My “O” Face: Capturing an Orgasm on Film

Let the fingers do the walking...

Let the fingers do the walking…

The tradition of photographing the orgasmic state has a long tradition, and I’m not referring solely to the volcanic external cum shots of mainstream pornography, which are designed to reassure the viewer that male climax has occurred. That device apparently began in the interest of authenticity, but its strained realism now seems oddly quaint. Dear reader, men often ejaculate during sex. I’ve experienced it, and enjoyed its singular thrills.

But I’m thinking of another phenomenon, the photography of the face during orgasm. It is an undeniable trend in the world of erotic expression, perhaps because it offers a subjective path to the mind in a moment of primal vulnerability. In the 1990 film Bad Influence, bad boy Rob Lowe secretly films good guy James Spader in flagrante delicto and then taunts him with the accusation that he makes “a funny face” when he comes. Armed with that intimate knowledge, that cosmic window into the carnal soul, the power of the manipulator grows.

The concept appears to have its roots in Andy Warhol’s 1964 experimental short film Blow Job, in which DeVeren Bookwalter apparently receives oral attentions from an unseen companion. We only see Mr. Bookwalter’s face, and all other action remains powerfully suggested through hemi-quavers of facial expression. The sheer concept, more than anything else, is provocation in itself—this product of a more innocent time is a pure art artifact, a raised middle finger to mainstream conduct.

Yet there is a languor to Warhol’s film, a kind of sustained shrug. Bookwalter could be leaning against a wall, listening to Gene Vincent, contemplating the pumping of a Harley Davidson piston rather than the mouth gleefully siphoning his erection. Warhol puts a spotlight on pleasure before sheepishly looking away; he embraces erotic freedom as he tentatively retreats from sex in its emancipated madness. The final result is a detached art object hovering in a frame.

Changing times have naturally opened the door further. In 2002, the British video artist k r buxey made her own homage to Warhol’s work in the form of the video installation “Requiem,” where the visual technique is similar—we see the artist’s face as she purportedly receives cunnilingus, writhing as her nether nerve endings receive some lucky bastard’s slobbering glottis. Or so we’re led to believe. The production packs an undeniable erotic charge, and evokes a whole phalanx of clichés about the power of suggestion trumping clinical explicitness. Fauré’s Requiem plays in the background, adding an art-school stratum of detachment at odds with her cheerful embrace of oral pleasure.

I enjoy the authenticity of buxey’s performance. She wears an open pajama top that looks like it was donned for bedtime and then impulsively ripped open at the arrival of her partner, who we imagine has initiated an unannounced muff-dive. Her face exudes indelicate exertion, puffing as if she were climbing Kilimanjaro, broadcasting concentrated intensity. Her shoulders seem to tense, suggesting that she is applying a death grip to her attendant’s scalp as he laps at the honey jar, the celestial brink lingering ahead on a treacherous mountain path.

And then we have Exhibit C, the Web site Beautiful Agony: Facettes de la Petite Mort, where anyone can become their own k r buxey, submitting short films of their faces at the moment of sublime release. The title takes its name from the French expression “little death.” My Anglophone mind has never fully parsed the phrase. Does it envision an orgasmic expulsion of energy as the departure of a soul into Hades?

There are hundreds of films on the site, mostly of women engaging in solo stimulation. Men appear as well, but their ardent wanking is less lyrical, mainly because it appears too easy, too biologically predetermined, less freighted with mythological struggle. Watching the girls, there is often a frantic, swampy sloshing audible in the background as they finger themselves into the Empyrean, eyes clenched, mouths agape, lost in grave exertion. Little Sister Death arrives with a grunt, a sigh or a profane expulsion of surprise. The women are mostly young and presumably game; the expansive grid of faces suggests a communal sorority dare gone awry, an impulsive group stroke-off hatched after Jell-O shots and a viewing of Practical Magic. But the appeal of the exercise, its gritty eroticism, is undeniable.

