Sex is everywhere in popular film and television, but it bears remarkably little resemblance to most sex that happens in the real world. Why do we sanitize sex in pop culture? And is it a problem?
In soft blue light, white curtains flutter. Berlin coos triumphantly in the background. In the window of a tight close-up, Tom Cruise licks Kelly McGillis’s teeth.
For a generation of children in the 1980s, that scene from Top Gun defined how sex was supposed to work.
In 1998, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote in a review of the film Out of Sight (1998) that “an alien watching modern movies would think that human intercourse consisted of nothing more than two faces approaching and docking in horizontal silhouette.” And, truthfully, depictions of sex in blockbuster films have very little to do with actual intercourse.
Two people (always two!) come together, driven by a passion that is palpable through the screen. There’s music! There’s ambiance! What are they doing with their legs? Do they even have legs? Who knows? As soon as it’s over, everybody is covered in a sheet, as though the sheer force of movie orgasm was enough to miraculously pull a swath of fabric from the void to cover everyone’s naughty bits. There’s no cleanup routine, no wadded tissues or stained towels. We rarely see the pillow talk.
The country that produces most of these sex scenes is also a country that is inadequately preparing its children for the realities of sexual relationships. As of 2006, 80% of schools in the United States provided state subsidized abstinence-only sexual education programs, which gave no information on cute little subjects like negotiating sexual relationships and obtaining consent. While that number has certainly changed in the last 9 years, many state governments are still primarily subsidizing abstinence only education. Due to tight budgets, these courses are still the most financially reasonable options for many school districts.
This puts the remaining burden of sexual education on parents, peers, and, yes, popular culture. A 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation study revealed that of the 11 hours teenagers spend engaging with media on a daily basis, 4.6 hours are spent watching television, while most of the remainder of that time is spent on the internet. This means, regardless of the crunchy layer of cynicism they’ve likely developed due to excessive exposure to popular culture, teenage ideas about sex and romance are undoubtedly being influenced by the media those teenagers are consuming. This isn’t a new thing, either – it’s a safe wager that to some extent, people have been learning about sex and relationships from the cinema for as long as movies have been readily available. The United States are full of deluded schmucks like myself who still believe, on some level, that sex should look something like a cross between a romantic comedy and a hardcore porn clip.
Sex is always a lot of things. One of the things it’s never been is choreographed (for me anyhow, I don’t know what you do in your spare time). Even (especially) at its best, there are still limbs, and bodily fluids, and noises of various kinds. There’s a need to actually speak, to communicate what you like or dislike in real time. Perhaps for some people, sex (especially first-time sex with a partner) is an earth-shattering union, where all expectations are inferred and all the pieces fit together. Maybe if you’re a ballet dancer? I don’t know, despite my best efforts I still come pretty close to elbowing my boyfriend in the face sometimes.
Is it a problem that depictions of sex in film are as limited as depictions of other relationships? It would be a lot to earnestly place the onus of sex education on popular culture – those expectations for the entertainment industry are unrealistic. Even so, I remember that when I lost my virginity, the thing that surprised me the most wasn’t the sensation of intercourse, or the feeling of being so close to another person – it was the silence of the room around us. Some part of me expected music.
Cookie Cutter Sex
American sex scenes in popular film, even in popular television, are for the most part white and heterosexual. This, unfortunately, reflects the lack of diversity present in the rest of Hollywood – it’s a reflection of the bigotry present in American culture in general. Consent is often assumed, or implied, but is rarely discussed in explicit terms.
Of course, there are exceptions to this, as there are exceptions to every rule; Love & Basketball (2000) and Do The Right Thing (1989) both contain influential sex scenes that focus on POC (though the production of Do The Right Thing was less than commendable). Bound (1996), Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013), and Brokeback Mountain (2005) are blockbusters featuring positive, sexy, homosexual relationships. Titanic (1997) and The Notebook (2004) both feature discussions of consent (in the form of the “Are you sure you want to do this?” dialogue trope). I hardly mean to imply that there aren’t other films that show diverse or complicated depictions of sexuality – it’s done occasionally, and it’s done well.
What sex scenes almost universally leave out, however, is the implication of coital and post-coital mess. Upon completion (assuming the viewer is shown completion), the two lovers promptly roll apart and lie still in each other’s arms, veiled by a blanket or some swath of cloth. There may be pillow talk, but there is rarely any hunting for tissues, or giggling over spillage, or disposal of condoms.
