Comics, Essays, Feminism, Sexuality

My Problem with the Sex in Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals is awesome, but I probably don’t need to tell you that. You’ve either heard about it, are currently reading it, or are already well and truly part of the Brimper fandom (even Margaret Atwood’s on board and if that doesn’t get you at least a bit interested, I don’t know what will).

The story, which follows 20-somethings Suzie and Jon, who have the ability to stop time when they orgasm, embodies so many emotions that are rarely associated with sex in comics—it’s awkwardly funny and sweet, just as much as it can be lonely and make you feel out of place. Excluding the supernatural elements, it’s one of the most realistic depictions of sex I’ve ever read in a comic book. Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky done good.

That’s not to say it is perfect, though. Ten issues in and there is still a nagging feeling in me that something is missing, something important. And it’s all got to do with oral sex.

There’s a scene in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy where Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) is chatting with Banky (Jason Lee) and Holden (Ben Affleck) in a bar. They’re talking about why guys have such a problem with going down on women. Banky makes the point that it isn’t the smell that’s the issue for him, but the fact that women won’t direct guys in the right way on how to do it; that they’re so conscious of the smell factor they don’t end up enjoying it no matter what the guy does. There was definitely some truth to that, but I feel the scene’s pushing the blame in the wrong direction.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VD26xyWewcE&w=420&h=315]

The reason why women are sometimes reluctant when it comes to oral sex is because of dudes. How many guys have told a woman that vaginas smell and they totally “won’t go there,” but expect her to go down on them? Us women didn’t have a fear of any kind of smell until society—men, specifically—told us otherwise. It’s not like there’s anything saying any different; so much of what we consume has a similar message about women’s body parts. And, while the smell factor may not be the number one argument to avoid going down on a woman, we’re in a culture of “designer vaginas.” Genitalia is scrutinised based on looks alone. Not just with shaving, but everything. Can’t we catch a break here?

Depictions about sex in pop culture aren’t very, well, realistic at the best of times. Comics have a particularly awkward history with sex, probably more so than Hollywood. It’s either full blown fucking in space, or drawn in shadows and playground whispers, like people aren’t old enough to talk about the “s” word yet. There is an in-between, obviously, but it’s rare. A lot of the time it doesn’t feel true—the dialogue, the way it’s drawn, the people. It’s all too distant without any emotion attached.

When sex in fiction is acted, written, or drawn between a heterosexual couple, it’s usually for the benefit of the man in the scene (and to a subsequent extent, the reader), which is an unfortunate reflection of divisive attitudes about sexual relationships and what is considered a “woman’s place.” (Don’t get me started on the lack of LGBTQ sexy times.) Male dominance and satisfaction is higher up on the sex checklist in comics than women’s, and that probably has something to do with the fact that female creators are still at such a low minority. Despite accounting for nearly 50% of comic book readership, women are constantly sidelined and removed from the creative process. Without female voices in the mix, comics become a very tired, one-note medium.

Censorship, when it comes to women’s sexuality, is so commonplace now. If a woman is being orally pleasured on screen or in a comic book, it is often limited to queer relationships because, God forbid that straight guys would want to do something that doesn’t involve their dick. Our culture puts so much value on the sexual gratification of men that, even when there are moments where a woman is stimulated orally by another woman (particularly in movies), it still feels like it’s for the enjoyment of dudes.

I’m not surprised anymore when yet another film is slapped with an NC-17 rating in America because it features a woman having a guy go down on her. We’re not any different over here in the UK. Our government recently put a ban on various types of porn, one of the acts on the list being shots of female ejaculation. That doesn’t shock me either. (But I am surprised when a comic gives a woman power and much needed agency within a sexual situation, where she has the chance to direct and explore what she wants. Rather than worrying about the man.)

Sex Criminals gave me something a little different; more earnest and relatable than I’d come across in anything I’d read before. In the first issue, Jon and Suzie hook-up at a party she organised to save the library she works for. There is a panel, only brief but enough for me to double take, where you see Jon orally pleasuring Suzie, before it cuts to a couple more kisses and moans, and then them lying in bed together.

Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, 2013

Here was a comic showing a woman exerting herself sexually (she is holding onto Jon’s head in the scene) and she shouldn’t be shamed for enjoying that. She wasnt! Her being domineering made me feel empowered. I loved it.

Zdarsky and Fraction addressed oral sex (in their first issue!) without it having to be the guy on the receiving end, and I was stoked. She didn’t reach climax just through penetrative sex?! They didn’t make a big deal out of oral like it was an ew-ish thing to do?  It was all kinds of awesome to read because as a demographic women actually find it super difficult to orgasm, according to Netdoctor and Woman’s Day, among other sources. It takes us a lot longer to get to the point of climax than guys and the majority of us (there isn’t just one stat for this, but some say 80%) find it tough to orgasm, if at all, through penetrative sex. With oral? Not as much of a problem. And that’s definitely something not spoken about. Sex Criminals, on the surface, seemed like it was actually talking about women finding it easier to climax when orally stimulated, just without dialogue; using only imagery.

So, what if Jon and Suzie couldn’t orgasm at the same time? Jon addresses this when he enters Cumworld/The Quiet without Suzie when they’re having sex (what he and her call the time stopping period post-climax), but it never comes up again after his momentary comment. How many missed opportunities have there been by not introducing the difficulty of climaxing in unison?  Not only for the characters and story, but it’s something that so many women can identify with. I wasn’t in doubt about the inclusion of oral sex after Jon and Suzie have sex for the first time, but it turns out I should have been.

