Title: Sex, Science and The Ladies
Written By: Barnaby Aaron, Charles Borowicz
Publication Info: AnC Movies 2013
Science, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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!