What every man (and woman) needs to know about cunnilingus

Long ignored by popular culture, women's needs are finally getting the special treatment they deserve

Published February 9, 2015 1:00AM (EST)

This piece originally appeared on DAME.

Dame Magazine Cunnilingus is having a cultural moment for once. A week and a half ago, at a Dead Kennedys’ concert, a woman received oral sex onstage for all to see (and for you too. Warning: It’s NSFW). Last year, it got some attention on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, and there was even a song dedicated to it, entitled “Philomena,” by the Decemberists prompting Rolling Stone to opine that the tune “might be the catchiest cunnilingus tribute since Foxy Brown’s ‘Candy.’”

But how far have we really come when it comes to oral-sex parity? Though we’re making progress, we’ve not come far enough, according to the sex educators I consulted. Pop culture still needs more representation, claims Sophie Delancey, vice-president of porn sites The Art of Cunnilingus and The Art of Blowjob. “Historically and currently there are huge gaps in terms of what can be shown vis-a-vis male and female sexuality in film,” says Delancey. “Blue Is the Warmest Colour got an NC-17 rating, while goofier movies about male sexuality get PG-13/R ratings regularly. We need to get to a place, both in terms of mainstream media and porn, where women’s sexual pleasure is seen as important but not so different/extreme as to be perceived as more vulgar than male sexual pleasure.”

In 2011, Blue Valentine also initially faced an NC-17 rating, which was later changed to R, largely credited to a cunnilingus scene between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Sex educator Shanna Katz, M.Ed., ACS, claims incidents like this happen “because our culture is so dominated with the sexual pleasure of straight men, anything that doesn’t feature a penis getting pleasured is radical and counterculture.”

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The film world is improving, but not fast enough for sex educator Chris Maxwell Rose, owner of PleasureMechanics.com. “The cunnilingus scene in Gone Girl was a positive depiction, but lasted for only a few frames,” she laments. “It would be nice to see cunnilingus depicted more frequently, even in a suggestive rather than explicit way. It is quite common to see a female character dropping to her knees, but how often do we see men sliding down their lover’s body in an enthusiastic gesture of love?”

Since mainstream porn often comes under fire for not showing cunnilingus in an authentic way, Delancey is out to change that with the launch this month of XXX site The Art of Cunnilingus, which follows the successful launch of The Art of Blowjob. She explains that porn often fails to portray oral sex as realistically as viewers might want because “it’s a whole lot more difficult to shoot it in a way that is genuinely erotic and evocative. It took a lot of trial and error to put together videos with the right mix of facial reactions, establishing shots, wide shots, close-up shots of the cunnilingus itself.” But they’re doing everything they can to change that. Says Delancey, “We have a lot more focus on both the faces of the giver and the recipient in these videos, as it’s a clear and interesting way to telegraph pleasure.”

Even though cunnilingus has been promoted from featuring to starring role in some areas of porn and pop culture, it remains a sticky subject for many when they’re behind closed doors. When I ask Jacq Jones—who owns feminist sex-toy store Sugar and teaches a class called “Lick Her: How to Lick Pussy Like a Rock Star”—whether lesbians are more into giving head to other women than men are, she says no. “I think that the biggest difference is between straight women and lesbians feeling guilty about receiving cunnilingus,” Jones explained. “Every time I teach my pussy-licking class, I talk about how fabulous it is to give, and get a hell of a lot of agreement from the rest of the givers in the room—most of whom are straight men. The relief on the faces of the women is huge.”

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Katz, author of Oral Sex That’ll Blow Her Mind, concurs that straight men in particular are eager, but their No. 1 question is “How long am I supposed to do it for?” Katz says this is partly because they’re approaching sex like they might sports. “This [attitude] particularly comes from straight men. We socialize guys into wanting to be able to have a guideline and an answer for everything, and unfortunately, there is no magic formula to having good sex, including good oral sex.”

Indeed, Rose identifies sexual orientation as a key factor in determining how receivers of cunnilingus feel about the act. “Women are more likely to believe that other women would enjoy giving oral sex,” says Rose. “Women who have shame about the look, smell, or taste of their vulvas have come to believe that men think the same way. The truth is, very few men have ever complained to us about the shape of their lover’s vulva or the taste. They just want to be chin deep and feel their women writhe in pleasure.”

Conversely, women may be turning down cunnilingus for reasons that have more to do with what they think they should want than what they actually do. According to Katz, “I think women who sleep with men, particularly straight-identified women, often feel a pressure to not want oral sex because it is selfish, or to only want it for a few minutes and then magically ‘be ready’ for intercourse, so I think a lot of women say they are done before they are, or not into it even if they are.”

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Rose sees the tension women face in terms of accepting oral sex as one that extends far beyond the bedroom. “Women struggle to believe that they are worthy of pleasure, that their lovers enjoy giving them oral stimulation, and struggle to relax enough to be able to feel the exquisite pleasures that cunnilingus offers,” Rose says. “This set of attitudes around receiving pleasure are reflected in all other aspects of women’s life. Does she believe she is worthy of being loved? Is she willing to prioritize her own needs for a moment? Does she understand her body and genitals as something beautiful, lovable and deserving of attention? So cunnilingus becomes the microcosm of a woman’s bigger attitudes about herself, her body and her place in the world.”

That’s not to say that cunnilingus will be everyone’s sexual cup of tea. My point is certainly not that more women “should” demand cunnilingus, but that they shouldn’t shun it as a matter of course, or make any kind of assumption about what their partner may think (as with all things sex, communication is key). As Jones concludes, “Many women, especially women who don’t have a reason to interact with other women’s genitals, carry a heavy and degrading image about what it must be like to get up close and personal with their pussies. Giving head is a privilege. That’s a message women of every sexual orientation need to hear.”


By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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