THE QUESTION AND THE PROBLEM

“When was the last time you saw two characters on screen who you believed really wanted to fuck each other?” my friend Damon asked as we stood outside a movie theater.

The question is a bit trickier than you might think. It’s not asking when did two characters have sex and seem to enjoy it. It’s not asking about actor chemistry. It’s asking what was the last movie to make it clear that the two main characters just really, really wanted to get down with each other. You could point to a handful of sensual examples like Officer and a Gentlemen, or a bevy of foreign films like Blue Is The Warmest Color and The Handmaiden. (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, for the record, is less about on screen action and more about what happened behind the scenes.) The handful of answers tell us much less than the litany of movies that don’t fit the bill.

You really have to go back to the golden age of Hollywood rom-coms to find a lot of notable examples of lust. Films like My Man Godfrey and To Be Or Not To Be. Films then relied on innuendo and fostering insane levels of unspoken sexual tension. The current landscape of American cinema represents plain-faced forms of sexuality, from ogling hot people to filthy language to even some raunchy sex… but you don’t really see mutual lust.

I think this observation is critical because it zeroes in on a big truth: America has a seemingly insane toleration of horrific violence, but we are terrified of sex. We often note this hypocrisy but rarely think about why. That’s largely because it just taps into a simple set of fears of American parents: They can never imagine their kids will do something horrifically violent (even if they very much should) but the reality that their kids will start boning at one point terrifies them. Which is why “having mutual attraction and then acting on it,” is the scariest idea in the world to many Americans. The fear is realistic and ever-present.

But, of course, it’s so much more that than that. This fear is largely about the fact that adults very often have their own sets of fears with sex, along with anxiety about how much they love boning, too. Americans are terrified their kids will reach the same place of anxious ambivalence. We can blame others all we want but this really about own hang-ups, misconceptions and history of repression. In failing to address all this with our cinema in an effort to help create a real public conversation, we doom ourselves. So I look at our sexual landscape and I am left to ask myself: How the hell did we get here? What really happened? Why did we change? How can we be better? And I ask these questions because they are critical to our future.

Because it’s safe to say America has a fucking problem.


My Man Godfrey; Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

My Man Godfrey; Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

HISTORY OF THE SEX WORLD, PART I

All history is personal for someone, so I may as well start with me.

I grew up Boston Irish Catholic. It doesn’t matter that I was ancestral Scottish, because this way of growing up is really more about environment and attitude than genealogy. There’s an endless emphasis on hard-nosed toughness. Having a chip your shoulder. Being taught to say, “What, you think you’re better than me?” to anyone who dares to have some kind of personal gumption or tries to transcend this environment. It’s keeping your emotions bottled up. It’s being able to take anything life throws at you. It’s tribalism. It’s hating anyone not like you. It’s toxic masculinity to a T.

It’s suffocating.

Equally damaging were the attitudes about sexuality. They revolved around the Catholic Church. Emphasis on abstinence meant no real discussion of sexuality at all, just following the rules. Unlike more west coast Christian environments, it wasn’t about purity rings and teaching you about God’s love. My church was all fire and brimstone. Sex? Hell! Abortion? Hell! Masturbation? Hell! “I don’t believe in God,” the popular phrase went, “but I fear him.” The church never gave you reasons to believe, only reasons to fear. In my memory, Sundays were a bunch of miserable people going to church, hating it, but simply thinking they had to. Boston Irish Catholicism was putting the fear of God into your every human urge. If you ever did anything to step out of line, then only the church can forgive your sins; a closed loop of forgiveness and admonishment, keeping you in check..

The result was a deadly and stark polarity to the idea of sexuality: there was only the sacred and the profane. The sacred of sex was marriage, having kids, the righteousness of living a religious life. The profane is literally anything but that. All the human instincts and natural urge that fall short of some sacred goal are inherently bad. When you grow up believing that masturbation is a sin, the only thing you can be sure of is that you are going to end up hating yourself. You are going to think that your most human and natural self is wrong.

As it turns out, movies were a small lifeline.

Unlike my environment, my parents were forward-thinking teacher types. They let me see rated R movies and learn about sexuality through the greater world (like a lot of parents, they never talked about sexuality themselves). This was still critical for me. Lots of men my age wistfully recount the story of the “first movie boobs” they saw in a movie. Mine were actually The Godfather, when I was five years old. Because my parents didn’t make a big deal of it, nor ever tried to hide it, it never felt like a giggle-worthy moment for me, nor something I got away with. It was a situation in which I was expected to engage with it normally. So I did. And so it just felt normal.

Movies and pornography become our models of aspiration. These are terrible models, symptomatic of a tightly-wound culture that isn’t being honest with itself.

