La petite mort

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[Written by Kate Fryer (she/her)]

[Art by Ella Edwards (she/her)]

CW: discussion of rape

La petite mort, translated into ‘the little death’ from French, is most used to refer to an orgasm. It is recognised by various English dictionaries as meaning ‘the brief loss or weakening of consciousness. Now: the sensation of orgasm as likened to death’. However, like everything, the phrase and its origins aren’t that simple. The first widely recognised use of the phrase was in Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, in 1891, and he was not discussing sexual pleasure at all. Hardy was referring to the way Tess felt when she met her  rapist, ‘she felt the petite mort at this unexpectedly gruesome information’. This really puts a bleaker spin on the feeling of ‘the little death’. 

The correlation between orgasms and the idea of a ‘lil’ death goes back to Aristotle. He believed that the ejaculation associated with the orgasm comprised the best blood of the body, for men and women, and that the too frequent loss of this blood could be harmful. Eventually, the phrase began to become synonymous with an orgasm. Bataille popularised the term and this new meaning in his text ‘Eroticism: Death & Sensuality– a rather fitting title – in the eighties, giving the woman’s orgasm a spiritual association in the process. But, alas, this is not an English Language class – the social repercussions of this term are the most important.

Whilst many academics and authors shy away from making a concise declaration that la petite mort is used for women’s orgasms, various works and artistic exploits that focus on the sexual arousal of women, incorporate the phrase into their title. This suggests a cultural connection between the two. Nonetheless, no matter how deep or spiritual this connection is, not all orgasms are deemed equal. Whose orgasms are at the top of the pecking order? Are self-pleasure and same-sex intercourse predictably bashed? Unfortunately, this is not a big wow moment: not all academics are super pro-women’s masturbation and non-hetero or non-cis relationships. Researchers led by Stuart Brody only a few years ago, wrote about how it was better for (cis) women’s health to achieve sexual arousal through penile-vaginal intercourse, rather than clitoral stimulation.

Thankfully, standpoints like this often face critique, and in this case Levin challenged Brody for ‘rob[bing] the huge percentage of women of their sense of normalcy by demonising the clitoris and over-sanctifying the vagina’. This sums up some of the beef I have with la petite mort. The whole concept mystifies the idea of women experiencing sexual pleasure which, considering the orgasm gap, isn’t needed. It further perpetuates the idea that women’s orgasms are a rarity and difficult to obtain, potentially leading to a ‘why bother’ attitude? Also, as Levin states, it leads to an over-sanctification of the vagina which feeds into the unfair ideal of purity that has been placed on women for centuries. Overall, it has negative connotations and bad vibes, right? Given that the consensus is that death ≠ good, a phrase that means ‘the little death’, does not create a positive perception for whatever it references -however enjoyable it may be.

On the other hand, the phrase often associated with male pleasure differs from la petite mort; ‘post-nut clarity’ is used instead. Since this term is more recent – I first heard it on a podcast – and not as academically and culturally acclaimed as la petite mort, we must turn to the almighty urban dictionary. Post-nut clarity refers to ‘the feeling of lucidity’ a man experiences, you have guessed it, post-nut. It appears to be most associated with shame, basically regretting decisions made in a supremely horny state. Wanking to some real out-there porn; sending a ‘you up’ text that you probably shouldn’t have; it all seems to come back to this idea of an altered state of mind that also characterises la petite mort. However, with ‘post-nut clarity’ it is more about a lack of rationale pre-orgasm, rather than the loss of consciousness during orgasm.  Troublingly, this term seems to be used all in the name of horniness, merely to justify men’s potentially shitty behaviours. This ‘post-nut clarity’ suggests a disconnect from them and their pre-nut persona and actions.

So, whilst women’s orgasms are characterised by a loss of consciousness through la petite mort, the orgasms of men are credited with bringing them rationality and clarity. There seems to be an overarching obsession with spiritualising sex and pleasure (admittedly, la petite mort sounds a bit more mystic than post-nut) that brings more negative energy and associations to orgasms – particularly those of women. But the revolution and reclamation of la petite mort, gets a gold star for sure.

The empowerment of la petite mort is now seeping into mainstream culture. A video game titled ‘la petite mort’ was made to encourage sensuality and to empower women in their sexuality. There is musical feedback to let you know how you are doing and everything gradually builds up to a musical climax. Even I – as a non-gamer – can appreciate how cool this is. From the digital to the everyday, an artist who goes by the name Faith47 titled a series of works she did around the streets of India ‘La Petite Mort’. She painted numerous white lotuses, rooted in muddy waters, to symbolise the strength of women when overcoming the many struggles they face. And then there is this ballet. It visually symbolises the various aspects of sexuality – aggression, sensuality, and vulnerability – in what is a truly beautiful watch. 

All in all, la petite mort offers me yet another complicated relationship. The way it over-sanctifies the female orgasm is a point of frustration, feeding into the ever-present negative ideals surrounding women’s pleasure. But as its history shows, la petite mort has a habit of evolving. A few bad apples, or connotations, should not deter us – indulge la petite mort within yourself in whatever way you see fit.


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