“How can it be that the act that socially and historically has defined masculinity and to which, to a significant extent, male self-esteem is ultimately linked is not reliably rewarding to women?” —Rachel P. Maines
Several months ago, I was watching The End of the Affair, the 1999 film version of the Graham Greene novel starring Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes, on my local PBS station. This is a beautifully made, compelling film with some fairly explicit and deeply romantic sex scenes. But I was troubled. The highly charged coming together of Sarah (Moore) and Bendrix (Fiennes) consists of a rush to intercourse from which seems to follow, as if by magic, Sarah’s orgasmic cry. Despite the emotional richness of their deepening passion, their sex life is represented almost entirely in terms of penetration, excluding any of the other practices (manual or oral stimulation, for example) that, in most women’s experience, are just as pleasurable, if not more so, than intercourse itself. The failure to attend to such “extras” not only renders the representation of their sexual encounters inconsistent with the depth of their mutual regard, without which the movie would make no sense, but utterly false as far as female orgasm is concerned for the majority of women. That cinematic moment got me to thinking about the way female sexual pleasure is represented in the movies — not in pornographic films, but in mainstream, R-rated movies whose “adult content” might be expected to represent human sexuality with some degree of verisimilitude. I set myself the task of viewing a representative sample of “sexy” movies, beginning with some early R-rated films and continuing to the present. What I discovered is that The End of the Affair is not anomalous. Not only do most movies exclude realistic representations of the way most real women come, many bypass even the idea of foreplay, a modest concession to female pleasure predicated on the (tenuous) notion that if she has been adequately “prepped,” she will achieve her orgasm in the “normal” way — through penetration. Indeed, the sex we watch in the movies is so narrowly defined as to marginalize female experience almost entirely. At the same time, the “problem” of the female orgasm is very much with us, continuing to sell books, instructional videos, and “super gels” some forty years after Anne Koedt’s groundbreaking article, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.”
Early feminist criticism theorized the ways in which female consumers of literature and film unwittingly come to identify against their own gendered sense of lived existence. Judith Fetterly, for example, in The Resisting Reader, describes as “impalpable” the insidious effects that ensue when “only one reality is encouraged, legitimized, and transmitted and when that limited vision endlessly insists on its comprehensiveness” (492). “American literature,” she writes, “is male. To read the canon of what is currently [in 1977] considered classic American literature is perforce to identify as male” (492). I need hardly rehearse the body of feminist film criticism, from Laura Mulvey’s seminal “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” onward, that seeks to theorize the nature of patriarchy’s inscription upon our most popular medium of storytelling. Less challenging, though, is the squaring of represented physical acts with the truth of one’s own body. So, to the extent that movies are the most accessible vehicles for fantasy and projected wish fulfillment, it seemed strange to me that sex scenes are so out of kilter with what (I presume) most women want and, by now, are (more) accustomed to getting. But perhaps I underestimated the extent to which women are complicit with androcentric versions of the most intimate relationship of all — that between oneself and one’s own body. This is a meditation on complicity.
We cannot understand or theorize this problem through the analysis of any given narrative, as this apparent “convention” of filmmaking cuts across time periods, genres, and gender (that of the director). Whatever any given movie valorizes or repudiates, whatever it may celebrate, interrogate, or undermine — will have no bearing on the mechanics of sex, and this is the case even where sex itself is thematized (Last Tango in Paris) or is otherwise central to the plot (Midnight Cowboy, The Last Picture Show. The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Before movies began “showing” sex or when they discreetly cut away, we were/are free to imagine sex on our own terms. When movies become explicit, our fantasies are annulled except to the extent that we may (I speak, of course, as a heterosexual woman) project ourselves into scenes with Hollywood hunks. I would venture to say that many of us would not be eager to entertain lovers (however attractive) whose sole repertoire consisted of wham bam. In what sense might this be considered erotic from a female perspective?