Still, it still made me a bit of outlier. Not just because I didn’t understand a deep-seated bisexuality within myself but also because my mom filled our house with the classic foreign films she loved. So it made for a strange childhood where my crushes were on Charlotte Rampling, Monica Vitti and, more confusingly, Alain Delon. In my social set, I was an anomaly. One day I remember I was hanging around with a bunch of idiot boys (we all were) and sneaking over to watch the boob reveal scene from Just One of the Guys. When the reveal moment came I watched all these boys burst out laughing hysterically and fall over on each other. They were the “tee-hee!” reaction fully-embodied. I felt like an alien, but at the time I didn’t really understand why, and I was too scared to talk about it.

Even then, there were immense problems with this way of growing up this way. Sure, I was getting an outlet of exposure, but it was one with a strange, magic sensualism that I didn’t really understand either. Sexuality was part of this impression of goddesses, existing in some movie world that was so much further than my own. Truly, these movies were my only model outside the fear and repression of Boston Irish Catholicism. And so, I still remember thinking the thing we all think about sexuality in movies: this is what it’s going to be like. I had a stunningly incomplete picture.

I say all this because personal histories always add up to a larger, collective history. My story isn’t that different from the majority of America’s story. We all deal with different forms of repression and we all get weird packets of sexual information from the culture around us. This mixed messaging makes you feel wrong no matter what you do. That goes doubly for young women, who have to deal with the Madonna-whore complex the dynamic generates.

We all just want to be whole people. All we have to guide us are incomplete views into what we thought would be the adult world. Movies and pornography become our models of aspiration. These are terrible models, symptomatic of a tightly-wound culture that isn’t being honest with itself. I think of the recent Onion headline “Family Watching Movie White Knuckles It Through Unexpected Sex Scene.” Their observation identifies the heart of our collective sexual terror: The crushing, awkward silence of the conversation itself. No one’s talking about what’s really going on.

In order to talk about it, we first have to understand it.


Blue is the Warmest Color; Alcatraz/Canal+/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Blue is the Warmest Color; Alcatraz/Canal+/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

THE SPECTRUM

Another big question: What is the difference between pornography and art?

I often think of the joke from The Year of Living Dangerously. Sigourney Weaver’s Jill Bryant answers that very question by saying, “whether or not it’s in focus.” But the more famous answer is from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s assenting opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”

In other words, “I’m not sure, but I know it when I see it.”

Pornography accesses something visceral inside us. Something more intrinsic than arousal, something with a specific purpose for us. Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask three questions: Why do we consume pornography? Why do we consume art? And why do we watch movies?

By way of an answer, I offer my theory about the pornography-art spectrum.

On the spectrum of media consumption, imagine there is "Purposeful Art” on one end and “Pornography” on the other. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either. Both can have critical function in our lives. But the role of pornography in media consumption tends to be one of strictly functional or utilitarian purpose. Meaning it’s largely about having some kind of release, whether it’s sexual, emotional, or otherwise. Pornography can be about escape and fantasy. It can be about feeling some form of ecstasy, even when it’s just mental masturbation or imagining eating prettier meals. Mental masturbation is really just about displacing you from yourself and putting you into an experience in which you get all the things you want. The goal of pornography is to oblige your wants.

The larger problem right now is that most of the American population want to consume all their media in an indulgent, pornographic fashion. We only want movies to do exactly what we want them to do.

Now, there’s a lot of debate over whether or not any of this is inherently something bad and I won’t expressly try to answer that one at the moment. (Let’s just say it can certainly tap into some bad things). We can at least agree that most people most certainly want and even need these kinds of releases. Bottling desire just feeds repression. Like most things in our lives, the end goal is really just about learning how to balance our indulgent wants with our more substantive needs.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Purposeful Art. Yes, art can be anything we want to call art but I’m talking about the kind of art that is central to everything in our lives. If you return to myth and fables, you realize that purposeful art is the reason we tell stories in the first place. We’re trying to teach people about life through common experience. Stories serve guides or warnings for lives. They’re how we inform each other about the world around us and how best to navigate it. Purposeful art isn’t really about what we want, but instead what we need to learn and get better with on our deepest levels. Purposeful art challenges us instead of obliging us. It wrecks our previous notions by informing us about the truths of life’s greater narrative. Sure, purposeful art needs to find its way into our hearts and minds through an emotional and moving experience but it has the ability to emotionally transform us. There’s a reason we looked to movies to tell us how sex worked.

Stories are our models for life itself.

