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‘Seinfeld’ Had a Shockingly Progressive Take on the Female Orgasm

‘Seinfeld’ Had a Shockingly Progressive Take on the Female Orgasm: NBC

NBC

When you think of television shows that call attention to the existence and importance of the female orgasm, the ‘90s sitcom Seinfeld probably doesn’t spring to mind. But for a show focusing on the exploits of privileged white manchildren, Seinfeld was way ahead of its time when it came to female sexual pleasure.

To begin with, the fact that show even suggested that the female orgasm is an integral component of sex was somewhat revolutionary. The notion of The Orgasm Gap—that women have one orgasm for every three a man has—isn’t necessarily new. Sigmund Freud infamously attributed it to the female body being inherently bad at reaching climax during “normal” sex—that, of course, being heteronormative intercourse involving penile penetration.

As a society, we are conditioned to think that women’s bodies are naturally defective, or they’re just not built for or as interested in sexual pleasure, reinforced by the long-held belief that default sex, i.e. heterosexual and penetrative sex, is the only kind that counts. Acts that are more focused on women’s sexual satisfaction are largely dismissed as foreplay. Seinfeld went against that trend, portraying women’s pleasure as a fundamental outcome of sex.

The sitcom started in 1989, at the very end of the “me” decade, which saw increasing numbers of women entering and ascending the workforce and relying less on men, signalling a societal shift, according to Athalie Paynting, two-time Moth Story Slam Winner, creator and writer of solo show Phone Bone and graduate student at Widener University’s Masters of Human Sexuality program.

It was no longer enough to sleep with a lot of women; it was more important whether they fulfilled the women. This became a recurring theme throughout Seinfeld.

“Men used to be able to rely on their ego being fulfilled through the masculinity of being a breadwinner,” she explains. “In the ’80s, women became more equal: we had our own careers, more money and a solidified feminist movement. We realized that yes, we do have sexual desires, which are more than just ‘wifely duties.’ Now it’s like, ‘Holy shit, this feels good—I want to have my own orgasm.”

Without the confidence that comes from being the default provider, men were forced to find other ways to assert their manliness. These shifting goalposts for male social standing, coupled with it becoming more socially acceptable for women to address their own sexual needs and desires resulted in a new benchmark of masculinity: a man’s ability to sexually satisfy a woman.

This shift went even further in the 1990s, according to Paynting, who notes that for male social standing, it was no longer enough to be considered a “stud” and sleep with a lot of women; it was more important whether they fulfilled the women. This became a recurring theme throughout Seinfeld’s nine seasons on NBC.

Let’s review. Seinfeld centers on the lives of four characters: Jerry Seinfeld (played by Jerry Seinfeld), George Costanza (Jason Alexander), Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards) and Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). The character of Elaine initially wasn’t part of the show; in the pilot, the token female character was a waitress at the coffee shop named Claire. After offering the show’s co-creator Larry David suggestions on how to improve the character, which he took as criticism, her contract was not renewed after the first episode. NBC executives insisted on having a stronger female presence in future episodes—a woman who could go head-to-head with Jerry, George and Kramer. The result was Elaine Benes: a female character that can match any of her male counterparts when it came to looking out for her own interests.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of the New York Times best seller Seinfeldia, notes that the show’s writing staff was mostly men and tended to treat the Elaine character like “one of the guys,” meaning that she is also “fully realized,” and absolutely interested in her own sexual best interests. “So if men’s sexual pleasure was going to be a point of discussion sometimes,” Armstrong asks, “why not women’s?”

Of the show’s inclusion of women’s sexual pleasure, Armstrong says, “It is a truly surprising turn given so much else about Seinfeld—the selfishness of the characters, and honestly, the way they treat the women Jerry and sometimes George dates.” She adds that the selfishness and attention to Elaine’s sexual pleasure are “pretty interchangeable plot devices.”

Here’s how those elements play out in four key episodes.


