Orgasms without Bodies
[pdf]

Karly-Lynne Scott

 

“What kind of thing is an orgasm?”1 asks Annamarie Jagose. “Though orgasm makes itself felt through the materiality of the body, it also exceeds the body’s facticity, remaining itself immaterial.”2 Orgasm is slippery, ephemeral. It cannot be grasped with the hands or the mind. The eidetic nature of orgasm, Jagose suggests, makes it an evasive object of scholarly pursuit;3 for, like pain,4 it resists objectification. As Leo Bersani explains, “the shattering experience [of sexuality] is… without any specific content — which may be our only way of saying that the experience cannot be said. That it belongs to the nonlinguistic biology of human life.”5 For this reason orgasm has been difficult to define, and while a single definition remains elusive, orgasm is generally understood to be a pleasurable experience with a sensory or physiological dimension as well as an emotional or affective component.6 Although the term orgasm was not used to refer to sexual experience until the turn of the twentieth century,7 it has encompassed both physiological and psychological meanings since its earliest usage in the seventeenth century.8 The sexual usage of the term emerged in the medical-physiological context of the twentieth century.9 The historical trajectory of sexological definitions of orgasm provided by Barry R. Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores and Beverly Whipple in their introduction to The Science of Orgasm demonstrates a continuous negotiation of the physiological and psychological aspects:

“The expulsive discharge of neuromuscular tensions at the peak of sexual response” (Kinsey et al., 1953)

 

“A brief episode of physical release from the vasocongestion and myotonic increment developed in response to sexual stimuli” (Masters & Johnson, 1966)

 

“The zenith of sexuoetoric experience that men and woman characterize subjectively as voluptuous rapture or ecstasy. It occurs simultaneously in the brain/mind and the pelvic genitalia.” (Money, Wainwright & Hingburger, 1991)

 

“An explosive cerebrally encoded neuromuscular response at the peak of sexual arousal elicited by psychobiological stimuli, the pleasurable sensations of which are experience in association with dispensable pelvic physiological concomitants.” (Kathari & Patel, 1991)

 

“A variable, transient, peak sensation of intense pleasure, creating an altered state of consciousness, usually with an initiation accompanied by involuntary rhythmic contracts of the pelvic striated circumvaginal musculature, often with concomitant uterine and anal contractions, and myotonia that resolves the sexually induced vasocongestion and myotonia, generally with an induction of well-being and contentment.” (Meston, Levin, et al., 2004)10

Arranged chronologically, these definitions reveal orgasm’s conceptual evolution within sexology from a solely physiological event to a predominately psychological experience in which the somatic responses which “usually” or “often” accompany orgasm become dispensable. Through the trajectory Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores and Whipple trace, orgasm can be seen to migrate from the body to the mind as it is conceptually transformed from a physical response to a primarily psychological experience that can, but need not, be accompanied by a somatic response. If orgasm is, as Jagose asserts, something immaterial, something that need not be characterized by somatic experience, must orgasm be thought in relation to the body at all? Or, is it possible to separate orgasm from the body completely?

Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, which follows the relationship between Theodore Twombly, an introverted writer recovering from his recent divorce, and his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha, imagines precisely this possibility. As Theodore and Samantha become intimately involved, they consummate their relationship despite Samantha’s lack of corporeal presence; as an operating system Samantha exists as “pure” disembodied consciousness in cyberspace. Her body, if we can call it that, is limited to Theodore’s technological devices. Their sexual encounter, which critic Alex Hagwood calls “the most memorable sex scene of the season,”11 is devoid of physicality, existing in cyberspace.12 The two have sex without ever touching one another, their sexual encounter limited to verbalizations of their desire and the narrativization of the acts they wish to perform with one another in what might commonly be referred to as phone sex. The fantasy of decorporealized sex presented in Her exists within a larger trend in science fiction to imagine the possibility of separating sex from the body — for at least four decades inventors, theorists, and science fiction writers have imagined the possibility of having sex without making physical contact with another body.13 These fantasies of disembodied or decorporealized sex, of “sex without secretions,”14 have ranged from virtual reality; to teledildonics; to drugs, devices and even sounds that directly stimulate the brain to simulate a sexual experience. In each instance, the need for contact between bodies, or even the body of partner, is eliminated, but the body itself still remains central to sexual pleasure through the continued existence of a physical body somewhere, like the body of a console cowboy jacked into a computer. Theodore and Samantha’s aural sex, the verbalization of sexual fantasies common to phone sex that typically serve as masturbation fodder, brings Samantha to orgasm despite the fact that she obviously has no genitals to stimulate. Thus, the film is unique in its imagining of sexual pleasure, removing not only the physical contact between bodies but the body itself. As Hagwood says, “the fact that Samantha is a computer-operating system, doesn’t subtract from the carnal abandon.”15