Popular movies should ideally fall somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum. There’s a valuable sense of escapism and disappearing into the movie, but there should be some kind of point beyond that. I tend to like films that can handle both admirably, like the modern messaging of Mad Max: Fury Road. The larger problem right now is that most of the American population want to consume all their media in an indulgent, pornographic fashion. We only want movies to do exactly what we want them to do. We vicariously place ourselves into the situations at play and we want only gratification from them, none of those pesky, didactic lessons! Forget about the effect of this on drama or story, it’s all about what we feel we’re owed. This is how we get the indulgent movies and fan service that are so common of our era.

I see cinematic landscape full of unstoppable badass heroes. It’s see hyper-attractive lady-placeholders without agency of their own, meant to ogled or worshipped. I see movies that don’t really give a damn what they’re saying. And it’s why we heavily reward every desirable behavior and renegade attitude. Our propensity for such colossal indulgence gives us shows like Entourage, perhaps the most lifestyle-pornographic show ever made (all story conflicts solved via sudden, magical intervention). Maybe this is because living vicariously is easy and really living is hard. We just sit in the dark and let these films make our brains feel better. But this is very definition of a temporary fix. A moment of relief, before we return to the world where the confusion of our lives will go on.

Believe it or not, I’m not here to finger wave and admonish what we as people do. There’s plenty room for indulgence in our lives. I, too, like James Bond. I like sex comedies, I like pornography, I like a lot of things that come from a place of want. Consuming media in a pornographic way can be a fairly innocuous endeavor. The problem comes with a lack of awareness about what you’re consuming and why. Meaning the real problem is when we treat pornography the same way we treat art. Indulgence becomes our model for living. When we replace art with pornographic storytelling, it really becomes a part of the way we interpret our world and how we not only think it works, but want it to. Many people look to pornography, sexual and otherwise, to define their relationships, whether they realize it or not. This, combined with the deep repression and silence around us, has everything to do with the hypocrisy at the heart of our culture. It has everything to do with our belief in the sacred and profane and the ways we try to beg the cosmic question. It has everything to do with our fucking problem.

And it has everything to do with how we handle sex in movies.


Breakfast at Tiffany

Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

HISTORY OF THE SEX WORLD, PART II

To understand the arc of sex in cinema, you first have to first understand exactly why repression is a deeply powerful force. A lot of people don’t know how to reconcile the two contradictory forces. One part of their body is saying: “You want this!” and the other part of this is saying “You are wrong for doing this!” You have to remove yourself from what is happening and solely disappear into the urge part (or dissociate and go somewhere else altogether). For so many, the only way to transcend repression and participate in sex is to effectively remove yourself from what is actually happening. To either escape into it, or away from it. Which means you are making the very real thing that is happening not be real. Because if it’s real then you will feel the shame that repression has taught you to feel and crash back to earth. After it’s all over with, you’ll feel the shame and regret before the sexual urge creeps up again. Such is the oscillating nature of repression and attraction.

Sex on screen was secret, safe, and catered to repression quite nicely.

And this actually has everything to do with our history at the movies.

Repression and attraction has fueled our cinematic choices for well over a hundred years. Make no mistake, since the dawn of the movie camera, people have filmed sex with it. Not just out of curiosity but because it was as natural extension of the burlesque / peep show as you can imagine. But it also fed right into “helping” the repression part of ourselves by helping make the sex less real. With the removal of the real life performer, the sexual urge just gets placed upon an image on the screen. It’s life-like, yet consequence free. Many people adored this idea. But what started with paying pennies for a quick peep, quickly shifted when movie theaters went from sideshow attractions to a valid industry.

Enter the Hayes Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, put into effect in 1930. The code set a number of ethical standards that forbid movies from showing certain illicit behaviors. All this really meant for pornography is that it suddenly took on a more back room character and gave birth to the “stag film.” These were just short pornographic films often shown in gentleman’s clubs or other private places where men could get away from the prying eyes. Again, this catered to the more “moral” sorts of gentlemen who wanted to avoid the ill repute and shame of going to a brothel. Sex on screen was secret, safe, and catered to repression quite nicely.

