I grew up seeing so many dicks in film and television that I knew how men masturbated before I even knew it was something I could do. When I finally did figure it out, it was the books of Judy Blume (specifically Deenie) that pointed me in the right direction—books that, despite their success and resonance to girls and women past and present, still haven’t been adapted to film. (The one exception is 2012’s Tiger Eyes, directed by Judy’s son Lawrence Blume.) Literature is one of the few mediums that put the bodies and the autonomous desires of women at the forefront, a fact that’s even more stark when compared to film, which has always prioritized an obsession with straight male sexuality and wish fulfillment that barely acknowledges women as people. From the comedic Scary Movie series to art-house fare such as Boogie Nights, Happiness, and the aptly named Spanking the Monkey, the sheer number of men I’ve seen onscreen get off—as well as obsess over their dicks, lament their sexual dry spells, and compete with other men in elaborate contests to get action—has become a blur.
But I can recall with perfect clarity every time I’ve watched a woman get eaten out onscreen—like the scene that opens 2009’s Away We Go, in which Burt (John Krasinski) remarks, mid-cunnilingus, to Verona (Maya Rudolph), “You taste different,” sparking the revelation that she’s pregnant. The act itself occurs under the covers, a thing I never questioned until I started getting head myself and realized how unrealistic it is for anyone, regardless of gender, to take “going down” that literally. As with 2010’s comedy-drama The Kids Are All Right, which also has an under-the-covers eating-out scene, Away We Go uses its awkward opening for comic effect—but both are reminders of just how often women’s sexual pleasure is obscured.
American cinema’s puritanical film standards—dating back to the Hays Code and including the current Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA)—shoulder much of this blame, with far more intense ratings scrutiny of films that depict women giving or receiving oral sex and experiencing orgasms in both queer and heterosexual scenes. Foreign film, and European cinema in particular, has tended to allow more freedom. There’s no comprehensive timeline of onscreen female orgasms, though we do know that the first one to appear on film was in the 1933 Czech-Austrian film Ecstasy; its star, Hedy Keisler, changed her name to Hedy Lamarr to avoid scandal when she launched her Hollywood career.
Explicitness in foreign films made them a draw for Americans who flocked to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Vilgot Sjöman’s controversial I Am Curious (Yellow) and waited for Hollywood to catch up. But America’s first instances of explicit sex scenes are harder to parse, though the late 1960s and ’70s brought a passel of sexually frank films like Blue Movie, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, Don’t Look Now, and Female Trouble, as well as the 1972 crossover porn hit Deep Throat. It seems likely that Deep Throat’s mainstream popularity is what compelled the MPAA to start cracking down on filmic nooky and to eventually create the much-contested NC-17 rating, in response to 1990’s Henry & June.
In the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kimberly Peirce notes that her 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry was originally rated NC-17—which is considered the kiss of death for movies seeking a broad audience—in part because a main character, Lana (Chloë Sevigny), had an orgasm that was “too long.” Peirce speculates that the problem lay in Lana’s undeniable pleasure—“There’s something about that that’s scaring them, that’s unnerving them.” And she’s spot-on: Singling out one of the few moments of pure joy in a depressing inspired-by-real-life drama like Boys Don’t Cry and deeming it inappropriate seems ludicrous. That the person getting Lana off is trans (Brandon Teena, played by cis actress Hilary Swank) adds another dimension to the rating decision: If the board was uncomfortable with a woman getting off onscreen, the fact that a trans man was the one getting her off made it even more so. Peirce cited three strikes that prevented the film from getting an R rating, though it’s unclear if this was a formal metric. The second was for a scene in which Brandon has visible cum on his mouth. And the third? It was for the graphic rape scene. Two scenes of pleasure were presumably considered just as “obscene” as a rape.
As a historically puritanical entity that uses both its secrecy and its power to reinforce the status quo in cinema, the MPAA’s ratings board has been instrumental in shaping a heteronormative, patriarchal culture whose big-screen narratives display a fear of women, and an even bigger fear of women who have autonomy over their own bodies. Images of female pleasure are threatening because of the link between sex and power and the gender binary that defines men as sexual conquerors and women as their prizes. Narratives about sex that don’t include men at all, of course, are especially threatening: Not only do they not prioritize male pleasure, but they remind men that female sexual pleasure can—and does—exist just fine without them.
It’s certainly no accident that American pop culture so often paints both queer and straight women with active sex lives as unhinged, vengeful, murderous, and crazy. Hollywood’s best-known erotic thrillers—Basic Instinct, Body Heat, Fatal Attraction, Body of Evidence—present female sexual desire as synonymous with violence. But its comedies often do too: The 2001 Futurama episode “Amazon Women in the Mood” features a trip to the matriarchal society Amazonia, where Fry angers the Amazon women and is sentenced to “death by snu-snu.” Like many men in Hollywood, Futurama’s primarily male writing staff couldn’t envision a world where male sexuality isn’t centered, even if it involved being fucked to death. Seemingly harmless images (“just entertainment”) add to a fear of female sexual power as unnatural, predatory, and dangerous that stretches back to Puritan witch hunts. This fear has kept us so culturally stunted that a major Hollywood production that centers a romantic relationship between two women is still an event, each new big release feeling like the first time.
