Other Media Review

Movie Review:  Science, Sex, and the Ladies


Title: Sex, Science and The Ladies
Written By: Barnaby Aaron, Charles Borowicz
Publication Info: AnC Movies 2013
Genre: Nonfiction

Science Sex & The LadiesScience, Sex, and the Ladies is a quirky, sometimes funny, sometimes controversial, and very explicit documentary about the science of female orgasm and the history of how it’s been perceived and talked about.  The documentary is quite frank and so is this review, so be prepared for some clinical stuff.

The main premise of SS&L is that no one has ever scientifically documented a vaginal orgasm – that is, an orgasm that does not involve stimulation of the clitoris.  Now, women can have orgasms during intercourse if one way or another the clitoris is being stimulated, and the movie discusses how this can happen quite a bit.  But even though our culture insists that vaginal intercourse (with no clitoral stimulation) is the way to bliss, and even though some women have said that they experience orgasm this way, the scientific evidence so far suggests otherwise.  The documentary makes a good case for how an insistence that vaginal orgasms are normal and necessary harms women and men physically and emotionally.

The weakest part of the film is that in the beginning, it spends so much time repeating its main point over and over again, with a tone that is condescending and dismissive towards the women who do report having vaginal orgasms.  I think they would have been better off with a less sweeping but still true statement – “If anyone is actually having vaginal orgasms, they seem to involve clitoral stimulation as well as vaginal intercourse, or they seem to be very rare people indeed, so stop chasing that elusive dream and make friends with the clitoris.  The idea that we should all be able to have purely vaginal orgasms is detrimental to our physical and emotional health.”  The repeated insistence on no vaginal orgasms, ever, was not only dismissive but also boring.

But once the filmmakers moved on, the film was pretty fascinating.  The mechanics of what happens during orgasm are covered but what was more interesting to me was the history and social implications of the myth of vaginal intercourse. 

Here’s an enraging tidbit: in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, people acknowledged that it was important for women to have orgasms – but only within marriage and only through vaginal penetration.  Previously, Freud had stated that the clitoral orgasm was “immature”.  Psychologists concluded that the mark of a sexually and mentally healthy, mature woman in a healthy marriage with a virile man was her ability to have vaginal orgasms.  Since clitoral stimulation seemed to turn women on, doctors and columnists started advising couples to engage in foreplay – but if it seemed like the woman was about to have a clitoral orgasm, they should immediately stop what they were doing and switch to vaginal intercourse.  Why, you ask, would anyone do such an obnoxious thing?  It’s because clitoral orgasms were perceived as the wrong kind to have, and it was thought that having them would ruin all chances of having vaginal orgasms – the “right” kind.   Anywhere from 40% to 90% of women were said to be “frigid” during this time period.  Wonder why.  Incidentally, this was no picnic for men, either, because there was a lot of pressure on them to perform as husbands and bring their wives to orgasm through completely impossible methods.  But at least they got to have orgasms, dammit.

I have to tell you all that almost the very first thing that happens in the documentary is that we learn about the parts of female genitalia.  This involves close ups of three different real-life vulvas.  I didn’t think this was offensive.  Actually, it was extremely helpful.  Like many women, I’m often confused about what things are called down there and this was a clear, frank way to explain it.  The use of three vulvas allows us to see some of the normal variation in gentalia, and the close-ups allowed for a very clear showing of which part is which.  But it was also hilarious, because I had just dropped Dear Daughter off at school and stumbled over to the DVD player.  I hadn’t even had any coffee or anything and I was all, “Whoa!  Vulvas!  At 8AM!”  It was startling, but, as I said, quite educational.   And it certainly woke me right up.  Be prepared, is all I’m saying.

One thing the documentary talks about is the way porn perpetrates the myth of vaginal orgasm.  This involves some brief but graphic clips from porn, including some that might be triggery.  They triggered the heck out of me.  The filmmakers also talk about romance novels.  I was afraid this would be condescending, but they actually give romance novels a lot of credit for including clitoral orgasms in sex scenes and they have a pretty thoughtful theory regarding why the clitoral orgasms are almost always followed by a vaginal orgasm.  Their theory is that if romance novels are offering fantasy to women, then it makes sense that women fantasize about having vaginal orgasms.  After all, we’ve been told for decades that vaginal orgasms are not just the best kind, but also the only truly valid kind. 

There’s a moving and instructive section about how ideas about female desire and the limited ways that we talk about what sex is affect teenage girls.  The filmmakers’ premise here is that by giving young women information about how their bodies work – not just how their bodies can make babies, but how their bodies achieve orgasm, and by letting them know that they can feel good with a partner or by themselves, we give them ownership and power over their own bodies.  Which – hell yeah.

Is this a masterpiece of filmmaking?  No.  Even with some cute visuals and scenes, it’s very much a filmed essay.  It’s also incomplete.  There’s no discussion of LGBTQIA sexuality, for instance (the filmmaker’s website talks about why LGBTQIA perspectives were not included).  And I’m not sure I agree with every single thing said in the documentary.  But I learned a lot and had a lot to think about after I saw it.  This review could have been much longer – there’s a lot to unpack in this.  Overall I found it to be educational and very liberating.  But for crying out loud, don’t watch it bleary-eyed over a bowl of oatmeal at 8AM.  Get some wine!  

Right now, the movie is making the festival rounds, after which it will be available for purchase. 

For now, anyone interested can get a copy of the documentary for a preview party.  Contact anc@ancmovies.com, invite at least one friend, and send the filmmakers a photo of your gathering.  You can also watch the movie website, www.sciencesexandtheladies.com, for updates on when the film will be more broadly available.

