Coming Up Next (Or Not): TV’s Orgasm Gap
What do a 2020 Democratic party win and women unfortunately have in common? Neither are coming.
So, let’s talk about orgasms—namely, who isn’t having them. If you’re a sexually active woman or femme-aligned person in your twenties, you might be able to take a wild guess. The orgasm gap is real and it is drastically affecting the kind of sex (and the degree to which it is pleasurable) that women are having. But, this orgasm gap results from learned—not innate—behaviors, and the media that shows us what sex should look like is a big influence on how we have sex. In particular, as television functions as a medium we welcome weekly into our homes and lives, it has great influence upon social perceptions of sex, and it heavily alters our understanding of what and who is important within sexuality and sex.
If you were to watch an episode of “Game of Thrones” or “13 Reasons Why” you would never think that women getting off is important. As media is intrinsically linked to consumption under capitalism, it goes to show that depictions of cis heterosexual male pleasure are marketed as a way to promote patriarchal structures. They also serve to socially elevate men’s desires over women’s to establish what is viewed as profitable in our social atmosphere.
According to David A. Frederick et al. in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, heterosexual women are the the least likely to orgasm with a partner, with 65% reporting that they usually or always orgasmed (shown in another study to be lower, coming in at 39%.) Compared to 95% of heterosexual men reporting that they usually or always orgasmed with a partner, this discrepancy is a travesty, and is especially jarring when compared to lesbian women, who disclosed orgasming 86% of the time. This blatant inequality of orgasms is unsettling to say the least, but it’s even more so when the addition to sex that separates a high chance of orgasm and a low one is realized: cis men. It seems that this group is largely incapable of consistently pleasuring women.
However, we know that this feigned unawareness of women’s pleasure and simultaneous negligence of it is an entirely learned behavior, and television has had a heavy hand in shaping this inattention. There is issue in both what sexual acts are portrayed as normal and how women’s pleasure is not focused within these acts. It is not surprising that women’s sexual pleasure is decentered from narratives, seeing as 80% of television writers are men. Our voices aren’t the ones steering the sexual narrative, and what’s valued in sex is demonstrated by what is portrayed on television.
For starters, there is an acute misunderstanding perpetuated through sexual portrayals: that penetration is the most central, the most important, and the final sex act. Ask yourself: when is the last time you saw a run-of-the-mill sex scene showing a woman getting head? The fact that an answer is most likely not immediately available is disappointing—especially when oral sex and manual genital simulation are key ways for women to reach orgasm. On The Bold Type, a show otherwise very progressive in its portrayals of lesbian and queer sex, Jane admits to never having had an orgasm within the first 10 minutes of the second episode of the series. A well-executed episode about possible personal restraints that inhibit her from being sexually free follows. Cut to episode 4, which opens with her passionately making out with her boyfriend, immediately followed by penetrative sex. A few scenes later, Jane’s friend Kat exclaims that she “just had her first orgasm!” This sequence of events is as unrealistic as it gets, especially as there is no mention of the possible faults of her previous partners in inhibiting her orgasms (aka, not providing them to her at all.) To represent women’s orgasms as requiring a man falsely represents how women are most likely to come and disregards how penetrative sex is not the ultimate nor best way for many to achieve pleasure. By centering sex almost always around penetration, narratives push a suggestion that many men adopt sexually: there’s no need to manually or orally stimulate your sexual partners and the clitoris is not a primary nor relevant part of women’s pleasure.
Even when and if penetrative sex is sexually pleasurable for some women, it is often not shown, preceded or followed by any other simulation. The delineation of “foreplay” implies that oral and manual stimulation is not a part of actual sex, and penetrative sex (and the implied inclusion of a man) is the most central activity. In “Dear White People”’s first episode, the titular character, Sam, is depicted in a throes-of-passion shot that nicely centers her O-face and sounds of pleasure for more than 20 seconds. However, afterwards, her two orgasms she claims to have had are shown to have both resulted from penetrative sex with Gabe. While cinematographic shots like these show women as confident and in control of their own pleasure, they ignore the way many women find sexual release, and it often doesn’t involve penetration. It would help to have women in writers’ rooms who understand from first-hand experiences what sexual fulfillment for a woman could look like. And it’s not just from penetration. When men are those who are determining what feels good for women, not only is a fabrication of experience at play but a false narrative is being imparted upon audiences who assume these depictions to be realistic. Knowing that many use what they see in media to inform what is sexually acceptable in their lives, writer’s rooms have a responsibility to not delegitimize women’s orgasms.
