Visualising the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’: emotion work and the representation of orgasm in pornography and everyday sexual interactions

Hannah Frith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Visual representations of orgasm – whether in the flesh or mediated through a screen – are produced in a context of intense uncertainty about whether what is being seen represents an authentically experienced bodily event. Despite detailed scientific scrutiny and close attention to bodily signs, the authenticity of women's orgasm remains a site of cultural anxiety and contested gender politics. This uncertainty is exacerbated by the construction of female orgasm as inherently invisible or un-see-able, and ‘faking’ orgasm as a prevalent social practice. Drawing on existing literature from psychology, sociology and porn studies, this theoretical paper explores the problem of visually representing orgasm in the context of these uncertainties, and examines how the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is structured by discourses of authenticity. Pornography and everyday sexual interactions provide ideal contexts for exploring the practices of producing and consuming visual representations of embodied experience because both necessitate a see-able orgasm which consumers/lovers can read as ‘real’. This paper demonstrates that considerable interpretative work is necessary to read the female body as authentically orgasmic in the context of cultural uncertainty, and that distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ are continually reworked. Drawing on the contrast between ‘surface’ and ‘deep’ acting (Hochschild, 1983), I argue that the distinction between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ cannot be established by recourse to unmediated bodily experience, and instead, researchers should consider how and when this distinction has traction in the world and the implications of this for gendered power relations, subjectivities and practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)386-398
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Gender Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2014


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