Jane Birkin, whose recent demise was all over the media, was famous for many reasons. She was a popular actor and singer, a committed social activist, and a fashion icon after whom the world’s most famous handbag—the Hermès Birkin—is named. Yet not many know that her first claim to fame was the wildly popular and risqué French song “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” which she sang with Serge Gainsbourg in 1969. Apart from its slow, rhythmic melody, the song gained notoriety for closing with Birkin’s breathy notes mimicking the sounds of a woman experiencing orgasm. It quickly became a sensation despite being banned by the BBC and condemned by the Pope, and it spawned a number of similar tracks that sought to recreate the aural sounds of female pleasure. Donna Summer’s 1975 song “Love to Love you Baby” was one such track.
Jon Stratton, academic and scholar of cultural studies, believes these two songs coincided with the sexual liberation of women in the 1960s and ’70s. He examines this proposal in “Coming to the fore: the audibility of women’s sexual pleasure in popular music and the sexual revolution,” published in the journal Popular Music in 2014. According to Stratton,
This new audibility of female sexual pleasure related to the transformation in the understanding of female orgasm associated with Alfred Kinsey and with William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the American sexologists who radically changed Western understandings of sexual behavior in the 1950s and 1960s.
Stratton identified “two overlapping traditions of tracks in which female sexual pleasure is represented.” For him, Birkin and Gainsbourg’s song was “founded in the European, we can add white, emphasis on melody,” while the other African American tradition was “founded on the transmutation of the concerns of gospel music into secular material focused on relationships between women and men, and especially on love and sex.” Stratton attributes the latter to Summer receiving her initial training in gospel music, as her grandfather and father were both members of the clergy. Despite this difference in form, both singers had one thing in common—they were both actors and could mimic the sounds without actually performing the act.
Stratton explains that the defining works of sexologists Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, published in the 1950s and ’60s respectively,
formed the groundwork for a new recognition of female sexual pleasure and, especially, a transformation in the understanding of the female orgasm. This work became a key link between the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the politicisation of the female body in discussions related to Second Wave feminism.
Stratton bolsters this assertion with the work of film studies scholar Linda Williams, drawn from her 2008 book Screening Sex. Williams argues that it’s impossible to separate the sexual revolution of the 1960s from “the larger goals of a pervasive counterculture of antiwar, antiracist, anticapitalist, and, eventually, antipatriarchal activity.” Looking back, she detected “a distinct thread of demographic, cultural and technological change that can be labelled the sexual revolution and that came to a climax in the late 1960s though reverberating through the next decade.” This transformation—this revolution—dovetailed with the rise of feminism.
A sea change seemed to take place in women’s attitudes to sex after the pill was introduced to the market. This is made evident with data shared by Williams, which shows that in 1969 “seven out of ten Americans were still opposed to premarital sex.” In 1973, “only 48 percent of those surveyed were opposed to premarital sex… Something had radically changed between 1969 and 1973.” It’s no coincidence that this was also the period when these songs gained popularity.
Protection from unwanted pregnancies certainly contributed to women’s sexual liberation, as did the findings of the sexologists which separated female sexual pleasure from the act of reproduction by proving that it was “not dependent on the male anatomy.” As female pleasure lacked a physical manifestation, the sound of a woman experiencing orgasms in these songs became an important representation of the act.
As Stratton summarizes, Birkin and Gainsbourg were performing at a time
when the new understanding of women’s pleasure became common. It was no longer thought of as dependent on men… The representation of women’s sexual pleasure became an issue and the solution was found in noise; physical pleasure was expressed aurally though a more or less conventionalised repertoire of sounds.
Je t’aime… moi non plus laid the groundwork for an experiment—an experiment that continued to be advanced by other female singer-songwriters throughout the 1970s—in communicating the sounds of women’s sexual freedom and pleasure.