September 8, 2007

What movies get wrong about sex - and why it matters

Movies get a lot of things wrong about sex. Most notable is that the majority of people that a person has sex with in his or her lifetime are not going to look anything like people in the movies! But things like that I begrudgingly accept, because movie stars have always been unnaturally good-looking. However, there is something I've noticed lately that I think is genuinely troubling and should be addressed - and changed.

In cinematic sex, there is no foreplay.

My boyfriend and I were recently having a discussion (which partially served as the inspiration for this post) in which we tried to think of non-pornographic American movies that featured "second base," or a man touching a female's breasts in a consentual sexual situation. I could think of only one, he could think of one where it may have happened (The Secret Lives of Dentists and The Squid and the Whale, respectively). That, my friends, is really fucked up. Boob contact has always been a very obvious, mainstream component of heterosexual intimacy. I remember when I saw the aforementioned The Secret Lives of Dentists - I was perhaps 16 years old. The film focuses on a married pair of dentists experiencing marital troubles. In one scene, the two of them start to get it on in their living room. They start, as is typical, by kissing, but then he unbuttons her shirt and starts to feel her up. I remember being stunned by this - not because it is strange or perverse in any way, but because I absolutely could not remember another movie in which it had happened. We're not talking about the dirty Sanchez or gay incestuous orgies here - we're talking about sexual touch of one of the more notoriously sexualized parts of the female anatomy. What's the deal?

I know that American media can be very prude - you need only see five minutes of a European film to figure that out. And if it was the 1940s and the only intimacy you ever showed was kissing, that would be fine. But for god's sake - American movies feature SEX! The original sin, the act that some consider to be so sacred or vile that it can only occur between spouses, the act that gay people are ostracized for performing - this act can happen anywhere from crappy action movies to surreal arthouse cinema.

I'm not just concerned with the lack of boob-grabbing, but the lack of foreplay in general. Europe, again, is better with this issue - the Pedro Almodovar film Matador, for example, features what has to be at least a two-minute shot of a man's roaming tongue. But I'm not even asking that it be shown - just acknowledged. Because like it or not, people learn about sex from the movies. And in the same way that movies get criticized for teaching society bad lessons about violence, I think they should be criticized for teaching society bad lessons about sex - but not in the way that some conservative people think.

Here is the average sex scene in an American movie: the foreplay consists solely of two people wanting to get with each other for a while. When they do, they make out for a bit, then rip off each other's clothes and shag real hard. And the woman always orgasms within, like, seconds. If you didn't grow up with liberal sex therapist parents, this might be your primary source of sex information.

But it's so, so wrong.

Here's something that even some married men don't know, let alone confused teenagers watching movies: the average woman usually requires at least 20 minutes of foreplay if she is to orgasm. Even if it's sex with Brad Pitt, it is a biological fact that it will take more than some passionate movie star kisses for a women to become naturally lubricated enough for penetration. According to sex therapist Dr. Ava Cadell, for every 30 minutes of sex, only a quarter to a third of it should be spent on actual intercourse. Ian Kerner, Ph.D. and author of "She Comes First: The Thinking Man's Guide to Pleasuring a Woman" recommends at least 10 straight minutes of oral sex on a gal before you even think about penetration.

Hm...I can't remember the last time I saw anything remotely like that on a movie screen. Why is this detrimental? Because seeing inaccurate sex like that can make men, women, and couples frustrated and ashamed. Women may think, if Actress X can be over the moon with pleasure after a few thrusts from Actor Y...then why can't I? Men may form the impression that women don't really need foreplay to achieve pleasure from sex. Unlike movie-star looks, where there is well-documented knowledge of the disconnect between fantasy and reality, silver screen sex has yet to be widely exposed as fiction. People know that things like impossibly perfect mood lighting and music won't occur in real life, but there's no public outcry about how misleading the actual sex is.

Also, women in movies orgasm at the drop of a hat (or pants) - or at least reach a state of howling ecstasy within seconds. This, too, is a gross exaggeration. According to Women's Health magazine, only 25% of women surveyed achieved orgasm every time they had sex, compared to 90% of men asked the same question. So when the average girl without much sexual experience of her own sees these multiorgasmic super-creatures on screen, she may feel inadequate. This, too, is something where the fallacy has not been widely addressed. Mothers may tell their daughters "don't compare yourself to celebrities, honey, because they're're beautiful how you are," but I doubt that most will tell their daughters "don't worry, honey, achieving orgasm is a complicated process that requires an attentive partner and lots of foreplay."
So what is to be done? I am not asking for literal 20-minute sequences of foreplay. Rather, it would be a big relief to see at least some acknowledgement of the facts stated above. Perhaps show the beginning of a man's migration south of the border, leaving the audience to assume what happens next. Have a woman start out with soft whimpers, show a leap in time on a clock, and then show her wailing. Use fades to show the passage of time. Show a variety of positions. Show the women's face with the implication that the man is pleasuring her. Show sex not working. Or if all of this is too revolutionary, just show them afterward and avoid showing the sex at all. Whether they know it or not, filmmakers should feel a sense of responsibility to their viewers. You might argue, then, that it's irresponsible to show crazy violence. It's not. Most of us with have sex in our lifetimes; very few will get caught up in a violent mafia ring.

As a final, somewhat related issue, people having sex in movies rarely use any sort of protection. Oh, perhaps the girl is on the pill, or it's assumed that a condom was applied at some point, but this isn't good enough. Yes, I know it wouldn't be very sexy or cinematic to show someone laboriously putting on a condom, but there's no artistic harm done with a quick shot of a frenzied hand grabbing for one. Again, consciously or not, movies are in a position of power to educate and influence. Take the recent crackdown on smoking in films - not only has it sharply declined over the years, but now Disney has announced that smoking will be a factor that contributes to the rating of a film. The idea is that showing this irresponsible behavior without showing the consequences can glamourize the behavior and falsely educate impressionable audiences. Why shouldn't the same idea be applied to safe sex? I'll tell you why it won't happen - because some think that promoting safe sex to young people means promoting sex, period. But if people in movies are going at it anyway, then why shouldn't you show them being responsible?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that.

I think that is a sufficient comment

Anonymous said...

Very true. I would like to point to an American movie that surprised me about showing some south of the border action: A History of Violence. Yeah, there's the regular sex, but there's a part where you show the couple going into a 69 position--quite startling for the American viewer!

Mike Proper said...

yea, hence cronenberg being Canadia

Anonymous said...

Tom Hanks' Big showed a boob grab that I think was meant as sexual.