The utopian fantasy of Deep Throat.

The utopian fantasy of Deep Throat.

The utopian fantasy of Deep Throat.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 11 2005 4:16 PM

Ladies First

The utopian fantasy of Deep Throat.

Let's face it: Nature has not been entirely kind to women. Among its many little jokes at women's expense: the entire painful, immobilizing burden of childbearing; deficient upper-body strength; PMS. And let's not forget the unkindest joke of all, the placement of the clitoris—the primary locale of female sexual pleasure—at some remove from the vagina, the primary locale of human sexual intercourse. While not an insurmountable obstacle, some percentage of the male population still has yet to fathom these anatomical complexities. Why wasn't everything just combined into one efficient package, as with the lucky male? Alas, we'll never know, but uncertain access to sexual pleasure is the female fate. (No, no … not there … yes, there.)

Enter Deep Throat, the goofy 1972 porn classic devoted to the problematics of the female clitoris. And, now from producer Brian Grazer, we have Inside Deep Throat, a documentary on the making of what turns out to be—believe it or not—the most profitable movie in film history. Cultural luminaries from Norman Mailer to Erica Jong are trotted out to explain the film's social significance; a pantheon of geriatrics and geezers recount their porno glory days shooting the film, none of which actually begins to explain the enduring success of this amateurishly made, frequently silly (bubbling noises on the soundtrack accompany most orgasms), occasionally weird (complicated sex acts involving Coca-Cola sipped through long plastic tubes), 62-minute sexual relic.

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Thanks go, no doubt, to the nationwide obscenity prosecutions accompanying Deep Throat's release: Being banned in 23 states transformed it instantly into a must-see for anyone with liberal pretensions or sexual curiosity. The first sex film with any sort of sustained narrative, Deep Throat was also the first porn film seen by substantial numbers of women, perhaps because the narrative was actually all about the dilemmas of female sexual pleasure and one woman's quest to achieve it despite anatomical hindrances. The joke of the film is that the clitoris of its hapless protagonist, porn star Linda Lovelace (playing herself), isn't just the usual frustrating-enough distance from her vagina, in her case it's even further away. In fact, it's finally located by a helpful physician (Harry Reems) in her … throat.

Sure, it's easy enough to dismiss the misplaced clitoris gag as a setup for extended fellatio scenes (or women "sexually servicing men," as anti-porn rhetoric likes to put it). But what about the protracted opening scene of Linda's female roommate perched on the kitchen table, herself receiving oral pleasure from the grocery delivery boy? (Though for reasons known only to hairdresser-turned-director Gerard Damiano, she's also smoking a cigarette and looking deeply bored.) This is a porn film that actually does put women's sexual pleasure on par with men's: When Linda has her first orgasm—thanks to Harry Reems' medical ministrations—rockets and fireworks go off, church bells peal; the world is a far happier place. Further scenes of men orally attending to women follow: No one here is under the impression that sexual intercourse alone is going to get a girl's bells ringing.

There's something good-natured about all of this, even, in its fashion, vaguely utopian. Pornography's numerous critics tend to take the genre very literally, as if porn aspired to be social realism. But a better comparison is science fiction, another genre that takes a "what if" approach to bodies and societies. Like sci-fi, porn replaces existing realities with wild alternative universes (against which to measure the lackluster, repressive world we've inherited). At its most inventive, pornography too has an allegorical distance from the real, as with the deeply absurdist Deep Throat—an utterly invented erotic world in which male and female bodies and desires correspond with one another far better than they do back here on terra firma.

The premise may be dopey, but the fantasy of male-female instant sexual synchrony is sort of a poignant one: It imagines a universe where men and women get pleasure from all the same things. And what an interesting prospect to contemplate: If sexual pleasure were as sure a thing for women as for men, what vast social and personal transformations would follow? If women did have orgasms while performing oral sex, not only would the longstanding war between the sexes instantly terminate, no doubt so too would women's tiresome role as sexual gatekeepers. After all, remaking bodies and organs is also a fantasy about reorganizing the contours of gender. But note that Deep Throat's bodily rehab fantasies cut both ways: Toward the end of the film, Linda acquires a new boyfriend but frets that he's not well-endowed enough to satisfy her: She needs a man with a 9-inch penis. He calls his doctor to procure the proper procedure, then returns to tell Linda, "He says he can cut it down to any size I want." Rockets explode; sexual utopia for all. *

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Pornography's capacity to reimagine the world and the quotient of sexual gratification it contains is obviously what most irks its critics, and what its fans can't get enough of. The usual impediments to acquiring sex don't exist in pornutopia: Forget social convention, sexual repression, your partner's personality foibles. Porn is a world where personality simply doesn't matter: what a refreshing vacation from the daily reality of coupledom in which one partner's personality tics and the other's inability to deal with them is surely the leading cause of couple dissolution, not to mention the sexual anesthesia (or antipathy) that generally precedes it.

Inside Deep Throat tries hard to account for what made this film unique, but it doesn't get very far: For all its efforts, it's still rather confused about its subject (as well as about the pronunciation of the word "clitoris"). It wants to resurrect an aura of subversive chic about the porn enterprise while also mainstreaming it and making it wholesome. It decries censorship and sexual repression in the usual liberal fashion, forgetting that pornography could hardly exist without them. It also steps awkwardly around Linda Lovelace's allegations in her 1980 memoir Ordeal that she made the film under emotional and physical threat, forced at gunpoint by her then boyfriend-manager to participate. (Disputed by all the film's other participants, needless to say.)

But Ordeal itself is fairly confused, concluding with this piece of wisdom about Lovelace's experience of being forcibly transformed into a porn star: "I never thought something like that could happen to me, but now I know better. It could happen to me, and it could happen to you." This is pure melodrama, of course. But then so are all discussions about the social evils of pornography: Innocence is corrupted, people's wills are overtaken, everyone is at risk. Women tend to tell this story more than men do, which is sort of Deep Throat's subtext. Like it or not, anatomy is destiny in many respects: Disparities in sexual pleasure are the deep structure of gender. No one's saying that women can't or don't enjoy sex (don't get huffy, ladies!), but the fact is that, for the most part, men have the luxury of enjoying it in a far more guaranteed way. Pornography may play with this theme, but it didn't invent the condition.

There are obvious reasons to want to watch other people having sex, but beyond that, genres that are most popular tend to offer magical resolutions to irreconcilable social problems and tensions. Deep Throat tells a labyrinthic story about sexual pleasure—a labyrinth that is the female inheritance—then magically fixes it. In its coded, sometimes ludicrous, frequently offensive way, pornography does tell certain unpalatable truths, then offers an antidote to them—one that millions can't seem to live without these days.

Is this a terrible thing? According to anti-porn forces, yes. But if reality can't compete with porn, isn't it reality that should be doing the apologizing?


Correction, Feb. 15, 2005: In an earlier version of this piece, Laura Kipnis mistakenly described a scene in which Linda's boyfriend seeks a penile increase from the doctor; the procedure under discussion was actually a size decrease. Return  to the corrected sentence.