The nineteen sixties saw a most ironic confluence of cultural “phenomena” that bear directly on the issue of female pleasure and its representation: the publication of widely read sex studies by Kinsey and Masters and Johnson that called into question “normative” ideas concerning the nature of female sexual pleasure and the birth of the sexually explicit mainstream movie that was (and remains) profoundly inattentive to the “new” revelations about female sexual response. The sixties, as we know, marked the beginning of the sexual revolution. One notion to bite the dust in the wake of our growing knowledge of and frankness about female sexual response was the distinction between the vaginal and the clitoral orgasm. The debunking of the so-called vaginal orgasm by Anne Koedt in 1968 was a groundbreaking event:
The vaginal orgasm, attained exclusively through intercourse, had long been a keynote in the clamor of expert ideas about female sexual health and normality. When Koedt attacked it as a myth, or more pointedly, as a fraudulent misinformation campaign that created a host of psychological problems for women, she appeared to challenge the very foundation of heterosexuality as it was understood in psychoanalytic, medical, and popular discourse. (Gerhard 449)
Indeed, prying orgasm loose from the phallic imperative opened up an important new front in the feminist struggle against male domination. With its focus on the clitoris, a newly articulated politics of pleasure threatened to overturn male-defined notions of “correct” female sexual response — except, it would appear — in the movies, as Linda Williams has also aptly noted. In her discussion of the movie Coming Home she writes,
In the late 1960s and early seventies . . . when the representation of carnal knowledge in mainstream films was still new and when Hollywood was tentatively devising new tropes for “going all the way,” female orgasm was either overlooked or assimilated to that of the male. The possibly different rhythms and temporalities of a woman’s pleasure were simply not acknowledged. (156)
It is not, however, the overlooking of the female orgasm that concerns me here, but rather its brutal assimilation to that of the male.
In her excellent article, “Revisiting ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm': The Female Orgasm in American Sexual Thought and Second Wave Feminism,” Jane Gerhard reviews the brief “history” of the vaginal orgasm, the terms of which were articulated by Freud in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Briefly put, female sexuality is clitorally centered in the adolescent (where the clitoris is perceived as a small penis.) When the girl matures and “accepts” her reproductive role, the center of sexuality shifts to the vagina. If such transfer is not complete, she is vulnerable to a host of psychological problems such as “penis envy, hostility towards men, hysteria, and neurotic discontent” (453). One effect of this transfer is to “bring sexual pleasure and reproduction together. The passive girl and the productive proto-mother became one in the face of full heterosexual pleasure” (Gerhard qtg Deutsch 455).
Thinking about this model calls to mind the 2009 movie Mother and Child, in which the character of the grown child (Naomi Watts), who was given up for adoption, coldly mounts her male partners and comes in a matter of seconds. Although this character has had her tubes tied, she still manages to become pregnant and, deciding to have the baby, dies in childbirth, thus tying into knots the various threads of Freud’s sexual theory, in which sexuality and motherhood are aligned in the passive figure of the vaginally oriented woman. Now, the relationship among all these factors might make the nature of the character’s sexual response very interesting, but for the fact that the conventionalized scene of phallocentric orgasm can have no narrative force. The film seems to take for granted the idea that she will achieve an orgasm this way.
We know better. In “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” Koedt drew upon the work of both Kinsey and Masters and Johnson to reconsider the efficacy of penile penetration as a means of effecting a woman’s orgasm. In Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Kinsey demonstrated that women achieve orgasms in the same way that men do: through appropriate stimulation of the sexual organ (in women, this would be the clitoris and not the vagina) rather than through a mystification calculated to sustain psychoanalytic fictions about gender. The right technique, in other words, could produce an orgasm. Proper stimulation, rather than psychological “adjustment,” was key. Indeed,
Kinsey et al. suggested that vaginal intercourse was not necessarily the most pleasurable form of sexual practice for women . . . The authors went so far as to suggest that the vagina was “of minimum importance in contributing to the erotic responses of the female . . . [and] may even contribute more to the sexual arousal of the male that it does to the arousal of the female” [emphasis mine.] (Gerhard 461-62)
Masters and Johnson definitively laid to rest the idea that a vaginal orgasm existed apart from a clitoral one, articulating “an account of female sexuality that inadvertently threw into question the pervasive understanding of heterosexuality as innate and fully satisfied through intercourse with a penis” (463). This was not new, but it did put the idea into general circulation.
