When the Media Twists Up Your Feminism
and Spits it Out:
A Reflection on Spitting Back
“Do women’s orgasms function as a masculinity achievement for men?” According to my research published in an article by the same title, the answer is a resounding YES, and this is problematic for everyone… It means that men are making women’s pleasure about themselves, and it helps to explain why so many women fake orgasms to please their male partners. It also turns out this is problematic for many folks in the public who saw my research, but let me get back to that.
First, the research. To reach my conclusions, I conducted an experiment with my advisor and co-author, Dr. Sari van Anders, in which we asked men to either imagine that a female partner did or did not have an orgasm with them during a sexual encounter. Then, we asked men to rate how masculine and accomplished they felt. We found that men felt more masculine and accomplished when they imagined that a woman had orgasmed with them vs. when the women had not. And, we found that men who were particularly stressed out about demonstrating masculinity (e.g., they would feel highly stressed if someone called them emotional, if they dated a woman who made more money than them, etc.) felt especially masculine and accomplished, like the women’s orgasm was a highly needed stamp of approval.
When Sari and I published these findings, we thought our framing of the problematic nature of a connection between women’s orgasms and men’s masculinity was clear. In the manuscript, we provided a list of examples that highlighted the potential negative repercussions of women’s orgasms being for men. These included of course, the ironic lack of women-centrism around women’s orgasms (!!) and the tendency for women to fake orgasms as a way of protecting the masculinity failure men might feel if the women’s orgasms don’t happen. We also stated that women and men might be reluctant to attribute the absence of a woman’s orgasm to men’s own skill if it would hurt his masculinity, and could therefore be more likely conclude that women’s bodies were “dysfunctional” and in need of medical attention if they do not orgasm enough or easily, in the “right” way (i.e., through intercourse), or at all. So, when the publication came out, I began to daydream of the inevitable swarm of women vowing to reclaim their orgasms (or lack of them, which is totally fine, too!) and a flood of men rushing to their female partners to apologize for co-opting their pleasure.
One morning, I googled the article so that I could forward the publication link to a colleague, proud that I had finally launched my feminist research into the world. Suddenly, the news headlines started pouring in and my jaw dropped…
“HEY GUYS, MAKING HER ORGASM ACTUALLY BENEFITS YOU!”
– Fox News
“SCIENCE TIES MASCULINITY WITH THE ABILITY TO MAKE WOMEN ORGASM”
And my personal favorite:
“BROS, SCIENCE SAYS THERE ARE HEALTH BENEFITS OF GIVING LADIES ORGASMS AND THEY SOUND LEGIT”
– Bro Bible
Now I’m not one who tends to be heavily influenced by something called “Bro Bible” (or “Fox News” for that matter…), but I froze. Then, I think I may have screamed a little bit, and then started laughing (because of the irony!). Finally, I emailed Sari with an urgent “what do we do?!” I mean but really…what does one do when one publishes something critiquing how women’s pleasure is problematically about men and the media turns it into SCIENCE SHOWS THAT WOMEN’S PLEASURE IS ALL ABOUT MEN!? I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I read over and over again about how I, Sara Chadwick, feminist scientist, had proved yet again that men are God’s gift to women. I watched my daydream dissipate, the wave of egalitarian, sex-positive women and men replaced by a herd of men flexing their muscles and boasting about how masculine they felt after their girlfriend had (but let’s be real, probably faked*) an orgasm last night.
*Note: I say this because research suggests that it’s quite common for women to fake orgasms to please male partners and, in reality, women are not having as many orgasms as their male partners think they are. And, it seems like a fair speculation to imagine that men who see women’s orgasms as something to flex about might be less concerned with their partner’s actual experience and pleasure. And, hey, this is not to say that faking orgasms is necessarily terrible (see Jagose, 2010), but that’s another story.
