From incidental to essential: Where is women’s pleasure in the sex we see on screen?
In this blog, Frances Rayner, founder of The Clit Test argues that it’s time the sex scenes we see on screen reflect what we know about women’s bodies.
“Pleasing, but ultimately incidental”.
That’s how sociologist, Dr Lisa Wade, has described the role assigned to women’s orgasms in the dominant cultural script around sex. This script paints penetrative sex and male orgasm as the goal of heterosexual encounters. Female orgasm is relegated - “a nice addition, a sign that the sex was good perhaps, but wholly unnecessary to the endeavour.”
Our cultural scripts have real life consequences. Women who have sex with men have alarming rates of unsatisfying, bad and even painful sex. The orgasm gap between men and women has been well documented; women who have sex with men are far less likely to orgasm during partnered sex than any other group.
Too often, this is discussed as a problem of women’s sexual dysfunction, but women orgasm fairly reliably when they masturbate or sleep with other women.
The clitoris – the primary site of female sexual pleasure - has long been a target for male violence against women, most egregiously through FGM but also linguistically through its marginalisation and even erasure in anatomy and sex education. Freud famously characterised the clitoral orgasm as immature, arguing that the “elimination of clitoral sexuality is a necessary precondition for the development of femininity’. Today, the scientific consensus on the importance of the clitoris is clearer, and yet it often feels like a little-known secret.
At least 80 per cent of cis women only orgasm through clitoral stimulation - which doesn’t happen through penetrative sex - but you wouldn't know that from the sex we see on screen.
The Clit Test is a new campaign which sets out to change this. By celebrating sex scenes that reflect what we know about women’s bodies, we hope to inspire others. It’s like a Bechdel Test for sex scenes.
The most tried and tested methods of achieving clitoral stimulation involve touching, oral sex or sex toys on the outside of a woman’s vulva, not inside her vagina – but these sex acts are rarely depicted or even hinted at on screen, and women experience them less in real life.
The fact that boys like to masturbate is a well-worn trope but masturbation for girls is conspicuously absent from our culture, leaving too many girls - and the women they grow into - disempowered, confused and even ashamed of their own sexuality.
Any time a sex scene acknowledges that the clitoris exists it passes the Clit Test. This could be a disappearing hand or head under the covers, or even a reference to women masturbating.
Of course, not all women have a clitoris and a vagina and plenty of people who have them don’t identify as female. If a person has a clit, it will most likely be the most sensitive part of their body but trans and non-binary people will have different relationships with their anatomy depending of a range of factors including their own relationship with their gender identity or their type of transition. The aim of this campaign is specifically to improve ‘cliteracy’ so it will be primarily of benefit to people who have clits and anyone who has sex with them.
Sex often forms a pivotal part of our relationships, and the ability to enjoy sex has been linked to self-esteem, and other indicators of wellbeing.
While orgasm rates are just one way of measuring pleasure, the same pattern emerges if we look at women’s reports of how much they enjoy sex with a partner. More worryingly still, numerous studies have documented the alarming rate at which young women and girls, in particular, experience physical pain during penetrative sex. For example, in the Netherlands, a national survey of under 25 year-olds found that for 57% of young women, sex was often or always painful.1
A sexual landscape that centres men’s pleasure, and often involves women and girls enduring pain – even during consensual sex - can only feed into the continuum of sexual violence. For centuries women have been defined as sexually passive and less desiring than men, which has surely stemmed in part from the fact that our primary sex act has been something that bypasses women’s pleasure entirely.
Putting women’s pleasure on an equal footing and creating the expectation that sex should be enthusiastically enjoyed rather than consented to is essential for tackling rape culture.
As distressing as this picture is, we can change it, and we already are. In the year I spent researching the campaign I was amazed to see more and more examples of Clit Test passes in the TV and music I consumed. As women slowly gain power in the commissioning and creation of pop culture, the sex we see on screen is changing. Young women growing up have so many more positive reference points like Pen15 (2019 – ), Booksmart (2019) and Chewing Gum (2015 – 2017) that would have made the world of difference to me and my friends when we were growing up. I’m always pleased to note that the art that passes the Clit Test tends to be better in other ways too. It tends to reflect a greater diversity of experiences in sexuality, gender identity and most notably, race, because the teams behind them are more diverse. And – according to my own subjective opinion – it is often funnier, more subtle and fresh.
It will take a while for our norms to change but I am excited to celebrate the people (most often, but not always, women) who are getting it right, in the hope we will inspire others.
You can find out more and explore our bank of Clit Test passes at clittest.com. We’re on Twitter @ClitTest and Instagram @Clit.Test.