Once upon a time, in a world before the global pandemic, I was dating a guy from Brazil while living in Barcelona. (That sentence alone makes me long for the days of travel and Brazilian men, but that’s a whole piece unto itself.) This guy, Diego, was a professional skateboarder who looked quite a bit like Donald Glover, and despite our inability to communicate without Google Translate — he spoke Portuguese and neither of us had grasped Spanish well enough to converse properly — he was a lot of fun in bed. But there was one thing that sort of irked me: He always kept his sock on during sex. Always.
When I asked him why, Google Translate informed me that what he was basically saying in Portuguese, was that “sex was better this way.” I assumed this might have to do with the fact that it kept his toes warm and cozy in a room that I had set at 68°F to stave off the Barcelona summer heat.
When I shared his affinity for wearing socks in bed with a friend, she told me that, “supposedly,” to use her exact word choice, socks played a role in the ability to orgasm. I dismissed it as an urban legend. I had already been told that men who could tie a cherry stem with their tongue were great at giving oral sex and, having been on the receiving end of that myth, was able to debunk it immediately. (My clit is two inches north, please.)
But as with every old wive’s tale, urban legend, and rumor that’s found its way through a game of cultural telephone, it’s usually based on something. And in that something, there’s at least a sliver of fact.
Where the Socks & Orgasm Tale Began
The modern-day root of the rumor dates back to a particular orgasm study conducted in 2005 by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The study, which consisted of 13 heterosexual-identifying couples between the ages of 19 and 49, was quite small and intimate. In the controlled environment, each couple took turns stimulating each other, while their brains were scanned to reveal which sections were being lit up, as reported by the BBC.
One of the main findings of the study was a link between comfort and the ability to orgasm. Women, specifically, can climax easier when their fear and anxiety are comforted. “If you’re fearful, it is very hard to have sex,” professor Gert Holstege, lead researcher of the study, told the BBC. “It’s very hard to let go.” The study found that men, on the other hand, generally find comfort in knowing they’ll be stimulated. So when they’re stimulated, reaching climax is (in most cases) inevitable.
How does this all relate to socks? The study also noted that cold feet stood in the way of orgasm: Fifty percent of couples were able to orgasm without socks, but while wearing socks, that percentage jumped up to 80 percent. Unfortunately, the study only broke down the results by couples (and not by gender), so it’s unclear who, exactly, orgasmed more with socks on. However, since Holstege reported that women, specifically, need to feel protected and comforted in order to relax enough to climax, it makes sense that these results might be more reflective of women. (Related: 7 Health Benefits of Orgasms)
Ok, So Is the Theory Legit?
All that said, a hard-to-locate study done with just 13 couples isn’t exactly the epitome of scientific proof. However, other research, sex experts, and sexologists are pretty on-board with using socks to increase the likelihood of orgasm.
For one, Holstege was onto something with the whole “comfort” thing. By adding a layer of comfort — literally, via socks — you can increase feelings of safety and lower anxiety, says Alex Fine, CEO and co-founder of Dame Products.
In 2016, a group of researchers in Finland published their findings from five national sex surveys conducted over several years to see what factors were associated with an increased instance of women orgasming. The results found that, for the majority of women, their likeliness of orgasm was steeped in emotional safety; orgasms were more likely when women were in a situation with someone that “felt good” or “worked well emotionally.”
Of course, comfort is as physical as it is mental — even outside of a sexual experience, most people can relate to the fact that warmth brings feelings of both physical and emotional safety, says sex and intimacy coach Irene Fehr.
“On the very basic biological survival level, coldness is experienced as danger in the body, which triggers it into a fight or flight response — and that’s the opposite of the relaxation response that’s needed for orgasm,” says Fehr. When there’s danger-alerting stimuli, the amygdala, the fear-processing part of the brain, kicks in automatically to scan the environment and gather information to determine if you’re safe. Then, “as in any fight or flight response, the blood rushes away from the genitals and toward other major body parts needed for survival, putting arousal on hold and hampering the path to orgasm,” she says.
However, when the body is naturally relaxed — whether that’s from being warm enough or in a comfortable position — you instinctually feel safe, says Fehr. “Muscles relax, the mind slows down, blood flows to the genitals — all creating arousal and adding to the possibility of orgasm.”
Carol Queen, Ph.d., author, sociologist, and Good Vibrations staff sexologist, echoes this sentiment. “Cold feet could interfere with some peoples’ orgasm by being a persistent neural message that interrupts the sexual response cycle,” she says. “Ordinarily, the body’s senses work together when a person is turned on and moving toward orgasm. Being protected from getting cold feet by wearing socks would silence this interruption.”
Of course, cold feet isn’t the only interruption or distraction someone could encounter, says Queen. A sudden knock at the door, for example, could inspire the same fight-or-flight effect, putting the feeling of safety in jeopardy.
“It boils down to comfort and circulation,” agrees Gigi Engle, SKYN sex and intimacy expert, certified sex coach, sexologist, and author of All the F*cking Mistakes: A Guide to Sex, Love, and Life. “If you’re thinking about your frozen toes, it takes you out of a mindset of embodied pleasure — this is crucial for orgasms since orgasm is a brain and body experience. Being comfortable and feeling safe during sex is a huge part of a pleasurable experience. And having warm feet is a component of that comfort.” (Related: How Kinky Sex Can Make You More Mindful)
Does It Really Work?
I asked friends and colleagues, first, if they’d ever heard of this, and second, if they’d ever experienced it. Although most people had heard of this trick, those who had tried it — 43 percent, but this is from an Instagram poll of ~80 people, mind you — were all in the sexual health and sex education field.
“I used to think that in order to have sex you had to be completely naked,” says Melissa A. Vitale, publicist and founder of Vice PR Agency, which works with sex toy companies and sex clubs, including NSFW. “I’d heard an old wives’ tale about socks making sex better in the same way that when you wear gloves you’re less cold. When your appendages are warm the rest of your body doesn’t feel cold and this was supposed to help you have one less distraction during playtime.”
The old adage that warm extremities equal a warm body isn’t entirely accurate, at least according to some studies that have found that cold hands don’t have an impact on abdominal temperature. However, a 2015 working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research did note that climate change was having an effect on birth rates, citing that “temperature extremes could affect coital frequency.” Meaning, bodies are affected by temperature when it comes to sex.
But Vitale’s experience goes back to the study that came out of the University of Groningen: feeling comfortable, protected, and safe attributes to a mindset that’s ripe for an orgasm. Indeed, she says all of that together has made her a socks-during-sex convert. Engle agrees: “I rarely have sex without socks on because it helps me orgasm more easily because, well, I’m not thinking about how cold my feet are.”
Does this mean that every person who puts on a pair socks the next time they’re going to have sex is guaranteed an orgasm? Of course not. But if you have yet to try it — or are always cold — then it’s worth a shot.
After all, you don’t really have anything to lose; slip on a pair of socks you already own or invest in a sexy, thigh-high pair that gets you in the mood. You might find that what you’ve been missing all this time is a cozy pair of socks to put your mind at ease, reduce those anxiety levels, and just let you melt away into orgasmic ecstasy.