As I continued to read through the news articles, however, I started to realize that most of the journalists couldn’t have read the whole paper. Or if they had, they had skipped the critiques and pulled out the one or two lines that presented the women’s orgasms-men’s masculinity association favorably. For example, at one point we did state that some men who experience women’s orgasms as a masculinity achievement might also be genuinely invested in women’s pleasure and that an increased attention to women’s orgasms could certainly result in more women actually having orgasms. Though, funnily enough, we had kind of only put those niceties in the paper so that we wouldn’t come across too scathing (but in hindsight, we should have scathed more!).
It finally hit me, what I’d perhaps known all along: that you can’t just publish science and expect to change the patriarchy, and certainly not the capitalist click-bait culture that feeds on women’s and men’s desire to be the best, most attractive, and most successful sexual partner. After all, men feel pressured to demonstrate masculinity for a reason: it’s highly socially valuable and is typically seen as awesome! And, who wants to (or would) believe an article about how there could be problems with wanting to give women orgasms? As one commenter (who by the way, was a man) stated, “who cares why men are giving women orgasms as long as women are having more of them?”
Of course, I’ve already mentioned why we should care about the motivations men may have for “giving” women orgasms and I was still determined to make sure that these critiques were heard. Some of my friends and colleagues suggested calling up the news sites that had twisted our research to demand that they either rescind the articles or provide a more accurate re-write. When I met with Sari to discuss next-steps though, we discussed how few of those sites were likely to care what we thought as long as their headlines enticed readers to click on them; after all, as I noted, most of the journalists (“journalists”?) hadn’t actually read the article or already were obviously cherry-picking. Instead, we decided to write up a press release that highlighted the study’s negative implications and send it to feminist-friendly journalists. Within a few days, we started to see a more even mix of coverage (with accurate and positive reporting from sites like Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Mic, to name a few) that better represented our findings and promoted our critiques (rejoice!).
Overall, the impact of our research on women’s orgasms as a masculinity achievement for men is less clear than I’d hoped (I have yet to witness the onslaught of women and men vowing to stand against the problems we presented in the study), but it did feel good to see our science taken up by some feminist (or feminist-friendly) journalists and disseminated to the public in ways that hopefully speak to some women’s and men’s experiences. And, although I dread the thought of anyone reading the twisted media stories and taking them seriously, it helps to know it’s possible to combat this by flooding the news feeds with write-ups from feminists, or even just accuracy-driven journalists, who are dedicated to reporting on the science correctly. In fact, thanks to these, Sari and I received an email from a woman who had read about and related to our study that said [paraphrased], “Thank you! I have been trying to tell my husband for several years that my orgasms felt more about him than about me, but it was hard to explain how that was possible!” This was really the best response I could have hoped for, i.e., knowing that our findings helped even one person in a way made everything worthwhile.
Overall, while I realized that, while we can’t control the media narrative about our feminist and queer sex research, leaving the story-making about our research to the media is a pretty bad approach. After all, if the media is part of our culture (it is), and our culture has all sorts of problematics around gender and sexuality (it does), then it will twist feminist research to spit out anti-feminist points. And, while our quick recruitment of an army of feminist-friendly journalists certainly helped us spit back, we are aware more so now than ever that it’s important to be prepared for the spitting-fight beforehand. For the future, we’re going to try to be more proactive about framing the story of our research for the media so that we can try to head off more wild misinterpretations of our findings. Will this help? It’s hard to tell considering that there’s a hoard of click-bait-hungry writers (and readers!) out there waiting to blow up our next findings. But, we certainly hope so and at least we’ll (try to) be ready the next time.
Chadwick, S. B., & Anders, S. M. van. (2017). Do Women’s Orgasms Function as a Masculinity Achievement for Men? The Journal of Sex Research, 54(9), 1141–1152.
Jagose, A. (2010). Counterfeit pleasures: fake orgasm and queer agency. Textual Practice, 24(3), 517–539.
Sara Chadwick is a PhD candidate in the Joint Program in Psychology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on orgasms, masculinity and femininity, women’s use of pornography, and multi-faceted sexual desire.