Proof of Pleasure

This essay appears in Issue 3 of Phile Magazine (2018).

Squirting has several, often contradictory, mythologies. It is at once erotic, repulsive, an unsolvable mystery, a given, evidence, hearsay, piss, cum, all of the above, none of the above. All anyone can seem to agree on is that it is (if it is) wet. Squirting floats (gushes) in and out of that sensual dream realm other erotic feminine myths occupy, somewhere between virginity and vagina dentata. But squirting is no legend. It’s real, it’s visible, it’s tangible, and yes, it’s wet.

In popular culture (films, TV, porn) and in the social imaginary, the “male” orgasm is all spatter and finale, and its “female” counterpart is “un-provable” – no cum, no need for a resting period – and barely an afterthought. So given the representational murkiness of feminine sexual pleasure, what can we make of something so explicit, so tangible, and yet so elusive as squirting? And, without devolving into gender essentialism, can squirting tell us something about how we measure (and invite) feminine pleasure?

Several of the people I talked to when researching this essay – even some of the savviest, most sex-positive figures – professed to not knowing whether or not scientists have “figured out” what actually happens when a person squirts. “It’s a mystery,” they told me. Despite the fact that significantly less scientific research is dedicated to the female body (and even less to female pleasure) than to its male counterpart, squirting is not the ejaculatory enigma many believe it to be. Squirting occurs when the Skene’s Glands – attached to the anterior wall of the vagina, and connected to the urethra – are stimulated. Chloë Lubell, a certified nurse-midwife and registered nurse who runs the sexual health blog The Midwife Is In, explains that squirting can happen at the height of the orgasm or before: “It’s the term for what happens during orgasm when people with vaginas release clear, non-odorous, non-urine fluid from the body.” Squirting is also a kind of liquid “proof” of pleasure that the female body otherwise does not provide during orgasm.

Porn star and sex educator Nina Hartley was 25 years deep into her career before Mr. Pete, a colleague, made her squirt for the first time. It was not a particularly revelatory experience. Although Hartley expresses ambivalence about squirting, she remarks that many people love it, and those who do “report that the two types of orgasms (squirting vs. non-) are very different, each with its particular delights.” Hartley’s ambivalence points to the fact that any sexual experience and its associated degree of pleasure is deeply personal; that one person relishes a certain act doesn’t mean that it is more or less valid (or titillating) than any other.

Should you want to make someone else squirt, a prolific squirt-inducer I spoke to claims she can feel “the spot” (the Skene’s Glands), which she stimulates with her fingers curled in a come-hither motion. Lubell, on the other hand, suggests putting as many fingers as feel comfortable into the vagina, with your palm facing up, then stroking gently at 1 and 11 o’clock, if the opening to the vagina were the face of a clock. If you are the one trying to squirt, Lubell suggests you “imagine gripping something with your vagina and then press out around that thing, like you’re trying to push it out of your vagina. Relax the muscles in your pelvis and do it again. Contract, push, relax.”

Hartley, contrastingly, recommends not trying too hard, or even pursuing squirting as a goal at all; “If it happens, great! If not, great!” she chimes. While squirting can be pleasurable, “the important thing to keep in mind for any sexual situation is consent, consent, consent, with mutual pleasure as the goal, not any particular event.” For Hartley, the key to any erotic encounter is to create a pressure-free environment. Discussions with friends who have experience with squirting have underlined this. “Squirting is easier when you’re with someone who wouldn’t shame you if you wet the bed, because that’s what it looks like - and sometimes feels like - you did,” a friend confesses.

The association between female ejaculation and urine is not arbitrary, and not only because ejaculate is expelled from the urethra. I ask Hartley what the prep process is like for squirting on camera in a porn scene. She notes that when squirting first became a feature of mainstream porn, actors would prepare by drinking a lot of water, and so what appears to be cum is in fact the elements of a golden shower in disguise. Hartley recalls an instance when, during a pause in filming, she injected water into her vagina using a bulb syringe, clenched her muscles until the director yelled “action!” and then forcibly expelled the water from her vagina “while making an orgasm face.” Still today, ejaculation (both kinds) is often staged in porn. “Real ejaculate is not urine,” she reminds me, “but it’s not always possible to ejaculate on cue - bodies are unreliable.”