But with the Hayes Code, Hollywood had to answer question of “How Do We Make Films for Adults?” quite differently, of course. Pre-code movies weren’t filled with rampant nudity, but if you watch a film like Pabst’s 1929 masterpiece Pandora’s Box you would be shocked at the explicit and nuanced take on sexuality itself. That film says more complex things about sexuality than perhaps the sum total of movies released this year. With the code in place, suddenly romantic movies had to rely so much more on innuendo. Not just with characters with making goo goo eyes and knowing glances, it was all in the constant slyness of pulling one over on the censors and advocate for the very thing that is being censored. I always first think about To Be or Not to Be and the famous “Lubitsch touch” where he’s able to some even sneak crassness in through coded language and pitch-perfect performances. Take this scene of our star Maria discussing a recent suitor with her dresser backstage…

Dresser: “What’s he want you to do? Adapt him?” (read: Fuck him)
Maria, coyly: “Oh no no no, He’s dying to see me, even if it’s just for a minute- (read: Fuck) Of course I won’t, definitely won’t- And yet I don’t like to be rude to him. I think it’s a mistake to ignore people who admire you and who, after all, buy the tick-”
Dresser: “Darling don’t waste any more time and excuses, if you want to see him, see him while he’s still young.” (read: Go get that hot ass, girl)
Maria, practically in heat: “Yes, I think I owe it to my public…” She then writes a coded letter about meeting in her dressing room and reads it back to her dresser, “… How’s it sound?”
Dresser: “Safe.”

It’s such a perfect distillation of the approach of the era. How do we make it sound safe? How do we code the language so it seems perfectly innocent? How do we acknowledge it’s totally okay for two consulting adults to bone if they want to? There’s so many great films that approach it like this. 1936’s My Man Godfrey plays like the screwball comedy version of the forbidden love of Remains of the Day, and boy oh boy does Irene Bullock want to nail her butler. I also love the knives-out sexual politics and aching reversals of The Lady Eve. And I love the way Palm Beach Story uses absurd satire to throw shade at the entire institution of marriage. But with that toe curl during the unzipping scene, it’s also just so honest to the nature of lust. But like so many romantic comedies of the era, the audience felt safe because they knew the film would just show kissing and then probably end in a marriage (read: still more fucking), so you could probably play with fire along the way. As long as everyone followed the “rules,” you could examine all the human behavior you wanted. And when you take this subversive emphasis and combine it with the fact that hit-making depended on making good movies (movies had to play long in theaters vs. the marketing-dependent first week blitz that’s common now), then it’s no accident that the Hayes Code era produced the best romantic comedies of all time.

Still, in a world where all the lust and romance is in theaters and the sex and arousal in back rooms, you’re going to have a problem because you’re just creating repression. We only publicly talk about the existence of stag films now (despite all the hush hush gossip at the time). Critics largely ignored or elided the sexual politics of Hollywood comedies of that era. Unlike the loose ‘20s, the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s were characterized as a time were a time of decency. So that repression built and fed right back into the secret stag film environment (or at least just for those who dared).

All that repression bubbles up under the surface and explodes in weird ways. I’m reminded of the core lessons of Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty and how the spinning wheel will one day prick the girls blood and spell certain doom (note: this metaphor was 100% about young daughters getting their period and growing up). Spinning wheels are to blame! You can try to ban them, you can burn them all, but the time will come. So our raging sexual ids lay quietly underneath all the “decency.” The walls only came crashing down when society’s moral standards began to relax.

Europe was already miles ahead of us, but during the ‘60s, American films began to get more brazen with the allusions to sex. Like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Lolita, and then Jayne Mansfield’s first Hollywood nudity in Promises Promises! And then there was somber, story-centric nudity of Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. Heck, even nudist “documentaries” and underground skin films began making the rounds as stag films transitioned into full-on pornography theaters. It was all bubbling up. But it wasn’t until the arrival of 1967/68’s I Am Curious Yellow and I Am Curious Blue that gave America it’s first “legitimate” release of films with full frontal nudity and performance of sexual acts (however small). The outrage that came along with it created a controversy that helped actually bring down the Hayes Code itself. David Fear writes:

“What put this story of a radical student having an affair with a married man in boiling hot water was the sequence in which Nyman plants a kiss on her costar’s penis in full view; that was enough to brew up a shitstorm that would end up breaking down censorship barriers and ultimately help usher in an age of cinematic permissiveness. No one talked about the interview footage of Martin Luther King Jr., or footage of actual Vietnam War protesting, or the cheeky subversiveness of the movie’s antiauthoritarian humor. They focused on the genital smooch. The curiosity and the controversy helped garner it a broader audience. And the rest is history.”

That reality captures our sexual fears and weird fixation to a T. Curious was just the vanguard; 1967 saw the release of Buñuel’s S+M repression classic Belle De Jour, the taboo breaking of The Graduate, and the clear sexual intensity of Bonnie & Clyde. (Now there were two characters who wanted to fuck). But even then, for the majority of Americans, it really wasn’t all that much about embracing sensualism. I remember an old screenwriting professor recounted a story of being in line for I Am Curious Yellow and he noticed full grown adults in front of him were all a titter. When he asked them why, they giggled and responded, “We hear there’s naked people in the movie!” Decades of oppression and these films being deemed “art” meant a whole generation could now freely indulge their sexual curiosity like a couple of toddlers. Still, most were just after titillation.