The phenomenal success, too, of The Hite Report (cited as one of the most important books of the twentieth century by the London Times) suggests that its author, Shere Hite, had struck a nerve. In it, Hite recorded the responses of 3,000 women to questionnaires concerning every aspect of their sex lives including masturbation and details concerning their orgasms. The report, whose scientific basis has since been called into question, purported to reveal the extent to which women were not achieving orgasms through intercourse despite having no problems pleasuring themselves. Today, in addition to the flood of commercials for drugs that treat erectile dysfunction in men, the airwaves are inundated by products that make it “easier” for women to reach that special moment. A brief search on Amazon.com reveals dozens of titles related to female orgasm including The Elusive Orgasm: A Woman’s Guide to Why She Can’t and How She Can Orgasm by a clinical psychologist and sex therapist named Dr. Vivienne Cass.
This is an old, old problem, as Rachel Maines argues in The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Indeed, we can see the vaginal orgasm itself as but the latest innovation in a series of discursive practices whose effect was to preserve the fiction (against all “evidence”) that the pleasures of coitus were distributed in equal proportion to both genders. She aptly demonstrates the extent to which the medical establishment has, for millennia, sought to pathologize a woman’s failure to respond orgasmically to intercourse — to the point of “medicalizing” the techniques to produce “hysterical paroxysms” in women said to be suffering from hysteria. The treatment of hysteria, a “disease” whose causes were believed to be sexual in nature, was, not surprisingly, to induce orgasm “either through intercourse in the marriage bed or by means of massage on the physician’s table” (2). Because intercourse, “the historically androcentric and pro-natal model of healthy, ‘normal’ heterosexuality,” has never been an effective means of producing female orgasm, that job was left to the medical establishment (3). The vibrator, she reveals, was utilized (as early as the 1880s), not as a sex toy, but as a means of relieving doctors of the burdens of manually producing, by the massage of the vulva, the “crisis of an illness, the ‘hysterical paroxysm'” (3). Thinking about the nature of this burden, which requires the possession of both “the skills required to properly locate the intensity of massage for each patient and the stamina to sustain the treatment long enough to produce results” (12), I was reminded of a scene in Annie Hall. In it, Alvie famously complains about how sore his jaw is after extended oral sex with the Shelly Duvall character (which, nevertheless, fails to produce an orgasm). As Maines so succinctly puts it, “doctors inherited the task of producing orgasm in women because it was a job nobody else wanted” (4).
Maines’ book suggests the intractable nature of androcentric notions of sexuality, not only in the medical professions, but among some male historians as well (65).
For most men, apparently, orgasm is satisfaction. Women, however, traditionally have been expected to find enjoyment in an activity — coitus — that results in orgasm for women only in a minority of instances. Thus women’s pleasure in sex, which may consist of arousal, enjoyment of physical intimacy, or the expression it represents for both partners, is routinely interpreted by both scientists and even by some historians as orgasmic experience, whether or not it actually is. (63)
And for a variety of reasons, women (who knows how many?) go along with it. Some of this, no doubt, has to do with ignorance or miseducation, but there are also social pressures: the desire not to appear “abnormal” or unfeminine, the wish to preserve masculine self-esteem, embarrassment, expediency, the pervasive sense (still) that pleasuring a woman is a job few men joyously undertake, and, of course, expectations about what a romantic interlude should be like — fed by — what else — the movies!
Let’s take a look at two of the early R-rated movies: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and The Last Picture Show (1971). In the former, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) travels to New York from Texas with high hopes of striking gold as a stud muffin to wealthy women. In the first of two heterosexual sex scenes, Buck is himself scammed by a blowsy over-the-hill hooker type (Sylvia Miles). What struck me about this scene, despite the clever cutting away to the rapid switching of tv channels as the remote is pounded by the fornicating couple and the female character’s vocally uninhibited orgasm, was wonder at how she got there. The scene with Brenda Vaccaro, playing a horny socialite whom Joe meets at a downtown party full of stoned hipsters and avant-garde types, is even more absurd. First he cannot perform, and when she playfully goads him into action by suggesting he is gay, he mounts her in anger and starts to pump. She even recommends him to a friend and sets up the appointment! This makes no sense from the perspective of a hustler (even one as dimwitted as Joe Buck) who intends to make his fortune pleasuring women or from the perspective of a woman expecting to be pleasured.