The unreliability of the body with regard to the erotic is something that both fascinates us and suffuses sexual encounters with a sense of unease. How do we grapple with, or quantify the invisible in sex? If porn, and the life that supposedly imitates it, sees “the money shot” (ejaculation from the penis) as the ultimate ending, where does that leave feminine pleasure, feminine climax? Do we need to see it to believe it?

The “invisibility” of the female orgasm – the fact that it occurs internally – is not a new preoccupation. In the first volume of The History of Sexuality, philosopher Michel Foucault writes that modern Western culture has cultivated what he calls a scientia sexualis – an approach to sexuality that pivots on the power relationship between that which can be known and measured and the bodies that stage the confession of pleasure. In other words, modern society privileges sexuality that can be quantified, proved.

Those with a particular stake in rendering female sexuality “visible,” in particular, are straight men. More often than not, the pursuit of evidence of feminine sexual pleasure is a manifestation of a desire for reassurance, and comes from a place of insecurity. But who gets to testify to the “reality” of pleasure? Surely the desire to qualify the female orgasm as a lack – a potential lie, a negation, impossible to pinpoint – says more about who is considered a reliable source (who society believes) than it does about the orgasm itself.

In her 1989 book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” Cultural Studies scholar Linda Williams looks to pornography for an illustration of Foucault’s claim about modern sexuality’s probing, scientific tendencies. Williams writes that what differentiates hard-core porn from soft-core is the insistent pursuit of a certain kind of knowledge. This knowledge, Williams asserts, is the involuntary, confessional, spontaneous index of feminine pleasure, which she characterizes as the “frenzy of the visible” (36). In other words, the female orgasm. Audience desire for evidence of “real” pleasure, paired with a democratization of the tools to make porn (anyone can create and star in their own adult film, with minimal financial investment) has led to a recent upsurge in DIY-style, “authentic” porn. DIY-style porn has in many ways inherited the precedent set by the 1980s hard-core Williams describes. As such, hard-core or DIY-style, “real” porn pushes past the plastic pinkness of the soft-core and seeks, unlike its tamer counterpart, to illuminate the dark corners of human corporeality. This style of porn

obsessively seeks… assurance that it is witnessing not the voluntary performance of feminine pleasure, but it’s involuntary confession. The woman’s ability to fake the orgasm that the man can never fake… seems to be at the root of all the genre’s attempts to solicit what it can never be sure of: the out-of-control confession of pleasure. (49-50)

This pursuit, Williams continues, is for the most part unfulfilled. The female orgasm is neither inherently confessional (there is no perfect way to determine its “truth”) nor does it, like the male orgasm, usually come with liquid evidence.

Squirting, however, is liquid evidence. It is the “frenzy of the visible,” the “out of control confession,” the sheet-soaking index of pleasure. In this way it is, culturally-speaking, deeply associated with phallic ejaculation. Hartley describes squirting as “female sexuality on par with male sexuality.” Hartley’s comparison here points to an impulse to measure female sexuality against a male standard. She adds, “Women’s capacity for pleasure is at once incredibly compelling and disorienting, depending on the viewpoint of the observer.” Disorienting, one would assume, for those most concerned with that which can be measured, and thus controlled.

Responding to a long, art historical association of a certain kind of expressionist mark-making with male ejaculation (think: Jackson Pollock’s spatter), Los Angeles artist Laura Owens looked instead to the female orgasm as a “model for a new gesture.” The female orgasm, she muses, has “no [reproductive] use, no mark, no locatability.” Her new gesture is, as such, unlocatable, unauthored, often created using infinitely replicable computer drawing technology, or painted to appear as if the brushwork had been printed mechanically. As such, the arrogant, ejaculatory brushstroke is, in Owens’ work, negated, deflated, and emptied of its virtuosic “male genius” connotations. Owens’ work is an important critique of an oppressive canon. But where does that leave us? What if, despite the elusive, unlocatable, allegedly invisible quality of the female orgasm, women want to leave a mark? And how can we contend with the limitations of an essentialist gestural model such as this? Perhaps female ejaculation - or even the staging thereof, as in Hartley’s case - is a way to leave a new kind of trace. This trace, ideally, would not be measured against a male standard, would not conform to a scientia sexualis, but would be wet and ecstatic on its own terms.