Friday, March 25, 2011

The Meaning of Moaning

It's that time again -- V-Day season -- and I'm working with students and faculty to put together the Montgomery College production of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues", which will be on Wednesday, March 30 at 7:00pm in the Theatre Arts Arena at Montgomery College (Rockville, MD).  I'll be performing with a new piece for me, one I have wanted to perform for a while.  This monologue features a sex worker, a dominatrix who works exclusively with women, and who is obsessed with women's moans.  I particularly like the narrative because it includes a fascinating analysis of the source and meaning of moaning, which appeals to my intellectual nature.  At the end, she demonstrates an array of different types of moans.  This typically elicits howls of laughter from the audience and can be a show-stopper when done really well.  (But no pressure, right?)  I'm enjoying the challenge of working on this piece, but it also got me thinking about our reaction to women's moans.  Why do they generate such a strong response?

Our response to women's moaning is, in part, reflective of our broader cultural ambivalence regarding sexuality, and women's sexual pleasure in particular.  Our culture has considerable discomfort about public displays (or even discussions) of sexuality, so this litany of moans is bound to be a little uncomfortable for some.  Moreover, we have particularly ambivalent attitudes regarding women's sexual pleasure.  In many (but not all) cultures today, women are expected to experience sexual pleasure; indeed, part of a heterosexual man's sexual prowess is measured by his ability to bring his female partner to the height of ecstasy during lovemaking.  Yet, if she is too demonstrative in her pleasure, she risks being seen as wild, oversexed, loose, a bad girl: a slut.  (The remnants of the sexual double standard at work here.)  In other words, she should enjoy sex, but not too much.  So women's moaning is fraught with meaning, as it is presumably evidence of her sexual pleasure.  She mustn't moan too much or too loud, but some discreet moaning will be met with approval, even approbation . . . if it is genuine.

As a demonstration of pleasure, moaning is also suspect, since it can so easily be faked.  Women's sexual pleasure is often viewed with suspicion.  Given the significance of women's sexual pleasure and our general belief that women don't want or enjoy sex as much as men do, it is easy to understand why we think women may "fake" pleasure.  (This fear is not unwarranted:  One study [Elliott & Brantley, 1997] found that 60% of heterosexual, and 71% of lesbian or bisexual, college women reported faking orgasm at some point.  On the other hand, we could be suspect of men's pleasure, too, as 17% of heterosexual, and 27% of gay or bisexual college men reported that they had faked orgasm at some point.)  The classic scene from the film When Harry Met Sally in which Sally gives an extended performance of sexual pleasure that is obviously fake illustrates the cultural anxiety surrounding signs of women's sexual enjoyment. 

In her book Hard Core:  Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible", Linda Williams (1989) argues that the central dilemma of pornography is how to represent women's sexual pleasure.  While (presumably authentic) male pleasure can be visibly demonstrated by erection and ejaculation, "the visual terms of the cinema do not allow the female protagonists of hard-core films to authenticate their pleasure" (Williams, 1989, p. 32).  While the woman may moan and writhe in the film, how do we know it's for real?  Hard-core films then rely on other cinematic mechanisms to putatively reveal women's sexual pleasure, often using displays of male pleasure as though they are intrinsically representative of female pleasure (hence, the use of the money shot).

So it is not surprising that the litany of moans given on stage during "The Vagina Monologues" would generate a strong reaction.  The monologue highlights the sexual pleasure of women, about which we already have considerable ambivalence (too much = slut;  too little = frigid).  The sexual pleasure is being given by a woman to another woman, with no man involved.  If women don't need men for sexual pleasure, that threatens men's status as the ultimate source of women's sexual pleasure and undermines one of the core pillars of masculinity (as defined in our culture).  The moans in the monologue are obviously fake, highlighting the concerns about the authenticity of women's sexual response (if she can fake it this convincingly on stage, then maybe all my lovers have been faking it too).  In other words, the monologue foregrounds anxieties about the authenticity of women's sexual response, which further undermines the degree to which a man can be sure of his sexual prowess, and hence, his masculinity.

With all that going on, of course we guffaw -- what else can we do?  Eve Ensler has found a way to get to the heart of our cultural anxieties surrounding sex and gender, but in such a way that we can laugh at ourselves.  The humor is deftly woven through the show, giving us a way to release some of our discomfort as our assumptions regarding women's sexuality are challenged and we learn about the diversity of women's experiences.  The show is a powerful experience, for performers and audience alike, but it is also a lot of fun.  I am, as always, struck by the capacity of V-Day to educate, transform, and entertain.  

I hope to see you at the show! 

Elliott, L., & Brantley, C.  (1997).  Sex on campus.  New York: Random House. 

Williams, L.  (1989).  Hard core:  Power, pleasure, and the "frenzy of the visible."  Berkeley:  University of California Press.


  1. I never thought about that monologue in this way before. It definitely gives it a deeper meaning looking at it like this.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Kitty! I hadn't thought as deeply about the various layered meanings of the monologue before this year, either, but it gave me a fresh appreciation of Eve Ensler's work.