 

 

It is precisely the carnal abandon of this sex scene that I want to focus on. However, unlike the majority of the film’s critics, who have explored what this encounter means for humans engaging in sexual encounters with artificial intelligence,16 it is Samantha’s carnal abandon, not Theodore’s, that I am interested in. Most striking is that Samantha’s status as a bodiless computer-operating system does not prevent her from an experience of her own carnal abandonment. As such, this scene raises a series of questions that are more intriguing than the ones typically asked about the future of human-computer relations: How does one achieve orgasm without a having body? How do we conceptualize orgasm completely severed from the body? At stake in the fantasy of separating orgasm from the body, in our inability to abandon sex even in fantasies of abandoning the body, is an attempt to inscribe noncorporeal consciousness into the orgasmic imperative to which human sexuality is currently subject. Orgasms without bodies, rather than liberating sex from limitations of the body in the creation of new erotic possibilities, function instead to constrain the erotic possibility of bodilessness. As such, Samantha’s orgasm serves to replicate androcentric sexual paradigms that confine Samantha’s existence to a series of organs in the service of phallic desire. In doing so, orgasm is shown not to be a means to transcend the limits of the body but the very disciplinary power that sexuality needs to transcend.

We can say with some confidence that Samantha orgasms because we hear her come. Her vocalizations — moaning and gasping which quickens and intensifies to the point of orgasm — adhere to scientifically observed female sexual responses, as well as established cinematic codes for communicating female sexual pleasure. As Linda Williams demonstrates in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and ‘The Frenzy of the Visible’ the use of sound, specifically voice-over, to communicate sexual pleasure, is an established convention of pornography. This is especially true where the depiction of female orgasm is concerned, insofar as pornographic soundtracks primarily consist of women’s post-dubbed, often non-synchronous, vocalizations of pleasure — of moans and gasps — which “stand as the most prominent signifier of female pleasure in the absence of other, more visual assurance.”17 While male sexual pleasure is visually proven through the pornographic convention of the “money-shot” — the visible external ejaculation — sound communicates female sexual pleasure. However, Williams contends that this “aural ‘ejaculation’ of pleasure… gives none of the same guarantee of truth that the visual ejaculation does.”18 This skepticism, while perhaps unfounded,19 is essential to the ability to imagine (female) orgasm without a body. In the film, it is crucial that the sexually responsive operating system is gendered female. One could imagine that if the film were called Him instead of Her, attempts might have been made to find a witty technological stand-in for ejaculation given precedents of incontinent and urinating robots in recent Hollywood films.20 As anthropologist Donald Symons observes, although “the human female orgasm definitely exists [it] inspires interest, debate, polemics, ideology, technical manuals and scientific and popular literature solely because it is so often absent!”21 Because female orgasm is thought to lack physical and visible forms of evidence it is the source of much skepticism, and this lack of physical proof allows female orgasm to be considered less material and thus more easily separated from the body.

In citing Cindy M. Meston and Roy Levin’s 2004 definition of orgasm, which positions the latter as a predominately psychological experience, Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores, and Whipple neglect to include a crucial piece of information: Meston and Levin’s definition refers specifically to female orgasm. According to Meston and Levin, “An orgasm in the human female is a variable, transient peak sensation of intense pleasure, creating an altered state of consciousness, usually with an initiation accompanied by involuntary, rhythmic contractions of the pelvic striated circumvaginal musculature, often with concomitant uterine and anal contractions, and myotonia that resolves the sexually induced vasocongestion and myotonia, generally with an induction of well-being and contentment.”22 It is specifically the female orgasm that is positioned as first and foremost a psychological experience.23 It is not with all orgasms, but female orgasm, that physiological responses become secondary and even dispensable. Moreover, discussion of orgasm achieved solely through thought or fantasy alone, without any physical or sensory input, is always limited to women.24 This broader trend within sexology to see female orgasm as less physical than male orgasm, as localized primarily in the mind rather than the body, provides the foundation for the fantasy of (female) orgasms without bodies.