Watching the 2015 film Carol with my girlfriends, for instance, was a communal occasion. After seeing it, we couldn’t stop talking about its sexiness, its sumptuousness, the way it managed to be polished and carnal all at once. The queer sexuality portrayed in Carol was mature in a way many of us had simply never seen onscreen. The cult of Carol that sprang up with its release exposed our collective thirst for passionate, sexual lesbian romance that wasn’t constructed for straight male eyes. And the thirst, anticipation, and fever cycle repeats itself with every queer-lady movie release. I was on the edge of my seat watching Park Chan-wook’s erotic psychological thriller The Handmaiden (based on Sarah Waters’s historical crime novel Fingersmith) in 2016. Stephen Cone delivered his luminous romantic drama Princess Cyd in 2017. And now in 2018, we have the queer religious romantic drama Disobedience from Sebastián Lelio. Each film’s viscerally sensual sex scenes simulate intimacy that goes beyond titillation.
Images of female pleasure are threatening because of the link between sex and power and the gender binary that defines men as sexual conquerors and women as their prizes.
The groundbreaking 1985 romantic drama Desert Hearts, and the lesbian films of the 1990s and 2000s that followed, paved the way for this somewhat annual turnaround of lesbian cinema. Video essayist Kyle Kallgren’s piece “The Watermelon Woman: Who Are We Forgetting?” considers how lesbian sex on film has changed since the release of Cheryl Dunye’s underrated 1996 metaromantic comedy-drama The Watermelon Woman. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Kallgren on the piece.) The film’s sex scene so disturbed former U.S. Representative Peter Hoekstra that he went after the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), from which Dunye had received a grant, demanding hearings on the funding body’s support of “repugnant” art (and eventually inspiring Alec Baldwin to give a rousing speech in defense of the film and the NEA). The furor over a tastefully shot 20-second scene with almost no nudity seems even more overblown when compared to the sex in a film that came out the same year—the now-classic Bound.
In a lot of ways, 1996’s Bound, written and directed by transgender siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski, set the standard for lesbian sex scenes and lesbian films, period. More than 20 years later, its impact hasn’t diminished: I saw Bound for the first time in 2014 and had my baby queer-millennial heart rocked. I’d never seen anything like it, and apart from The Handmaiden, I haven’t seen any recent films even come close. Among other things, Bound contained the first sex scene I ever saw that made abundantly clear that one woman’s hand was in another’s vagina. There’s zero ambiguity to what Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon) are doing in their first love scene, set in a dark room on a half-bare mattress. You can feel their pure hunger and desire for each other in every movement and breath. When they’re done, it’s an enormous release. Corky declares she “can see again.”
There’s something so cathartic—aspirational, even—about those words, about seeing two women in total ecstasy. That’s how sex should make us feel: relaxed, revived, in tune with our bodies. More than two decades later, the line echoes in one of the love scenes in Disobedience, whose star-crossed lovers Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams) arrive at a hotel for a tryst and, still standing, immediately shove their hands in each other’s pants, their eyes locked on one another. The crossing of their arms as they both stroke inside each other’s nearly identical black panties creates a mirror effect; they’re in perfect harmony with each other. They too can see again.
But such revelatory scenes still seem like exceptions in film, where sex between women is so often presented with the aim of male titillation. The sex scenes in the buzzy 2013 French lesbian drama Blue Is the Warmest Colour, for instance, drew criticism for what came across as gratuitous, inauthentic appeals to the male gaze. (The film’s lead actors, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, both spoke out about the director’s grueling, bullying process.) Perhaps the most radical thing films depicting sex between women can do is actually show the audience how it works, but male directors would have to take their cues from queer women.
An equally radical shift would address the reality that though Black women are often oversexualized in popular culture, we are rarely seen experiencing pleasure in tv and film. Twenty-two years after The Watermelon Woman, I’m hard-pressed to think of another film that depicts a Black woman enjoying queer sex—or sex at all, for that matter. Even centering the existence of Black female sexuality is notable: The male-stripper queenpin Rome in Magic Mike XXL and the raunchy heroines of 2017’s comedy hit Girls Trip offer very tame, highly heterosexual characterizations. The sex on HBO’s series Insecure is more explicit, but still incredibly straight. And though Spike Lee’s reboot of his own 1986 debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It, as a Netflix series gives Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) a queer sex partner in Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera), I can’t shake the feeling that this is a Black man’s idea of a sexually liberated millennial woman. Their brief sex scene gives us one wide shot of Nola’s and Opal’s bodies before Lee’s camera settles on tasteful close-ups with peeks of nipple. If there’s any oral sex, we don’t get to see it.
So what’s it going to take to get Black queer women a nuanced, unabashed narrative such as Bound or Disobedience? Abolishing the patriarchy, of course, but that’s too simple. There’s a reason that the MPAA’s rating system, even in 2018, still favors conservative interests. The white, male, heterosexual overlords of Hollywood feel attacked by the shift in American culture, by the increase in queer films made by queer people, by the campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite that spotlight the racial disparities of the industry. Being confronted with images of female pleasure that has nothing to do with them requires grappling with the idea that women have sexual options, that sexual prowess isn’t just about their own pleasure.
I want to see women’s sexuality that’s not framed as reactive to or dependent on men. I want less sex as revenge, more sex because it feels good, and more sex that makes the difference clear onscreen. I want films that show what it actually takes for a woman to get off. I want to see women enjoy sex without the immediate threat of danger or punishment. I want to see them pursue pleasure without being framed as sluts, villains, or jokes. Women’s pleasure isn’t dangerous, but the cultural attitudes that aim to suppress or censor it definitely is.
No pressure, Judy Blume, but I heard a rumor about some adaptations, and I’ve got a few ideas.
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