The Big O

The media always used hot women to tease male readers, viewers, and users (sex sells), but now that women are the prime consumers of media, sex needs to be sold differently. But to commodify something, you first need to know what it is.

Female desire is notoriously inscrutable; it continues to baffle researchers and players alike. HBO’s Hung is heading into its third season still searching, yes, for viewers but also for a definitive answer for what exactly it is.

Complicating things further is that female desire still makes us squirmy. It requires us to delve into messy, raw areas—to look at intimacy and emotions, to have taboo discussions about vaginas and clits. And cultural perceptions of desire also skew what women think they should want. A survey conducted last year even found that half of women polled would rather go without sex for a summer than gain 10 pounds.

Media and marketing executives have approached this problem the only way they know how—by being results oriented and focusing on the payoff: the orgasm.

A recent episode of ABC’s Modern Family had soccer mom Claire scream with orgasmic delight as she enjoyed a massage at the mall. Her father, who’d gone shopping with her, said she sounded “like a Tijuana prostitute.” (He was only there because her husband, who knows what she sounds like both in bed and during a massage, knew to stay away.) On Desperate Housewives, Eva Longoria’s character said there was no point withholding sex from her husband to get her way—she’d cave first.

No fire, no frenzy, no passion is shown, but it’s obvious these women want not only to make love, but also to get fucked. (The mother ship of TV sex, Sex & the City, had a more bracing candor and complexity in its depiction of sex, which clearly was both hot and key to keeping the ladies happy.)

The recent news that Duane Reade is stocking its shelves with vibrators (prompting a frank discussion on The View) is the latest example of orgasm marketing. Vibrators are also advertised in daytime slots on cable channels such as Comedy Central and VH1. But their acceptance may have something to do with how they sidestep desire. Trojan’s Tri-Phoria ads—which show men briefly, if at all—don’t even call the product what it is. It’s referred to as a “personal massager,” and copy uses words like “demure” and “discrete.” “It feels like a tiny hummingbird that’s just loving you,” claims one of the actresses. All the ads, in fact, are devoid of sensuality. They emphasize the quick hit and the promise of a happy ending. While that’s not a bad marketing ploy, what’s going on actually masculinizes female sexuality. And a woman who can satisfy herself is the ultimate fantasy for a man afraid he can’t do it himself.

For media and marketers alike, simple is best. The most famous orgasm? Meg Ryan’s in When Harry Met Sally. In other words, a fake one—a one-note joke. In media what’s often being sold is the fantasy of sex, which is far more uncomplicated than sex itself.

One product that doesn’t shy completely away from female desire is K-Y’s Yours + Mine gel, which puts horniness within a comically domesticated context: stale coupledom or a workaday schedule that means sex needs to be hasty and efficient.

By contrast, last year’s commercial for the arousal product Zestra got cold-shouldered by TV, radio, and Facebook. Zestra bills itself as a sort of female herbal Viagra. The women featured describe emotions rather than the functionalities of a sex toy, and there was real yearning as they discussed their waning libidos. With spots for ED remedies on sporting events, the double standard’s clear.

The media may not know what female desire is or how to express it, but it knows it matters. Figures from a 2007 Nielsen/NetRatings survey are frequently trotted out to show that one in every three online porn viewers is female, and the market Zestra is trying to tap is estimated at $2 billion.

There’s now more incentive than ever to find out what turns women on. Media and marketing executives (and creatives) might want to delve a little deeper into the complexities of sex. While it’s worth applauding the empowering ideals underlying vibrator commercials and sitcom allusions to orgasms, they leave a lot to be, well, desired.

Meanwhile, Mad Men, which recreates a world in which the G-spot hasn’t yet been named and women are only on the cusp of finding their own voice, is one of the most erotically charged shows in years. If nothing else, the show’s creators know that being sated has a lot to do not just with sex, but with foreplay.

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