Sexuality, nudity and arousal have become valueless in so many ways to people. Meanwhile the bigger goals of sex: intimacy, fulfillment, and sexual happiness remain as elusive as ever.

So while these foreign films came in and shift our sense of what was allowed, American films began allowing more nudity but rarely seemed all that interested in the story of sexuality and lust (there were of course exceptions). Somehow, the repressive divide that had been built up for decades still remained. Sure, you’d see a boob or a butt in Easy Rider, but the central thrust of the film was almost always about something else. If it wasn’t, it was usually exploitative and shifting the film in a pornographic direction. Our repression still clings to us. I don’t want to undersell the impact of these films on the sense of free love and the counter-culture revolution, but if there’s anything the 70’s can highlight is that there was that there was still a deep division that remained for most of society. Even by 1972, the mainstream success of Deepthroat really just meant we can only accept sex into mainstream as a pornographic lark. Lust was restricted to pornography and outsider art.

The truth is that high-volume nudity and lust wouldn’t really work its way into popular entertainment until the 80’s sex comedy. Porky’s. Meatballs. Private School. The films were largely bacchanalian indulgence festivals, where the prime motivation was not some deeper understanding of sexuality, but, you guessed it: titillation. They mostly centered around a group of juvenile boys sneaking around try to lose their virginity or get glimpse of a naked girl, even filming them if they could. We brushed this off at the time as hijinks, when it was clearly, you know, sexual assault. Those movies heavily reflected not just horrible mores of what masculinity allowed, but the incredibly juvenile culture of the time.

I remember those days pretty damn clearly. Just these entire groups of boys scouring around, just trying to find ONE Playboy or something with naked people in it. We understood that nudity existed out there and was technically available for people, but not to us. It was just this big scary thing out there and we wanted to understand it. There are plenty of things to admonish about this attitude, it was in effect still a result of the decades of repression. I look back with a strange sense of nostalgia and innocence for that time. Because there was—I won’t dare call it respect for women and their own agency (Good god, not even close)–but there was value to nudity itself. Being naked mattered. And then.

Enter the internet.

If the dropping of the Hayes Code was the walls coming down, the internet was the dam bursting and knocking over every structure in town. Suddenly, seeing nudity went from the hardest thing a young boy could find to the easiest thing in the world. Even now, there isn’t a kid on earth who can’t figure out a way around parental blocks. Hooray! Shouldn’t this kind of access to nudity be the cure for repression? Would this finally be the great equalizer?

Turns out the answer is a resounding no. Sexuality, nudity and arousal have become valueless in so many ways to people. Meanwhile the bigger goals of sex: intimacy, fulfillment, and sexual happiness remain as elusive as ever. Because this is all just another symptom of the decades of repression. We have total access to sex, but it turns out that that access was never the real issue. Instead, it’s still that most of the outside world is still afraid to talk about lust, sexuality, and relationships. They’re so afraid of it that they’re willing to bury their heads in the sand even as sex swells around them. The effect of this is nothing short of catastrophic. So no, the problem is not with the internet, nor sexy foreign films, nor stag films, nor pornography itself.

It’s with us.


Porky

Porky’s; 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

FOUR BAD REACTIONS

So we now find ourselves in this modern age of rampant sexuality. One in which scantily clad bodies fill our commercials, mixed messages to women run rampant, and most of the world’s pornography is a touch away on your phone. Yet things seem as dire as ever for a lot of people. I’ve dialed in on four distinct and rather troubling ways we seem to react to our current sexual environment.

The first popular reaction is ignoring it.

For many Americans, it’s amazing how many have not really changed their attitudes at all and expect their media to do the same (think loyal CBS watchers). Within this landscape, innuendo is as alive as ever, but there’s a crucial difference from what came before. Because in the Hayes Code era, the use of innuendo in movies made sense because it was trying to sneak subversion and truth through to a culture that genuinely did not allow for it. So often, it was trying to make humane comments about social behavior. But in the age of modern broad sitcoms, innuendo is mostly used to feed titillation while carrying on the illusion of decency. Sure, a witty joke with sex euphemisms makes sense for the audience of 13 year olds watching Friends back in the 90’s. I’m worried much more about the adults who actually choose the culture of innuendo and repression.

As much as innuendo can be tool around censorship, it can also be something that doesn’t make us face the truth, and lets us skirt it.

