sex lives

The Complicated Politics of Where to Come

Photo: Bruce Stanfield/Getty Images

A newly single man described a dilemma to me. “I was getting a blow job, and when the time came for me to finish, I was like, ‘Where do you want it?’ And he was like, ‘Wherever you want it!’ And I was like, ‘I want it where you want it.’ And he was like, ‘But I want it where you want it!’ ” In the polite confusion over the direction of his penis, he said, he’d somehow ended up with it pointed at his own face. Some of it shot into his mouth — an accidental, and impressively powerful, hole in one. “Oh my God,” I replied. “You were so polite you swallowed it for him. That is the most chivalrous cum-shot I have ever heard of.”

A successful sexual encounter will require many negotiations — some conducted explicitly, others through gesture and subtext. And while many negotiations are more fraught than where to come, few occur with such speed and urgency. (Or practical ramifications: “I let him do it on me because I don’t like doing laundry,” my friend Anne said of blow jobs conducted in bed. “But I already shower.”) And though sex may require the management of any number of fluids — from people of any gender — this column will deal with the fluid that comes out of
a penis during unprotected sex. This is a column about cum, and where it lands. (Note that, when it comes to the spelling of cum, I defer to the Strunk and White of filth, the Vice style guide. Come is the verb, cum the resulting substance.)

How did we get here? As a pornographic convention, the “money shot” rose to prominence in the age of Deep Throat. “Where the earlier short, silent stag films occasionally included spectacles of external ejaculation (in some cases inadvertently),” film historian Linda Williams writes in Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” “it was not until the early ’70s, with the rise of the hard-core feature, that the money shot assumed the narrative function of signaling the climax of a genital event.” Displaying the result of that climax also proved the sex was real. Subsequently, the money shot produced dozens of fetishes, with men ejaculating on every part of their partners’ bodies, and women finding increasingly novel ways to interact with it — licking it, drinking it, rubbing it on their bodies, letting it ooze from their orifices in front of high-def cameras. (That last one, known as “creampie,” has ruined a genre of dessert for me.) In pornography, these options are always portrayed as erotic choices. In reality, that’s only one part of the equation — pleasure must be balanced against pragmatism.

Of course, some object to switching from actual sex to what is essentially close-range masturbation, just to put on a show. “It’s like stopping in the middle of a meal to eat leftovers instead,” one married man said. But sometimes the meal isn’t available, or doesn’t appeal to both parties’ appetites. “I find swallowing gross,” the laundry-averse Anne explained. “I’m always afraid I’m going to gag. And spitting is worse because you have to hold it in your mouth.” “Come on my chest” is her more-alluring way of saying “not my mouth.”

“God, the last time I performed a blow job to completion? I don’t even remember,” another woman said. “I just hop on and have sex.” When I asked body-shot proponents to make a hierarchy of jizzed-upon body parts, the lists were divided between those optimized for cleanliness and those optimized for sexiness — neurotic versus erotic. Neurotics favored wide surfaces: stomach, back, buttock, chest. (“There’s a natural reservoir just above the butt,” a straight man said.) Erotics just wanted to jizz on stuff they liked. (“Abs if he has them,” said a gay man.) Straight men generally defaulted to whichever cleaved body part was right-side-up at the time. (Tits or ass.) Coming into your own hand ranked last — an occasional physical necessity but generally no better than coming into a Kleenex or a pile of sheets. The face, however, was a wild card. Many people were surprised that it even came up. “Is it ever acceptable to ask for that?” asked a straight man who characterized the practice as “disgusting.” He’d assumed facials were an onscreen trope that never happens in reality — like that thing on TV when sexy lawyers switch from yelling at each other to making out.

“Nobody wants the equivalent of when your under-eye cream gets jammed up in the tube, then spurts a huge glob all over your face,” my friend Sara argued in a Gchat. “I’m offended if they pick face over tits. On the tits, it’s like an offering: ‘I love your tits so much I want to shower them in cum.’ On the face it’s like, ‘I want to degrade you like the pornos I’ve seen.’ And afterward you sit there with your face scrunched up and eyes closed and wait until he brings you a tissue. You are really at his mercy.” Is this theoretical, I asked, or have you done it? “Oh, no guy has asked. But I’ve told them to. I assumed it would make them come sooner.” Another woman took a passively negative stance: “I wouldn’t be offended, just vaguely judgmental. It would make me think he had a porn addiction.” Even my friend Tessa, who likes to be tied up, spanked, and exhibited at orgies, considers facials a step too far: “No one’s ever done it to me. I used to find it wholly degrading. And still do. But now I also think it could be hot with the right power-play dynamic.”

Degradation does seem to be key. As Dan Savage famously wrote, “Facials are degrading — and that’s why they’re so hot.” On the other hand, several people who ranked their preferences for me said their rankings matched their partners’ desires. Knowing they were doing something that turned their partners on turned them on. That’s not degradation; that’s the echo chamber of desire.

Which does raise the question: If we accept that sex is a natural act, and sexual pleasure is not shameful, then why is the physical manifestation of male sexual pleasure assumed to be damning of those it touches? “I don’t feel degraded by any of it,” said Anne. “Sometimes I just want them to come, so, whatever works?” Writing on the topic of bukkake — the pornographic genre where multiple men masturbate onto one woman — smut anthropologists point out that whereas early Japanese versions featured passive and humiliated women, the American imitations usually showed ecstatic women who can’t get enough of it. When I texted an old hookup who often sexted about facials, he admitted that he rarely does them in reality. But, yes, he does it on occasion. So I asked, “Must the girl be like ‘I love it’? Is it still fun if she crinkles her face and is like, ‘Ew’?” “It’s only fun if she’s into it,” he said. But not too into it. “If you want to do it all the time, something’s wrong with you.” Talk about a catch-22.

Since the ’70s, anti-porn feminists have often singled out the money shot. “It is a convention of pornography that the sperm is on her, not in her,” Andrea Dworkin argued in 1993. “It marks the spot, what he owns and how he owns it. The ejaculation on her is a way of saying (through showing) that she is contaminated with his dirt; that she is dirty.” But, as Lisa Jean Moore points out in Sperm Counts, Dworkin ignores “that these actresses exhibit pleasure and that it is their pleasure that many of their male partners enjoy. It is perhaps more accurate to theorize that men, both as spectators and actors, want women to want their semen.” In Moore’s view, it’s not the woman’s humiliation, but her enthusiasm, that is so hot.

As a general principle, the notion that women should pretend to like things they actually find torturous is enraging. On an individual level, though, theoretical tortures become legitimate pleasures all the time, and constructs invented for the male gaze can become genuine pleasures for women — witness the girl-centric rebirth of burlesque, or modern women who persist in purchasing corsets because they like the aesthetic. The female jizz enthusiasts I spoke to were earnest. Some said their enthusiasm varied according to a partner’s enthusiasm; if a man fetishized swallowing, then she’d feel sexy when she swallowed. Others associated the spunk itself with male desire — making a man “come hard” or “come a ton” made her feel powerful, like a sex goddess. They saw orgasm as a loss of control, which means semen doesn’t mark “what he owns and how he owns it,” but her control over him and how she does that. Or, as one woman put it, “I like to see the fruits of my labor.”

*This article appears in the July 13, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

The Complicated Politics of Where to Come