So I thought it might be interesting to discuss how sex is both presented and responded to in pop culture, and whether it says anything about us. What does Hollywood and literature get right about sex, and what does it get horribly wrong?
From Mikki Kendall at NBC News:
Media tropes about the first time young women have sex tend to feature the idea that they are consenting to the approach of a serious boyfriend, that they are being victimized by someone older. (That tracks with some of the available data: In surveys from 2006-10, 73 percent of adolescent women report that their first intercourse was with someone with whom they were romantically involved, and only 41 percent — a record high — reported that their first sexual experience was “wanted.”) Another common media trope is that women are somehow set up to be punished for choosing to have sex. In horror movies, the girl that’s shown having sex is probably going to end up dead. And even in ostensibly feminist shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the lead’s first sexual experience is largely a reaction to trauma, and it turns her love back to evil. In “Game of Thrones” and other media in the epic fantasy genre, first-time sex is more likely be depicted as a sexual assault, or the young women will have no agency in choosing her partner (as in a forced marriage). That isn’t totally fantasy, though: Some 18 percent of young women report being sexually assaulted before 18 by another juvenile.
If a sex scene is present in a story, it's either there to arouse and be masturbation material, it's an important moment for the characters, or in some cases both aspects can be true at the same time. For a porno, the sex works because that's what porn is about. It's there to present a sex fantasy with the sex being the main show. It doesn't matter that the scenario or even the sex itself may be unrealistic. It’s there to get someone off. For something which needs to tell a story beyond sex, the sex scenes are usually a double-edged sword. It will definitely draw eyes and titillate, but the problem is whatever momentum a story has just stops for a two-to-five-minute scene of actors pretending to screw each other.
George R. R. Martin has argued Game of Thrones (and the books which it is based on) is set in an inherently misogynistic society and time, and it would be disingenuous to the themes of the story to sugarcoat either the sex or violence. But if it's done badly, the sex adds nothing to the story, feels like a distraction, and becomes as gratuitous as any gory death scene. And it becomes problematic when a culture defines and visualizes what sex is supposed to be from a male gaze, and a lot of sex scenes are usually shown through what a man desires. The scenes are centered on a woman's (or women's) actions, but are more concerned with a male's enjoyment (even when the scene is supposed to be between two lesbians), and whether or not the action ultimately serves that enjoyment.
So with all that being said, what are things most common to the depictions of sex and sexual violence within media?
- Rape is used to give gravitas and goals to female characters: All too often, rape is not examined as an issue in story, but used for character development and backstory. In that way, it becomes a story point to provide context about a woman's anger, goals, and motivation. It's used by writers as a way to create sympathy for female antagonists and other despicable characters. It's used by writers as a way to "break" a good character and (in some eyes) make the character more interesting. And it's something that's prevalent in a lot of fiction. On the one hand, it brings attention to a serious issue and can be portrayed in a realistic way that provides depth to a story. It can become a complex aspect of a character's identity that shades the way they look at the world. On the other hand, it can also be a really lazy trope and extremely hacky and maudlin in its presentation. Instead of being fully realized people dealing with trauma, a hamfisted approach can turn the characters into objects to be pitied and left to be little more than a plot device driving the action. Multiple sexual assaults in Game of Thrones have been the source of considerable controversy. Downton Abbey depicted a beloved character being viciously attacked, and it's used to examine the contours to the relationship she has with her husband. In ABC's Scandal, the rape of a major character was used as a way to shift the perception of a character from that of a selfish wife using her husband's name and position to being a woman that has sacrificed everything for his advancement. With Netflix's House of Cards, the sexual assault in a female character's backstory informed how she became so ruthless. Rape has been a significant part of shows such as American Horror Story, The Americans, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, True Blood, Beverly Hills 90210, Private Practice, etc., etc., etc., and has even been used in romance stories, going all the way back to the "Luke and Laura" love story in General Hospital.