That point may seem a little confusing, but there’s a great Norm Macdonald anecdote that explains it so well. One day Norm was recounting a story on an old Bill Simmons podcast about how he was with his mom watching television. She was watching some sitcom episode of Will and Grace or something like that (he doesn’t remember) and one of the characters suddenly makes an obvious innuendo joke like “I’m gonna put my baguette between her biscuits!” And then Norm’s mom, who is normally the most prudish type of personality imaginable, burst out laughing. Norm took one look at her and was like “Mom? You laughed at that? He said he wanted to fuck him in the ass!” Of course, Norm’s mom then got very upset and chided Norm for saying such crass things. Norm replied, “But mom, we’re saying the same exact thing!” From her perspective, they weren’t at all. So Norm then went on a rant about how much he doesn’t like innuendo because it’s effectively used to lie about what’s really happening. Which makes it a form of dishonest comedy. As much as innuendo can be tool around censorship, it can also be something that doesn’t make us face the truth, and lets us skirt it. Innuendo becomes just another way to never have the conversation about our most real behaviors. For Norm, bluntness has long been a way of running right into the truth.

The larger lesson here is that there are some very real, very crass, very human things happening in society that need to be looked at and taken into account. Innuendo doesn’t get us closer to honesty. What’s funny is the way this repression spreads out into other genre forms. It’s the same reason those CSI shows are so popular (which, not by accident, also typify CBS programming). People who are normally thrown off by sex watch detectives pour over a dead woman’s corpse as they freely talk about “traces of semen in her vagina.” Yikes! But hey, as long as they’re wearing suits and talking clinically, it’s all okay! This form of titillation is safe! Meanwhile, two normal teenagers want to get busy and acting on it? How sordid! At the center of this cavernous gulf between the two reactions is always our inability to reconcile the deeper conversation about sexuality.

The second popular reaction to sex is we make dirty jokes about it.

Humor has long been a coping mechanism for emotions. I go back to the room full of boys laughing when they saw a pair of boobs in Just One Of The Guys. Their reaction was a purely visceral one. We can’t deal with the displacement in any normalizing way, so we must push ourselves away with laughter. While most adults don’t have the same toddler-like-fall-over-and-laugh approach, our core mechanism isn’t that much different. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where a dude will make the dirtiest joke in the entire world, but if I got serious and talked about the same sexuality in completely normal terms, they would get super uncomfortable and fall silent. Even our most “adult” treatments of sexual commentary are still on the level of tee-hees and then making a fart noise with our arm. And once again, I turn back to the CBS mindset and how a show like Two and a Half Men caters to the crassness of titillation, all while still backing up ridiculous social norms and mores.

But wait, didn’t I just say that Norm MacDonald’s crassness was good in that it fights the enemy of innuendo? Aren’t there a great many hilarious comics who “work blue?” This is where we come to understand the push-pull at the heart of this debate. It’s not about the crassness or filthy language itself, it’s about the intent behind it. If crassness is being used to mask our inability to deal, then that’s not really engaging the topic. But if it’s being used for some kind of pointed effect, then you’re dead on. Patton Oswalt once had an expression for the point of comedy and it was perfect for this: He called it “unveiling an actuality.” With crassness, it has to be unveiling the actuality.

The consequences and seriousness of sex obviously needs to be part of the conversation but we still need better artistic solutions than doom and gloom.

The third popular reaction is artists “get serious” about it.

Artists often genuinely want to take on sexuality seriously. But because of the pornographic, juvenile nature of the world around them, they’re afraid their art will become something similarly pornographic. So how do they make an artistic statement about sex? They strive to make it clear that their treatment of sex is serious. To do that, they strive to make sex unsexy. Meaning they often fixate on the negative consequences of sex, or sex addiction, and make it dour and scary. They want you to know that sex isn’t pornographic. It has consequences and ugliness! They want to shine a light on all the gross power dynamics and effects of repression! They want to tear the shine right off all the pornography that lies to you!

That usually just adds up to become yet another kind of puritanical shaming. Another way of merely showing us that sex is bad (mmm’kay?). The real net effect is almost no different than the admonishing, “You’ll go to hell!” that I got from priests. I get it. We’re trying to attack the sensibilities of an over-gratified culture, but we’re just trying to do with the same wrong-headed fear-mongering. The consequences and seriousness of sex obviously needs to be part of the conversation but we still need better artistic solutions than doom and gloom. Because it’s getting pretty dire out there. Which brings us to:

The fourth popular reaction, which is the most concerning.

When I think back to the 80’s and all the young boys desperately hunting for a nudie magazine, I see a set of obvious problems. Particularly the way it creates the idea that sex itself is some grand, indescribable, unobtainable thing you will never understand, let alone hold in your hands. So people thought there was just some trick to obtaining it, seeing women and conquest as trophy and not human connection. When I look at young boys today, who constantly have whatever sexual fantasy they want or stumble into just be a click away, I see the most dangerous forms of repression yet.