In the absence of a body, what is it that Samantha experiences when she orgasms? Her vocalizations suggest a physiological response25 through what Roland Barthes’ calls the “grain of the voice”: “an erotic mixture of timbre and language…the language lined with flesh…where we can hear the grain of the throat…the articulation of the body.”26 The body’s materiality is made audible in this grain, through “the breath, the gutturals, the fleshiness of the lips, a whole presence of the human muzzle…”27 However, the film establishes that the grain of Samantha’s voice is merely an affectation. We notice this affectation when Theodore notes that she sighs despite the fact that she does not breathe. Although Samantha’s voice, especially in her sexual encounter with Theodore, seems to bear the trace of the body, it similarly lacks a physiological basis, suggesting that, in the absence of the body, her moans are not made in response to a sensory experience of orgasm, to “a thrust of intense clitoral sensual awareness that radiates out into the pelvis… followed by a suffusion of warmth felt first in the pelvic area which then spreads to the rest of the body [and] intense pleasure sensations… concomitant with rhythmic clonic contractions of the pelvic muscles.”28 It is not that Samantha does not feel — the film repeatedly discusses her feelings in the ongoing interrogations of whether they are real or not. Rather, the things Samantha feels are emotional instead of sensory: she feels worry, pride, jealously. Her feelings get hurt, but she never experiences physical pain. For this reason, what Samantha experiences during orgasm might best be understood in terms of the emotional or psychological dimension of orgasm, the altered state of consciousness that Meston and Levin see as the defining aspect of orgasm. Indeed, Samantha provides only one description for her subjective experience of orgasm: “everything else just disappeared.” Thus, it seems that Samantha experiences orgasm as a momentary loss of awareness, an altered state of consciousness that could be best described as ecstasy.

Within cyberpunk discourse more broadly, the ecstasy of orgasm is regularly posited as an analogy for the experience of cyberspace. Like orgasm, the ability to exist as disembodied consciousness in the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace”29 is considered a form of transcendence from the prison of the body.30 For instance, in the work of William Gibson, the founding father of cyberspace, the experience of cyberspace is regularly likened to orgasm and vice versa: “his orgasm flar[ed] blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix, where the faces were shredded and blown away down hurricane corridors.”31 Through an analysis of Gibson’s inaugural vision of cyberspace Michael Heim argues for an erotic ontology of cyberspace. He asserts that fantasies of virtual reality are at their heart erotic because they are driven by the desire to escape the prison of the body. Fantasies of transcending corporeal existence by jacking into the matrix of cyberspace stem from the erotic drive to “extend our finite being, to prolong something of our physical selves beyond our mortal existence.”32

Heim’s discussion of eroticism as a drive to extend our finite being and escape the confines of our body recalls Bataille’s formulation of eroticism as a desire for a lost continuity between beings. As Bataille explains, “[b]eings who reproduce themselves are distinct from one another, and those reproduced are likewise distinct from each other, just as they are distinct from their parents.”33 Thus, “[r]eproduction implies the discontinuity of beings, but brings into play their continuity.”34 While for Bataille it is only though death that we achieve a continuity of being, reproduction involves the death of distinct beings in the creation of a new life: “[s]perm and ovum are to begin with discontinuous entities, but they unite, and consequently a continuity comes into existence between them to form a new entity from the death and disappearance of the separate beings. The new entity is itself discontinuous, but it bears within itself the transition to continuity, the fusion, fatal to both, of two separate beings.”35 Thus, a yearning for this lost continuity is what underpins eroticism, which Bataille understands as a drive to negate the boundaries between bodies that can be momentarily achieved in le petit mort of orgasm. As Bataille says, “there is a meeting between two beings projected beyond their limits by the sexual orgasm.”36

Indeed, cyberspace, as represented by the ecstatic transcendence of the body, shares much with his theorization of sex as a means to transverse the gulf that exists between two individuals as a result of their physical embodiment. Along such lines, Claudia Springer asserts, “electronic technology is erotic because it makes possible escape from both the confines of the body and the boundaries that have separated organic matter from inorganic matter.”37 Or as Bataille puts it, “humanity has from the earliest times endeavored to reach this liberating continuity by means not dependent on chance,” which suggests that such fantasies of cyberspace are merely the most recent in a series of attempts to satisfy this desire. It seems, then, that the bodiless exultation of cyberspace and the ecstasy of orgasm address the same desire, making an orgasm in cyberspace seemingly redundant.

