Why do portrayals of lesbians on film have to be so far from the reality that got me off?
Some of the following may be NSFW.
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.”
Before OITNB came along, we had The L Word, a series on Showtime about life, lesbians, and Los Angeles along with many other Ls. The series was notorious among my friends for portraying lesbian sex as simply one woman deep into the crotch of another, without much variation. I remember watching the scene when Lara went down on her partner Dana right before Dana’s breast cancer surgery, and thinking that if I were facing losing my breasts and possibly my life, I’d want my partner at face level, playing with my breasts and kissing me, not down where I couldn’t even see her. The moment could have been so powerfully intimate with the two of them face to face, finger-fucking and holding each other. But instead Lara was lost down-screen, and Dana was left to cry, seemingly alone.
When my first girlfriend and I broke up, a friend gifted me some lesbian porn. It consisted solely of women licking each other’s vulvas, their crotches perked up into the air. It was nothing like the sex I had just given up, and I wondered why portrayals of lesbians on film had to be so far from the reality that got me off.
According to porn performer and director Jackie Strano, “girl-on-girl scenes focusing on oral sex are popular in mainstream porn so viewers can see more vulvas for their money.” Viewers, of course, being the men that traditionally watch mainstream lesbian porn. Strano’s answer sent me back to my first year of college where we discussed “the male gaze” endlessly, and I wondered if cunnilingus was popular simply because it was the prevalent male fantasy of lesbian sex.
Jenn Leyva, an activist and writer at FatSmartAndPretty.com, thinks much of cunnilingus’s popularity comes from our heteronormative society’s ability to relate to the act. “Men like eating pussy, they understand it, and therefore it can be a more public act.” Leyva also pointed out that society’s views of queer sexuality in general are steeped in bias and full of misunderstandings, and become even more convoluted when things like ratings, censors, and corporate sponsorships come into play.
Reaching back into my notes from those early college courses, I remembered the “penetration is patriarchy” theories of early feminist academics like MacKinnon, Nussbaum, and Tisdale, and wondered if their writings and the second-wave feminist movement might have played a part in the assumption that all women do together is lovingly caress each other’s boobs and vulvas. Feminists were the ones creating early porn for lesbians; it stands to reason that their work shaped the visuals society had of lesbian sex. At a recent dyke porn retrospective hosted by icons Jackie Strano and Shar Rednour, the porn from the ‘60s through the ‘80s mostly highlighted oral sex and labia caressing. Sure, there were a few films that had penetration, but strap-ons and toys weren’t really brought in until the mid-‘80s or early ‘90s. Were these movies the birth of the myth of cunnilingus as the preeminent lesbian act?
Porn director Shine Louise Houston points out that early oral sex scenes were filmed as radical political statements. “It was incredibly radical to show cunnilingus in porn movies. Lesbianism wasn’t mainstream and oral sex was taboo. [The combination] was a kinky political statement [for early pornographers].”
If it’s radical and political, why don’t we see more oral sex in modern queer porn? “In general, [oral sex] is not the most popular activity these days on the site, at least for the people who are coming to film with us,” Houston stated, noting that sex acts often go in and out of fashion, and oral sex doesn’t seem to be trending these days – at least in the Bay Area where her company Pink and White Productions films its famous Crash Pad series.
Maybe the reason oral sex isn’t as prevalent these days in queer porn is less about our desires to partake in it and more about it not being seen as a radical act anymore. Maybe by it becoming so mainstream, something we see regularly now on primetime television, it made us want to visually explore the more taboo acts, like female ejaculation and fisting.
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.)
Or maybe, as Leyva posited towards the end of our conversation, it’s the opposite. Maybe cunnilingus has become popular because it – and getting a woman off in general – is seen as this mysterious, complicated, difficult thing that lesbians have mastered and men are still looking to learn. Which could explain why there are hundreds of how-to guides out there (my favorite being jessica drake’s Guide to Wicked Sex: Woman to Woman) giving detailed instructions, showing how prevalent oral sex has become.
Maybe mainstream media’s focus on oral sex is simply just a show of its acceptance as an act in mainstream culture, proof that we as a society have traveled far from the ‘70s Houston described where cunnilingus between women was considered an extremely radical act.
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.
Images by Dianna McDougall