Cunnilingus on camera is changing. So are attitudes towards women's pleasure.

Tech 23-9-2022 Mashable 38
Line drawing illustration of a mouth on a pale pink background.

Have you found yourself transfixed when your internet boyfriend is about to go down on the big screen? Or, maybe you’ve wondered how the actors make it look so real? Well, you're certainly not alone.

Don’t Worry Darling, a film directed by Olivia Wilde premieres today, features a scene where Harry Styles simulates oral sex on Florence Pugh. In the original trailer, it showed Alice (Pugh) with her head back in the throes of ecstasy, lying back on the dining table, while the top of Jack's head (Styles) is seen between her legs. 

Wilde has already come under some scrutiny over this scene. In an interview with AP News, she admitted that people were already upset with her for including it. She later challenged the criticism in a future interview. "Female pleasure, the best versions of it that you see nowadays, are in queer films," Wilde said. "Why are we more comfortable with female pleasure when it’s two women on film? In hetero sex scenes in film, the focus on men as the recipients of pleasure is almost ubiquitous." Pugh, on the other hand, responded to the constant media focus on the scene, stating in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar that: "the movie was bigger than that." She explained her frustration by saying: "When it’s reduced to your sex scenes, or to watch the most famous man in the world go down on someone, it’s not why we do it. It’s not why I’m in this industry."

When it comes to viewing cunnilingus on film, people still question why we're seeing it on screen, even when it’s filmed through the female gaze. In Mary, Queen of Scots, Saoirse Ronan and Jack Lowden stirred up controversy over the historical accuracy of oral sex, leading to viewers questioning its authenticity. Questions arose like: would a Queen really have oral sex performed on her to save her chastity? (short answer is yes). When director Josie Rourke was asked why she focused on the face of Ronan, instead of on Lowden’s performance of oral sex, she explained: "to get what feels like an authentic female orgasm on screen? We need to see her face to do that."

SEE ALSO: How to perform cunnilingus like a pro

It’s not the first time we’ve seen our favourite actors perform oral sex. And it’s certainly not the first time the internet has lost its mind about seeing it played out either. Similar things happened when Adam Driver sang into Marion Cotillard in Annette, and when Ryan Gosling dove face first into Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, earning the film an 18 rating. 

As we're starting to see more cunnilingus scenes on our screens, what does it mean to society and wider culture when we see characters eating pussy on the big screen? How does it affect our views on female-focused pleasure?

What goes into staging a cunnilingus scene?

Intimacy coordinator Dr. Jessica Steinrock, PhD, who runs Intimacy Director and Coordinators Incorporated, tells Mashable that staging sex scenes takes a large amount of choreography. Requiring welfare checks and safety measures to make sure that everything is enthusiastically consented to throughout the entire filming process. 

"We’re also there as actor advocates," she says. "I talk with the actors give [to] them a safe space and ask questions on boundaries so that their needs are met away from some of the really strong power dynamics that are within Hollywood." She tells me that organisations like SAG AFTRA provide accessible protections for actors performing intimate scenes and, in 2020, they quite literally protected actors on set with their policy changes. 

Part of the work Steinrock undertakes is making sure that there is no contact between the genitals of actors, whilst simultaneously helping each member of the cast and crew tell the story. 

"It's almost the exact same type of illusion we use to make it look like someone's mouth is in contact with someone else's vulva."

"We as intimacy coordinators essentially have three jobs," she explains. "First off, we liaise between departments and work with costume and camera, and the director and the actors, we make sure that everybody knows what's going on with the intimate scene before we get on set that day."

Steinrock goes on to explain that they’re there to answer questions that might feel embarrassing. "Sometimes those questions are deeply personal. And so, having someone in a job, whose role is to sit that person down, have a conversation with them, saying 'hey, how are you feeling about this? What are your questions about the actual physicalities of this masking technique that we're going to be doing?'" she says.

The third part of her role is to choreograph the scene. She works with the actors and camera departments to give the illusion of closeness in the same way a stunt coordinator might stage a punch. "It's almost the exact same type of illusion we use to make it look like someone's mouth is in contact with someone else's vulva," she explains. 

Why do people react negatively to cunnilingus?

The cultural reaction to kneeling at the altar, pussy worship, lip service, muff diving, rug munching, head, licking out, or cunnilingus has changed over the years. In cult classic TV shows like The Sopranos, (which first aired in 1999),  the act is portrayed as emasculating. One scene from the show, Junior Soprano (Dominic Chianese) says, “They think if you suck pussy you'll suck anything”. sigh

This school of thought is still present today. "Sucking pussy" has been seen as a submissive and unmanly thing to do by celebrities like DJ Khalid, who has stated that he had never gone down on his wife, he repeated “I don’t do that.” Later in the interview, he explains that he doesn’t give head — despite still expecting his partner to go down on him — because he sees himself as the king (whatever that means), and so performing oral sex would confuse the hierarchy of his relationship. “It’s different rules for men," he explains (and I use that term lightly).

