In her highly influential 1989 book Hard Core, film and pornography scholar Linda Williams explored the idea that a woman’s orgasm is invisible: that for men, in porn at least, you can rarely deny that they’re cumming. There’s jizz everywhere. For many adult films, that’s the whole point: the “money shot.” But for onlookers, evidence of a woman’s orgasm isn’t in the genitals. It’s in the sounds she makes, or the movement of the rest of her body, or especially, her eyes and face. It’s a lot harder for a penis-haver to fake a mind-blowing orgasm than it is for a woman. In ahegao, the idea is that the experience is beyond fakery: she’s cumming so hard that she’s lost all control of her face.
“In Japanese adult video as in manga, there is an art to expressions of pleasure on the face, and ahegao works as the displaced climax, or the loss of self and mind in moment of overwhelming pleasure,” Patrick Galbraith, professor at Senshu University in Tokyo, told me. Ahegao is an example of Williams’ expressions of female orgasm, he said.
Thomas Baudinette, lecturer in Japanese Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, told me that ahegao may have its earliest origins in late 1990s or early 2000s Eromanga, pornographic magazines for heterosexual male audiences. From there, it’s spread in Western culture—but its roots are in erotic artists’ workarounds for strict censorship laws.