But there is hope for a less penetrative sex-centered reality on television! Two Shonda Rhimes shows, both with writers’ rooms that promote diversity and women-inclusion, have masterfully executed this by portraying women’s pleasure as important and reoccurring. “How to Get Away with Murder” portrayed its lead, Annalise Keating, receiving oral sex from her lover under her office desk in its premiere episode. The first shot of this tryst doesn’t even show the man beneath her, instead showing her as the central figure of focus, with her lover appearing after. Although her moment is interrupted, it is cleanly executed as a sexy but normal thing for a woman to be doing.
“Scandal” follows suit by showing the title character Olivia Pope getting fingered on the beach when she’s on vacation in the show’s fourth season premiere. Even with maintaining network standards of sexuality, the explicit indication of Olivia’s lover’s hands reaching under her swimsuit instantly elevates this scene to one distinguished by overt feminine sexuality. Nonchalant but cocky, her partner conveys overt excitement at wanting to get her off. It is this exuberant appreciation for women’s pleasure that is lacking within the television landscape, but when it’s depicted well, it can be highly influential. It is also notable that both of these characters are Black women who are often negatively depicted within a jezebel stereotype; it is integral that television portrays Black women in charge of their sexuality and having agency over how they are depicted sexually in media.
It’s even currently necessary to present the importance of women’s orgasms in specific detail to inform the public—in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”’s second episode of its third season, two side characters, Maya and Mrs. Hernandez, pointedly explain to their colleague, Tim, how his knowledge of women’s pleasure in his sex life is wholeheartedly misinformed, and proceed to educate him. Maya even has her own statistics, explaining that “70-80% of women only achieve orgasm from direct stimulation of the clitoris. It’s the anatomical source of basically all female pleasure. It has 8,000 nerve endings!” While this depiction coddles men’s ignorance of foundational aspects of women’s pleasure, this portrayal is still encouraging. If more of the entertainment industry were to follow the examples of “How to Get Away with Murder”, “Scandal”, and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” by showing the nuances of women’s pleasure, then more and more people would be exposed to content that reminds audiences (particularly the men within them) that there is a culture of neglect of women’s orgasms by men and that the sexual material we see on television perpetuates it.
Penetration-centered sex depictions have abysmal reprecussions for queer women as well, whose sex is continually delegitimized for its lack of a man involved. By defining penetration as the central tenant of sex and everything else as foreplay, queer sex is seen as a shoddy replacement for the “real thing.” Not only does this perception make women’s sexual desires depend solely on men, but it also discredits queer sex as an entity in and of itself, as if it couldn’t exist if it does not emulate heterosexual sex (which is already skewed in its depictions.) This is a dangerous precedent to set, and real queer women suffer physically and emotionally when they distance themselves from men and refuse to perform their sexuality for men’s consumption. This is not surprising, as profit has always been made off of women’s bodies and sexualities (most often with the women themselves not earning said profit), and men believe themselves to be the ones deserving of consuming its yields. By showing queer pleasure on television as existing for queer women and not as a performance for the male gaze, we extricate queer pleasure from its patriarchal tethers and affirm it as its own sexual entity. Regardless of identity, women on television need to be portrayed as possessing not only agency over their sex lives but also persuing their own sexual satisfaction.
If we want to see a refocusing of portrayals of sex on television within a women-centered light, we must confront the root of why it was ever not paid attention to in the first place: cis men. Since men have economically controlled the entertainment industry, they have only presented images and themes that they see as profitable capitally as well as socially. Since profit drives this industry, we will never fully break free from patriarchal influences with its intrinsic links to consumption (whether of capital or of women’s bodies and lives) under capitalism. However, we can use television and other media to promote a culture of attention and care to women’s and femme-aligned people’s pleasure as equally important to men’s. Social power dynamics are perpetuated by sexual ones, and we can work to shift those to a more equal standing through the consciousness we pay to women’s sexual needs.