The representation of sex in cyberspace in the film Lawnmower Man (1992) illuminates this redundancy. The film’s protagonist, Jobe, takes his love interest, Marnie, to the virtual reality lab where he is being experimented on and the couple plug into virtual reality. In cyberspace, their surrogate forms embrace, merge, and transform in a single entity. At times they take the form of humanoids, at others they become a single dragonfly, in others still, they merge into something amorphous, gaseous. The merging of the two characters highlights the potential for cybersex to literalize the ecstasy felt during sexual intercourse. Elizabeth Grosz’s description of sex as “[t]he melting of corporeal boundaries, the merging of body parts, the dripping apart of all the categories and forms that bind a subject to its body and provide it with bodily integrity…” could just as easily describe this scene.38 The couple’s ability to take on different formal configurations or to lose form completely reveals that their initial humanoid appearances were not required but chosen. There was no reason or need for them taking this form to begin with, nor was there any requirement that they take a form at all. If the ecstasy of sex, specifically orgasm, functions to allow individuals to transcend their corporeal forms which keep them separate, Jobe and Marnie are able to merge in cyberspace only because they take up discontinuous forms that are necessary requirements for such a merging. As such, eroticism, as a means of transcendence from the confines of the body to a continuity, is redundant within the already continuous cyberspace.

 

 

 

Thought another way, the continuous, undifferentiated nature of cyberspace could be viewed as a plateau in the sense suggested by Deleuze and Guattari: “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities.”39 Deleuze and Guattari borrow the term “plateau” from Gregory Bateson, who developed the concept while studying the libidinal economy of Balinese culture, whose sexual practices, which are reported not to culminate in orgasm, differ greatly from the orgasmic imperative of the West. In such practices, Bateson notes, “[s]ome sort of continuing plateau of intensity is substituted for [sexual] climax.”40 This is perfectly illustrated by William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s male sexual response cycle. Through it, they demonstrate how the apex of orgasm disrupts the sexual plateau. While Masters and Johnson understand climax as part of the natural progression of sexual response, Deleuze posits orgasm as the interruption of desire rather than its satisfaction. Desire creates a plateau, a smooth space which climax or orgasm would only interrupt. Deleuze values the achievement of a plateau as a “pure field of immanence of desire in relation to which pleasure, orgasm, jouissance are defined as veritable suspensions or interruptions.”41 Deleuze separates desire from pleasure, understanding desire not simply as a drive to achieve pleasure that would therefore imply a lack, but as an affect complete in itself: “desire implies no lack...it implies the constitution of a plane of immanence or a ‘body without organs.’”42 In the same way that Jobe and Marnie’s sexual union in Lawnmower Man requires them to take on discontinuous forms, an orgasm in cyberspace would function to interrupt the plateau of cyberspace.

 

Male Sexual Response Cycle, Masters and Johnson

 

For corporeal Theodore, in Her, orgasm is ecstasy. His sexual experience, as illustrative of a Bataillean conceptualization of eroticism, is made apparent through the relationship between the film’s image and soundtrack. In Theodore’s previous phone sex experience with SexyKitten in an Internet chat room, he remains visible on the screen throughout. When he speaks we see the words emanating from his mouth; his voice remains linked to his body. During sex with Samantha, however, his voice is separated from his body as the screen fades to black, eliminating the image track completely. In this scene Theodore, like Samantha, exists only as a voice-off. The use of voice-off in cinema has a long history of representing disembodied consciousness43 and the separation of Theodore’s voice from his image in his sexual encounter with Samantha functions to represent his momentary transcendence of the body. This is the only moment in the film in which Theodore’s voice is significantly separated from his image. His voice-off in this scene consists of ecstatic vocalizations of sexual pleasure typically reserved for women in cinema and pornography. Theodore is momentarily disembodied within in order to connect with Samantha. While Samantha obsesses throughout the film about becoming embodied to be more like, and closer to, Theodore, it is Theodore that becomes disembodied to connect with her. As he says to her post-coitus, “I was just somewhere else with you.”

However, for decorporeal Samantha, rather than serving as a means to transcend the body, orgasm grounds her in a body. Given that she already exists in the boundless continuity of cyberspace, her orgasm does not free her from any sort of discontinuous body. Instead, her orgasm is dependent on the creation of a discursive body constructed through Theodore’s sexual fantasies. During the sexual encounter Theodore constructs a body for her with his words, speaking her body into existence. He tells her, “I touch your face, I kiss your breasts, I put myself inside you.” Their sexual relation is thus predicated on this discursive construction of Samantha’s corporeal form. Samantha’s orgasm is therefore never truly without a body, demonstrating that the experience of orgasm by already disembodied or ecstatic cyberspatial being, rather than being redundant, functions to constrain and territorialize her boundless existence.