The same illogic is at work in The Last Picture Show in which there are a number of sex scenes. Two of the more interesting ones are between Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and the coach’s wife, Ruth (Cloris Leachman). When their sexual relationship is consummated, one might have expected more than Sonny’s perfunctory penetration followed, almost immediately, by Ruth’s quietly unmistakable orgasm. When high school sweethearts Jacy (Cybill Shepherd) and Duane (Jeff Bridges) attempt to consummate (he is not successful), there is, again, no hint of foreplay or stimulation of any kind. On the other hand, when Jacy is seduced by her mother’s putative lover, Abilene, on a pool table, indifferently if not cruelly, and without a nod to pleasuring her, her orgasm, indicated by her gripping of the pool table, occurs quickly. The only truly erotic scene occurs when Jacy tries to placate Duane because she is going to ditch him for the evening to attend a nude pool party by placing his hand under her dress. As he cautiously moves his hand upward along her inner thigh, her pleasure is visibly expressed, but just at the moment when she would climax, she cuts him off and gets out of the car. What we learn from this is that at least one director knows how to portray scenes of female arousal that make sense, but at the same time seems to repudiate practices that are not phallocentric.
Last Tango in Paris, so controversial for its nudity and sexual content in 1972, proved to be similarly disappointing. Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) enjoy explosive and (initially) anonymous sex in a Paris apartment. The nature of their sex runs counter to any notion of mutuality. There is no foreplay, no intimate touching, no kissing. There is, however, Jeanne’s miraculous orgasm following some intense thrusting by Paul. The phallocentrism of this film may be somewhat attenuated by Paul’s wish to be sodomised, but even this suggests a kind of rape that mimics the nature of his sexual contact with Jeanne. In this economy of mutual plunder, Paul nevertheless is allowed the pleasures of nonreproductive sex, while Jeanne is not. If the film’s representation of undomesticated male sexuality makes sense, its insistence upon dragging female sexuality into that abyss of aggression and violence does not.
The first mainstream film, I think, to faithfully represent sexual intimacy was the gothic thriller, Don’t Look Now (1973), with its famous scene of conjugal intimacy. In it, the husband and wife (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) engage in mutually arousing (the strong implication is that he goes down on her) sexual activity. It is graphic, lengthy (intercut with scenes of the characters getting dressed to go out for the evening), and apparently caused many viewers to believe that the sex was not simulated. (It was, according to Sutherland.) Thematically, the scene seems anomalous, other than to signal the couple’s reawakened intimacy after the death of their daughter.
The film Coming Home (1978) marks a radical departure in way female pleasure is represented. Tracing the post-sixties history of Hollywood’s vexed relationship with the representation of female orgasm, Linda Williams suggests that a distinction might be drawn between “bad” sex (inauthentic) and “good” sex, or “sexual relations that capture a sense of a charge flowing between two bodies, without the buffer of musical interlude, without the abstraction of tight editing, and ‘without it being prettied up’ in the usual Hollywood ways” (172). Jane Fonda’s orgasm in Coming Home, she argues, is an example (still anomalous, I would counter) of the latter. Because Luke (Jon Voight) is a paraplegic, he cannot have intercourse; therefore, he pleasures her by performing what we know, implicitly, to be oral sex. The extended scene of this pleasuring, followed by cuts intended to signify Sally’s orgasm (convulsing legs encircling Luke’s body, wide eyes, spasmodic movements) and, if that were not enough, her remark “It’s never happened to me before,” appear to take seriously, and with a startling degree of attention, the conjugation of process and outcome. It is a representation that, as women, we can take seriously. I part company with Williams’ assertion that “perhaps the only way to truly challenge what still remains the dominant phallic discourse of sex would have been to question the very notion of orgasm itself as the be-all and end-all of pleasure, as the ultimate truth for women” (176). It has taken far too long for women to “own” their orgasms only to forfeit them to the war against phallocentrism. In any case, little has changed in the wake of Coming Home. Moreover, far from challenging the dominant convention of phallic sex, it rather confirms the status quo by suggesting that Luke’s manner of lovemaking is a function of his disability and not an unmotivated embrace of what it takes to please a woman.
