Going Beyond Going Down: Why Diverse Queer Sex On TV Matters

Abby: “I am almost to the end of the first season of Orphan Black and one of the characters is gay — and I can’t tell you too much because I don’t wanna spoil it — and has gay sex. She just hooked up with a lady for the first time on the show. And another character on the show is a woman and has had sex with a man multiple times. And every time she has sex with a man, she is ass naked. Literally. I have seen her ass now twice. My problem isn’t her being ass naked. She has straight sex and is naked, but this other character has gay sex and both of them — bras on, underwear on. Patriarchy!”

Me: “I leave my shirt on all the time. I mean, I don’t have to. People don’t have to. But I do.”

Abby: “This is different and you know it.”

This is a conversation we had in my kitchen about representations of gay sex between two women on television while we were making soup. To be real, I wasn’t making the soup. I was writing this. Because of this lovely piece on Nerve, entitled “Why Does TV Only Show Lesbians Engaging In Oral Sex” by Lauren Marie Fleming:

There are few myths about lesbian sex that bother me more than the misconception that all we do is go down on each other like diving for pearls is the only activity in the lesbian sea.

Take Orange is the New Black, the popular Netflix series set in a women’s prison. The show is full of woman-on-woman action, yet consistently the scenes are focused solely around oral sex. “They do their research on prison culture, they do their research on dyke talk, but they did not do their research on sex between women,” porn performer Sadie Lune jokes to me.

To Lune, Boo’s screwdriver jerk off scene seemed more realistic. “I could imagine that in a scenario such as women’s prison…there would be a lot of under the covers self-fucking going on…Also, she used a homemade toy in a way that it was clear she was fucking herself, not just daintily diddling her clit with her fingers, which is how TV and movies would generally have us believe [women] masturbate.”

Of course, my first thought is “you leave Orange is the New Black alone!” because I am obsessed with it. And because they did actually show the use of a dildo, which just about no one does. But as I read through and it pointed out that, if there’s sex shown at all, it’s pretty much just oral, I started nodding along. The article points to the grand majority of sex acts shown as oral, which is a far more realistic take than the title would suggest. It’s certainly not the only thing, but it is the most prevalent. The article also quotes Shine Louise Houston, of queer porn Crash Pad creation fame, as explaining that back in the day depicting oral sex between women was radical. But today, it’s definitely not the most popular act on their site.

As for the conclusion of this particular article, I agree with it:

For the mainstream media, oral sex might be an appealing act to feature because it is easier for the average viewer to wrap their head around this normalized act that also appears in heterosexual sex than it is to comprehend the varieties and complexities of real-life queer sex. (And you can get away with showing it without having censors clamping down on showing aroused genitals or penetration, manual or otherwise.)

And even later:

So maybe, just maybe, if we keep up the good work, one day I’ll get to see Boo get a screwdriver blow job. Until then, I’ll take what I can get, happy to have lesbian sex represented in mainstream culture at all.

Let me be super clear — this response is a big, fat halleluiah. It’s me screaming PREACH, A-WOMAN and HELL YEAH. I just want to add to it, just a tiny bit. I want to keep having this discussion because this discussion is important. Talking about sex and the representations therein is important.


 

Gay Sex And Women’s Pleasure Is Rated More Harshly

Don’t believe me? Check out my very favorite documentary to link to, This Film Is Not Yet Rated. Orgasms that feature male pleasure are allowed longer screen time than orgasms that feature female pleasure. You can have more heterosexual sex than gay sex. Stick to male-pleasure-focused heterosexual sex and you can still get a marketable rating. Anything else, blammo. Your rating is crazy obstructive and your content is lewd. It’s just a damn fact at this point, even if it’s not intentional, and I am not convinced it’s not intentional.

So gay sex between women, where the only option is to show a woman feeling pleasure? Well then. Be prepared to have your show pulled at the last second, or to lose advertisers or, if you’re working on a movie, to get nailed with an NC-17. Because somehow these two things are inappropriate by themselves. Combine them and the Cosmos implodes to the soundtrack of But I’m a Cheerleader. Therefore, it is hard to show varieties of gay women having sex because it’s hard to show gay women having sex at all. It is easy, however, to hide all the bits that need hiding (as mentioned by Fleming) when you depict oral sex. And by bits that need hiding, I am also talking about women’s faces with expressions of pleasure on them. I’d even take it one step further — that in mainstream television, it’s rare to really even see two women showing affection for each other physically at all.