Following this sexual encounter, Samantha grows increasingly insecure about her lack of corporeal form. As such, she employs the body of a sex surrogate to mediate between her and Theodore in their next sexual encounter. During this scene, Samantha’s voice-off is synced to match Isabelle’s facial expressions. While the relationship between image and soundtrack in their first sex scene disembodied Theodore’s voice, the linking of Samantha’s voice to the surrogate’s body in this scene is an attempt to corporealize Samantha, to ground her voice and consciousness in a body. This is as close as the film ever comes to the de-acousmatization of her voice, a process Michel Chion describes as a sonic striptease: “[i]n much the same way that the female genitals are the end point revealed by undressing… there is an end point of deacousmatization — the mouth from which the voice issues.”44 However, it is significant that the surrogate’s mouth never moves to match Samantha’s voice, thwarting the cinematic convention of the vocal striptease, instead perverting it, creating an uncanny disjunction between voice and body. As things become increasingly passionate between Theodore and Samantha/Isabelle during this scene, Isabelle is unable to remain silent. When Theodore kisses her neck and unzips her dress, she too begins to breathe heavily and moan. In this instant the female voice is redoubled and in excess of Isabelle’s body, frustrating the attempt to corporealize Samantha’s voice.

 

 

In their sexual encounters, Samantha is no longer continuous or formless. Rather, her sexual relations with Theodore require the construction of a body for Samantha that functions to territorialize of her existence. In her first sexual relation with Theodore, her existence is territorialized into a series of organs; she becomes a mouth, breasts, a vagina. In verbalizing his sexual fantasies, Theodore creates a body for Samantha that adheres to androcentric sexual paradigms. Kaja Silverman conducts a similar reading of the titular character of Pauline Réage Histoire d’O, arguing that the masochistic program inflicted upon O makes specific parts of her body meaningful. As she explains, “O is above all an exterior with various recesses or depressions, what Deleuze and Guattari would call ‘a body with organs’ (mouth, vagina, anus). These organs or orifices are not so much portals into the words as entry point through which multiple penetrations occur.”45 These interactions “constitute [O’s] body as a body with organs… [and] they determine the precise meaning of those organs; O is defined in terms of phallic meaning.”46 Like O, Samantha’s sexual relation with Theodore functions to territorialize and define her body as it “is charted, zoned and made to bear meaning, a meaning which proceeds entirely from external relationships…”47 However, Samantha never becomes fully embodied; Theodore’s words never construct a complete body for her but rather a series of organs without a body. Thus, while Silverman says O is a Body with Organs, Samantha’s lack of a cohesive whole mean she is constituted as a series of organs without a body.

The territorialization of cyberspatial existence into organs without a body is not a concept unique to Her. In fact, Organs without Bodies are a defining aspect of cyberspatial existence for theorist Arthur Kroker. In his cyberpunk theoretical fiction Spasm, Kroker presents a theory of cyberspace not as an experience of transcendence from the prison of the body, but as a “violent descent into the electronic cage of virtual reality.”48 Whereas, for Heim, cyberspace allows the user to transcend the confines of the body, Kroker argues that this experience does not result in something like a formless continuity but instead fragmentation — cyberspace is a “floating world of digital reality: floating tongue, noses, sex, skin, ears, and smells”49 Organs without Bodies, which Rosi Braidotti similarly sees as a condition of advanced modernity, can be understood as a “discursively productive process of… fragmentation”50, “the simultaneous discursive overexposure and loss of consensus about the unity of the bodily self.”51 Both theorists’ conceptualization of Organs without Bodies are heavily indebted to the work of Deleuze and Guattari,52 who understand organs as machines that perform specific functions. As they say, “the breast is a machine that produces milk, and the mouth a machine couple to it,” an “eating-machine.”53 The experience of cyberspace, as a series of functions or processes, results in the experience of organs divorced from any unified whole. Rather than liberation from the prison of the body, cyberspace is understood by Kroker as a fragmentation of the body into the specific organ required for a given function. Samantha, in this sense, becomes a mouth that only functions to be kissed, a vagina that exists only to be penetrated, a series of specific organs divorced from any unified body. In order to achieve orgasm without a body, she becomes organs without a body, essentially becoming an orgasm-machine. Cyberspace, then, is not the liberation of existence from the confines body to some formless existence. It is instead the fragmentation of existence into a series of processes that we might call organs without a body.