In the following decades, graphic sex became a staple of mainstream cinema. The eighties saw a number of steamy titles, including The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Body Heat (1981), Cat People (1982), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Nine 1/2 Weeks (1986). In the non-thriller, non-noir category, we might consider The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Of these, The Postman Always Rings Twice was unique in giving lip service (no pun intended) to the idea of foreplay. There is something counterintuitive about the sex scenes in this movie. Where one would expect (and get) raw carnality of the purely phallic type, one also discovers an otherwise vulgar male protagonist (Jack Nicholson) who seems to understand that women have erogenous zones that don’t relate to the penis. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, on the other hand, with its sex-driven lead character Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis), is full of acrobatic intercourse leading to spectacular orgasms for his lovers — prominent among them Sabrina (Lena Olin.) It makes no sense that such worldly and presumably accomplished connoisseurs of sex would be so utterly lacking in imagination and erotic wisdom. In an otherwise fascinating and provocative film, such scenes strike me as demeaning. More offensive is the rendezvous between Tomas’ wife, Theresa (Juliette Binoche), and the spy who masquerades as an engineer. Theresa has just discovered that Tomas has been unfaithful yet again. She also wants to be unfaithful and seeks out the so-called engineer whom has she has met in the bar where she works. Clearly, she is not motivated by desire. Clearly, she is not aroused. When puts his hand between her legs and asserts, “I can tell you’re ready,” then mounts her unceremoniously, fully clothed, she comes almost immediately. The whole episode strikes me as bogus. The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Cat People feature virgins achieving orgasms soon after penetration. Nine 1/2 Weeks contains an extended, highly acrobatic sex scene that takes place in an alley in the rain.
The nineties feature more of the same: Basic Instinct, Damage, Thelma and Louise, Damage, The End of the Affair, The Piano. A standout here would be Boys Don’t Cry, for obvious reasons. Basic Instinct, famous for Sharon Stone’s “baring it all” scene, like The Postman Always Rings Twice, shows Catherine Trammel (the Stone character) being pleasured orally prior to penetration. Orgasms, however, are reserved for intercourse. Unlike most other movies, the camera focuses our gaze on the orgasmic man’s face; however, we soon understand that this is intended to be the moment of his murder. In a rape-like scene between Detective Curran (Michael Douglas) and the department psychiatrist, Dr. Garner (Jean Tripplehorn), the aroused Garner comes almost immediately. Thelma and Louise, an otherwise wonderful movie, was trivialized by a supposedly transformative scene between Thelma (Geena Davis) and J. D. (Brad Pitt). In it, the characters engage in strenuous intercourse leading to Thelma’s later remark to Louse that she “finally gets it” where sex is concerned. This singular experience helps to free Thelma from her entrapment in the role assigned to her by a misogynist patriarchy. It left me scratching my head!
Juxtaposed to these are Jane Campion’s The Piano and Kimberly Pierce’s Boys Don’t Cry. In The Piano, the romance between Ada (Holly Hunter) and Baines (Harvey Keitel) is itself a lesson in foreplay, extended over a period of time during which Baines barters black keys of the piano for acts of increasing intimacy with Ada. When Baines sits under the piano and fingers a small hole in her stocking, her astonished look signals an unexpected, and likely pleasurable, sensation. When she comes to him, after he has returned the piano, and the characters finally consummate their relationship, the preceding scene (with cutaways to Ada’s husband, played by Sam Neil, watching through a crevice in the doorway) shows Baines under the wide tent of Ada’s crinoline; her face registers a quiet delirium. Though the characters have intercourse, it appears marginal to, rather than emblematic of, their growing intimacy. No strenuous thrusting, panting, unusual positioning, or other conventional significations of “great” sex here.
