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It’s a Fine Line between (Sexual) Pleasure and Pain

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Sexual behavior: it is one of the most universal behaviors, and yet one of the biggest taboos in many cultures. It can be experienced with excitement and pride as well as disgust and guilt. It seems this ambivalence surrounding sexual behavior is actually rooted in the act itself, and our expressions of sexual excitement.

Researchers from the department of psychology of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid were interested in answering the question whether there is a facial expression of sexual excitement. The authors analyzed 100 clips from the website www.beautifulagony.com of volunteers who recorded their own facial behavior while performing sexual acts and then reaching an orgasm. They used the Facial Action Coding System to code muscular movements based on visible changes in the face. What they found is that the expression of sexual excitement is very similar to the expression of pain (Fernández-Dols, Carrera, & Crivelli, 2011).

I guess the French call it ‘la petite mort’ for a reason. Maybe our body experiences pain when we climax, but we consciously experience it as pleasure? Or could it be that our bodies can’t tell the difference between pleasure and pain during sexual excitement? Although there is a striking similarity between pain and sexual excitement expressions, the authors note that the two are not identical. They mention previous research by Hughes and Nicholson (2008), who found that although the expression of sexual pleasure is sometimes mistaken for pain, observers can distinguish the two with better than chance accuracy.

So what do people express when they orgasm, and what is the function of the expression of sexual excitement? According to Fernández-Dols and colleagues it is unlikely that these expressions are merely symptoms of muscular tension and its consequent release, without any communicative function. From an evolutionary point of view, the unique character of universal face-to-face human coitus suggests that facial expressions of sexual excitement likely have communicative value in humans (Fernández-Dols, Carrera, & Crivelli, 2011). However, the question of what this communicative value is exactly, seems difficult to answer.

Fernández-Dols, J., Carrera, P., & Crivelli, C. (2010). Facial Behavior While Experiencing Sexual Excitement Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 35 (1), 63-71 DOI: 10.1007/s10919-010-0097-7

Hughes, S. M., & Nicholson, S. E. (2008). Sex differences in the assessment of pain versus pleasure facial expressions. Proceedings of the 2nd Annual Meeting of the North Eastern Evolutionary Psychology Society (pp. 133–142). Retrieved from http://www.jsecjournal.com/NEEPShughes.pdf.

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