In an article published by VICE in 2015, entitled “Why Don’t We Teach Pleasure In Sex Ed?; writer Hayley Gleeson quotes an unnamed Australian student participating in the National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health: “I found that sex education covered mainly periods and pregnancy and discussed very little about the actual act of sex and what consent is and the fact that it should be pleasurable for girls as well.”
It’s a reflection of a sadly misogynist power dynamic that has been in place for ages now. Just think of the discussion that Ryan Gosling opened up during the promotion of the devastating 2010 film Blue Valentine. He was rightfully aghast that this drama was about to be slapped with an NC-17 rating, making it harder for the movie to get booked outside of art house theaters. The MPAA’s reasoning? The depiction of his character performing oral sex on his onscreen partner, Michelle Williams.
Taken to its extreme, you get the scenario being played out in the world of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Female pleasure is considered absolutely unnecessary, considering the “biological imperative” that these red clad women are meant to fulfill. It’s such a dangerous thing in their minds that they go so far as to remove the clitoris of any Handmaid who dares to enjoy the sex act, a fate that befell Ofglen, now known as Ofsteven (Alexis Bledel).
Just look at the way Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is treated throughout during the “Ceremonies.” She’s meant to simply lay there and take it. Or, in this episode, she’s pushed into the bed of the Commander’s driver Nick (Max Minghella) for the purposes of getting her pregnant at last. She has no real say in the matter and, even though she has growing feelings for her fellow employee, doesn’t enjoy it in the least.
That’s exactly what makes the closing scene in this episode so daring and so dangerous for Offred. She has already learned Nick is an Eye, a member of the secret police that rounds up enemies of the state and reports back to the people in charge, but she doesn’t care. She still storms his small apartment, strips him, and has proper, powerful, pleasurable sex with him. Most importantly, Offred gets on top. For a few glorious minutes, she’s going to be in control.
If you want another visual approximation of this same idea, you can enjoy Ofsteven deciding to enjoy one more glorious moment of rebellion at the farmer’s market. It’s there that she steals a recently vacated car and goes for a quick joyride that ends with her graphically squashing the head and body of a soldier who tried to stop her. She knew the risks. She was warned. Nevertheless, she persisted.
That’s what it takes in some situations to fuel a revolution: little instances, both public and private, where you can gain some ground. There’s the small hope that the many fellow Handmaids who saw Ofsteven make her final triumph will now find the seed of some similar discontent within themselves. Or that Offred will use what little agency she has in the Commander’s home and keep herself sane via an illicit affair that is all the more thrilling because she knows how much she is jeopardizing her safety. If she’s gonna get sent to the colonies, she’s gonna get hers before she goes.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.