Sarah, a pseudonymous 34-year-old artist from Glasgow, is making quiet retching sounds over the phone. I’ve called her to talk about an ex-boyfriend, and her reaction — a couple of muffled heaves, followed by an awkward silence — implies that it’s not a very comfortable subject. “I don’t even know why I still feel so grossed out by him,” she says after taking a few seconds to gather herself. “But honestly, thinking about it all now, I just wanna vomit.”
The problem, she says, was his usage of the phrase “I love you” during sex. The first time he did it was a mere three weeks into their relationship, and he “just started saying it over and over, in a really strange low voice, almost like he was possessed.”
It’s not that Sarah didn’t like her boyfriend (let’s call him Steve). Outside of the bedroom, they got on well enough. He was also an artist, and they had a lot in common. Sexually, however, he was way too intense. During the act, he would randomly grab Sarah’s face, stare into her eyes and groan “I love you” in a voice that seemed “barely human.” He would do this while thrusting “at snail speed,” and repeating the words tonelessly until he came.
“At first I said it back, maybe more to be polite,” Sarah says. “But after a few rounds of it, I stopped responding. Maybe he thought saying [I love you] would make him seem really passionate and good in bed? Or like an intense artist? I don’t know. It definitely didn’t do any of those things for me.” She broke up with him five months later.
The politics of saying “I love you” during sex are surprisingly complex, and there are countless articles and Reddit threads offering advice on whether it’s an appropriate mid-coital declaration. For some — 75 percent of us, apparently — a well-timed “I love you” is the key component to satisfying sex. After all, if you blurt it out in the throes of passion with someone you’re really into, it’s a clear sign that you’re enjoying it. Your brain has been flooded with dopamine, you’ve been overwhelmed with desire and you’re shedding your emotional inhibitions. What’s not to like?
“Hearing ‘I love you’ in bed makes me feel sexy and wanted,” says Adam, a 26-year-old personal trainer from Australia. “It also brings you much closer to your partner and intensifies the whole experience.” Georgia, 32, from London, agrees: “It doesn’t have to be something out of a Hallmark movie, where you whisper ‘I love you’ at each other. It can be matter of fact, an acknowledgement that I’m doing something intimate with you and it’s lovely,” she says.
And yet, for so many others, a mid-sex “I love you” is a real red flag. When I put out an Instagram story asking for people’s opinions on the phrase, I was immediately flooded with terror-stricken responses like, “Hate!” “I REALLY DON’T LIKE IT” and “It makes me very dry.” The reasons for this repulsion vary, but often, the problem seems to be the delivery rather than the words themselves. I got some complaints of “cheesy” whispers that “kill the mood” and heighten self-awareness, and one follower, who asked to be anonymous, mentioned an ex-girlfriend who would “wail” the phrase “I love you, daddy” in a sickly-sweet baby voice moments before climax. “It was haunting,” he says.
Sometimes, too, the words just feel out of place, and come loaded with a tenderness that feels at odds with the more primal nature of sex. “Saying ‘I love you’ takes away from a sexy moment and makes it sentimental,” affirms Flora (yep, another pseudonym), 30 from London. “Call me heartless bitch, but I’ll take it.”
Those three little words can also be a major trigger for people with fears around intimacy, especially if it’s being breathed into their face by someone who’s already inside them (or who they’re inside of). Being this close to someone, both physically and emotionally, isn’t a sensation that a lot of people can handle, especially with people they’re not dating. Like too much eye contact, these earnest declarations can spark feelings of fear or vulnerability, and make people defensive without realizing it. That’s why so many end up being scared or grossed out, fueled with an overpowering urge to run away screaming if the words are said before they’re ready to hear them.
“No one had ever said it to me before my current partner, and at first it made me want to die,” says Grace, a 31-year-old producer from Edinburgh. But after realizing that her reaction might have something to do with her own issues around intimacy — she also hates sexy eye contact — she tried to force herself to be more receptive. It was uncomfortable, but ultimately worth it: “I’ve grown to love it now because he says it so meaningfully.”
Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever let slip an ex’s name or called out for a parent during sex knows, it’s hard to control what comes out of your mouth in the heat of the moment. It’s even more difficult when you’re dealing with an emotion like love, which has an inextricable biological link to sex. As anthropologist and leading human attraction expert Helen Fisher explained to Glamour last year, genital stimulation drives up the brain’s dopamine system, which induces similar feelings to “intense romantic love.” This sensation is boosted once more when you orgasm, as your body gets flooded with oxytocin and vasopressin, the “chemicals associated with attachment.”
In other words, if you suddenly feel compelled to declare your love while having sex, it’s probably because — at least in that fleeting moment — you may genuinely feel it. Of course, that doesn’t mean the sentiment will survive the post-nut clarity, as Adam testifies: “I’ve definitely said ‘I love you,’ and regretted it as soon as I pulled out,” he admits. “I also think I’ve said it without meaning it, just because I thought it was what the guy I was with wanted to hear.”
And so, while there may be studies that claim “I love you” is more erotic than both foreplay and sexy lingerie, it’s best not to take them as gospel. Like everything in sex, it’s completely dependent on the person you’re having it with — and if you start blurting out the phrase because you think it will make the experience hotter for your partner, you may end up being horribly mistaken; in fact, you may end up scarring them for life.
“I’m still so traumatized,” says Sarah, letting out a small, slightly frightened laugh. She admits that even today, 18 months after her breakup, she continues to feel creeped out by her ex’s monotone sex murmurs. That said, she’s also trying her best to keep an open mind. “Honestly,” she adds finally, “[Steve] was just a cringe person. Everything was contrived and a little bit embarrassing with him. Maybe if someone who I really loved said it — I mean someone who was hot and normal and not a prick — it wouldn’t be so bad.”
That’s when I hear her retch again.
On second thought, maybe not.