Refusing to represent women’s sexual pleasure onscreen renders us obscene through invisibility
Women receiving oral sex in films and pop culture is often treated as obscene, though men receiving oral sex is almost ubiquitous. Roe McDermott explores the impact this double standard has on our understanding of female pleasure.
In 2013, actress Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter. She was angry and she had every reason to be. She had just seen a cut of her film Charlie Countryman and had discovered it had been edited in a very particular way. In order to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating which prevents anyone under 18 from seeing a film and can be a box-office death sentence, a scene of a woman receiving oral sex was cut – and Wood was not having it.
“The scene where the two main characters make ‘love’ was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people ‘uncomfortable’”, Wood wrote, before observing that “the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered. This is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex…It’s time for people to GROW UP.”
Wood’s analysis was spot on. Ratings given by the Motion Picture Association of America have a huge impact on the release of films in America. Many cinemas won’t even show films that have an NC-17 rating, and so directors are keen to avoid them, cutting scenes and imagery that could land them in the restricted category.
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And the images that the MPAA deem to be particularly offensive have historically been gendered. While women performing oral sex on men is ubiquitous onscreen, becoming a set piece in comedies like American Pie, The Sweetest Thing, Ace Ventura:Pet Detective, Scary Movie, and This Is The End; a woman receiving oral sex onscreen is far rarer, and much more commonly deemed by the MPAA to be obscene.
Films like Blue Valentine and The Cooler have received an NC-17 rating solely because of cunnilingus scenes, keeping women’s sexual pleasure decidedly hidden away in the realm of the arthouse, the unusual, the niche and obscene.
The sexual pleasure gender gap
This treatment of cunnilingus as abnormal is particularly ridiculous when we consider that only 25-30% of women can orgasm from penetrative sex alone, making oral sex a vital part of sexual pleasure for the majority of women. And yet the representation of oral sex in pop culture implies that while oral sex is a man’s birthright, going down on women is something deviant and shameful– itself implying women’s pleasure is itself deviant and shameful.
This double-standard of the representation of oral sex has a real impact on society’s attitudes towards sex and gender – just ask DJ Khaled.
DJ and producer Khaled made headlines recently when his 2015 appearance on The Breakfast Club re-surfaced. In the recorded conversation, Khaled stated that while he feels entitled to oral sex from his wife, he has literally never performed oral sex on a woman. “Because, you know what I’m saying…I’m the King,” he said. “I’m the King of the house,” he said, in a statement as self-aggrandizing as it was sexist. “There are different rules for men.”
The internet rightly tore Khaled’s unbridled misogyny apart – but there’s a reason his attitude had gone unchecked for so long, and it’s because we have not made women’s pleasure a priority in pop culture or society.
That pop culture is contributing to misogynistic ideas about women’s bodies and pleasure, rendering us obscene through invisibility, censorship and judgement is bad enough – but there’s another issue. By clamping down on depictions of women receiving oral sex, the film industry ensures that another specific demographic grow up learning that their pleasure is unimportant, deviant, unnatural and worthy of shame and silence: queer women.
This month sees the release of The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, a beautiful coming-of-age drama directed by Desiree Akhavan and based on the novel by Emily D. Danforth. Chloe Grace Moretz plays the titular character who is sent to a gay conversion therapy camp, where she is told that her sexuality is sick, immoral and shameful. It’s a vital film that needs to be seen by teenagers, particularly LGTBQ teenagers so that they see their struggles and sexuality acknowledged onscreen.
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But the filmmakers knew that scenes showing Cameron and her girlfriend performing oral sex on each other would have been labelled obscene, and landed the film it an NC-17 rating, preventing LGBTQ teenagers from being able to see it, at all. So they took a risk.
“It was a conscious decision to not have The Miseducation of Cameron Post rated with the MPAA to ensure that it could reach the widest possible audience, including queer teenagers who may be fearful to see the film if they had to show ID or attend with an adult,” said a publicist for the film.
The filmmakers understood that representation plays a huge part in ensuring that marginalised people receive the recognition, empathy and understanding that has historically been denied to them. Representation normalises people and acts that have been judged and punished by mainstream society. It’s how conversations are started, and how we learn.
Refusing to represent women’s sexual pleasure onscreen denies us these opportunities. It prevents us from respecting women’s bodies, pleasure, sexuality – and further contributes to the marginalisation and stigmatisation of queer women.
It’s time we started growing up when it comes to depictions of people going down.