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The Absence of Women’s Pleasure in Media

Good girls aren’t supposed to talk about sex or like it, but they are supposed to have sex so men don’t kill them.
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There’s less sex on screen in big films and on television, and most of the sex scenes that are shown focus on men. Given the state of the world… from wars and climate change to pandemics… it probably seems incredibly shallow to be fascinated by the state of media depicting women’s pleasure. 

Yet, the impact of art on society is undeniable. 

The prudishness around women enjoying sex and talking about it in public shouldn’t even be a minor flicker on our radar. It should simply be considered a weird Puritan relic. 

Yet, when you examine it within a society that is increasingly anti-choice, anti-reproductive rights, and one that yearns for a false ideal of a traditional wife smiling, pregnant, and only fulfilled by serving the needs of others, you can see something much more frightening under the surface. 

Women Aren’t Supposed to Enjoy Sex

One of the more ridiculous by-products of this in recent years is the resurgence of a pervasive myth that women’s pleasure isn’t a thing, and they aren’t supposed to enjoy sex, but they are supposed to have it because men enjoy it. Enter the reactions to the song “W.A.P.” by Cardi B. and featuring Megan Thee Stallion. Suddenly, Twitter was ablaze with conversations about vaginal secretions. 

The person with the reaction most soundly mocked is probably Ben Shapiro, who took the hyperbolic lyrics of W.A.P. a little too seriously, saying, “When I first saw the lyrics to this song, my first concern… is that these women are describing a serious gynecological condition. I’m serious. I mean, a bucket and a mop? There’s something going on here that is not biologically normal.” 

It sounded like clickbait, but some people (mostly men) took it seriously. Instead of a unanimous mockery of his response, there was a peculiar debate about whether women who did talk about enjoying sex were “marriage material.” 

As if respectability politics needed a new stage.

Explicit Sex is Seriously Not New

Explicit references to sex and women’s enjoyment of it are nothing new, yet somehow as Gen Z appears to be having less sex than their elders, the conversation is focused on the idea that they are “failing to launch” sexually

However, it is not that cultural messaging about sex isn’t focused on pleasure for everyone. Young cis men are at the center of the conversation, with the idea being that if these men don’t have access to women sexually, they will become violent. 

There’s a dehumanizing element of the conversation that leaves trans and non-binary femme-presenting people absent from most screens while positioning cis women as vessels, not people. 

Incels Are A Problem

A lack of romantic relationships is cited every time a self-proclaimed incel targets a woman. The women who are harmed or killed are tacitly or directly blamed for the violence perpetrated against them. Yet, if you read the forums for involuntary celibacy, one of the things that many incels find abhorrent is the idea that women could simply enjoy sex. It’s one of the most perverse Madonna/Whore complexes I’ve ever seen. They decry the women who talk about what they want from sexual partners. 

It’s a bitter framework that validates misogyny and ties pleasure not just to sin but to a standard of behavior straight from rape fantasies. Ultimately, men have a right to sex no matter how women feel about them or it. Religion and safety are used as excuses to police how women move through the world. However, their desire for sex isn’t the problem. 

Pop Culture Prudes and Women’s Pleasure

The prudishness in pop culture around women and pleasure means that most fade-to-black sex scenes focus on the faces of the men. This shows in some of the most inexplicable places, like The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live. After so much time apart, the emotional payoff of Rick and Michonne reconnecting falters at the sex scene. Apparently, even long-awaited stories about loving human reconnection mid-zombie Apocalypse are centering shots on the pleasure a man feels at penetration. Instead of how she feels. And there’s a component here of race and who gets to be seen as human (hint: it is rarely Black women). Ultimately, this is a problem for all women, cis and trans. 

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule: Scandal, How To Get Away With Murder, Bridgerton, Queen Charlotte… it might all be in Shonda’s mind. 

Okay, it isn’t actually all in Shonda’s mind. However, it is hard to think of many recent, widely popular scenes that aren’t from a Shonda Rimes production that feature women’s pleasure. Misfits had that much adored Simon and Alisha’s love story in Season 2, but that was 13 years ago. And, of course, you can certainly dig through the proverbial archives and find something from Buffy or Outlander or Normal People. But these are gems scattered in the dust being paid to women’s humanity.

Arguably, the rise of prudishness is tied to an increasingly fascist societal bent. If you can’t partner with someone, then they must be the problem. And you need to be able to control them. America has always had a weird mix of Puritanical promiscuity. It’s a mindset that relies heavily on pretending that sexual desire only exists in heterosexual marriage. Yet, incels aren’t an American phenomenon; they’re a global problem. 

What Has Prudishness Wrought in Young Men’s Expectations And Young Women’s Experiences?

We talk about the problems that porn can create, but porn isn’t doing the work alone. Because of the oversaturation of men in Hollywood, the male gaze influences how female pleasure is portrayed in pop culture as well as pornography. 

Sex scenes are largely shot and directed from a male perspective. They focus on women’s bodies as vehicles for men’s experiences rather than women’s pleasure of the moment. This not only reinforces the idea that women exist for the objectification and pleasure of men, but it also undermines the understanding that women are equals in and out of bed. 

If no one is depicting sex with a partner as pleasurable for women as a part of reality, then are the options guaranteed fun with a sex toy, or the risk of bad sex or worse with a male partner? 

There’s effectively no upside to dating for younger women in the era of the Manosphere. This is especially true when considering incel harassment on dating apps, social media, and in person. There is no reason to take the risk of dating a potential threat. You can just tell yourself, “I have orgasms at home,” and mean it. 

It All Comes Down to Misogyny

Meanwhile, the influence of Andrew Tate (now facing charges for trafficking in Romania) and other Manosphere creators has been identified as a source of the uptick in misogyny in young men. However, societal responses haven’t been to tackle the religious and cultural roots of misogyny. 

Instead, we see rhetoric that women are expected to sacrifice themselves to solve male loneliness, despair, and anger. But there’s no evidence that loneliness and despair are the root causes of incel violence. Not only are most involuntarily celibate people not committing crimes, but the people who are violent appear to have adopted incel as an identity to cover for the hatred they already feel for women. If they can’t be happy, if they can’t be independent and thriving, then how dare women do it?

Visible sexual pleasure isn’t just about the individual and their desires, it is about who is seen as human, who has the right to pursue their happiness, and ultimately, who has the right to control their own body in all situations. 

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