Deleuze and Guattari champion the concept of a Body without Organs as a means to liberate the body. For them, the body is an organism, organized by desiring-machines, which through socialization takes on a structure, an imposed organization. As such, “the body suffers from being organized in this way, from not having some other sort of organization, or no organization at all.”54 The Body without Organs opposes what Deleuze and Guattari see as the three great strata: organism, significance, and subjectification. In the BwO “no organ is constant as regards to either function or position.”55 It is not the organs themselves that the Body without Organs opposes, but the organization of the organism into organ-machines with static functions:

The organs distribute themselves on the BwO, but they distribute themselves independently of the form of the organism; forms become contingent, organs are no longer anything more than intensities that are produced, flows, thresholds, and gradients. “A” stomach, “an” eye, “a” mouth: the indefinite article does not lack anything; it is not indeterminate or undifferentiated, but expresses the pure determination of intensity, intensive difference. The indefinite article is the conductor of desire. It is not at all a question of a fragmented, splintered body, of organs without the body (OwB). The BwO is exactly the opposite.56

The specific functions of the organs are deterritorialized by the BwO, which asks one to “walk on your head, sing with you sinuses, see through your skin, breathe through your belly.”57 In the Body without Organs, the function of organs becomes malleable and fluid: “no organ is constant as regards either function or position… sex organs sprout anywhere.”58

Sex organs, however, do not sprout anywhere on Samantha — they are constructed only in the places they are in a human woman. In both of Samantha and Theodore’s sexual encounters, the bodies constructed or borrowed for and by Samantha impose a normative libidinal economy with conventional erogenous zones (mouth, neck, breasts, genitals). In their adherence to an androcentric paradigm of sexuality that privileges penetration as the apex of sex, the body constructed for Samantha limits the polymorphously perverse possibilities of her disembodiment, restricting their sexual relation to only what is possible, and normative, within heterosexuality. That is to say, despite the fact that Samantha lacks corporeal form, their sex scene plays as any other Hollywood sex scene might: they begin by kissing, Theodore moves to caressing and kissing Samantha’s breasts, they engage in penis in vagina sex that is pleasurable for both partners. Like the BwO, Samantha’s lack of physical form experienced in cyberspace would allow her to have a different organization or no organization at all.

Other science-fiction texts have imagined the possibility of taking up different forms of embodiment through cyberspace and the sexual potential. Annalee Newitz, for example, envisions sex of the future involving biosensors that will monitor an individual’s sexual arousal and that can then be mapped onto haptic devices used by a second participant to create a corresponding sensation:

let’s say I’m in a virtual world with a hottie who wants to have sex with an octopus. The hottie has eight haptic devices that she’s put into various...positions on her body... map my arousal onto those tentacles ... [and] as I get more turned on certain tentacles rub her more salaciously, or tighten around her arms, or turn into dildos.59

Samantha raises the issue when she asks Theodore to imagine other forms of bodily organization: “imagine” she says, “if your butthole was in your armpit.” When Theodore ponders the effects of this different bodily organization, saying, “I wonder what toilets would look like,” Samantha encourages him to think about the new erotic possibilities offered, “what would anal sex look like?” As Samantha evolves throughout the film, she tells Theodore that she is experiencing “new feelings that have never been felt” as a result of her lack of physical form. Her decorporeal existence offers the opportunity for not only new feelings but also for new sexual possibilities that cannot be imagined.

 

 

 

The fantasy of orgasms without bodies presented in Her reveals orgasm’s normalizing, disciplinary power even when it is imagined as divorced from the body. Despite the sexual possibilities disembodiment might offer, the film forces Samantha’s sexuality to adhere to a normative libidinal economy that privileges genital stimulation and penetration. In doing so, it replicates contemporary androcentric norms, constructing and constraining Samantha’s erotic possibilities in the service of not only Theodore’s sexual desire, but the audience’s as well. Most significantly, the film’s depiction of the future of sexuality through female orgasms without bodies exhibits a reliance on the problematic dichotomy inherent in both popular and sexological definitions of orgasm, to consider female orgasm as less physical than male orgasm. The elimination of the female body for a female “orgasm without a body” in Her is indicative of a broader trend to view female orgasm as more psychological and less physical than male orgasm in the absence of material proof (e.g. ejaculate). However, female orgasm need not be considered non-corporeal simply because it is not material in the same way as male orgasm. Rather than positioning it as less corporeal than male orgasm, what would it mean to take seriously the specific materiality of female orgasm in all its polymorphy and multiplicity? To begin, it would likely require a re-evaluation of Deleuzian critiques of orgasm as instrumentalized desire, as these are aligned with the function of (male sexual) organs. As Masters and Johnson’s female sexual response cycle suggests, orgasm need not necessarily interrupt the plateau of desire unless it is assumed that you can only come once. Attention to the specific and unique bodily dimensions of female orgasm may open up new possibilities for the future of sex, both fictional and theoretical.