On the more innocent level, the one-click-away dynamic helps foster a deeper level of social awkwardness and disconnect. Yes, talking to others in real life is hard, but the ease of our online sexual engagement makes young people want to retreat further and further back into the safety of that world: “Why can’t real life be as easy as this!?” So it’s no real accident that you’re seeing more and more articles about how young people are having less and less sex. The modern ease and safety of pornography creates a set of conditions in which it’s harder for people to connect to the real world even while dating apps making it technically easier to connect on the level of basic physical attractiveness.

Pornography has gone from looking at women as obtaining the trophy, to punishing the trophy for making men feel less than.

But the ease of access also fuels something darker. A generation of boys feel like sex is not something they have to work at to seek out, but instead something that is owed to them. Sex becomes something that should be exactly what they want, when they want it. When it’s not, they get angry about it. No wonder so many young men join the ranks of nihilistic “everything is a joke” social groups, men’s rights groups and hate groups. We’ve seen young boys go into crowds and shoot women because they believe they will always be a virgin and this is how not how it should be. This world is not what they were owed.

The sheer amount of online content means access to certain problematic forms of pornography is also just a click away. Violent and degrading niches have always existed within pornography because for many, it’s a simple psychological way to account for the shame of repression during sexual activity. But there’s also been a notable streak of the rise of violence and degradation in in mainstream pornography itself. Pornography has gone from looking at women as obtaining the trophy, to punishing the trophy for making men feel less than. Thus, they seek to humiliate “it” in turn. Look in virtually any comment section of any mainstream pornographic site (and especially the darker corners). Dangerous things happen when we turn pornography into our models for operation.

This has nothing to do with kink-shaming or psycho-sexual power dynamics between consenting adults. A healthy sex life includes fostering conversation around learned sexual proclivities, honoring consent, facilitating trust, getting in touch with those instincts and maybe transcending them. But mainstream sexual representation often opposes transcendence. I look around at the social and sexual landscapes and I just see an incredible hatred of women and just more attempts to foster that. Margaret Atwood’s old quote has never rung more true: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” Under the veil, there is no more curiosity in boy’s sexuality, no kindness, no awe, only demand and petulant fury. We have gone from Curious Blue to Furious Blue. An angry, repressed, ball of fury that comes to hate the other and ourselves most of all.

When you look for the tie that binds all four of these popular reactions, you see that there is one, inescapable truth at the heart of each of them: the problem is that no one’s really having the conversation about what’s really going on. All the wrong things are public. All the wrong things are private, too. We’re not talking about why we like innuendo and filth. We’re not talking about the “serious” treatment of admonishing movies. We’re not talking about the violent streak in pornography. We’re not talking about any of what is happening in our reality.

So it’s time to get real.


Belle De Jour; Paris Film/Five Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Belle De Jour; Paris Film/Five Film/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

ACTUALLY “MAKING” SEX

Now, the following may seem like a digression, but it actually hits at the most critical point of all. When people will see a sex scene in a movie, they react as we do to most stories and suspend disbelief. Maybe they get turned on. Rarely do they think about the actually conditions in which that sex scene comes to life. For starters, thinking about it breaks the illusion. Even then, when people imagine a sex scene they imagine it as if we’re filming some hot, unspoken, lusty thing where two actors go into a room by themselves and things get naughty…

Do you realize how awkward it is to film a sex scene?

A couple of actors have to look at a scene and agree to do it in the first place. Forget megastars, the vast majority are people who need or want the work or break the movie allows. Sometimes the details of the scene are negotiated ahead of time, sometimes not. But it usually leads to awkward and predatory situations where filmmakers end up pushing actors and actresses past where both what they are comfortable with and what was agreed to. You are not within the safety of a relationship or your room. You’re on a film set, with cables, lights and a bunch of middle aged dudes staring from the corner of their eye. In that environment, you are trying to channel a false intimacy with this other actor who you likely barely know. Virtually everything about the situation is uncomfortable and exploitative. Bad filmmakers only seem to exacerbate it. Or worse, you’ve seen awful directors transgress what was agreed to get “real” reactions (make no mistake, this is assault).

But a good filmmaker is at least sensitive to all this unreality. They will earnestly try to make the environment as safe and person free as possible. They will go over every detail, they will ask questions and be attune to how their actors are feeling. They will look at this situation and not see it as some fun lark to push a couple of unreal people into. They will see this situation for what it is… real.

