The story about a woman having an orgasm-induced stroke repeats a dangerous myth about female pleasure

The vagina has rarely been celebrated as a pleasure-giving centre

Harriet Hall
Saturday 16 March 2019 13:33
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Remember when Michael Douglas claimed in 2013 that his throat cancer was caused by performing oral sex on his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones?

In a now infamous interview, the Basic Instinct star swiftly rejected any suggestion that his disease could have been triggered by his party lifestyle of smoking and drinking, saying: “Without wanting to get too specific, this particular cancer is caused by HPV [human papillomavirus], which actually comes about from cunnilingus.” Zeta-Jones probably hasn’t forgotten.

The line was gleefully repeated by one and all: going down on a woman could cause cancer; case closed. The detail that a woman’s personal life had been plastered all over front pages, that her pleasure had been directly pitted against his pain – by him – came second fiddle. Her vagina tried to kill her husband!

This week, a story went viral of a woman who had suffered a stroke while “nearing orgasm” while her partner was performing oral sex on her. Your vagina can kill you too! The British Medical Journal case report is just one of many anecdotes that the periodical publishes as freak incidents that can pose as potentially useful learning tools for doctors but often end up fuelling salacious gossip. This week, we’ve seen a man contract a deadly ear infection from a cotton bud and a man whose nasal congestion turned out to be a leftover milk tooth.

What’s most interesting about this particular orgasm story, though, is how much interest it has seen. It’s not new information that sexual arousal increases blood pressure and can therefore increase the chance of clotting in the already predisposed. We’ve heard about people having heart attacks during sex before. The medical interest in this story is arguably that sex doesn’t have to be vigorous penetrative sex in order to raise stroke risk. Although we can’t say for sure how vigorous this particular incident was, of course. The internet’s interest, however, feels to me simply ribald. I find it deeply unlikely it would have seen such reaction if it referred to a man receiving oral sex.

Cunnilingus has a troubled history. I’ve written about how films – most infamously Blue Valentine (2010) – have been penalised for portraying the act. They’re given such high ratings they become dead in the water as no one goes to see them.

While cunnilingus kills, blow jobs, culture would have us believe, can resurrect. When the Ancient Egyptian god of the afterlife Osiris was killed and chopped into pieces, his sister Isis managed to literally blow life back into him via his dismembered penis.

The powerful image of the yoni as life-giving form reflects the perceived primary value of the vagina. It is rarely celebrated as a pleasure-giving centre. We know that female desire has historically been viewed as dangerous. The very reason female genital mutilation was devised was to literally carve out woman’s pleasure centres, to sew them up, strip them of sexual autonomy and limit them to reproductive conduits.

The fear many women harbour around their vaginas is due, largely, to the mystical, pure values with which we’ve imbued them. Vaginas have since been channelled through neat hair-free, tucked Barbie vulvas seen in pornography.

Such fear and avoidance is aggravated by a rhetoric that labels female sexuality and sexual appetite as shameful. Cliched narratives around men hating to go down on women, or risking emasculation for doing so, abound in popular culture. Take, for example, the exchange in Quentin Tarantino’s 1993 True Romance, in which the gangsters discuss the act, with one male character proudly announcing his refusal to pleasure a woman in this way. “If I ever did eat some p****,” he says, “I would never eat any p****, right? But if I did eat some p****, I sure as hell wouldn’t tell no goddamn body about it. I’d be ashamed as a mother****er, man.”

In fact, surveys have shown men generally take the opposite view. In the US, the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviour in 2015 revealed a majority of millennial men were performing oral sex on their female partners.

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Yet women’s sexuality is constantly being pushed back and even prohibited. January of this year saw a vibrator stripped of its award at the Consumer Electronics Show and labelled “immoral” and “profane”, according to the Consumer Technology Association. Meanwhile the so-called orgasm gap sees 91 per cent of men regularly climaxing during sex compared with just 39 per cent of women.

The recent project 100 Vulvas sought to destigmatise female genitalia and masturbation and yet those we see benefiting from such well-meaning campaigns seem to be the beauty industry moguls who roll out various products and treatments to profit from women’s paranoia.

There may be medical value in this case of the woman who had a stroke as she neared orgasm. But what the popularity of this story and of other similar ones tells us is that women should by all means not enjoy sex, be serviced by partners or dare to feel sexually empowered in any way. That men who debase themselves to service women will be punished or – better yet – become martyrs as per Michael Douglas.

Incidentally, cunnilingus doesn’t cause cancer. HPV is linked to an increased cancer risk, through whatever means it is contracted. Receiving oral sex as a woman does not lead to stroke, either. What it does do, perhaps, is reject the reinforcing of the same old lazy tropes about female sexuality, and cast off cliches of women’s bodies as reproductive vessels or vehicles for the sole purpose of sating male sexual appetites.

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