There are only three other times throughout the series’ ten issues where a woman is being orally pleasured. Three. Three. This is a book full of penetrative sex scenes. They’re everywhere. It’s supposed to be a comic about sex, and non-boning acts—like oral—are part of that. One is between Suzie and Jon, the other is a different woman – Rae Anne aka Jazmine St. Cocaine, an ex-porn actress that Jon fantasized about when he was younger.

I’m not cool with the way her sexuality is treated, either.

unnamed-1

In issue 2, we see a picture of Jazmine St. Cocaine on a laptop. Suzie makes some pretty ignorant comments about sex workers, to which Jazmine fights back fourth-wall style. She starts speaking to Suzie, through the screen, and calls her out on her ignorance. Suzie ignores her and shuts the laptop. I liked the fact that Jazmine fought back and challenged Suzie about attitudes that a lot of people have about sex workers. It probably echoed the thoughts of some of its readers, and Sex Criminals pretty much called them out on it at the same time.

We eventually meet Jazmine (formally Rae Anne, in present day Ana) and learn about her past in issue 9. She breaks the mould of what you might think a sex worker is like. She started dancing at a strip club when she was younger, before moving into nude modelling and then porn. Rae said she enjoyed it, that it was a good way to get money for university at first and she was earning a lot more than minimum wage. This is how a lot of women now get by.

She wasn’t viewed in a judgmental way; it was refreshingly different from similar stories that document the history of adult actors. Fraction doesn’t play up to the stereotypes that Suzie makes well known. Rae is written like an actual human, who is constantly aware of the decisions she makes as her arc unfolds, rather than a stereotype of a porn star. She’s not dumb, she’s not stupid, and she hasn’t been forced into anything. She wants to go to college and other work doesn’t pay as well; simple. Her background only factors into her choice because she doesn’t have enough money to afford her education. It felt to me like a positive portrayal—except for one thing.

Sex Criminals, Image, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarksy, 2015When Rae is introduced, it’s when she is having sex as a teenager. This is cool; it’s what she says that got me questioning the way her character was being written. She talks about the problem she has with orgasming and/or feeling any kind of pleasure because of a cut over her clitoris hood. You have to hit her in the right spot for it to happen, but when it does, it’s like a crazy high, as she describes it.

On a shoot for her debut porn film, Rae climaxes for the first time. This is years after becoming sexually active, which isn’t unheard of for women. After that instant rush, it turns into an ongoing chase for Rae to enter her own Cumworld/The Quiet. For her, porn is a way to earn good money and potentially provide her with literal time-stopping moments.

A series of pages describing her porn career followed, showing her in various different adult movies, but the same problem came up again—the severe lack of oral sex scenes. Two girls go down on Rae in one of the panels; apart from that, nothing else.

My question is then, why couldn’t Rae just have found it difficult to orgasm? There was no metaphorical need for an orgasm-blocker, plenty of women are in her position already. It’s not like it isn’t uncommon. Some find it extremely difficult to climax at the same time as men and in a lot of instances, it won’t happen. Oral, digital, or toy-based stimulation may be needed. This is a thing, guys, and it is tiring that isn’t really recognised most of the time.

The way that Suzie’s body works, of course, isn’t completely unrealistic (there are women who are able to orgasm with much greater ease than Ana, for example), but Sex Criminals was in such a good place to truly explore that part of a woman’s sexuality. And it didn’t.

It still has a chance to.

There was no fear in showing Suzie’s enjoyment when she masturbated as a teenager and later as an adult, so why does it feel like there is a polar opposite treatment of oral sex going on? Clitoral stimulation for adult women in Sex Criminals—unless they are the ones performing it—is widely avoided. (Dammit, do these people not need foreplay? All those dildos are going to waste, you know.)

Even if the goal for that particular act isn’t to reach an orgasm, there needs to still be way more acknowledgment of what women want and need sexually. I’m not counting or anything (I totally am), but Jon only goes down on Suzie two times? Two? E.T glowing dicks are all well and good, but I’ve seen enough of those in my lifetime (well, maybe not the sparkling kind). You get what I mean, though. There needs to be more vulva love that doesn’t include a man’s penis of any kind. Because we deserve to see that in Sex Criminals. Maybe it’ll get other people thinking about the way they’re writing the sexuality of female characters in their own stories, too?

So, Matt, Chip – are you ready to start to start repping the oral sex loving women out there yet?

  1. Ginnis Tonik

    May 19, 2015 at 11:29 am

    This is just great. I hadn’t even thought of this and I am so glad you wrote it.

    1. Cherokee Seebalack

      May 19, 2015 at 12:06 pm

      Thanks Ginnis <3

      I'm with you there, too. It never registered with me, either and it was only until I re-read the issues I began to notice the common theme. I do believe Matt and Chip can turn it around though – I love those guys and it would be a shame if they didn't.

  2. Chris Hewson

    July 9, 2015 at 7:34 am

    The ‘stigma’ against oral sex is just bizarre to me. If a woman allowed me to orally pleasure her, that would be something awesome, that I’d absolutely appreciate and enjoy, not something I’d balk at. The idea that there are apparently so many guys who do is weird and insulting! It’s a shame the bad precedents that popular culture can cause.

    1. Cherokee Seebalack

      July 9, 2015 at 1:36 pm

      Dude, you’re speaking many truths right now and I love you for it.

  3. Sean

    February 21, 2016 at 7:56 am

    Hope you’ve kept reading! Matt addresses a lot of these issues, and is fairly open about the fact that the comic has also been a learning process for the writers: their opinions have changed, and there are moments he has had to stop and question why he is writing the characters in such a way and challenges these thoughts with his writing.

    Jazmine also makes a more central appearance, and they directly challenge how people think of sex workers through her own personal journey.

Comments are closed.