I once had a boyfriend who lived in one of those creaky old apartment buildings with noisy steam pipes and radiators that clang. Due to some mystery of its construction, noises carried vertically. In the kitchen, we heard neighbors three floors up cooking their dinner. In the bedroom, we heard sex. Everyone heard the sex. Sometimes we heard multiple sex acts, occurring simultaneously but, we believed, in different apartments. It was a symphony of sex noises, a grunting glee club of unseen strangers humping in beds directly above or below ours. Annoying, on nights we would have preferred quiet. Embarrassing, awkward, and occasionally arousing. (“Did you hear that girl last night?” a neighbor once asked. “She sounded hot.”)
But the most important revelation of the noisy-sex apartment was how quickly we learned to live with noisy sex — and to have our own noisy sex, and not give a damn who heard.
Sexual etiquette and neighbor relations being relatively prickly social negotiations, the issue of noisy sex often comes up in advice columns. New York Times "Social Q’s" columnist Philip Galanes recently fielded a question from a widow who, after finding and making love once again, received a note from a neighbor that “pointed out the walls in our building are thin and politely asked that I take that into account while being intimate.” Galanes advised the widow to quiet down and move rooms during sex; the note-slipping woman “handled an awkward situation with grace.” Likewise, Slate’s "Dear Prudence" columnist Emily Yoffe once advised the neighbor of a noisy-sex-haver to seek a face-to-face conversation to request he “keep it down.” Both columns represent what I have come to believe is the dominant view on noisy sex: That the noisy-sex-havers are at fault, and the onus is on them to quiet down or seek alternate venues for climax.
I could not disagree more.
Because if adults can’t have noisy sex in their own homes, with the doors and windows shut, then where can noisy sex occur? Galanes and Yoffe both recommend the sex-havers simply cease to be noisy — but this strikes me as a horrible injustice. The whole point of being a wage-earning, home-owning (or -renting) adult is that you can do whatever you want to do in the privacy of your home. And noisy sex is fun. You don’t make noise unless you are enjoying sex, and since the creation of an enjoyable sex act can be a delicately balanced thing, impeding on any component — sonic or otherwise — risks ruining the enjoyability. What’s more, making noise is itself a primal pleasure. This is not to say quiet sex is not fun. Merely that, of the many types of sex a human can have, “noisy” is a legitimate and useful variety to have in your repertoire. Noisy sex may not be appropriate every time — perhaps you are saving your vocal chords for an upcoming operetta — but it is a reasonable and relatively harmless enhancement.
By “relatively harmless,” I mean that sex noises don’t actively injure or oppress anyone. They may be awkward; overhearers are forced to think about sex at a moment when they would prefer not to. (Or worse, when they, too, are having sex, in which case they suddenly feel like they’re taking part in an orgy with Bob from 3A.) Like an accidental glimpse of an acquaintance’s naked body, overheard orgasms may be seared in the mind.
Nevertheless, the overhearers’ inconvenience is relatively minor. As far as noisy neighbors go, sexually noisy neighbors are really not that intrusive. The noisy part lasts only a few minutes, which is more than can be said for some colicky babies and barking dogs I have known. (To say nothing of the ongoing jackhammer renovations in the building outside my window as we speak.) But to tell the noisy-sex-havers to remove an entire genre of sex from their repertoire in the privacy of their own homes due to some third party’s minor discomfort is a significant burden. And so the onus is on the overhearing-sex-listener to deal with it. You can dull the noise by turning on a radio, putting in earplugs, or making some noise of your own. You can simply ignore it for a couple minutes. Neighbors who throw noisy parties are generally allowed a few hours of indulgence. Shouldn’t vocal sex-havers be afforded a few minutes?
In the rare event that noisy sex lasts longer than an hour, the noisy neighbor can be assumed to be filming a porno, in which case the problem is more of a commercial-zoning issue or something.
There are some exceptions to this rule. Roommate arrangements may demand a conversation, and multi-generational households require some delicacy. If you believe your neighbor’s noisy-sex act also breaks the law (his orgasm noises coincide with those of an animal, for instance) you may need to alert the authorities. When the sex in question occurs in a private apartment between presumably consenting adults, however, the noisemakers owe nothing to the neighbors. Sex happens. Sex noises happen. That’s life.
This is not to say the neighbors have no recourse. When a neighbor’s melodramatic orgasms wake up the whole building, bystanders can laugh. They can gossip. They can raise their eyebrows at fellow neighbors they encounter in the stairwell. They can even express mild arousal behind Screaming Sally’s back. These communal acknowledgments are sometimes necessary to cut sexual tension or reduce awkwardness, in the same way one might acknowledge a foul smell in a shared elevator. But just as confronting the person who caused the smell would be rude (do not shout “J’accuse!” at a stranger who farts), confronting strangers about their sex lives is unacceptable.
“But what if Screaming Sally doesn’t know how loud she is?” you may ask. “She might be embarrassed — maybe I should alert her.” No. You should not. Striking up an unprompted sexual discussion with a stranger — particularly a female stranger who lives alone, whose door you may or may not be lurking outside of, while slipping handwritten notes under her door — is creepy. If she’s worried about her volume, she will pay attention to noises coming from other apartments and adjust accordingly. Someone who is loud enough during sex to be heard through a wall, however, probably knows she is noisy. And she probably just doesn’t care. And that is her prerogative.