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Why Orgasm Faces Differ Across Cultures

Fun fact: The open-mouth O-face is distinctly Western

The face that someone makes when they climax depends on where in the world they come from (pun completely unavoidable): That’s one of the results of a particularly fascinating study published early this month. More specifically, researchers found that people from Western and East Asian cultures have different understandings of which facial expressions actually indicate the moment you blow your load. Westerners expect widened eyes and gaping mouths, while Easterners predict closed eyes and tight-lipped smiles.

On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, the researchers also found that the facial expression people generally believe to be associated with pain —  lowered brows, stretched mouths, wrinkles noses and raised cheeks —  is universal across both cultures. You can check out both orgasm and pain faces (from both participating cultures) in the video below.

To come to these conclusions, researchers used a computer program to create an animated face that would model various facial expressions. Forty male and female participants from Western and East Asian cultures were shown 3,600 randomly generated expressions and asked how well each matched up with their mental representation of an orgasm or pain face. (The researchers selected participants with minimal exposure to other cultures, to control for cross-cultural interactions.)

As you might expect, people from both cultures consistently recognized their own cultural version of orgasm and pain faces. But what made their expectations of an “O-face” so different? According to the study’s authors, it might have something to do with cultural ideals:

“These cultural differences correspond to current theories of ideal affect that propose that Westerners value high arousal positive states such as excitement and enthusiasm, which are often associated with wide-open eye and mouth movements, whereas East Asians tend to value low arousal positive states, which are often associated with closed-mouth smiles.”

As for why the pain face seems to be much more universal than the O-face, study author José-Miguel Fernández-Dols theorizes that it could have something to do with the evolutionary benefit of being able to accurately convey that you may be sick or injured. “The expression of pain could have more adaptive relevance than the expression of sexual pleasure,” he says. “On the other hand, the expression of pain could be more visible than the expression of sexual pleasure, but we don’t know at this moment.”

But why did these researchers specifically choose to study orgasm and pain faces, as opposed to other common facial expressions? Fernández-Dols says it was because the O-face and pain-face look remarkably similar, but somehow manage to convey two very different social messages, and his team wants to explore how the human mind manages to differentiate between the two (which, he says, will require more research). “This is a unique case, and it raises a lot of questions about the way in which facial behavior conveys social messages,” he emphasizes.

Speaking of conveying social messages, this research might debunk the commonly held belief that certain facial expressions, like smiling or frowning, essentially act as a universal language between humans. “Theories assuming that facial behavior conveys ‘universal’ emotional messages have been very popular in the last 40 years, and they have mainly relied on the mental representation that we have of those behaviors,” says Fernández-Dols. “However, our findings show that humans develop solid, consensual mental representations that have a life of their own, and that the relationship between the actual facial expressions and these mental representations is much more complex than previously thought.”

“For example, the mental representations of the expression of pain didn’t fit exactly to the available data about the actual expression of pain,” Fernández-Dols continues. “The same happened, in a more obvious way, for the mental representation of the expression of orgasm. Why? Because the actual facial behavior also has a life of its own, which can diverge from its representation.”

In simpler terms, the faces that we think we make are a whole lot different than the faces that we actually make, and different cultures may very well assign different meanings to facial expressions that we previously thought were universal among humans. “That certain facial expressions are recognized as representing some emotions doesn’t necessarily mean that these expressions are actually displayed when people experience these emotions,” Fernández-Dols confirms.

All of which is just something to think about next time you get off . Or stub your toe. Or both.