Straight Sex In Pop Culture Got A Makeover
We’re seeing more storylines that suggest a man performing oral sex on a woman can be pleasurable for both parties.
In the trailer for the upcoming film Don’t Worry Darling, one scene stood out: a two-second clip of Harry Styles pushing Florence Pugh backward onto the perfectly-set dinner table, among the place settings and vegetables, before going down on her.
Is it just me, or are we seeing more cunnilingus in media these days? Recall Adam Driver’s notable contribution to the cunnilingus canon in 2021’s Annette, the buzz for which almost got me to watch a musical. During a very special Halloween episode in Season 1 of Euphoria, Ethan performed oral sex on Kat while she’s dressed as a nun (but not before removing his fangs). And though it was just a fantasy, there was also that time Issa fantasized about Daniel going down on her while she ate Hot Cheetos in Season 3 of Insecure.
In contrast, just over a decade ago, the creators of 2010’s Blue Valentine had to fight to have the film’s rating lowered from NC-17 to R due to the inclusion of a scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on Michelle Williams’ character. Not long after, Evan Rachel Wood shared her disappointment with the MPAA for forcing her 2013 film Charlie Countryman to remove a similar scene to avoid receiving an NC-17 rating. Meanwhile, blow jobs abound: Films with fellatio (including Boogie Nights, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jawbreaker) have long been stamped with an R rating to no fanfare.
We’ve come a long way, in other words. But how did we bridge this gap? And what, if anything, does that suggest about our collective attitude toward sex?
Just over two decades ago, The Sopranos and Sex and the City were just beginning what would go on to be six-season runs, and though the two have little in common (other than being housed by HBO), in 1999 they both feature memorable storylines about men going down on women. In retrospect, it’s shocking not only how out-of-the-ordinary these narratives were within the larger landscape of sex scenes at the time, but also that the plotlines were about how the men involved — Tony’s Uncle Junior and Mitch Saylor (aka “Mr. Pussy”), respectively — were so good at eating pussy that they were ashamed of it.
On The Sopranos episode “Boca,” Junior was ashamed of his pussy prowess because he thought it would be seen as a “weakness.” When his lover, Bobbi, asks him why he wants her to keep quiet about his under-the-sheets skills, he replies, “They think if you suck pussy, you’ll suck anything.” The implication? Supposedly, you’re gay if you’re good at cunnilingus. (Homophobia and bad logic have always gone hand-in-hand, it seems.)
In the end, people do find out about his cliteracy, and he confronts Bobbi for gossiping, screaming at her and calling her a cunt before shoving a pie in her face. It’s his belief that going down on a woman takes away his power; to restore it, he acts out of aggression, in a classically “masculine” way. At the time, the revelation that he enjoyed performing oral sex created a power imbalance in their relationship, because the then-dominant ideas about what makes sex “good” were centered around men’s pleasure. Because he subscribed to a mainstream narrative that didn’t align with his own experiences or preferences in the bedroom, it was only by cutting their relationship off — one that had thus far been mutually pleasurable — and hurting her that he could feel as though he’d reclaimed his power.
On the other end of the spectrum: the SATC episode, titled “The Freak Show.” Here, we have a man so completely defined by love of cunnilingus that he was a caricature of himself; the prevailing cultural representations of sex centered penis-in-vagina intercourse, which suggested that all other ways of being physically intimate were less-than.
In the episode, Charlotte is so enthralled by the sex she’s having with Mitch that she’s determined to turn her fling into a real relationship; that is, until Samantha explains, “You don’t fall in love with Mr. Pussy — you enjoy him and then you set him free.” It was a reflection of the era’s attitudes around sex and pleasure: There was no way, as Samantha’s comment suggests, that he could be both renowned at giving head and a viable romantic partner. (And SATC was largely hailed as progressive in its thinking at the time!)