And it is very real. Actors are human beings. These are two real people who are going to do real things with real attempted intimacy and it is going to be captured and put on screen to become a whole different reality for an audience. Human beings, albeit seated and passive ones. If you understand that, then you understand the responsibility of all of it. And in turn, it hopefully makes you realize the most obvious thing of all…

In our society, sex deserves to be treated as something that’s real.


An Officer and a Gentleman; Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

An Officer and a Gentleman; Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

TRANSCENDENCE

Yet we fear the reality of sex at every turn.

It all goes back to that conflict between repression and urge, and the ways we fear our children will act on those same urges we have inside ourselves. Instead of accounting for this complicated reality and helping people into it, we challenge reality itself. We refrain from sexual education and teach abstinence. We try to burn all the spinning wheels in the land. It doesn’t matter that there are spinning wheels coming out of every nook and cranny. We can yell at people who point it out. Even when we acknowledge this hypocrisy exists, we still don’t do anything about it. Doing something about means engaging with hypocrisy and sex in a real way. Doing something means talking about our own understanding of sexuality (or lack thereof). Doing something means daring to be awkward. Thus, we stay locked on our path, stuck in our cycle, and continue this flawed history ever onward. Not only is no one talking about this but no one is talking about the desperately-needed solutions.

We should be openly teaching young men about rape culture and not viewing women as “the other” or trophies but instead human beings just like them.

Because the simplest solution is treat sex as something that is real.

We should be telling young people that lust is normal and even healthy. We should be talking about normalizing urges so it’s not some repressed powerful thing to which we succumb. We should be talking about the real, awkward and strange aspects of sex that don’t make young people feel more afraid, but more safe. We should be openly teaching young men about rape culture and not viewing women as “the other” or trophies but instead human beings just like them. People who deserve all the respect we give ourselves and our own capacity for hopes and dreams. We should be teaching consent and the sense of ownership of ourselves and our bodies. We should be talking about spectrum of art and pornography, understanding what we get from both, and looking at the ways to make them both better. Which brings us to the entire point of this damn essay.

We should be doing all this in our popular stories.

Because it’s one thing to put it in a boring, clinical sex ed classroom. It’s one put it in an essay for progressive website. It’s one thing to say into the void on Twitter. And yes, there are entire, brilliant, empathetic conversations happening across Tumblr and the internet at large about all the better things we should be doing with our sex conversation. Things that have truly helped me open my eyes. Yet we are not reflecting them in our popular media. In a world in which movies and media teach us our strongest models for living, we desperately need to be doing this.

So I want us to tell stories that show how everyone has some kind of flawed relationship to sex. To tell stories that don’t so nakedly cave to our strict fantasies, but something that will reflect my actual experiences. To show that we should all be trying to help make it a little easier. To tell stories about how our sexual urges are okay, natural things. To tell stories about how repression, disassociation, and shame are real, powerful things, too, that are worth transcending. Because if we think sex is going to be just like it is in the movies, it’s time to show sex like it should be. It’s time to fill movies with sex positivity and safe, human fun and vibrancy (films like Shortbus and Magic Mike XXL), that underneath our juvenile understanding there is humanity and emotion (like Y Tu Mama Tambien), that downright-pornographic sex acts of someone who has a different sexuality than you can be cathartic and wonderful and human (the classic landmark film Taxi Zum Klo), and that capture the genuine sense of intimacy and normalcy at the heart of sex (see Late Marriage if you never have). I not only want more of these films, I want to talk about these films way more than we do. I want everyone to be talking about them. And I want them in all different kinds of stories.

Sex in cinema is maybe not just about showing some skin, but incorporating these simple sexual truths into the daily plots of our television shows, whether they’re sitcoms (the pornography episode of the Carmichael Show is fantastic) or even shows about high school and the pains of growing up.

To that, I will return to the original question: “When was the last time you saw two characters on screen who you believed really wanted to fuck each other?”

The lack of answers means It’s finally time to understand that what should be at the root of lust, is not the mere want of sex, but the longing for connection and intimacy with another human being. The vital part of sexuality that’s part of a being a complete, whole person. Not just oscillating repression props. Not just women who we repress by locking them into Madonna-whore complexes, but understanding we are all whole human beings capable of everything. I want movies that reflect this. Because really, I want a society that reflects this. That feeds off connection and understanding the huge variance to our sexualities and even asexualities. Forget fucking, when was the last time you felt like you saw real sexual intimacy on screen? Sex that was safe? Sex that was free? Sex that reflected two people deeply in love? Sex between people who had been for a long time? Sex that can help teach young and impressionable people not to expect some obliging thing, but how to help them connect, bare themselves, break shame cycles, and change? Put simply, when was the last time you saw sex that embodied kindness?

The truth is that I want this so badly for us, but even more than I want it…

We need it.

<3 HULK