day this winter -- a snow day -- I found myself surrounded by the sounds of people fucking. That’s what people do on snow days (at least, when they don’t write for the Internet. Then it’s just a normal workday).
Ordinarily, sex noises don’t bother me much; I generally like to think my attitude toward other people having sex is, “Cool, dude, you do you (or whomever else you want, in whatever way you agree to and pursue consensually).” I tend to agree with Maureen O'Connor: "Sex happens. Sex noises happen. That’s life."
On that particular snow day, though, when I found myself trapped in a thin-walled echo chamber of other people’s heavy breathing sounds and the quick, consistent thumping that usually indicates a better time for him than for her, I wasn’t feeling so chill. I was less than a month out of a serious relationship and deep into the midwinter feels, which -- combined with my post-breakup feels -- had turned me into a celibate curmudgeon who took a lot of baths and practically lived in a horrendous, snot-co...
What is there to do, though, when someone is getting off a little too loudly, and when -- if ever -- is it acceptable to tell that person to stop? One option -- that many New Yorkers take often enough, apparently -- is to dial up 3-1-1 and file a noise complaint. DNAinfo recently compiled the incidences of sex noise complaints into a fun little infographic, which indicates that residents of all five boroughs can be a bit prudish about hearing their neighbors fucking.
Filing a noise complaint didn’t occur to me, even in the depths of my celibate curmudgeonliness. Admittedly, the fact that people alert the authorities to the occurrence of sex sounds strikes me as a bit mismatched for the offense. Because, honestly -- barring the possibility of having to listen to other people doing it for, like, eight straight hours -- is loud sex really so bad?
“It is like my least favorite thing ever,” a close friend told me over g-chat. “I find it viscerally disgusting, especially if I know the people. I don’t know, I guess I just feel ... left out? Not like I want to join, but I feel envious, I guess, that people are having a special moment and it’s pleasurable and I’m not part of it. It’s like a weird type of FOMO.”
“FOMO” doesn’t seem like the most legitimate reason for filing a noise complaint, but it does actually get at what makes loud sex different from other sorts of noise pollution. It’s an act in which we can imagine ourselves participating, and the sounds that come from it are a special form of communication. Moaning is a pretty simple way to tell your partner you’re into whatever is going on, but what’s the message for the person on the other side of your closed door? Should an unintentional overhearer just give you a mental high-five, or should they feel weird and annoyed?
“The loudness itself isn't bad,” another friend told me. “The times loud sex has bothered me is when it has felt unnatural, like someone is screaming loudly and it feels like a performance -- as though he or she has only ever watched cheesy porn. I much prefer hearing people have sex than what I hear more often, which is couples arguing.”
She wasn’t the only person to cite strangers’ brawling as being similarly uncomfortable to hearing people bone. Another friend characterized both as being “obtrusive enough, awkward to address, in the Venn diagram middle” of stuff you need to learn to live with, and stuff you need to do something about. But, oddly enough, I think we can more readily accept the sounds of fighting than we can the sounds of an orgasm, for fairly obvious reasons: violence is culturally acceptable where pleasure and sensuality are not. We’re a bunch of prudes.
Consider this: Last month, as I collected people’s accounts of their masturbation rituals, I found that the vast majority made some mention of trying desperately not to be overheard. I get that, because who wouldn’t? Masturbation is taboo, especially for women; we’re not supposed to let anyone know we’re the sorts of sexual beings who crave pleasure so much that we don’t necessarily want to rely on someone else to get it. With sex, there’s a little more leeway, because at least you’re responding to someone other than yourself.
But the judgment persists, and often so does the discomfort -- because we’re not taught to believe that sex sounds just like any other noise. We’re too unaccustomed to dealing with the implications of loud, carefree pleasure to ignore it the way we would a wailing infant or a yappy dog, but could it really be so much worse than either of those things? If anything, even when the loud sex is not our own, shouldn’t the sound of someone getting it on (with a partner, or even with themselves) give all of us -- even the fleece-robed celibate curmudgeons among us -- a little more hope for the world?