Get a few friends, a whole lot of wine, and have fun!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    garlicknitter says:

    Huh.  While I have certainly had clitoral orgasms (yay!), I’ve also had sensations that I identified as orgasms without any clitoral stimulation (also yay!).  So either I’m supposed to be calling the second kind of sensations something other than orgasms (like what?), or their premise is wrong, and yeah, I think I would feel condescended to if told I didn’t know what I was feeling.

    But it still sounds interesting and educational.

  2. 2

    (Full disclosure – I’m one of the filmmakers) You bring up a really good point. A major problem, as I see it, is that we ladies are conditioned to identify all kinds of really good feelings during sex as orgasm. Hey, I’m all for pleasure in any form, but I think it’s confusing and misleading that orgasm and other types of pleasure are discussed so interchangeably. It’s incredibly common for sexperts to move seamlessly from discussing how to orgasm into how women get pleasure without making a distinction, and even in the straight-up scientific-investigating-female-orgasm world it is not uncommon to find a researcher writing that orgasm cannot really be defined…even though there is a real, scientifically defined, identifiable thing that is an orgasm.

    I know that in a way, it’s just semantics, that we could just say – hey, whatever feels good is good, no matter what we call it. I’d be totally for that if it was the case that women were really educated about how our bodies orgasm and felt comfortable and confident in pretty much any partnered situation pursuing orgasm if they wanted (or other types of pleasure if they wanted). That’s not our situation though.  Women are not having near the amount of orgasms that men are, most women (over 70%) absolutely never even claim to orgasm during intercourse (which is by far the most common sexual act among heteros). The majority of women admit to faking orgasms at least sometimes.  10% of women have never ever had an orgasm. The internet and magazines are filled with women seeking advice to have more or any orgasms with a partner, and most of us barely know what all our parts are down there. I don’t believe we can really study female orgasm, educate ourselves, or make any change to our current situation until we have a clear language with which to communicate.

    Men don’t have to endure this level of casual confusion about their pleasure and orgasms. There is no confusion when a sexpert speaks about pleasurable ball caressing vs. an orgasm. Women deserve that kind of clarity also. My point (sorry I’m so long-winded here) is that you’re right in wondering what we call the things we feel if we decide to only call physiological orgasms, “orgasms.”  Distinct language for everything we feel down there just doesn’t quite exist.

    That’s one of the many reasons I love this review. She didn’t shy from the controversial aspects of the movie and that needs to happen if a real conversation is to start. (Also – sorry about the feel of condescension. The intention was to say the things we wanted to say in the way we thought they should be said – not to talk down, but we knew that it could feel that way at some points. We just hope it’s all worth it and people start really talking and having these hard conversations)
    Thanks, and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts!

  3. 3

    Ok. So I’m also one of the filmmakers. I just wanted to say thanks for such well thought out review, also wanted to point out that the authors listed are Barnaby Aaron and me but you’re missing the most important filmmaker who worked on this project, Trisha Borowicz. She conceived it. She did the research. She was the driving force behind it. It’s her baby.

  4. 4
    ridiculousspider says:

    I never realized there was an issue over clitoral vs. vaginal orgasms.  My partners certainly never seemed to care as long we were both getting our jollies.  So glad I missed out on that particular sexual issue. 

    And I do know my parts, thanks to very open and frank discussion with my mom and my older sister.  And this nifty book my mom bought me when I was 8.  It was very detailed. 

    My biggest personal issue with female sexual pleasure as portrayed in romance novels and porn is nipple stimulation.  My nipples are not sensitive unless I’m pregnant.  It takes tight nipple clamps for me to even feel anything in them.  So yea.  I’m always left like -.-;; when every single woman in romancelandia practically creams herself over a touch to her nipples.  I get that many women (and men) have sensitive nipples.  But not everybody.  Anybody know of any romances where the heroine is like “dude, my nips aren’t sensitive.  Please move on.”?

  5. 5

    A very interesting documentary. I’ll watch it if I have the chance. It looks that the main premise (no one has ever scientifically documented a vaginal orgasm – that is, an orgasm that does not involve stimulation of the clitoris) is a very important one. I’m not sure how many women and men are aware of that. Certainly there must be a lot of them that think that their sex is not like it should be, the way movies and books tell them how it must be. The way I thought what it was like, when I was young, before I have experience.

    When I read about that Freudian idea of a inmature vs. mature orgasm, I thought ‘what a lot of unhappiness that idea must have created among educated people!’

    Anyway, what I’d like to know is -Is there any kind of ‘cultural history of femenine orgasm’ or ‘the clitoris’? I mean, is there anything written or explained in this documentary about how the Egyptians, the Romans, the Ancient Chinese or Indian cultures, the Middle Ages, etc. looked to these issues? Did they know what the clit was? Did they expect women to experiment the same physical emotions as men?

  6. 6

    Hi Bona Caballero! Thanks for the comments. The doc does discuss the cultural history of female orgasm, but only from WWll on and only in in America. We start there because that’s really when the female orgasm became a matter of public discussion in the American culture. (American Sexual Character by Miriam Reumann is a great book on that subject if you’re interested.) The movie focuses largely on what we actually know in a scientifically investigated way about orgasms vs. what our culture currently “knows”, insinuates, and expects about female orgasm. Although there is certainly things to investigate from antiquity about how female orgasm was viewed, it ended up being out of focus for the movie. I know early on in my research i read an interesting book on the topic, but i can’t think of the name right now…I’ll see if I can post it when I get home. Have you seen anything really interesting on the subject?

  7. 7

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