If your partner flashed a big grin while orgasming, what would you do? As a Westerner with years of societal biases from movies, television, and porn telling me what an acceptable O-face looks like, I would definitely find it at least a little odd.
But in some cultures, it’s totally acceptable—even expected—to smile while climaxing.
That’s one of the findings to come out of a recently published study on facial expressions of orgasms and pain across cultures. Researchers from universities in the UK and Spain used machine learning, theoretical analysis, and human perception experiments to find out whether people perceived pain and pleasure on other people’s faces in the same ways. Their findings are published in PNAS this month.
Carlos Crivelli, an author on the study and lecturer in psychology at De Montfort University in Leicester, told me in an email that the starting point of their research hinged on a question: Do we all agree on what different facial expressions mean?
His short answer is no.
The team of researchers compared available observational data on facial expressions across cultures with new data from human perception experiments in the lab. Observers from Western and East Asian cultures were shown computer-generated faces to simulate various expressions and asked whether the facial movements matched their perceptions of “pain” or “orgasm,” and how closely the face showed that expression (“very weak” to “very strong”).
Dynamic mental representations of facial expressions of "pain" and "orgasm." Credit: Distinct facial expressions represent pain and pleasure across cultures
Despite common belief and earlier studies, the researchers found that pain and orgasm are physically and perceptually distinct in each culture—that is, the face people make when they’re having an orgasm is not the same face they make when they are in pain.
They also found that while pain was rated similarly across cultures, there were major differences when it came to orgasm. Wide-open eyes were more likely to be associated with orgasm among Westerners, and smiling in East Asian cultures, the study says.
Credit: Distinct facial expressions represent pain and pleasure across cultures
“These findings seem to be disturbing for many because common sense usually tells us that we can read people’s emotions on their faces like a book,” Crivelli said. “The important point is that humans develop solid, consensual mental representations that ‘have a life of their own’ with important consequences for human behavior… The data from our study do not support the idea that facial behavior conveys ‘universal’ emotional messages. Culture and biology play a major role in shaping the diversity that we found.”