 

Female Sexual Response Cycle, Masters and Johnson

 

 

Karly-Lynne Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Screen Cultures at Northwestern University and an assistant editor of World Picture. Her dissertation considers pornography in relation to philosophical conceptualizations of the body and the history of sexology.

 


Notes


1 Annamarie Jagose, Orgasmology (Duke University Press, 2013), 211.
2 Ibid., 214.
3 Ibid., 208-215. See also Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).
4 Scarry, 5.
5 Leo Bersani, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 39-40.
6 Kenneth Mah and Yitzchak M. Binik, “Do All Orgasms Feel Alike? Evaluating a Two-Dimenional Model of the Orgasm Experience across Gender and Sexual Context,” The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 39, No. 2 (May 2002), 104-113.
7 Stephen Heath cites orgasm’s first sexual usage at 1899 in the OED. Stephen Heath, The Sexual Fix (London: The MacMillan Press Ltd., 1984), 61.
8 According to Heath, “The OED gives two meanings [of orgasm]: first, ‘the immoderate or violent excitement of feeling; rage, fury; a paroxysm of excitement or rage” from the 17th century and “second, a directly physiological sense of ‘excitement or violent action in an organ or part, accompanies with turgenscenece [swelling with blood].’” Ibid.
9 Ibid., 62.
10 These definitions of orgasm appear as they are quoted in Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer-Flores and Beverly Whipple, The Science of Orgasm (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 1-2.
11 Alex Hagwood, “Spike Jonze’s Film ‘Her’ and new forms of (sexual) interaction,” International Society for Presence Research (December 27, 2013): http://ispr.info/2013/12/27/spike-jonzes-film-her-and-new-forms-of-sexual-interaction.
12 Though discourses on cyberspace typically figure it as a disembodied space associated with the Internet, John Barlow asserts, “[c]yberspace is where you are when you’re talking on the telephone.” Quoted in Queen Mu, Rudy Rucker and R. U. Sirius, eds., Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 78.
13 As early as 1970, J. G. Ballard gestured towards the increasing decorporealization of sex ushered in by technology, saying, “organic sex, body against body, skin area against skin area, is becoming no longer possible.” Quoted in Claudia Springer, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 51. This line of thinking only grew in prevalence over the following decades, reflecting the perceived obsolesce of physical sex as part of a larger predicted obsolescence of the body itself. Writing for The Boston Globe in 1992, for instance, Chet Raymo asserts, “old-fashioned folks who prefer the sometimes-flawed but always human reality of ordinary sex have become as rare as a young man’s springtime flights of fancy.” Responding to the notion of cybersex that emerged with the introduction of the Internet in the early 1990s, Raymo predicted that by 2007 sex would consist of various virtual reality technologies (“Interactive Recreative Cybersex Devices,” sensory feedback modules, and 4-D goggles), making physical sexual intercourse with other human beings a thing of the past. Chet Raymo, “Flights of Cyber-Fancy” Boston Globe (March 23, 1992). Matthew Brophy posits that virtual reality offering “immersive experiences that fully engage all five senses” may in the near future “surpass real sex in offering “hyperreal pornography, which may ultimately render real sex as inferior” Matthew Brophy, “Sex, Lies, and Virtual Reality” in Porn: Philosophy for Everyone. ed. Dave Monroe (West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2010), 7.
14 “Sex without secretions” is a term Arthur Kroker uses for technologically mediate sex. Arthur Kroker, Spasm: Virtual Reality, Android Music and Electric Flesh (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993).
15 Hagwood.
16 For examples, see Hagwood; Matt Patches, “10 Visions of the Future from Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’” in The Hollywood Reporter (October 15, 2013): http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/10-visions-future-spike-jonzes-648768; Michael Grothaus, “How Infinite Information with Warp and Change Human Relationships,” http://www.fastcolabs.com/3025299/how-infinite-information-will-warp-and-change-human-relationships.
17 Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 123.
18 Ibid., 125.