Boys Don’t Cry is based on the true-life story of Brandon Teena, a transgendered teenager who is brutally raped and murdered when his true identity (as a girl) is revealed. Because intercourse is out of the question (as in Coming Home), the movie cannot rely on movie sex conventions, so what we witness when Teena (the extraordinary Hilary Swank) pleasures Lana (Chloë Sevigny) to orgasm is quite unlike any sex scene referenced above — Coming Home included. Lana’s arousal, and her wonderment at it, reveal an extraordinary paradox: the “natural” sex act is simply not that effective at arousing a woman to the point of orgasm, while the “unnatural act” performed by one woman on another succeeds, precisely, because a woman is in the best position to know how to pleasure a woman. “The job no one else wants” is in the capable hands (or tongue) of a woman whose intimate knowledge of her own body relieves her of the stress of Freud’s anguished question, “What does a woman want?”
The last decade has offered nothing particularly new other than Jane Campion’s In the Cut. Watching movies like Original Sin, Unfaithful, Monster’s Ball, Little Children, Mother and Child, The Kids Are Alright, and the so-called “erotic thrillers,” such as Killing Me Softly and When Will I Be Loved, one is struck by how thoroughly predictable most sex scenes are. The erotic thrillers are particularly egregious. In When Will I Be Loved, sex between the female protagonist, Vera (Neve Campbell), and her boyfriend (Fred Weller) is more like a zipless fuck than an erotic encounter, but there is a lot of energetic thrusting. Killing Me Softly, a story about erotic obsession, features a lot of acrobatic intercourse — from the front, from behind, outdoors — whipping the female protagonist (Heather Graham) into spasms of orgasmic delight. Ambulatory coitus is always a signifier of good sex. The sexiest scene in Unfaithful, another movie about erotic obsession, features Connie (Diane Lane) on the train back to the suburbs fantasizing about her first sexual encounter with the book dealer, Paul (Olivier Martinez). In one scene with Paul and another with her husband (Richard Gere), there is a strong suggestion that Connie resists manual stimulation in favor of intercourse (with Paul, at least, who thereupon mounts her). She enjoys violent intercourse with Paul in a bathroom stall of a Soho restaurant, which appears to be more than satisfying.
Monster’s Ball and the lesser-known In the Cut are both interesting but for different reasons. Monster’s Ball is famous, not only for Halle Berry’s Oscar winning portrayal of Leticia, wife of the man recently executed by prison official Hank (Billy Bob Thornton), but for the very raw and compelling sex scenes between these two characters. Mostly, they have intercourse and Leticia comes quickly. However, after she has been insulted by Hank’s racist father (Peter Boyle) and terminates the relationship, their reconciliation sex scene features (implied) oral sex leading to orgasm. This is a compensatory gesture, as oral sex does not appear to be a part of their sexual repertoire. That is to say, the implied representation of oral sex in the film has a narrative purpose (as it does in Coming Home). It is Hank’s “gift” to Leticia.
In the Cut, another Jane Campion film, is exemplary in showing us what the character, Detective Malloy (Mark Ruffalo, in a more convincing turn than in The Kids Are Alright), has learned about female pleasure after being sexually initiated by an older woman. He explains this in great detail, with emphasis on the “clit,” to the vaguely repressed writing professor, Frannie (Meg Ryan). In their first sex scene, he performs oral sex. There is no penetration. Later in the film, however, they do have intercourse, and she does come “vaginally.” Nevertheless, this is a film about female pleasure with a distinctly female sensibility. Jane Campion, unlike Lisa Cholodenko, seems to get it.
One would think that women directors might offer a reliably gynocentric perspective on the subject of female arousal and pleasure. Not necessarily. Cholodenko’s 2010 film The Kids Are Alright, about a lesbian couple whose lives are disrupted when their children seek out their sperm donor “father,” offers a conventional and conventionally disappointing view of female pleasure. Cholodenko, herself a lesbian, must know a thing or two about sexual arousal. Not surprisingly, the film offered little in the way of lesbian sex; however, when Jules (Julianne Moore) finds herself attracted to and succumbs to the masculine charms of Paul (Mark Ruffalo), they observe all the conventions of heterosexual movie sex. That is to say, he mounts her and soon thereafter she comes. It’s hard to believe that a character who is accustomed to the pleasures of non-phallic sex would so readily become aroused by so little in the way of direct clitoral stimulation. Okay, maybe the first time, just because of the potentially explosive novelty of the act. But as a general practice? I don’t think so.
