We appear to have entered the Age of the Facial. The practice of a man ejaculating on a partner’s face has been critiqued, explained, and extolled, and sometimes outright denounced, as when anti-porn activist Gail Dines called facial scenes “vile images” that show that men hate women. At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that most sexual encounters now end with, in the words of XOJane editor and facial fan Emily McCombs, “a big face-full of splooge.” But sex educators and researchers say that while facials may be enjoying a modest rise in popularity, they aren’t new — and they definitely aren’t cause for panic.
One expert who has seen a rise in the discussion of facials is Debra Herbenick, Indiana University sex researcher and author of Sex Made Easy, who says that while quantitative research on facials has yet to be done, the college students she’s talked to are much more familiar with the practice than older women are. Even for them, though, it’s not necessarily an everyday thing: while some college students make facials a part of their regular sex lives, most have “have encountered it once or twice,” possibly during a hookup. College students also seem to think facials are more common than they actually are, a phenomenon Herbenick also sees with anal sex — in both cases, she thinks porn makes the behaviors look more prevalent.
When McCombs wrote about her appreciation of facials on XOJane, most comments were positive. But one commenter was critical of what she saw as the unquestioned dominion of the facial: “I hate that this has become the standard. […] porn/etc have portrayed these to where this type of thing is the norm. I feel that anything less than this sexually makes me ‘boring.’”
Facials may feel like “the standard,” in part because so many people are talking about them, but that doesn’t mean they are. Megan Andelloux, sex educator and spokeswoman of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, says she’s not sure if facials are really becoming more common, or if it’s just media hype that makes it seem like they are. Specifically, she cites vocal anti-porn advocates (like Dines) who decry facials as a degrading outgrowth of pornography.
But facials probably predate porn. Sex educator Ruth Neustifter points out that most sex acts you can think of have probably been tried: “humans have always been a sexually creative bunch,” she says, and “young adults certainly didn’t invent the facial.” She does think “all kinds of sexual exploration are being increasingly discussed and explored by young adults, including facials” — and porn is a factor in that, but not the only factor. Some couples may in fact be choosing facials for safety reasons: couples are becoming more creative in their quest for safer sex, and some may use facials as a way to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.
Andelloux also notes that ejaculating on a partner’s face rather than inside his or her body can make STD transmission less likely — though Neustifter points out that if a facial happens when a man pulls out after unprotected intercourse, some risk of disease and pregnancy still exists.
One possible downside of facials, of course, is the risk of semen in the eye. One woman in her late twenties who asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed Shift she’d experienced this: “I don’t think anything of it at first, and then I get this sudden abrupt pressure. It’s like a headache in your eye. I look in the mirror and my eye is blood red.” Eventually she found saline solution, which relieved the pain, but “for about 15 minutes I felt like I wanted to die and my eye was going to fall out.” Andelloux, however, says such injuries are uncommon, calling semen in the eye “almost an urban myth.” “It does happen,” she says, “and it hurts like hell. But is it a high risk? No.”
Neustifter added that she actually gets more questions about anal sex than about facials. And sexologist Sayaka Adachi, who teaches about sexuality at colleges and conventions and also coaches people to improve their sex lives, says her clients don’t bring facials up very frequently — in her six years of practice, she hasn’t noticed any increase. She does note, however, that people who ask about them tend to be younger, in their twenties or thirties.
The woman who spoke to Shift says facials aren’t something she does all the time: “I don’t think I would let any random just come on my face.” And when someone does, it’s definitely because she asked him to, or because they mutually agreed on it. Ejaculating on her face without asking first is definitely verboten: “That’s some rude shit,” she says.
Even if they’re not something everyone’s doing every day, the way we talk about facials matters — Andelloux says that anyone who admits to enjoying facials is likely to get criticism both from conservatives and from some feminists, who believe facials are inherently demeaning to women. But those who condemn the practice across the board, she says, are being paternalistic, essentially telling women they don’t understand the true meaning of their sexual desires.
Instead, she says, we should be helping people learn to think about and communicate what they really want, asking, “is this something that you desire, or are you just accepting it because someone else wants it? And if you do engage in it, was it hot for you, or did you feel [weird] about it afterwards?” She also wishes more people would acknowledge that gay men also engage in facials, and that women who ejaculate can do so on a partner’s face too.
Even if facials aren’t as common as they might seem, it may be good that we’re talking about them. Herbenick says that making discussions of sex more mainstream could help fix what she sees as a major problem: women of all ages still have trouble really communicating their sexual desires. She says, “it’s okay to do stuff that you’re not super into just because your partner wants to, but I’m not seeing people talk about what they want.” And maybe as facials become an increasingly popular conversation topic, more women will be able to tell their partners they don’t want them — or that they do.