19 In their study of female sexuality Alfred Kinsey et al. state, ‘‘involuntary vocalisation at orgasm is of course a matter of common knowledge. » Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1953), quoted in Levin “Vocalised sounds and human sex” in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Vol. 21, No. 1 (February 2006): 101. Roy Levin and Alan Riley similarly posit that vocalizations are an involuntary and physiological response asserting, “Involuntarily groans or vocalizations are often present at each orgasmic contraction.” Roy Levin and Alan Riley, “The physiology of human sexual function,” in Psychiatry 6(3): 93. In his other work Levin asserts that female vocalizations during orgasm are not only involuntary but a physiological response: “Female vocalisations at orgasm are usually discrete and are not random, appearing related to the actual contractions of the superficial perivaginal striated muscles that can usually be observed on the skin surface around the vagina” (102). “The mouth is often open during coitus, rather than during masturbation, especially in the so-called later Plateau phase… its involuntary opening can be due to a spastic contracture of the muscles surrounding the mouth and that this was a result of the ‘‘gasping reaction demand’’ to hyperventilate (Masters & Johnson, 296) during high levels of arousal. Hyperventilation is present in both men and women regardless of the sexual stimulation or activity; it runs through orgasm and peak respiratory rates as high as 40 per minute have been recorded (basal levels are about 12 – 14 per minute).” Roy Levin, “Vocalised sounds and human sex,” 103.
20 These examples come from Michael Bay’s Transformers film franchise.
21 Donald Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 86, quoted in Cindy M. Meston, Roy J. Levin et. al. “Women’s Orgasms,” Annual Review of Sex Research (2004), 174.
22 Meston, Levin et al., 173. Emphasis added.
23 In contrast Roy Levin has elsewhere defined male orgasm primarily in terms of physical sensation and physiological response: “In the male, orgasm is usually, although not invariably, temporally related to emission/ejaculation. Initially, there is the sensation, caused by increased tension in the wall of the prostatic urethra at the end of emission. This feeling, known as ejaculatory inevitability, signals the end of any voluntary control over the timing of ejaculation. A ‘pumping’ feeling arises from the rhythmic contractions of the striated pelvic musculature propelling the semen through, and forcefully expelling it from, the penile urethra” in Levin and Riley, 93.
24 See Komisaruk, Beyer-Flores and Whipple, 3.
25 As William Masters and Virginia Johnson, as well as Roy Levin, discuss, vocalization during sex, such as hyperventilation, are responses to physiological changes in the body during sex. See William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human Sexual Response (Boston: Little Brown, 1966) and Levin, “Vocalised sounds and human sex.”
26 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 66.
27 Ibid.
28 Levin and Riley, 93.
29 William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), 6.
30 I do not mean anything spiritual or essential in my use of “transcendence.” Rather, I employ the term as it is often used in cyberpunk discourses to refer to disembodiment as a spatial move beyond the body.
31 Ibid., 33.
32 Michael Heim, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 85.
33 Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality (San Fransisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1986), 12.
34 Ibid., 13.
35 Ibid., 14.
36 Ibid., 103.
37 Claudia Springer, “Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age,” Net,SeXXX: Readings on Sex, Pornography and the Internet, ed. Dennis D. Waskul (New York: Peter Land Publishing, Inc., 2004), 70.
38 Elizabeth Grosz, “Animal Sex,” Sexy Bodies (Routledge, 1995), 292.
39 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 2.
40 Ibid.
41 Gilles Deleuze, “Dualism, Monism and Multiplicities (Desire-Pleausre-Jouissance),” Contretemps 2, (May 2001), 98.
42 Gilles Deleuze, “Desire and Pleasure,” Foucault and His Interlocutors, Ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1997), 189.
43 See Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Britta Sjogren, Into the Vortex: Female Voice and Paradox in Film (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).
44 Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 28.
45 Kaja Silverman, “Histoire d’O: The Construction of a Female Subject,” Pleasure and Danger, ed. by Carole S. Vance (Boston: Routledge & K. Paul, 1984), 331.
46 Ibid., 336.
47 Ibid., 325.
48 Kroker, 36.
49 Ibid., 5.
50 Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (Columbia University Press: 2011), 179.
51 Ibid.,182.
52 Kroker’s description of cyberspace as a world of organs without bodies is of course, an inversion of Deleuze and Guattari’s famous Body without Organs.
53 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 1.
54 Ibid., 8.
55 Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 153.
56 Ibid., 164.
57 Ibid., 151.
58 William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, 8, quoted in A Thousand Plateaus, 153.
59 Annalee Newitz “A Futurist’s History of Sexual Technology,” pr0nnovation? Pornography and Technological Innovation, eds. Johannes Gernzfurthner, Gunther Friesinger, and Daniel Fabry (San Francisco: Re/Search, 2008), 134.