Quick show of hands: how many of us are actually comfortable talking about sex? I don’t mean in a roundabout way, or in a joking way, or even in a clinical way. I mean an honest, open discussion about the kind of sex that happens every day, maybe even the kind of sex we are having on a regular basis (if we’re lucky). I’m not imagining a lot of hands are up right now, even among the health teachers out there, and there’s a good reason for that. Well, not good, as such, but a well-documented one at any rate.
There’s a puritan taboo in the American culture and psyche regarding sex. We can discuss violence, death, psychological trauma, divorce, even Pauly Shore movies with minimal discomfort (well, maybe not Bio-Dome, that thing scarred me), but we simply can’t have a frank discussion about sex. I can laugh about it with my friends, dance around it with my mom ever since THE TALK, and never, ever admit it happens when my in-laws are around. If I turn to the one source of knowledge that informed my youth, television, I discover that sex consists of two people wearing pajamas kissing goodnight and sharing a bed, with a soundtrack of “oooOOOOOOooohhh!!!” If I rely on its younger sibling, the internet… you know what, I can’t even repeat what the internet showed me. I just need to go wash my eyes out. With industrial strength cleanser.
Obviously I can’t step outside of my own cultural baggage and experiences to say whether or not this is “unhealthy” or “bad” or “disturbing as all hell”, especially in comparison to other countries, where they seem to serve soft-core porn with the soft-serve ice cream. All I can say with certainty at this point is there has to be some better way, some sort of middle ground that neither glorifies sex nor demonizes it. There’s so much that sex can be, any discussion or portrayal of it is by definition going to be incomplete. However, I can take a look at some of the portrayals of sex in American popular culture (no, I will not now nor in the foreseeable future consider the internet to be “popular culture”) and see what common pitfalls there are and if I think anyone is getting it close to right.
First, I think most of the shows on HBO and Showtime today are getting it wrong. The sex is gratuitous, which I couldn’t care less about, but more importantly it is irrelevant. Every time I see sex show up in one of these shows it seems to exist purely for titillation, rarely if ever to drive the plot forward. That’s not to say the characters’ sex lives don’t drive the plot forward, but the portrayal itself adds nothing. In particular I am thinking of True Blood, Game of Thrones, and House of Lies. At least when they do violence or politics (medieval or office) on those shows they get it right.
On the other end of the spectrum is broadcast television, which in spite of the FCC has gotten to the point of acknowledging that people do, if fact, have sex. Not on camera, of course, but at least it does occasionally get discussed. Even here though it is oblique, rarely referenced except in the most banal and inoffensive ways for fear of some octogenarian degenerate somewhere filing a complaint just to get their jollies off by telling everyone else what to do. I would cite examples, but really, just watch primetime TV.
So what are some good examples? Not that I was ever a fan, but the few times I was forced to watch it, it seemed like Sex and the City got the balance right. The sex scenes, while sometimes graphic, always had a purpose and lent weight and credence to the situations and characters. In the same vein, I’m not loving Girls on HBO, but the few episodes I have watched have some very uncomfortable sex scenes that make very important character and story points I just can’t see being portrayed as clearly and compactly without just putting it out there, for lack of a better phrase. One show that I do like a lot that I think gets the balance right is Lost Girl on SyFy. Considering the protagonist is a succubus, there’s pretty much a guarantee of a lot of sex, but it is for the most part done tastefully and within context of the needs of the story. They don’t linger just for the sake of a few cheap thrills, but they don’t shy away either.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m some kind of prude who’s afraid or ashamed of sex. Not to go into too much detail, but I was once a twenty-something male with a credit card and access to the internet. There’s nothing wrong with cinema whose greatest contribution is the archetype of the Pizza Delivery Boy or the Pool Cleaner. But if that’s all you’re aiming for, then by all means don’t waste my time with dialogue and story. On the other hand, if you are attempting something a little more highbrow, don’t insult me by assuming I either can’t handle seeing naked skin or you have to have gymnastic bedroom exploits every five minutes. Focus on the story, and if sex is a natural part of that story, let it happen naturally. Maybe then we can start to treat it as something natural.