The Case of the Missing Orgasm

Each film clip from the Hysterical Literature Project begins with a fully clothed woman seated at a table. The woman stares directly into the camera and introduces herself and the book she'll be reading from. She then proceeds to read until she climaxes thanks to an unseen vibrator that's stimulating her under the table. Performance artist Stormy Leather's voice shakes and crescendos through Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho; a woman identified as "Alicia" gasps through Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass; porn star Stoya reads from Necrophilia Variations by Supervert, the fluttering of her fingers matching her changing breath through the words "I know that sometimes you fantasize about me"; comedian Margaret Cho laughingly comes through Sleeping Beauty.

It's no surprise that the videos in photographer-filmmaker Clayton Cubitt's series have been watched more than 20 million times since they first appeared online in August 2012. (According to Cubitt, new sessions will begin rolling out next week.) They're delightfully subversive—not just because they're sexual but because the female pleasure on display feels so real. (The response to the question "Are they faking it?" on the site's FAQ page: "The readers are given no instruction to perform one way or another, aside from being asked to read. What they choose to read and how they choose to react rests entirely with them.")

In a world where women make up half of the population, most cultural representations of orgasms focus on the male "money shot," with mainstream movies and porn either ignoring female orgasms altogether or giving it the short shrift. Sure, it's all fiction, but if, as Albert Camus said, "Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth," and the truth is that both sexes like getting off, why not have equal screen time? Studies show that most women don't routinely have orgasms during intercourse alone, yet you'd never suspect it from what you see in foreplay-lite movies and television series.

All of which raises the following question: What are the long-term ramifications of men and women repeatedly seeing that all it takes is a good 60-second pounding to make a woman come (see Jason Statham and Amy Smart in Crank), or that every act of intercourse ends in a scream (Kim Cattrall in Porky's) or that the man's visible ejaculation is all that matters (the hilarious boredom of the film crew in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, when the two main characters merely "make love")?

From hook-ups to long-term relationships, when people don't find women's pleasure important enough to work for, discuss or depict, no one is well served. "We've been sold this bill of goods that we're in an era where people can be sexually free and participate equally in the hookup culture," Kinsey Institute biologist Justin R. Garcia told the New York Times in November. "The fact is that not everyone's having a good time."

And more often than not, it's women who miss out. Science backs me up here. A survey of 24,000 college studentscited in the New York Times article found that 80 percent of guys had an orgasm during their last encounter, while only 40 percent of women did.

That's what I think resonates the most for me about Hysterical Literature. The female pleasure it features seems real. "What if the women could in some way have a conversation with themselves, through the reading of a passage from their favorite book?" Cubitt wondered when he conceived the project, which he later wrote on his blog/FAQ. "This would allow self-expression, without the pressure to pose or sound a certain way." A "way" that's no doubt influenced by the overly stylized or unrealistic representations of the female orgasm that inundate our visual culture. "I think what [viewers] respond to is that honesty that breaks through the limits of such a controlled setting," Cubitt added. "It's hard to see something really real any more."

"Really real" female orgasms are particularly hard to show in movies (both of the mainstream and adult variety), where time is money, explains Betty Dodson, the 84-year-old sexologist whose books and films helped pioneer sex-positive feminism. "Most guys can get erect almost immediately while it takes many woman far longer to get turned on. Hollywood and porn must keep the action moving quickly," she explains.

There are, of course, some notable scenes that disrupt the status quo of male-centric pleasure: Maggie Gyllenhaal awkwardly masturbating about her boss in Secretary; Rooney Mara's Lisbeth Salander character in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo riding journalist Mikael Blomkvist until she's done, coldly dismounting before he gets his; the numerous patients of Dr. Dalrymple's in the based-on-a-true-story Hysteria reacting to the invention of the vibrator with a realistic rainbow of expressions; Helen Hunt's sex surrogate character and her paralyzed client credibly climaxing simultaneously in The Sessions; Diane Lane's abs quivering during sex in Unfaithful.

Other images, however, like Meg Ryan's classic restaurant re-enactment in When Harry Met Sally, only prove how easy it is to fake an orgasm, which can make it seem even more elusive. In that context, Hysterical Literature serves as a useful corrective, showing how it takes at least a full minute before most of Cubitt's subjects begin to exhibit even subtle reactions, with climax taking between four to eleven minutes. "That's what is so authentic about Hysterical Literature," says Dodson. "We see a slow build up as her vulva and clitoris are being stimulated by a well-placed vibrator. And she only has to focus on her own pleasure, not her partner's."

But for Hollywood, female orgasms aren't just too slow—they're often too dangerous. This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a documentary about the absurdity of the MPAA's rating system, suggests female pleasure is often considered more harmful than violence when it comes to ratings. Actress Evan Rachel Wood recently went on a Twitter rant saying as much regarding the censorship of her new movie, Charlie Countryman. She tweeted that a scene was altered by the MPAA "because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people 'uncomfortable' but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off ... remained intact and unaltered." She concluded with the demand that we "accept that some men like pleasuring women. Accept that women don't have to just be fucked and say thank you..."

Ryan Gosling also spoke out against the MPAA regarding Blue Valentine when co-star Michelle Williams's on-screen orgasm caused it to receive an NC-17 rating. "There is something very distorted about this reality that [the MPAA] has created, which is that it is okay to torture women on screen," he lamented. "Any kind of violence toward women in a sexual scenario is fine. But give a woman pleasure, no way. Not a chance. That's pornography." (Lawyers later got the rating repealed to a mere "R.")

The 2008 comedy Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist apparently got punished for Kat Denning's "orgasm face," too. And this awards season, the French coming-of-age film and winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Blue is the Warmest Color, brought the issue of female sex to the forefront, leaving some critics hot and bothered by its six-minute lesbian sex scene—full of licking, biting, smacking, yelping and sweating—while others applauded its "uncompromising" courage. "Some filmmakers find it challenging to show female pleasure onscreen," says Rachel Kramer Bussel, editor of The Big Book of Orgasms: 69 Sexy Stories and numerous other erotic anthologies. "But for me, Blue is the Warmest Color goes in the other direction and focuses too much on it, in a way that makes people uncomfortable and doesn't read as authentic."

Like me, she thinks Hysterical Literature gets it mostly right—and certainly more right than most everything else that's out there. "The women orgasm in a way that's not pornographic but is still very sexual. That's a line that's tough for many to figure out, between arousing and erotic but not outright porn—not that there's anything wrong with porn."

Sexually aware beings recognize real female pleasure when we see it. But whether it's a matter of economics, institutionalized sexism or society's fear of the sexually liberated woman, the lack of female sexual pleasure in film and television leaves us longing—hungry, hoping and begging for more of the honest, authentic orgasms found in the Hysterical Literature Project.


Shawna Kenney is the author of the award-winning memoir I Was a Teenage Dominatrix and editor of forthcoming anthology, Book Lovers (Seal Press). Follow her on Twitter @shawnajkenney.

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