Aural Sex: an exploration of sound and female sexualities

First iteration of the project: female orgasms, sound and visual representation

In the 1970s when censorship laws started allowing public viewings of movies such as Deep Throat by Gerard Damiano, the hard core genre of pornography arguably started becoming an increasingly pervasive form of sexual representation (Williams). As film scholar Linda Williams argues, The “money shot”, a camera shot of the male sexual organ ejaculating, became a central element in pornography (100). But as film scholar Linda Williams points out, this extended visibility of the sexual climax on screen only succeeded in advancing the visual “knowledge of the hydraulics of male ejaculation, which, though certainly of interest, is a poor substitute for the knowledge of female wonders that the genre as a whole still seeks” (Williams 94). As the male orgasm became more graphically visible via pornography, the question of how to visually represent the female orgasm became a truly interesting one, and that which I seek to explore with this project.

With this in mind, I adopted Linda Williams’ and Michel Foucault’s frameworks which both position the new wave of pornography from the sixties and on as a body of media texts from which we can learn a great deal about sexualities, bodies and sexual politics. With a conscious feminist agenda preoccupied with situating, reappropriating and celebrating female sexual desires and subjectivities, I wanted to reflect on the possibilities of reframing female orgasms in visual culture.

Female orgasms, unlike male ones, are quite uncinematic & unphotogenic; they mostly happen inside of body, at a micro-level and through bodily convulsions that are hard to capture and precisely situate, even more so to represent. Perhaps more importantly,for centuries the female orgasm and female sexuality as a whole had always been discussed as an annex of the male’s.

With Aural Sex, I asked the following questions: how can I represent a female orgasm in a visually relevant way without objectifying a woman’s body or fetishizing either the phallic form or female body parts? How can the sexual event of the orgasm be reframed, what elements are usually overlooked?

This is where the idea of representing a female orgasm by remediating sound came along. The sounds a woman makes when she is reaching the climax of sexual pleasure are her own, perhaps recognizable by a lover well-acquainted with her. Sound is quite inseparable from the orgasmic event; it may also questioned for its ‘authenticity’. Specifically in the case of the female orgasm which offers few major visual referents, sound is certainly important and a seldom discussed signifier of female sexualities. Metaphorically, the female voice speaks at last, it is not silenced; it shouts to announce her body’s complete bliss,  a bliss that could be 'faked' through the voice as well., but a bliss that is nonetheless politicized. 

I therefore chose to use the audio track of a woman’s climatic moment and remediate it into a visual form as an attempt to create a conceptual piece of pornography, which is meant to generate discussion rather than arousal, although would be glad to hear that it can do both. I wanted to explore the visual possibilities of sound and its transformation into a spectrogram – a graphic tool for visually representing the frequency spectrum of a sound as it varies through time. This is the main tool I have used because it spoke so eloquently to the concept I was exploring. I spent some time searching for an evocative audio sample of a female orgasm which I found on Freesound.org, and subsequently played with the different forms of sound remediation that Sonic Visualizer allowed for, notably waveforms, spectrograms, melodic range spectrograms, peak frequency spectrograms and spectrums. 

Aural Sex_Spectrogram

The spectrograph became a form of poetic representation of the small alterations of a woman’s voice and breath while she is experiencing heightened sexual pleasure. This project’s interest lies mainly in the personal and theoretical reflections that it fostered. The problematic surrounding the female orgasm continues to be an interesting question to which film directors of all genres and artists try to answer in different ways. The female orgasm is pehaps easier to represent with metaphors of bells and fireworks as in Deep Throat, but they seem removed from women’s real bodies and experiences.

The challenge lies in being able to represent such an event without glossing over its complexity and politics, as well as without falling into the trap of representing it by what it is not, or by what it is lacking. 

Current and future directions: female orgasms and sound making practices

In this second iteration, I focus on the sonic exploration of female sexualities and female voices. The aim of this project is to present a set of representations of female orgasms through sound this time, as a way to shift the focus away from visuality and to anchor notions of female sexuality in women’s experiences, subjectivities, voices and creative outputs. Drawing from Tia DeNora’s (1997) notion of “erotic agency,” my project is situated in relation to the work of scholars such as John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis (1996), Barbara Bradby (1993), Hannah Bosma (2003), Susana Loza (2001), Kaja Silverman (1988), David Madden (2012) and Mark Ambrose Harris (2008).

Concretely, I will use my own voice (recorded and processed) to produce a sound installation, performance and written text. This project explores the following key research questions: How can female orgasms be represented through sound while avoiding reductionist metaphors and phallocentric tropes? What are the affective aspects of sexuality that can be examined, represented and enjoyed through sound? How can sound production engender greater female agency in sexual representation? How does shifting focus from the visual to the aural in sexual representation present creative possibilities for sound makers? 

February 2013.

Working bibliography

Bosma, H. (2003). Bodies of evidence, singing cyborgs and other gender issues in electrovocal music. Organised Sound: An International Journal of Music and Technology, 8(1), 5-17.

Bradby, B. (1993). Sampling sexuality: Gender, technology and the body in dance music. Popular Music, 12(2), 155-176. 

Corbett, J., & Kapsalis, T. (1996). Aural Sex: The female orgasm in popular sound. TDR, 40(3), 102-111. 

DeNora, T. (2006). Music and erotic agency: Sonic resources and social-sexual action. Body & Society, 3(2), 19-31.

Harris, M. A. (2008). My body is a mix tape: Music and desire in the sound sex project (Unpublished Masters dissertation). Concordia University, Montreal. 

Loza, S. (2001). Sampling (hetero)sexuality: Diva-ness and discipline in electronic dance music. Popular Music, 20(3), 349-357.

Madden, D. (2012). Cross-dressing to backbeats: The status of the electroclash producer and the politics of electronic music. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture, 4(2), 27-47.

McCartney, A. (2010, June 24). Ethical questions about working with soundscapes. Retrieved from Soundwalking Interactions.

–––. (1995). Inventing Images: Constructing and Contesting Gender in Thinking about Electroacoustic Music. Leonardo Music Journal, 5, 57-66.

Silverman, K. (1988). The acoustic mirror: The female voice in psychoanalysis and cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Williams, L. (1999). Hard core: Power, pleasure and the frenzy of the visible (Second ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.