Sex Scenes Don’t Need a Redemption Arc

The first time I watched Mulholland Drive, I cried. When Naomi Watts breathed, “Have you ever done this before?” into Laura Harring’s ear, my whole body shuddered. The words hung in the theater and I wanted to be the one to answer them—to tell her to reach out, stroke my cheek, and show me what it’s like to be loved by a woman. I promise I won’t tell. 

A few weeks ago, I saw someone use Twitter in a way that captured the very essence of Twitter. They tweeted that every day, Twitter has one main character. The goal of any of the app’s users is to make sure at all costs that the main character is not them. 

A main character last week used their 140 characters of fame to rail against the presence of sex in film. “My issue,” they said, “is that we the viewer have not consented to participate. We’re the third person in the room when these acts are being committed in front of us, and the lack of consent is icky at best.”

Setting aside the fact that the person expressing this opinion was fifteen years old, operating under a notion of consent ignoring the option to turn off the television or walk out of the theater, their comment inspired vehement disagreement. People from all corners of the internet came out to defend the on-screen fuck. 

Sex scenes don’t need a redemption arc. They need to be held, gently, in the viewer’s eye. Those moments too physical and visceral to be expressed in words deserve the same consideration we give to those other aspects of our experience which we value.

Of course, not all sex scenes are created equal. The exploitation of sexual violence in Fifty Shades of Gray cannot be evaluated within the same parameters as Moonlight’s beach scene. Still though, this answer feels incomplete—a flippant it depends reduces this to a relativistic cop-out. No, I am aching for something more radical here.

If the aforementioned Twitter user was right about one thing, it’s that we are the third (or fourth or fifth or sixth…) person in the room. There certainly is a voyeurism to watching these scenes, yet I’m reluctant to characterize it as icky. I think there is something beautiful in bearing witness to an intimacy that transcends the inadequacies of dialogue. I think there is something impossibly powerful about the viewer’s existence in the liminal space between outsider and insider: rapt in what we are seeing, but always given an escape not afforded to the characters we are watching. We can always just turn off the movie. 

Perhaps we need more on-screen sex, as well as more diverse on-screen sex: affirmative, kinky liaisons between people of different genders and body shapes and experiences. Yet there is danger in getting too carried away with the more. Representation can become exploitative when art is reduced to a commodity—when films have to make money in order to exist. The potential joy of a film that uses queerness and sexual diversity as selling points can be soured by its exploitative intentions.

Where does this leave us? Where does this leave me, breath caught in my throat during Mulholland Drive? Can we find a space, however small, for revelry in the throes of our complications?

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