It's official: Actresses are getting tired of doing "the orgasm face."
The Affair star Ruth Wilson lamented that she's constantly required to make "that face" onscreen, telling Net-A-Porter's The Edit last week, "I kept insisting, 'Why have I always got to do the orgasm face? There should be a male orgasm face. Why is it always the woman who's orgasming?'"
Anyone can picture the exact face she's referring to. From the perfectly arched back to the mouth that stays delicately pretty even when it's moaning, TV's classic O-face would have you believe every woman looks, sounds and acts exactly the same during sex.
But that's not the case. While representations of female sexuality are always welcome, it's disturbing that portrayals of women's orgasms are often so shockingly similar. And that's a problem: This narrow definition of what a female climax looks like has the power to distort real women's perceptions of their own orgasms, causing a serious blow to their confidence and influencing their own experiences of sex.
The female orgasm, according to TV and movies: Quickly after onscreen sex gets going, a woman's eyes will close, or perhaps stare into the distance, as the rest of her facial muscles stay relaxed (no odd grimaces or contortions). Ygritte's face during her hookup with Jon Snow in Game of Thrones takes on a state of euphoria that never appears tense.
Moaning or screaming is often part of the equation. In one scene from Sex and the City, Samantha literally screams, then sings, her way to orgasm. Over-the-top yelling during sex is even used to comedic effect, as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
Perhaps most jarring is just how quickly and how often women reach orgasm on screen. Lorena and Bill transition from fighting, to having sex, to orgasming in a matter of seconds on True Blood. And forget about extended touching, use of toys or foreplay of any kind; onscreen, women seem to always orgasm from penetrative vaginal or anal sex, as shows like Black Sails would have you believe, or even from mere touch (we're looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey).
And orgasms happen not only quickly, but consistently. Think about it: When was the last time you watched a sex scene in which the woman didn't come?
Meanwhile, it's less common to find a "male orgasm face" in pop culture, or even male nudity (save for awkward male teens' faces played for comic relief in movies like American Pie). A 2012 study of prime-time television, from the University of Southern California, Annenberg and the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, found that female characters were more likely than men to wear sexy clothing or expose skin. Film scholars like Laura Mulvey argue that the camera has historically embodied a heterosexual male point of view; thus, the woman is frequently presented as the one to be looked at during sex, on the receiving end of the act.
Why the female "orgasm face" is so damn common: First, the physical sensation of orgasm must be translated into a visual form in order for viewers to understand that the woman is feeling pleasure, said Lynne Joyrich, professor of modern culture and media at Brown University.
"That's why you get a lot of emphasis on women's facial expressions and images of women's hands reaching out and clutching something," Joyrich told Mic, "because it's an attempt to make something we could never get through the screen translate into sound and sight."
In a film industry where fewer than 10% of directors are female, men are usually the ones positioning and posing women on the screen. And these representations become hardwired into filmmaking technique. "That's the thing people are used to and learn to respond to, so that becomes what people want. It's a cycle," Joyrich said.
So what does a real orgasm looks like? Though most onscreen sex is penetrative, research has shown that as few as 8% of women experience orgasms this way. Most women need clitoral stimulation (not necessarily achieved through penetration alone) to experience a climax, Erica Marchand, a psychologist and sex therapist from Los Angeles, told Mic. "This makes sense because the clitoris is incredibly sensitive and rich in nerve endings that provide pleasure," she said.
And those two-minute quickies so often portrayed on TV? We know better. Sandra Lindholm, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist from Walnut Creek, California, told Mic that women usually require 20 to 40 minutes of arousal and touching before experiencing an orgasm. "Women tend to be more like Crock-Pots. We have to be more slowly aroused," she explained, "whereas men tend to be like microwaves: They can be turned on fast and the goal is orgasm."
As for that "orgasm face," as Wilson put it, it's wholly indefinable. Some women may yell and curse; others are quiet. Grimacing and frowning, or wearing a look of intense concentration, is also possible, Marchand said. "Orgasm is really personal," she said, "and how one woman expresses hers is unique to her and also might be different from time to time with different sexual experiences."
The fake face can impact real-life sex: Science may prove again and again that women take longer and require all sorts of stimulation to come; but when only one narrow representation of orgasm is portrayed, women can worry that their own experiences aren't normal.
Cam, a 22-year-old from Ontario, said she feels the pressure to have the same mind-blowing orgasms she's seen in the media. "It has put a little damper on my self-esteem," she told Mic. "It's so easy for guys. Why can't we do it so quickly?"
Liz, a 21-year-old from Rhode Island, told Mic that media portrayals of orgasms have definitely affected her confidence. "I would always wonder if I sounded 'sexy enough,' or if I should keep it down, or if I should make more noise because my partner might not realize I actually enjoy it," she said. "At first it was very hard for me to enjoy my partner without feeling some sort of residual doubt or embarrassment."
Marchand names this phenomenon "spectatoring," which is when you obsess during sex: "Do I look good doing this?" or "What is my partner thinking of these noises I'm making?" This can do a huge disservice to women by decreasing their feelings of pleasure and freedom during sex. Lindholm said that trying to make yourself have an "Academy Award-winning" orgasm can actually prevent you from climaxing at all. "Orgasms are elusive; the more you chase after them, the harder they are to experience," she said.
But it's not all bad news. Increasingly, movies and shows are choosing to depict a range of female sexual expressions. Girls demonstrates that women are perfectly capable of reaching an orgasm without a man, while Masters of Sex acknowledges that women can have sex without experiencing an orgasm at all. As for the face? We're still waiting for accurate female depictions, not to mention more male faces to balance things out.
In the meantime, next time you're confronted with yet another seductively perfect "orgasm face," feel free to change the channel or cut yourself some slack. It's not you, it's them.