Ruth Wilson in The Affair,

Ruth Wilson in The Affair,

If you’ve not yet seen Ruth Wilson in The Affair, prepare yourselves. The series explores the escalation and subsequent fallout of an affair between a married teacher (played by Dominic West, aka ‘McNulty’) and a young, bereaved waitress (Wilson, in a captivating portrayal). Created by accomplished writer Sarah Treem, The Affair asks difficult questions about the longevity of love, the necessary selfishness of passion and the choices we make between being loyal and being happy.

Oh, and there’s a lot of sex.

In the usual televisual fare, that would mean a lot of ostentatious howling and simultaneous orgasms. According to Hollywood, bringing about climax in a woman is as simple as penetrating her for a minute or less (thanks, heternormativity!) until she wails like a banshee finding tortured release. This pantomime is echoed in mainstream pornography, where female orgasms are found in the money shot at the end of the rainbow. Given how these scenes are overwhelmingly written and directed by men, I’ve often been led to wonder if any of them have ever actually seen a woman come.

The famous o-face scene in When Harry met Sally.

The famous o-face scene in When Harry met Sally. Photo: Everett Collection/REX

But The Affair is different, because it portrays sex as a realistic interaction between flawed humans. Rather than performing intimacy, Wilson and West embody the complexities of sex. The backdrop of an ocean town in the Hamptons makes for an appropriate setting, because the bodies of Alison and Noah communicate with the same ebbs and flows of a temperamental tide.

The unique conceit of The Affair lies in its dual storytelling methods. Each episode is separated into two parts, both told from Alison and Noah’s own perspectives. The result is a fascinating reflection not only on the ways individuals perceive their own experiences but how men and women in particular might recall certain events. In Noah’s recollections, Alison’s sexual excitement is more animalistic and excitable than in her own memories, while she’s cast as the instigator of the affair. In contrast, Alison remembers herself wearing more modest clothing, a mother grieving for a dead child and being pursued by a city-dwelling writer bored with his marriage. But in both storylines, their sexual interaction is still primarily rooted in reality rather than fantasy.

One of the most memorable of these scenes opens at the tail end of Noah going down on Alison. She climaxes quietly, but there’s no sense that this has lessened the impact of her orgasm. She immediately pushes him away and cups her hands between her legs, telling him she’s too sensitive for him to keep going. If I hadn’t already known, I would have realised in that moment that it was a scene if not written by a woman, it was at the very least informed by one directing it.

There are other moments that excite too, purely because they are so rare. Although fleetingly displayed, the audience is still treated to some visual and aural indications of Noah’s own sexual pleasure. Despite the importance and esteem the necessity of the male orgasm seems to be held in in wider society and culture, it’s actually rare that we get to see men stripped back and made vulnerable under an external artistic gaze.

Wilson reflects on this inequality in an interview with Net-A-Porter. She says, “I have a big concern about how women are treated in the industry generally, and how they have to provide the titillation because penises can’t be seen on screen but breasts can. It’s assumed that women will get their breasts out, and have to get their breasts out, and I balk at that. It’s unnecessary and it’s unfair. So I kept insisting, ‘Why have I always got to do the orgasm face? There should be a male orgasm face. Why is it always the woman who’s orgasming? Let’s analyze the male orgasm. Why aren’t we thinking about that a bit more?’ It’s hard to make good sex scenes work – there are so many crap ones out there.”

This double standard extends all the way to the voyeurism industry. Pornography, overwhelmingly geared towards men, maintains a certain silence around the actual act of male orgasm, preferring instead to demonstrate it by having performers pull out and ejaculate all over supposedly eager women’s faces. It’s no surprise that a culture that so consistently speaks to a perceived male audience about the very precious experience of being male would shy away from exposing their most raw and erotic of moments. The wink-wink nature of mainstream art is directed at men on the other side of the fourth wall, not women; the fear of homoeroticism in a heteronormative world is so strong that any sign of witnessing and even enjoying passive male pleasure is considered a bridge to gaysville. Terror!

Pornography aside, women are the biggest consumers of television. The past decade has seen somewhat of a revolution for women on the small screen, with a far more diverse array of roles and storylines available that are still sadly lacking in cinema. But as well as embracing stories that are actually about us and treat us like complex participants in the human experience, women are no less interested in the thrill of titillation than men. Witnessing the surrender to sexual pleasure turns us on too. For many heterosexual women (and even a number of queer women) the sounds and sights of a man enjoying pleasure is hugely erotic. It’s partly why homosexual porn and slash fiction are so popular among straight women.

Let’s face it, breasts are becoming boring. Could it be that, against all reasons and odds, the male orgasm face is actually the last taboo? If so, I for one am looking exceedingly forward to that one being smashed over and over and over again.

Henry Sapiecha

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