I have come to think of movie sex more along the lines of rape; under what other conditions would a man so thoughtlessly and indifferently attempt to have sex with a woman without any kind of oral or manual stimulation? And in what world would a woman consent, let alone respond, to such lack of attention to maximizing her pleasure — assuming the mere fact of penetration to be pleasurable (enough) in itself? I have considered the constraints of time. (Would we expect the progress of a narrative to stop while a woman is pleasured? Of course not.) But there are ways to respect eroticism that do not need to mimic real-time arousal and orgasm. Movies such as Don’t Look Now, Coming Home, Boys Don’t Cry, and In the Cut amply demonstrate this to be the case. Why are these movies the exception rather than the rule? Or, rather, why doesn’t the convention of movie sex follow this model? Let’s “massage” Maines’ overarching argument about androcentrism, which, I believe, is at the heart of the problem.
It’s a commonplace of feminist criticism that Hollywood is a patriarchal domain and that the medium of film, as it is traditionally constructed, privileges the masculine position, in terms of both agency and perspective. On these grounds alone it would make sense that female pleasure would be seen as synonymous with male pleasure. Moreover, the course of male arousal and discharge more inexorably follows the contours of plot as conventionally schematized; more correctly, the organizing principles of plot itself (rising action, climax, falling action) are sexual in derivation. Female sexuality is more variable, more tenuous, more obscure in terms of its visibility. Seldom, if ever, does the camera focus on the face of a man coming. A man’s orgasm is understood to occur; it is never in question unless his inability to perform is a plot point. He may not be able to get it up — but once he does, no one doubts that he will come. His skill as a lover will be evidenced by the signification of his partner’s orgasm. Movies provide that evidence in the form of certain visual or aural signs, absent which her orgasm cannot be validated. The problem is that male performance in movie sex does not require any skill at all beyond that required to ensure ejaculation. Female spectators, if they thought about it, would understand the staging to be inauthentic. The very idea of “performance” is, ironically, simply that, suggesting a kind of charade that serves to elide the truth of its own inadequacy. “Romance” and “steaminess” are both mystifications intended to obscure the mechanics of bad sex. And, maybe, like the “myth” of the vaginal orgasm, cause female spectators to wonder about their own seemingly inadequate responses to mere penetration.
Thinking about this problem, I return repeatedly to the disjunction between female orgasm and reproduction. Because reproduction is not predicated upon a woman’s orgasm, as it is, of course, with men, her orgasm may be deemed expendable. There is no parity. This is important, because it renders female eroticism “unproductive,” hence excessive. The so-called sexual organs are functionally different. The clitoris, the functional equivalent of the penis, is quite literally, extraneous. By its very nature, male sexuality is predicated upon “product,” be it semen (the “money shot” in the lingo of pornography) or the “seed” itself. Hence, nonreproductive sexuality may be thought of in terms of squandering. Whether reproductive or not, however, male sexuality itself is implicated in an economy of production. Female sexuality is nonproductive in the sense that her “product” is a function of bodily processes that are unrelated to sexual satisfaction. If a man cannot be pleasured, he cannot reproduce. If a woman cannot be pleasured, it is of little concern to the survival of the species (although interesting work is being done on the evolutionary nature of the female orgasm by Elisabeth A. Lloyd in The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution).
There is something sad about a culture that ties eroticism to an ethics of productivity. But then, America is a country imbued with such values. Despite the inevitable notion of squandering, the biblical injunction against “the spilling of seed” is singularly applied to nonheterosexual sex or masturbation, not nonreproductive heterosexual sex. So even if genital sex is indulged in for pleasure alone, its mechanism is the same. It is “as if.” Intercourse is direct and instrumental, calculated to project seed into a passive vessel. Only birth control or chance will inhibit its efficacy. Its variability is measured in terms of duration, vigor, or position. (Only the latter may have some bearing on female pleasure, but the missionary position — the position of choice in most films — is least likely to stimulate the clitoris sufficiently to produce an orgasm. If stimulation is not effected, duration matters little.) Aside from position, there are only so many ways for a penis to behave once it has entered a vagina — in contrast to tongues, fingers, and other conceivable delights. Sexual practices that venerate the clitoris as the seat of female orgasm may be seen as secondary, producing nothing but an empty discharge of energy — an absence of substance — an invisibility whose very existence may, in some cases, be known only to the woman herself.
