Hysteria & The Shock Of Women’s Orgasms

My news feed just popped up this article about Hysteria and Maggie Gyllenhall’s surprise at how many critics and journalists are shocked by the film’s risqué scenes of uptight women experiencing orgasm. Says the star,

“It came out of not being used to seeing stuff like that. Even I felt that way and the first movie (Secretary) I ever made was an S&M (sadomasochism) movie! I do not think of myself as prudish at all. I’m interested in sex, I’m curious about it and I think of myself as pretty open. But I was surprised by my own response and the audience’s response by how uncomfortable it still makes us.”

As someone who talks with people about sex all the time, I can’t say that I’m surprised at all. Meg Ryan’s famous orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally aside, there really aren’t all that many examples of women’s sexual pleasure in the media.

I think there’s more to it than that. Sitting in a theater full of people and watching someone orgasm (or at least, performing an orgasm) can make any of us uncomfortable. “Are we supposed to get turned on? Is it ok if I’m aroused by this? What are other people doing? Wow, that looks sexy! Is that OK?” I have a feeling that some of the discomfort comes from being surrounded by other people and not being sure how to respond to the movie in that context. I expect that a lot of audience members would have been much less shocked if they’d been at home watching a DVD instead of at a red carpet gala event.

But even if we could set that aside, I’m sure that plenty of people would still be shocked. Thinking about our grandparents or great-grandparents using vibrators (or even, gasp!, having sex) freaks a lot of folks out. Women’s sexual pleasure is still much more of a button-pusher than men’s. And of course, masturbation and vibrators are always hot topics for lots of us.

That’s why we the Antique Vibrator Museum together. We wanted to showcase the long history of our favorite sexual gadget! And we’ve always been champions of solo sex, including our inauguration of National Masturbation Month and the Masturbate-a-thon. The more we can talk about pleasure, orgasm, desire, fantasies, and everything else about sex, the easier it’ll be to not be shocked. And that’ll make things much more fun!

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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1 Response

  1. Sallie says:

    Is it oversimplifying to say that the general discomfort with women’s orgasms is due to the double standard?

    Men, of course, are expected to have frequent orgasms, whenever and however they want. Men’s sexual desire is used to justify rape, sexual harassment, female’s physical separation from males, genital mutilition including the removal of the clitoris, etc. Men’s sexual desire is used to obscure the power dynamics that actually underly such acts.

    Sluts have sex, madonnas do not. Whores enjoy sex, good girls do not.

    I talk to many men who are frustrated because their wives are not wilder and less inhibited in bed. One man telling a partner that it is okay to be a “slut” is not enough to free the partner from the social attitudes that shaped her (and his) coming of age.

    Those social attitudes included the shame-infused notion that having an orgasm is not something a woman wants anyone else to witness. Not even a husband. Not even, sometimes, herself.

    And certainly not on the big screen, in a movie theater, surrounded by people.

    — Sallie the Sexual Psychic