THE CONTEST
After acknowledging that it was possible for women to actually enjoy sex, the show took that one step further: that it is normal for a woman to take her own sexual pleasure (literally) into her own hands. In the Season 4 episode “The Contest”—ranked the number 1 episode on TV Guide’s “Top 100 T.V. Episodes” list—the four main characters make a bet to see who can go the longest without masturbating.

“I also know that [the writers] specifically discussed not having Elaine participate in ‘The Contest,’ but that was causing more plot trouble than just having her join,” Armstrong explains. While Elaine was ultimately included in this unusual competition, the writers made a point of having the three male leads initially object to her participation, assuming that she has an unfair advantage and will surely win. It is only when Elaine offers to increase her stakes in the bet that she is allowed in: an orgasm wage gap, if you will.

As soon as she realizes that the impossibly handsome (and then still-living) John F. Kennedy, Jr. goes to her gym and is even asking about her, Elaine knows she’s in trouble. She is the second person eliminated from the contest, after Kramer.

This episode is groundbreaking for centering on a bet on masturbation—though the word itself is never used in favor of euphemisms like “master of my domain,” “queen of my castle” and “lord of my manor”—but even more so for including a woman and having her be unsuccessful.


THE MANGO
Another memorable episode, “The Mango,” features Elaine disclosing that she faked every orgasm she “had” while dating Jerry—all 37 times they slept together.

Jerry is noticeably disturbed by her confession, and he begs her for another chance to prove that he can make her come. He then proceeds to call old girlfriends to ask if they had orgasms when they were together, just to reassure himself that he is capable of satisfying women at all.

“If I was having sex with men and I wasn’t sure I was making them come, that could be so mentally fraught,” Paynting says. “So when I’m watching these shows I was initially thinking [of the men]—‘They’re so fragile'—but then I was thinking about it the other way around. Of course you want to make someone come. I have a lot of sympathy of men and this pressure. It’s very real.”


THE FUSILLI JERRY
In days before continuity in sitcoms was a priority, the show hints that Jerry was capable of getting her off. In “The Fusilli Jerry,” Elaine’s on-and-off-boyfriend David Puddy uses Jerry’s signature oral sex move on Elaine. After initially being taken aback by Puddy’s use of The Move and mentioning it to Jerry, Jerry forbids Puddy from using it again. Elaine admits that she isn’t happy with this arrangement, because she liked The Move.

The episode is significant for another reason: the weight that is placed on a man’s ability to perform cunnilingis effectively. This is demonstrated when George finds out that Jerry shared The Move with Puddy, but not him, and does not relent until Jerry walks George through the procedure step-by-step, ending with a clockwise swirl. The last time George attempted oral sex on his girlfriend she said that it felt like aliens poking her body, so he writes down Jerry’s instructions, primarily motivated by his own ego. George successfully performs The Move on his girlfriend, putting his own spin on it: the counterclockwise swirl finale.

“That brings up the subject that all moves don’t necessarily work with every woman—a refreshing concept for them to stumble into,” Paynting says.


THE RYE
Elaine’s sexual pleasure is discussed again in “The Rye,” when she dates a saxophone player whom she has reservations about because “actually, he, um, doesn’t like to do everything.” Eventually, the saxophonist decides to add something new to his repertoire, and he brings Elaine back to his apartment right before a performance in front of some bigwig record executives. In true Seinfeld form, the musician succeeds at pleasuring Elaine but is so attentive that he isn’t able to play for the special guests and loses his chance at a record deal, signalling that the successful performance of oral sex has even more consequences and power than was originally thought.

For heterosexual cisgender men, their only sexual outlet and experience is with women, Paynting explains, and women’s bodies take more time to get to know.

“It’s no wonder they’re so fragile and it’s so ego driven,” she says. “It really makes sense that they’d be so nervous about their skills—especially where the factor of being a good sexual partner and pleasing women becomes a new social standing criteria for men, where it wasn’t before.“

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