Why not join the club? I decided to attempt my own video, eager to see the results, not knowing whether my own performance would be worthy of the sisterhood on Beautiful Agony. I borrowed my boyfriend’s camera but insisted that my experiment remain a solo venture, rigging the device dangerously above my bed. I decided that I needed to be authentically prone and fully nude for the exercise to work, and I struggled with the proper framing of the shot. After two attempts that captured only a left shoulder and a Pac Man pillowcase, I got my naughty electronic facial portrait aligned.

At this juncture, I was lost in an uncomfortable nether-region, stranded between self-conscious performance and the independent, randy joys of masturbation. I love playing with myself because I can fully withdraw into a world of fancy, control my onanistic destiny without assistance or observation, and ensure a blissful, orgasmic outcome. It is not a substitute for being cheerfully engorged by a partner’s cock, or the horny camaraderie that sex with a partner provides– It is an introspective moment, one that immediately felt disrupted by the interloping camera above. I looked up, imagining that it winked back, half in solidarity, half in mockery.

I started the camera, and then slathered my fingers with a sloppy torrent of lube, shamelessly relishing the moment, the electronic voyeur above continuing its salacious twinkle. I decided to avoid theatrical effect and be true to standard routine, beginning with some protracted full-handed strokes, imagining the delicious frottage of a lower male torso against my pudenda. I am shamelessly unwaxed, with the healthy muff of a 70s porn star, which always generates drama as I spread the pelt to expose the heavenly gates. The time-honored crescendo began: I accelerated the pace, caressing my breasts and nipples, liberated by the knowledge that they lurked within a hair’s breadth of the camera frame. Blood flowed to my brain and vulva; the whole apparatus puffed up with pleasure, deliciously drenched.

I placed one, and then two fingers in my vagina, imagining the invasion of substitute cock before I turned my ardent attentions to my clit. At this point, my mind had finally retreated from the camera’s ardent gaze; my reptilian imagination had finally regressed from the realm of technology into the primeval dominion of ardent sucking and fucking: My eye had turned from the lens to a random image in the background, my prized Criterion DVD of Pierrot Le Fou, with Jean-Paul Belmondo embracing Anna Karina in pulsing Technicolor.

The randy mind can summon ideas from the world of whimsy with an astonishing, literal solidity, and my fantasy concerned a male implement of supernatural hardness. I’ll confess, with a mild blush, that I summoned the image of Jean-Paul mounting me in perfunctory fashion, nailing the fervent hell out of my willing orifice as I retreated from the proscribed duties of my task. I energetically finger-fucked myself, supplementing my fantasy with memories of a sustained rut on the Place Odeon in Paris 2003, the surrounding details of the reminiscence evaporating, leaving only the fond sensation of relentless penile propulsion. I did my best to invoke my long-gone consort’s tool with my palpitating fingers.

I’ll confess that I came with relative ease: a strategically curled finger, a twisted nipple, and a final infusion of filthy imagination, and my Petite Mort descended on a winged steed like the Grim Reaper.

I dismounted, pulled on a bathrobe, lit a post-coital menthol cigarette and decided to observe my private show. Watching my face on the miniature screen, I saw that my Nagasaki of nerve endings appeared to be mostly confined to inner space. In the flickering film clip, I puckered a little, swore silently, and clenched my eyes in an archetypal spasm of pleasure, but the real evidence was swarming inside my lurid mind. My back appeared to arch, and I could read my own lips as I whispered, “fuck fuck fuck” to the world, but the whole display was a bit out of focus, a trifle grainy and far removed from the actual pleasure of the event. I decided to keep it in the private collection. A day later, I tossed the file into the electronic trash bin.

Once, I wrote a letter to a consort after a particularly torrid evening: “Dear [name omitted to protect the innocent]: Thank you. Or should I say ‘Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Thank You,’” offering written gratitude for every shuddering climax of the evening. The peaks and valleys of that steamy fuck, the whole sublime and heroic expedition, could not have been captured in blurry pixels.

Only the pen was dirty enough.



sylvialowry1 (at)

Originally published in Black Heart Magazine, December 2009.

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