It is often observed that America is deeply imbued with Puritan values. In Puritan thought, as in Christian thought generally, sexuality was viewed principally in terms of reproduction rather than pleasure. It follows, therefore, that sexual practices whose sole end is pleasure would be relegated to a netherworld of sin or deviancy. Movie sex, despite its sensationalism, is deeply beholden to those values in its blinkered representation of human sexuality. Sexually explicit scenes are scandalous in proportion only to what they neglect to reference. Once cinematic taboos were relaxed, the only kind of heterosexual practice that achieved widespread acceptability was that which could be embraced by an essentially Puritan mindset. Granted, showing sex of any kind in popular movies was novel and titillating. Female nudity, at first so arresting, became a commonplace of the R-rated film, but in keeping with the scopophilic nature of the medium, the logic of the male gaze, the image of the naked woman functions to canalize male desire along a unitary trajectory of scrutiny, penetration, and ejaculation. Nothing here to interfere with the narrative flow (is she ready? am I touching in the right place? how long do I have to keep doing this? what if I lose my erection?). I have learned, through my informal “survey,” that non-phallic sexual practices, when they do occur, usually serve some additional purpose such as enhanced sensationalism or emotional recompense. Or they are rendered necessary because of physical impairment or impossibility. They are almost never gratuitous.
A genuine eroticism would reject any notion that female pleasure in distributed in the same manner and across the same set of nerve endings as that of men. Women’s erogenous zones are multiple and varied (so are men’s). Sex needs to be pried loose from the logic of productivity. The French writer Georges Bataille has written extensively about the forces of violence and excess, which continually disrupt the work of purposeful activity that characterizes organized societies. He asserts:
By definition, excess stands outside reason. Reason is bound up with work and the purposeful activity that incarnates its laws. But pleasure mocks at toil, and toil we have seen to be unfavourable to the pursuit of intense pleasure. If one calculates the ratio between energy consumed and the usefulness of the results, the pursuit of pleasure even if reckoned as useful is essentially extravagant; the more so in that usually pleasure has no end product, is thought of as an end in itself and is desired for its very extravagance. (168)
If a model of sex as “productive” activity is counter to Bataille’s notion of pleasure, so too is the sense that bringing a woman to orgasm is “a job no one wants.” Historically, such “work” may be understood in terms of a woman’s health — and not likely to have been undertaken at all, perhaps, if were simply a matter of a woman’s pleasure. No doubt, however, the consequences of leaving a woman’s needs unattended to were deemed threatening enough to the male establishment to ensure that, one way or another, her sexual satisfaction would be achieved. It’s true that manual or oral stimulation provides men with no direct penile stimulation; but, by the same token, intercourse does not provide women with direct clitoral stimulation. The job no one wants, therefore, is just the mirror image of intercourse as an act to be endured. I have no doubt that many — if not most — lovers happily negotiate this uneven distribution of pleasure. But not in the movies.
In order for movies to capture the essence of a genuine eroticism, they must do justice to the separate ways that men and woman derive pleasure and derive pleasure from pleasuring each other. Instead of ends and means, eroticism would be about process andpossibility: a celebration of arousal in all of its multiplicities. In such a mode of representation, the moment of climax might, from a certain perspective, appear anticlimactic, but what’s wrong with having your cake and eating it too? In movies, as in life, I think we deserve that.
Bataille, Georges. Eroticism: Death and Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1986.
Fetterly, Judith. “Introduction: On the Politics of Literature.” Feminisms: an Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, 492-501.
Gerhard, Jane. “Revising the Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm: The Female Orgasm in American Sexual Thought and Second Wave Feminism.” Feminist Studies 26 (2000): 449-76.
Koedt, Anne. “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.” Notes from the First Year. New York: The New York Radical Women, 1968.
Maines, Rachel P. The Technology of Orgasm : “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminisms: an Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, 432-42.
Williams, Linda. Screening Sex. Durham: Duke UP, 2008.