There are practical reasons for this. Coordinating a sex scene is difficult enough – actors are frequently wearing prosthetics or garments to cover their genitals, and shooting to avoid showing any artificial beige is tricky. Additionally, from an actor’s perspective, being paid to grind your scantily clad genitals against a stranger’s thigh in front of a camera crew for hours is already pretty uncomfortable. Introducing prop fluids, or extra components, would be too much, though likely not an insurmountable barrier.
Another obstacle facing truthful depictions of organic sex is the MPAA. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) has a proven track record of prejudice against explicit depictions of sexual pleasure, frequently slapping films that feature overt sexuality with NC-17 ratings or higher. And as an NC-17 effectively spells death for a film’s box office income, a sex scene with all the realistic bells and whistles just isn’t worth it.
The argument might also be made that popular film isn’t porn, and ought to be artistically distinct. The fundamental difference between pornography and popular film is the prioritization of sex and story. Sex in films exists in many cases to further plot, or serve a narrative function – the sex in a Hollywood film is (arguably) not the main event, as it is in pornographic media. Thus, there’s no reason to include the mechanics of sex in film, no point in featuring any of the bits or the smells or the gross stuff, unless it’s a device. To do so would be flirting with the border between the two mediums (as, for example, a film like Shortbus (2006) does).
Just Like Real Life
With all that said, organic depictions of sex need hardly be a barrier to effective storytelling. An Officer and A Gentleman (released in 1982 with an R rating) features a groundbreaking sex scene between Debra Winger and Richard Gere that acknowledges the penetrative post-coital predicament.
At the 0:59 second mark, the two characters have ostensibly finished, and Paula (Debra Winger) asks Zach (Richard Gere) if she should get a towel, acknowledging that there is in fact clean up that needs to take place (a rare occurrence!). The two then banter back and forth about how neither wants to move, while shuddering and gasping in turn, until at last, Paula whispers “Bye Zachary”, and rolls to the side, to our knowledge pulling out. The two then fall immediately into plot-advancing pillow talk. None of the post-coital props or mess is shown on camera, but the implication is sufficient to acknowledge the organic realities of sexual intercourse. The scene is charming, and familiar to those who have penetrative sex. The relationship between the characters feels more real because of this exchange.
Assuming that the difference between film and pornography lies in the relationship between story and sex, this scene is certainly not pornographic. It avoided difficulties with the MPAA. From a practical standpoint, no more skin is shown than in a usual movie sex scene. To make sex scenes more realistic, or add an element of healthy sexual behavior, all that’s needed is a little bit of dialogue.
So why don’t we do it more often?
Narratively speaking, tropes are self-perpetuating. Once we become accustomed to seeing something portrayed a certain way enough times, there’s a higher potential for any deviation from that trope to be unnerving or unsettling. While a distinct decision might be engaging or groundbreaking, there’s also a much greater chance for the choice to fail. Sex in film, with all the missionary and the close-ups, may be bizarre compared to sex in real life, but we’re used to seeing it – choosing to follow the predetermined trend is, if nothing else, safe.
Other films that choose to acknowledge sexual realities – Y Tu Mamá Tambiên (2001), Tiny Furniture (2010), and The Squid and The Whale (2005) being a few examples – do so in a way that highlights the discomfort of the sexual experience. In the case of Y Tu Mamá También, an awkward scene between Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Luisa (Maribel Verdú) contains premature ejaculation. In Tiny Furniture, Aura (Lena Dunham) and Keith (David Call) uncomfortably ask each other about STDs before a 20-second hump behind a drainpipe. It’s as though by introducing the organic, and deviating from traditional romantic comedy sex tropes, the filmmakers are better able to create a sense of unease and discomfort.
When we remember our best sex, we frequently don’t remember the awkward or smelly parts after the fact (or at least, those parts take a back seat to the overall experience). Cognitively speaking, we forget thousands of things every day, and we’re biologically designed to remember the moments in our lives that elicit the strongest emotions. Additionally, we remember moments in ways that form narratives, rather than factually accurate accounts of events. Our brains craftily omit details and blur facts into vignettes of feeling and motion. If our memories are incomplete, why should we tell complete stories?
There’s always the concern that by becoming too culturally entwined with tropes, we lose touch with what sex and relationships are actually like. Something that is important to remember, though, is that sex isn’t “actually like” anything. Sex is embarrassing, and blissful, and thrilling, and fun, and boring, and infuriating, all at once or in their turns, depending on myriad factors. Part of learning to have sex, and learning to love sex, is learning that sex is never the same – boundaries must be constantly renegotiated, things that worked one day won’t work the next. Maybe some days it really does feel like the floating curtains Top Gun sex scene. The trouble part begins if we start to expect ourselves or our partners to fill tropes that were never meant to exist outside of a two-dimensional fictional space.