Each of these examples presumes the audience will agree that oral sex is only pleasurable for the receiver and never the giver; these episodes also suggest that giving oral sex is necessarily a submissive act, whereas receiving is dominant. In reality, like all things when it comes to sex and relationships, it’s never as black and white as that. “I think that early psychoanalysts, like Freud, had a lot to do with naming and solidifying the belief that a female orgasm should only come from penis-in-vagina sex,” says Jillien Kahn, LMFT, MEd, CST, a psychotherapist and sex therapist based in New York City. “This really took hold as an identifier of both femininity and masculinity, and continues to cause anxiety for straight couples who don’t find mutual pleasure through just penetration.”
Two decades later, it’s now no longer unusual to find storylines about cishet couples that suggest a man performing oral sex on a woman can be powerful and pleasurable for both parties.
“Relationships and expectations within relationships have changed, the rules of masculinity and femininity are slowly shifting and expanding, and with those things attitudes toward sex are shifting and expanding,” says Kahn. As we’ve started to move away from binary thinking in terms of gender and sexuality, we can also begin to remove the ways binaries block us from having fulfilling experiences in other areas of our lives as well.
It’s now no longer unusual to find storylines about cishet couples that suggest a man performing oral sex on a woman can be powerful and pleasurable for both parties.
Sex in general become less of a taboo topic in popular culture, and the kinds of sex that we’re talking about — and centering — are shifting away from hetero, penis-centered sex. It’s likely at least partially due to the shifting demographics of writers rooms: According to the 2022 Inclusion and Equity Report from the Writers Guild West, women now make up more than 45% of TV screenwriters and nearly 30% of movie screenwriters, as opposed to 29% and 17% in 2010, respectively. Or it may be due to the fact that there are simply more outlets for creators to push content on. “We have all these streaming services now that are wanting to cater to more diverse audiences. I think they're getting a sense that those diverse audiences also want more realistic portrayals of what it means to be a human being,” says Erin Cadet, an LMFT specializing in sexuality and gender who is based in New York City.
Many of these storylines have shown that cunnilingus can be passionate, intimate, and powerful: In Game of Thrones, for example, when Grey Worm and Missandei finally get it on, it’s an act of intense vulnerability that also, by necessity (as Grey Worm is a eunuch), centers her pleasure. A scene like this is powerful to watch, yes, but to also consider the mere fact of its existence, when compared with the sex scenes of decades past. “Women are becoming, and feeling, more powerful and this is leading them to advocate more strongly for their pleasure, and men are realizing that performing cunnilingus can actually be quite exciting,” says Kahn.
Of course, that’s not always how oral sex goes; sometimes it’s completely unsatisfying, as shown in Season 1 of Made for Love, when Cristin Milioti’s character is asked to “rate” her orgasm after her husband goes down on her in the high-tech hub he’s built for them to live in. Shortly after she comes — quite convincingly — she turns away from him on the bed and a look of relief washes over her face; given what happens later in the series, it’s clear that the relief is not sexual in nature but because the experience is over. And while this aspect of sex may be uncomfortable to watch, it’s also real.
Other recent on-screen depictions of cunnilingus portray the gamut of emotions that the act can elicit. The Season 2 opener of Shrill features Ryan going down on Annie’s “two-day pussy” in an open field after a night of camping before they hear a troop of Boy Scouts marching by. In the pilot of You’re the Worst, Jimmy and Gretchen’s intended one-night stand includes one of my favorite cunnilingus scenes to date. (He spits on her for added lubrication, which shocks her, until he explains, “It’s just spit!” She nods, they continue.) Season 3 of Insecure sees Dro passionately going down on Molly on the kitchen counter, during which she knocks over a bottle of alcohol. We’ve even gotten to see some historical head, as both Minx and Bridgerton — shows set in the past — have featured scenes with men going down on women.
“So much has been centered around the person with the penis and this one-note penis-in-vagina sex, and the idea that everybody orgasms and that’s the end of the story. And we all know that in real life, that’s not the case,” Cadet says. “I think that there’s an increasing pushback against that, and people want to see a realistic representation of what real sex is.”