Monday, 13 May 2013

Performance art project offers insights into how women experience sex

You run the risk of looking creepy writing about videos in which a number of women orgasm on-camera. But there's something oddly asexual and pristine about the videos, partly because the premise is contrived: the women are asked to bring along a book to the video session, which they read from aloud while being sexually stimulated below the table with a vibrator. This artificial set-up points obliquely to those scenes in literature where two people do sex in public - I even seem to recall a scene in one book where a woman masturbates in company, but where it was I can't for the moment remember - and this artificiality also accounts for the smiles and laughter from the women being videoed here. Such expressions of positive affect highlight the logical tension that inheres in a situation where a private act is performed in public. But regardless, the display that is produced is at odds with what normally passes for lived exhibitions of sexual pleasure, which are routinely found in two places: in pornography, and in the cinema. These unscripted displays are at odds with them because they seem more genuine, unaffected, and spontaneous.

There are five women videoed on the linked page, and the videos range in length from just over four minutes (Stormy) to almost 12 minutes (Alicia). Apart from the smiles and laughter, which is a common feature of the responses of all of the women to the scenario, the arrival of the climax renders any other action impossible in all cases. The book or digital reading device is put down, the hands tense, and the mouth emits sounds as the body is convulsed by internal forces beyond rational control. Beyond this, however, each woman has different ways of responding to the manipulation of their vulvas. Some of the women contain the response for longer, and there are different ways of exhibiting it; one woman grips the edge of the table, for example, and one women repeatedly brings her hand to her mouth, as though to hide an inappropriate remark.

In the Salon interview that is linked from the page Clayton Cubitt, the artist who made the videos, is asked whether they might be used by men (or, presumably, women) during masturbation. This question holds within it a number of links to other strands of thought. The most obvious of these has to do with the wide availability of exploitative erotic material that is available on the internet. I wonder how preferable it is to show in a frank and candid manner how women experience an orgasm that is real, and not faked, compared to the ways that women's bodies are used in pornographic videos in order to titillate the men (and women) who watch them. In the videos by Cubitt the focus of attention is the woman - her reproductive organs, her response to sexual stimulation, and the speed with which she transits from a default state of physical containment to an uncontrolled state approaching and reaching the point of climax - whereas in pornography the woman is a mechanism that is manipulated by a script, by directorial advice, and by the conventions of the form, for the sole purpose of enabling the viewer to achieve orgasm.

For this reason alone it seemed to me unfortunate that the Salon interviewer, in her interview with Cubitt, introduced a moralising tone, as though the videos' status as art placed them in a different class from pornography. Surely it is better to appraise both types of production as mere cultural objects, and to draw conclusions in regard to the use that is being made of the people shown, and for what purpose. The censure inherent in the interviewer's masturbation question also implied, for me, a lack of imagination, an unwillingness to step outside common attitudes toward live displays of the sexual response in women. As though it is somehow improper to openly show, and discuss, how women respond to sex.

One thing is certain, though: the videos are unconventional. Journalists will always remark on something if it is unconventional because they usually check their imaginations at the door when they begin work, in order to assume the attitude of the person they believe is going to read the article they write. While displays of the female sexual response are commonplace within popular culture - even leaving aside overt pornography - it is usually within the anodyne confines of the cinema that they appear. And within the constraints of that form the female sexual response has its own conventions, some of which have commonalities with the responses shown in these videos. What is lacking in the cinema, however, is the sense of delight that the women in Cubitt's videos display. In the cinema, sexual abandon often resembles violence - the woman is pushed to a wall, thrown on a bed, and covered by the man's body - whereas in real life things usually play out in completely different ways.

Some people might react with disapproval to Cubitt's videos, seeing the female response to vulval stimulation as obscene, but given the strong demand for both erotica and dramatisations of sex I suggest that what might be objectionable in Cubitt's videos is the way they take the female sexual response out of a dominant and distorting frame, and place it within another, to produce a cultural object that is novel, surprising, and charmingly direct.

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