In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 22-52

[Access article in PDF]

"Are You There Yet?": Libertinage and the Semantics of the Orgasm

James A. Steintrager

The title of this essay is a question posing as a citation. No one in particular has asked this question. And yet, a reader could begin to construct a situation in which it could be asked: a male perhaps asks it of a female. Maybe the latter has been driving to a distant destination, and the former now requests confirmation that the destination has been reached. But if the male and female are placed in a more intimate setting, a bed for example, then the purport of the query becomes immediately obvious: he would like to know if she is having an orgasm. 1 But then another question arises: how does he know whether or not she is lying? The issue of the faked female orgasm enjoys a great deal of cultural currency. To take a well-known example, a scene of central comic importance in the movie When Harry Met Sally has the Sally character fake an orgasm in a very non-intimate setting--a restaurant--in order to prove that, contrary to what this cocksure male has asserted, Harry cannot ever be certain that his partner has really climaxed. It would seem a matter of female camaraderie that they know something to which the he's of the world can never be privy--a sorority of mysterious histrions with whom the communication of the most intimate moment is always in doubt [End Page 22] because, after all, it must be communicated. The female orgasm would be readable only as a sign. Umberto Eco has defined this basic semiotic entity as anything that can be used to lie (6-7). As Daniel Rancour-Laferriere has pointed out in his discussion of faked orgasms in Signs of the Flesh, this concise definition of the basic semiotic entity seems perfectly applicable here (97).

The unknowability of the female orgasm and male concern about this is an established theme of communication. But it is not just mainstream popular culture that takes the theme as given. In Hard Core, her study of pornographic films, Linda Williams hypothesizes--albeit with certain reservations--about the specific psychological function of such material:

[W]hereas in classical narrative cinema fetishization of the woman's body may solve the problems of sexual difference for the male, in hard core this same masquerade remains a serious impediment to the goal of making visible the involuntary confession of bodily pleasure. . . . Hard core desires assurance that it is witnessing not the voluntary performance of feminine pleasure, but its involuntary confession. The woman's ability to fake the orgasm that the man can never fake (at least according to certain standards of evidence) seems to be at the root of all the genre's attempts to solicit what it can never be sure of: the out- of-control confession of pleasure, a hard-core "frenzy of the visible."

The animating male fantasy of hard-core cinema might therefore be described as the (impossible) attempt to capture visually this frenzy of the visible in a female body whose orgasmic excitement can never be objectively measured. (50)

I do not wish to dispute the accuracy of this assessment as it pertains to contemporary pornographic practices. Rather, I wish to historicize this analysis--something that Freudian and Lacanian language (fetishization and masquerade respectively) tends to ward off. Could not the supposed function of pornography to make the fakeable female orgasm somehow visible, all the while remaining psychological from a certain point of view, be inextricably tied to and partially determined by social history?

The focus of this essay is not of course the global range of responses to the female orgasm. Rather, I will concentrate on the evolution of thematic concerns in the libertine novel (primarily in France, where [End Page 23] the genre was widespread and reached a level of complexity unequaled elsewhere in Europe). The second section of this essay...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 22-52
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2004
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.