And we can see this in so much mainstream television! Think about one of our “favorite” shows to love and hate, Glee. Doesn’t it always seem like the heterosexual couples are kissing and rubbing against each other, whereas the same-sex couples are, like, holding hands and hugging? Maybe staring deeply into each others’ eyes? And the gay male couple gets way more airtime with their affection for each other than any woman-woman pairing? Television stations have taken out Glee‘s same-sex sex scenes, leaving the heterosexual ones in. Like for real, no joke.

This is the scene they did that to, by the way:


In This Case, Mainstream Viewers Are Men

When Fleming says oral sex between women is easier for a mainstream audience to wrap their head around, it’s cis het men she’s talking about, yes? Actually, wrong — a few sources say that statistically women watch more television than men do. But being that cis het men are the only ones in this society that continuously receive the message that pleasure is for them, I’d say probably media is still built for them. In fact, statistics like “women hold only 3% of clout positions in the mainstream media” and “only 11% of film protagonists are female” means probably that is true. Think about it this way — what sex act can two women perform that is most relatable to men, and that men can picture themselves as participating in? At first I thought, well strap-on sex still fits that description. But it doesn’t really, does it? Because it depicts women doing something powerful, something penetrative. Now y’all know I don’t think oral sex isn’t powerful, but I do think oral sex is something men do to women, whereas I haven’t anecdotally heard of many cis het men using dildos, at least not as the sole method of penetrating their partner.

Also, it’s easy to make oral sex “pretty.” Meaning not a lot of strong movements, not a lot of “masculine” noises or gestures. Oral sex can be delicate. Straight up fucking? Yeah, that can surely be delicate too — but I have a feeling that when I say delicate, I suspect I do not mean what the average dudebro means when he says delicate. This points to the pressure on writers to make female characters pretty and desirable to men all the time, and if they’re not — welp, then they’re worthless. Even very capable female characters still have to fit into the dominant narrative of dainty and perfect (Lara Croft comes to mind — good at what she does, also attractive  and available to men).

I want to add to Fleming’s assertion that mainstream viewers are more comfortable with the idea of oral sex — in this case, we’re talking about cisgender, heterosexual men, meaning that women are being treated as objects for the pleasure of men and not as agents capable or deserving of their own pleasure.


It’s Not Just The Acts — It’s The People

Let’s just be real here — we’re talking mostly oral sex is being portrayed, but also it’s mostly oral sex between skinny, white (or light-skinned), femme-presenting ladies. I feel like we don’t even really need a citation for that here? This is just, like, knowledge. It’s a thing we’ve all seen and felt. I mean, just think about the cast of The L Word and think about who had sex on that show. It falls in with the dominant narrative of attractive people and it perpetuates it. Not only do women not have agency in the kinds of sex they’re having, not only does that kind of sexual act have to be palatable to men, but also their bodies do as well or they’re not allowed to express intimacy. We’re slowly starting to see that change. But very, very slowly.


 

Why This Is Important

First, the idea that men are primarily the ones to make decisions about the portrayal of women’s sexuality in their media is totally fucked! Even shows like OITNB, written by kickass women, have to appeal to corporate higher-ups — of which Netflix has only three women, by the way. It’s symptomatic of a larger issue that women aren’t in real control of how their sexualities are portrayed in the media. And that’s all women, not just queer-identified women or women having sex with women. We just see it more when two women have sex because, well, there’s no cis het male character involved. So it’s important because it’s a result of a gender-gap (and a lot of other gaps, like race) in a very visible industry that’s heavily responsible for setting cultural norms and tone.

Portrayals of queer sexuality in appropriate mainstream venues can do a lot to demystify the idea. It can reduce the invasive questions queer people get from their (often well-meaning) straight counterparts because, surprise, they already know basically how it works. It can normalize our queer-ass relationships with the best people in the world so we can just go about having our relationships and living our lives. That seems like a tall order for sexy times, but hear me out! Remember when Joe Biden credited Will and Grace with educating the public about gay people (well, white cis male gay people)? Here’s a refresher:

 “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes,” Biden told Meet the Press host David Gregory. “I think Will & Grace probably did more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

So yeah, more diverse portrayals of gay women’s sexuality, more diverse portrayals of gender identity, and just more diversity in expressing physical affection in general can have an impact on the greater cultural conscientiousness. It can do a lot to dismantle the idea of the white, cis het male perspective being somehow universal. Just because a relationship is between two women doesn’t mean there’s not anything to be garnered from that story by audience members who are not in same-sex relationships or are not women.

