The Lesbian Sex Joke: Did You Get It?

By perpetuating the idea there is secret lesbian knowledge, lesbians take power away from mainstream forces like Hardees/Carl’s Jr.

I want to talk about lesbians. Who doesn’t these days? Have you seen all the lesbians on YouTube lately? It’s a certifiable smorgasbord of Sapphic sisterhood. (Say that three times fast.) But what does all this recent visibility amount to? Are all these so-called lesbians on YouTube good for queer-identified women in real contexts? What about all the talk of “lesbian” pornography?

The internet is obsessed lately with what it is lesbians actually “do” with one another. It seems the thing on everyone’s mind is “scissoring”. Typing that into the YouTube search bar returns over 1,650 video suggestions. Many of these videos are by lesbians. If you’re not a lesbian, you may be saying to yourself, “I thought scissoring was a porn thing. I’m confused.” Keep calm. I’ve just returned from the lesbian internet and I think I can explain.

First, let’s clarify something: “lesbians” in pornography are not actually lesbians. You probably already know this, but it bears repeating: The creation and consumption of televised “lesbian” sex acts is by and for an overwhelmingly straight male audience. If this is new information for you, I suggest becoming more familiar with male gaze theory as developed by Laura Mulvey in her1989 text, Visual and Other Pleasures to get up to speed.

“Lesbian” porn is not made by lesbians, nor is it made for lesbians. Many lesbians do not like “lesbian” porn; in fact, most find it bizarre and disgusting. If you’re curious about what lesbians have to say about “lesbian” pornography, I recommend the YouTube video “REAL Lesbians React to Lesbian Porn!” by YouTuber Wickydkewl. What’s interesting about this video is how the title mimics pornography titles by using “real lesbians” in it. Unlike “lesbian” porn though, the video contains actual queer-identified women. And they are horrified. These lesbians have seen what’s being marketed to mainstream audiences as “lesbian” and, well, they have some news for you. News they’re going to share tag-team style with their brothers-in-arms. The videographer for “REAL Lesbians React”? A gay man.

Another gay male YouTuber, Kingsley, addresses some general questions about lesbianism in his video “#Social Saturday: How to Scissor a Lesbian [with Hannah Hart].” In it he introduces the very out lesbian Hannah Hart as “what you might call” a lesbian and notes that lesbians are “all the rage right now” though he adds that “people are acting like lesbians have never fucking existed before.” His comment acknowledges that lesbianism has been historically invisible in mainstream culture.

In the video, Kingsley asks Hart a number of questions about lesbians; he role-plays ignorance to give Hart a chance to fill him in on what it means to be lesbian. At one point, Hart attempts to explain the act of scissoring to Kingsley, using a familiar hand gesture. Of course, the more she tries to explain it, the more confused he (and thus, the audience) becomes. The “explanation” is so convoluted as to be meaningless. Kingsley concludes that it is a “snake mating ball” thing and the hand gesture resembles a “Chinese dinner”. Hart nods in mock-solemn agreement.

Kingsley then asks Hart why lesbians like to watch whales so much, to which she laughingly says she’s never whale watched. He follows up with “What do you like to watch then?” Her tone changes to a serious one when she answers, “Pussy.” Was this a how-to on scissoring as the video’s title suggests? Not so much. The video concludes with Hart finally articulating the underlying message for the whole video: “It’s good to ask questions so you learn, and it’s good to listen so you don’t grow up to say a bunch of ignorant shit.” There you have it: Lesbians don’t want to hear any more of your ignorant shit.

This begs the question: If lesbians like Hannah Hart want to dispel myths about lesbianism, why the deceptive and “straight-baiting” title? A partial answer to that has to do with audience. We know straight men are watching “lesbian” porn, and they’re watching YouTube, too. But who else is watching YouTube? Unrestricted access to the internet for millions of people makes that answer more complex.

In a recent BuzzFeed video series, “Ask a Lesbian with Cameron Esposito”, the website and the video’s host attempt to answer some questions for several different audiences. Throughout the video series, Esposito answers a variety of questions sent in by viewers using equal parts humor and honesty. These questions range from the completely misogynistic to the genuinely confused, and Esposito’s answers reflect the degree of ignorance inherent in each particular question.

