Nearly 15 years ago, an episode of "The Sopranos" showed just how emasculating some men consider cunnilingus. Uncle Junior's lover Roberta tells him that he's "a real artist" when it comes to "kissing down there" -- but instead of puffing up his chest with pride and telling all his fellow mafiosi, he warns her not to dare spread the word. "They think if you suck pussy you'll suck anything," says Junior. "It's a sign of weakness and possibly a sign that you're a fanook." Tony finds out and humiliation ensues. Junior gets so enraged that he considers having his nephew murdered -- all over some oral.
Just contrast that scene with Michael Douglas' recent proud profession about going down.
Sure, the mafia may have a stricter definition of masculinity than the rest of society. It's also true that there are counter pop cultural examples from the late '90s; take Big Pun's rapping about his "thick tongue, known to make a chick come." But that "Sopranos" episode nonetheless expressed a widespread cultural attitude that has diminished tremendously in the last 15 years -- and how! But also, seriously, how?
Douglas isn't the first male star to go there: Lesser-known actors like Justin Long and Jamie Bell have in recent years hinted at loving the act (the latter even declared it a manly duty to be good at it). Movie heartthrobs have gotten in on the act -- from Justin Timberlake to Ryan Gosling (there's a GIF, you're welcome). TV -- or in the case of Netflix, "TV" -- has been, um, eating it up. Just in the past year, there was Kevin Spacey going down on Kate Mara in "House of Cards" and the character Jon Snow being heralded a "proper lover" on "Game of Thrones" for "the thing you did with your tongue." My favorite example is from "Scandal": The president of the United States calls cunnilingus his "superpower." (A man with an arsenal of nuclear weapons considers pleasuring a woman with his tongue to be his superpower? Word.)
That's not even to begin cataloging the cunnilingus scenes on "Girls," although one stands out -- the one with Shosanna's crush from Jewish summer camp who loves to go down (a scene that, personal anecdote, I happened to watch with a male friend who announced with macho swagger, "We Jewish boys know how to do it!"). As Ian Kerner, author of "She Comes First," which he describes as an ode to cunnilingus, tells me, "I feel like I can't turn on HBO these days, or some other cable network, without seeing a guy under the sheets as he stimulates his partner to orgasm."
"Certainly there does seem to be a cultural shift toward the act," says Kerner, whose legendary book has remained in Amazon's top 25 sex books since it was published in 2004. "Lately I've noticed a proliferation of [online] reviews from men who are willing to praise it," he says. "This has not always been the case."
Part of the change can be attributed to greater sexual literacy and dawning awareness about the importance of clitoral stimulation. After all, men's masculinity has long been tied to their ability to satisfy a lover, but in recent history it's become harder to pretend that some simple in-and-out is enough to satisfy most women. There are certainly some bigger cultural changes at play too, like "sexual liberation," such as it is, and women's increasing erotic agency. Kerner also points out that "there's so much more cunnilingus in porn these days and not just female-friendly or lesbian channels." It's become a porn standard, and "porn always has a trickle-down effect on sexual mores," he argues.
None of this is to say that cunnilingus is new (people have been putting their mouths on each other's genitals since always) or that we're super-evolved when it comes to vaginas (we still mock them for being too smelly, too hairy, too big, and refer to them by the same name we call cowards). But the act -- and being skilled at it -- has increasingly become equated with masculinity. It's not quite culturally tantamount to a big dick, but it's getting close.
Unfortunately, this isn't necessarily a good thing for the ladies. As Lux Alptraum, CEO of Fleshbot, points out, "The pairing of oral skill with manliness makes cunnilingus less about the woman receiving it than about the man performing it" and "the woman's pleasure more about validating the man's skill than about the woman herself having a good time."