Bringing it back to our community, portrayals of queer sex between women also let us know that we’re normal and can provide us with different possibilities when we’re just figuring out how we like to feel pleasure. When I first came out, I got all the way down to my underwear before I realized I didn’t have a clue about what I could or should do with the lovely woman standing in front of me — comforting words, I am sure, from the person who sometimes answers sex questions on the internet. Had I seen anything other than the oral sex on The L Word up to that point (and yes, the one or two strap-on scenes, I remember them well), perhaps I would have had a road map to follow. Yes, I say to watch porn all the time when you’re trying on different sex acts for size — but even sexually experienced queers have trouble finding representations of themselves even in porn much of the time. What about someone newly out and just a teeny bit terrified?

Sex makes a good story. That’s why there’s so much sex and sexuality in television shows in the first place. It’s something we all do or don’t, grapple with a bit. We encounter it so much, even in its absence. It’s everywhere. And what does it say to our community when fully-clothed oral sex seems to be the only option in a sea of more diverse portrayals for straight people?

It says we’re not real. It says our lives are not deserving of a reflection in the pop culture mirror while it reflects other people’s experiences.

Like Fleming, though, I am thrilled when I see queer sex portrayed at all. I am even more thrilled when I see queer people masturbating like Big Boo in Orange Is The New Black, but that’s a whole different sack of words for a different day. Perhaps that’s why, even in its chaste-ness, Glee felt so revolutionary when Quinn and Santana got together. Perhaps that’s why I cheer at the screen even when there’s fully-clothed oral going down (pun gleefully intended). Perhaps that’s why I still fully intend to watch Orphan Black, even though my fiancée has pointed out a massive double standard (probably not the show’s fault, to be honest — there’s a lot of cultural pressure here). The answer isn’t to take down the shows that are doing the hard and glorious work of portraying female sexuality (and to be clear, I don’t think that’s what Fleming did here).

The answer is more.

More women in charge. A conscious effort to equalize boards in media.

More diverse female characters — hell, more female characters at all. Ones that aren’t required to be palatable to men in order to be taken seriously. Or, you know, ones that are more than a collection of body parts that want to find romance.

And more queer sex in age-appropriate mainstream television venues. More boobies. More sex acts. And more screwdriver jerk off scenes.

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 545 articles for us.

43 Comments

  1. I thought this article was going to be a bit silly but it’s actually really well written and brings up a good point. Things are changing slowly, I think that some people(older generations) aren’t ready yet to have some of this on tv or accessible to their kids or grandkids. But if it were maybe hetero sex, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem.

  2. I waited for my first sexual experiences with eagerness and imagine my disappointment when I realized that I don’t actually like oral sex that much – giving or receiving. (To me it feels cold and distant, and my apologies, but I’ve yet to taste a vagina I genuinely like…)

    Sometimes I feel like a “failed lesbian” because anytime there’s talk of sex, that’s the first act that seems to come to everyone’s mind. I found alternative activities that I enjoy considerably more, but even to this day I still feel pressure to “perform” for a new partner, since it seems to be in the unstated assumption that getting eaten out is the pinnacle of pleasure, and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. :P

    I appreciate the call for a greater awareness of alternative sex acts!

  3. Great piece!

    Though in fairness (because I loved it) I do feel compelled to point out the Nicky/Lorna sex scene in OitNB that isn’t oral at all and included a whole conversation about how Nicky had to give equal time to both hands because their sex life was building up too much muscle in one of her forearms. Because that was awesome.

    Oh and this also reminded me of the super-creepy-and-fake-looking non-oral sex scene between Frankie and that funeral home chick on Lip Service. If you’re going to do it, do it right!

  4. Slow to finally read this and slow to respond, but this is awesome and so true, Ali. All the sex and all the gender identities and all the bodies and all the skin colors and all the three-dimensional people…. all of that needs to be on tv where the kids and the grandmas and the dudebros can see it.

  5. my only concern is that trans women exist? the only time cisness is mentioned is with men and that’s curious. woman/woman sex isn’t the same as vagina/vagina sex. and that’s important if, eg, a commenter above thinks that penetrative masturbation is “misogynistic….”

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