SEE ALSO: How women squirt on camera, according to porn stars

But it’s not just celebrities who don't believe in oral sex reciprocity. In a now archived post on Reddit, one user stated that "real men should not eat pussy" because "it causes the woman to subconsciously lose respect for you and see you as her bitch." Yikes. But, despite this outburst, the comment sections on this, and other posts, are quick to question what’s being said, from calling out ‘red flag behaviour’ to labelling the users behind these posts as ‘incels’. 

This is important because there is still a sizeable pleasure deficit when it comes to pleasure between mixed-sex couples. Heterosexual men are reported to orgasm 95 percent of the time they are intimate, whereas heterosexual women only come 65 percent of the time, according to a study on orgasm frequency. This is called the orgasm gap and if we ever want to close it we need more representation of what sex looks like in a real world setting — and, according to the same study, more oral sex. 

"It may come as zero surprise that men are much less likely than women to give oral sex in a mixed-sex relationship."

As it stands, only 18.4 percent of women are able to come from penetrative sex alone, this number rises up to 60 percent when clitoral stimulation and penetration are combined. Oral sex is enjoyed by 90 percent of women and it’s easy to see why when 78 percent reported an orgasm in at least one of their most recent oral experiences. 

It may come as zero surprise that men are much less likely than women to give oral sex in a mixed-sex relationship. In fact, in a study conducted for the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, only 44 percent of women reported receiving oral sex, compared with 63 percent of men. This is despite there being no gender differences regarding the amount of pleasure it gave them. It really is different rules, huh?

Is our perception of pleasure changing?

It certainly feels like attitudes towards cunnilingus are changing, but are they actually? The answer is a complicated one. "The story we're telling has definitely become a little bit more pleasure-centric from scripts I was getting in my very first days. That said, what I have noticed as indicative of a positive trend is the care of actors," Steinrock says.

She explains that using a safeguarding-conscious approach with actors, and the production series as a whole, naturally leads to nuanced storytelling because of how safe the setting for these scenes is. In her experience, being able to have these conversations and set these boundaries leads to realistic pleasure-based performances. 

Of course, some veteran actors aren't all that keen on the new way of doing things. Game of Thrones alumnus Sean Bean recently said that intimacy coordinators "spoil the spontaneity." More important than spontaneity, however, is the safety of actors on set and it’s clear that the strict-yet-necessary restrictions regarding consent, boundaries, and touching are being welcomed by actors, directors, and production companies as a whole.

There should be space for all kinds of sex on our screens. We’re not here to yuck someone’s yum. Media is a form of entertainment, so why not show a variety of pornographic and authentic representations. Maybe it’s time to start having more open and honest discussions around sex means better literacy when it comes to differentiating porn from real sex, which means we can begin to step away from performance and into pleasure when we hit the sheets. 

Opening our horizons to new and more expansive representation is a must. Especially because there is a direct link between sex misinformation and sexual violence. One way that we can do this as a society is to examine the "traditional" roles within relationships and debunk misogynistic views, like sluttiness and easiness, which are often attributed to women (not men) who engage in casual sex frequently (amongst other completely normal things). This ‘sexual double standard’ has damaging implications where women’s safety and perceptions of sexual deviance (read: autonomy) are concerned.

"A lot of the time seeing sex in movies is people’s first interaction and touchpoint for how intimacy works. I'd love for us as a society to get more comfortable talking about pleasure and intimacy in broader ways. I think we can use media to really support those conversations by showing pleasure in a wider breadth," says Steinrock. But what needs to take place for that to happen? 

How the media can influence future depictions of female pleasure.

Sex education should be our first line of defence when intervening on things like sexual violence, teen pregnancy and reproductive knowledge —  it’s not often that we look to it to balance pleasure equity, despite being a well-proven antidote. In the meantime, variety across other touchpoints like porn and mainstream media can help to diversify the lens we view sex through.

Ness Cooper, a sex and relationship expert and clinical sexologist, tells Mashable that while watching more real depictions of cunnilingus is sure to make most women feel more empowered, there is still a sizeable gap in what we’re seeing and how we’re interpreting it. "In the past, there's been a lot of negativity around female pleasure sex scenes, often highlighting pain, which has meant that many sexual acts that women may enjoy have become stigmatised and shamed," she explains. "This means that individuals can struggle more when talking about pleasure, and when they do decide to explore it, they can be unnecessarily worried or stressed about it, making the experience less enjoyable. But bringing more awareness to how pleasurable these acts can be through various media can help reduce stigma, shame, and barriers even around sexual discrepancies," she says. 

While we’re seeing more sex positive depictions of female pleasure on our screens, there’s still a long way to go. Hopefully, we’re moving in the right direction.

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