- Women that like sex are scary and weird: The CW series Reign cut a scene from its pilot of a woman masturbating. However, in the very same episode, there was a mildly graphic sex scene and a beheading. When it was announced that The CW was cutting the scene, there was a little debate over whether it says something about how differently we look at sex with a partner versus sex with your hand or a dildo. Or was it because a woman was masturbating? Usually when masturbation is depicted on TV or in film, it's as a joke. It's a young male that's hiding it from his mother, girlfriend, or wife, and hijinks then ensue. But in the past, there have been more than a few instances where female pleasure is judged differently than male satisfaction. For instance, the movie Boys Don't Cry almost received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA because a scene depicting a female orgasm went on too long. Also, ever notice the trait usually shared by femme fatale killers in thrillers and mysteries? They're sexually aggressive and like to have sex. And who survives in thrillers and horror movies with a male killer? The pretty girl who doesn't have sex. Freud would have a field day with the dichotomy of a desire for a "virgin whore." Men always like having sex, and if they don't there's something "wrong": This gets into sort of ingrained gender roles, but men are usually depicted as the "aggressive" party in any relationship or sexual act (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey). While there is truth in television to this kind of notion, with many women attracted to cocksure, confident men, the trick comes in with not making the female characters submissive and fragile compared to the men. And where things can go completely off the rails is with how TV and movies depict men who don't like sex. If a guy refuses sex from a pretty girl in a story, you can bet that he's going to be a gay character nine times out of 10. It is almost always used in a "coming out" story. If in the off chance it's not a coming out story, it will probably signal the guy has a fetish or is disturbed in some way. Male full frontal penis is an automatic NC-17, and rare even on cable: In 2012's The Sessions, the professional sex surrogate played by Helen Hunt is seen completely nude during the movie. However, John Hawkes' character is not. The reason for it is the MPAA has a tendency to give NC-17s to films where an actor's penis is visible in a sexual context. And there's no way in hell the penis can be erect, either. 2003's The Cooler received an NC-17 from the MPAA because William H. Macy and actress Maria Bello's genitals were visible for less than second during a sex scene. The disparity is also present on pay-television, where complete female nudity is more common than seeing a man totally nude. Singles have dirty, wild, sweaty sex, while couples in relationships are boring: If the characters are a couple in "true love," their sex will be sweet, slow, probably in the missionary position and the very essence of romantic. If it's two singles having a night of fun, they will rip each other's clothes off and can't wait to get to a bed and fuck. Or they will have sex in the closest available place, like a public bathroom, and do it while bent in all sorts of contortionist ways. Because God knows nothing sets the mood for sex like the aromas and smells you find in bar or club's toilet. Finally, Hollywood almost always depicts married couples as have boring sex. Because if a film or TV show is showing married people sex, they're usually setting up a reason for why one of the partners is tempted to stray and get single person "fuck me silly" sex. Gays and lesbians almost always fall into straight gender roles: If two gay men or two lesbians enter a relationship, they will be differentiated by stereotypical masculine and feminine traits. And this is usually done even though among straight couples the dichotomy doesn't always exist. Although it's slowly changing, you are more likely to see two women kiss or have sex in a movie or TV show than two men. Back in the early aughts with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon had to fight with Warner Bros. to get a kiss between Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson). And even after the network relented, there were stipulations on how it could be shot and depicted. Interestingly, the further back from the present you go, the more often than not you'll see gay men usually depicted as hypersexual and more camp flamboyant in film. Gay characters of the past have no ability to discern among other men whatsoever, and decadently want to have as much sex as possible. On the flip side, the further back in time one goes, the more "butch" lesbians become, as well as asexual. The most troubling aspect of that asexuality is the implication in more than a few films that all a lesbian needs is sex from the right man in order to "fix" things. Characters with a fetish are defined by that fetish: If a character is into kink, then his or her life revolves around that kink to an obsessive extent. More likely than not, the BDSM is a sign that either the character has secrets, is unhappy or a lunatic. Beautiful people have sex, or at least beautiful women do: Since most actors are attractive people to begin with, that sort of makes this fait accompli to begin with. However, you are much more likely to see a beautiful woman with an awkward plain/old looking man than an awkward plain/old looking female with a beautiful man. No prep or lube required: Both men and women have no problem performing oral sex on complete strangers they just met, and have no idea how clean or where the genitals may have been. And in a ‘don't try this at home’ move, at the very most spitting on a penis is all the lube people need to have anal sex in films. Also, most sex scenes show couples in incredibly uncomfortable positions akin to a game of Twister. Because if you're going to show sex, the sex can't be dull. If condoms are shown it's for comedic effect (i.e. the guy can't find a condom or get it on) or to set up the condom's failure. And all couples climax at the same time, unless the point of the sex is to show one character's selfishness. Otherwise, one character gets their enjoyment, while the other is left wanting (or faking it) in order to set up their eventual move to someone else.