The National’s song About Today (2004), Sarah Polley’s film Take This Waltz (2011) and Mo Hayder’s novel The Devil of Nanking (2005). Three of my favourite examples of pop culture showcasing the rarely discussed politics of male/female entanglements.
I’ve just finished reading Hayder’s The Treatment (2002). On one hand it’s a standard, if disturbing, police procedural with Jack Caffery, an almost-hard-boiled detective, tracking down a rope-fetishist perp. It’s a standard crime novel with a trajectory familiar to anyone versed in the genre. What elevates Hayder’s books – and why they so spark my curiosity - is that more than just crime yarns, her subplots spotlight what’s politically fraught about romantic dyads.
For the purposes of this article, I’m interested in Hayder’s use of cunnilingus in The Treatment as an allegory for the role of power in the bedroom.
In two scenes where Jack goes down on his girlfriend, Rebecca, as soon as she orgasms he motions to unbuckle his trousers. Each time however, his efforts are stifled when Rebecca moves off the bed and exits the room. Poor Jack: high, dry and hard. And he’s pissed. More than that, he’s angry. So angry in fact, that in a later scene he’ll exhibit his “dissatisfaction” in a way that Rebecca forgives far quicker than I ever would.
For her part, Rebecca’s actions are dealt with in the novel; she’s got abuse issues which she fears will resurface during intercourse. Not examined however – and far more interesting - are Jack’s “rights” to feeling irked.
In discussions of sexuality, women are routinely portrayed as gatekeepers: they’re the ones who get decide if, when and how sex will happen; they’re the ones charged with - and responsible for - stirring men’s desires. While in practice I’m not convinced this transpires in all or even most scenarios, nevertheless in a world where the vast majority of men are not rapists, if she says no, no it shall be.
Rebecca left the bedroom as is her right. And Jack - laying supine and erect - had no recourse. Up until that point in the novel he was trying hard to be the good boyfriend, the quality lover. I won’t go so far as to call him a feminist, but nevertheless he’s portrayed as a new-age man; a man who knows the effectiveness of cunnilingus, is willing to do it and acknowedges that in the 21st century demanding reciprocity will curry no favours.
And yet he’s still palpably annoyed when reciprocity doesn’t transpire.
In studies on gender and sexuality, often discussed is the “sexual script”. It’s a way to explain how the hijinks of our bedrooms - of our sexual interactions more broadly - frequently follow a pattern of internalised conventions and norms; that lovers go through an inevitably scripted dance.
Sociologists have applied this concept to a variety of phenomena; for the purposes of this article - and to research I’ve recently conducted for my day job - my interest is how the script relates to heterosexual cunnilingus.
In short, invariably cunnilingus is treated as foreplay. It’s a precursor to the “main event”. It’s not considered as sex on its own – cue the Clinton explanation - and it’s unlikely for any sexual interaction between a man and a woman to only consist of him going down on her. Cunnilingus is a lead in or adjunct to sex, but it’s rarely sex in its entirety.
For Jack in The Treatment, he performs oral sex because he loves Rebecca and because he seemingly enjoys the act, but his intent is not exclusively about benevolence. He expects to equally profit. When this doesn’t happen he is resentful.
Jack feels owed. Sexual script research indicates that men in general feel owed if they go to the oral trouble. This is certainly something promulgated by porn: innumerable scenes of cunnilingus are included but it always serves as the warm up for other penis-centric acts.
I suggest this is quite different from the fellatio script.
While sexual script research documents that women would quite like their blow job gifts to be repaid, they don’t expect it. That sometimes fellatio will actually constitute the whole sex scene.
It’s the penis that makes the difference. It’s the penis that forms our definition of heterosexual congress; it’s his orgasm that truly connotes that the job has been done. This is a norm that both men and women have internalised.
While I find the idea of sexual reciprocity fascinating, not for a moment do I think it’s an easy subject to discuss nor grapple with psychologically. On one hand I find it icky/upsetting/a big fat turn off that a sex act might be performed purely - or even just largely - out of expectation, point-scoring or because someone is due “their share”. That said, as I’ve discussed in this space previously, our motives for sex are complicated; participating because a lover’s pleasure has been prioritised is as rational - as laudable - as any other justification.
Mo Hayder does a good job with the detective tale but an even better one at nodding to all of those sexual complexities that make heterosexuality horrible and wonderful and enduringly interesting.