Does Esposito find Ellen attractive? Esposito replies “Yes, she is our president.” Is “scissoring” a real thing? Esposito makes a disappointed face and explains that it exists because when porn is filmed there’s a guy off camera with two Barbies making vague sexual gestures with them. Esposito’s recommendation for being more visible as a lesbian? Try sporting a side mullet, like hers.

This last joke is perhaps the most important one because visibility is at the center of the issue. In his foundational (and somewhat oblique) text, The History of Sexuality, French philosopher and flaming homo Michel Foucault explains how sexual minorities were made invisible in the first place. He argues that the rise of Victorianism repressed sexuality to the point of normalizing the belief that the only appropriate sex occurs behind the walls of the heterosexual couple’s bedroom for the purpose of procreation. However, that cultural repression of sex had to make some concessions in order to maintain itself, else people might explode. Enter pornography.

Even more important than the existence of this underground commodity as an outlet for sexual desire, however, is that it could be marketed and sold for the benefit of those in power. The illicit appeal of sex, carefully corralled within a red-light environment, could thus be scripted by the dominate discourse. In this way, any sex that violates the “natural law” of procreation can be publically shamed while simultaneously used to turn a profit for mainstream Capitalists. In contemporary terms, “lesbian” pornography is a commodity that makes money for corporate powers while it renders real lesbians’ experiences invisible and valueless.

Case in point: the recent Hardees/Carl’s Jr. hamburger commercials. They’re basically porn. Seriously. The first time I saw one of these ads I thought I’d opened a NSFW video without an incognito browser window. Although all of their commercials follow a similarly troubling pattern of representing women as sex objects for male consumption, the specific offender I want to discuss is the “BBQ’s Best Pair” ad, featuring a scantily-clad Sara Underwood and Emily Ratajkowski wrestling over a barbeque burger at what appears to be an outdoor tailgating party. What’s particularly disturbing about the ad is the end of it, where two males, who are standing there watching, get out cell phones and take pictures of the women as they wipe burger juice from one another’s lips. What, exactly, are they planning to do with those images?

The Hardees ad uses “lesbian” pornography as its primary visual metaphor. I call it a metaphor, but it really isn’t metaphorical. It carefully reenacts common visual constructions of lesbianism from “lesbian” pornography. It’s not subtle or subtextual at all. It’s clearly relying not only on its straight male audience’s recognition of the visual language of pornography, but also in its audience’s familiarity with the spectator role. The camera’s gaze focuses on the women for most of the video and the brief shot of the men shows them engaged in viewing women for pleasure. The women seem oblivious to the men watching them, suggesting that objects have no agency in controlling who looks or why, and they seem unconcerned with as well as complicit in their roles as objects for others’ consumption.

The whole concept is absurd to the point of disbelief, especially for lesbian viewers. Marxist media critics would argue that the point of the Hardees commercial isn’t to sell hamburgers; it’s to reify a dominant ideology about women existing only as objects for satisfying male sexual desire. Fortunately, some media forces are fighting back against commodification of the lesbian body. BuzzFeed is certainly leading the charge.

In another of BuzzFeed’s recent videos, “Lesbians Explain Sex to Straight People”, the discussion dedicates itself to doing what its title suggests. In it, they ask a number of straight-identified people various questions about lesbian sex and then show their answers to lesbians who react to those answers. These questions are along the lines of: Are you still a virgin if you’re a sexually active lesbian who’s never had sex with a man? Is scissoring a thing? (Seriously, what is the fascination with scissoring?) What do lesbians even do with each other? Does lesbian sex count as sex?

One lesbian couple, Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers (you may recognize them from the “REAL Lesbians React” video I mentioned earlier) respond to a comment that vaginal intercourse is the only sex that counts. Chambers argues that if sex is indeed just a mechanical in and out activity, then it has no more emotional value than a simple handshake. The two women then shake hands and Kam declares she needs a cigarette. None of the lesbians in this video actually explain the details of lesbian sex (one of them says “use your imagination”) but they are quick to point out that straight people are too focused on logistics rather than on intimacy. Mainstream viewers in the sexual majority seem to be hung up on that one small aspect of sexual orientation, in part because that’s what pornography has trained mainstream audiences to focus on.