On more than just the physical act.
By DAN VALENZUELA
Like the well-educated person I should be, I try not to get caught up in whatever movies show me, especially when it comes to portrayals of sex. They usually sell only the sexy parts of sex, the pleasure, the passion, and sometimes the pain.
American Pie and its spin-offs aren’t complete without bare breasts and spontaneous sex. But of course, the breasts and sex are all uncomplicated. Sex happens, breasts are exposed. Fifty Shades of Gray attempted to cash in on sex through a similar way; it showed watered-down versions of BDSM while leaving out important norms that make BDSM work.
To some extent these reductionist tendencies in movies are leaking into real relationships between men and women. The other day my friend showed me conversations she’s had with guys on dating apps. Niceties and talk, small or large, were minimal. With few exceptions and many variations, her conversations quickly pivoted to a question posed by her match: “Wanna hook up?”
Then there are stories of women feeling guilty for not indulging such a question.
A few friends of mine have said they felt guilty for not sleeping with a guy after making out with him, or just going on a date or dancing. I’ve been with someone who felt guilty after I stopped an enjoyably long make-out-and-grind session. I knew for a fact she wasn’t ready to go any further yet. And I knew that my increasingly frustrated desire to have sex was starting to become more painful than pleasurable. All of this was communicated between us. So why did she still feel guilty, despite the numerous other ways we enjoyed each other?
I don’t mention these movies and anecdotes to say that something is wrong with sex everywhere. Nor do I mention them to suggest that at one point in the past sex was better in movies or in real life. The important thing to see in them is the unsatisfying way in which sex is taken as a virtue for simply being a physical act. In truth, all the good things about sex are inextricably tied up with the whole of sex, even with its baggage.
One of the best examples of this truth is Everybody Wants Some!!, one of the few movies that makes sex wholesome. As a movie about baseball players that bounce from one party to the next in hopes of having fun and getting laid before fall classes start, Everybody Wants Some!! could easily fall into stereotypes about male sleaziness. Refreshingly, the movie delivers something else.
For example, you see the same guy advise his teammates to take advantage of the fact that “girls can be as big of sluts as the guys” also admonish his teammates for publicly making fun of his effort to build rapport with a woman interested in astrology: “She was really fucking cute and you immature jerkoffs just fucked up my whole rap! . . . Now, we’re actually around a few potentially interesting young women, all you talk about is baseball!” For this guy, sex is not just about the fact that everybody wants some. It’s about “talking her language, meeting her on her level.”
All the students involved in Everybody Wants Some!! have their fun once they overcome the obstacle of talking the same language. However, there’s other baggage to sex. Anomalisa shows this best in a scene where the protagonist and his love interest have sex, with all of the accidental hair pulling, the negotiating of who gives oral sex to another, and the sometimes awkward task of undressing. The funny thing is that Anomalisa is a stop-motion movie and its physical actors are puppets.
Many reviewers had the same “This is too intimate to watch” feeling that I had while watching the scene. Puppet sex had achieved the same level of seriousness as sex between two people just by looking at the difficult things that go into the pleasure. Though, if we were to take sex really seriously and as a whole, it would be difficult not to get into its repercussions.
David Foster Wallace’s short story “Good People” takes on sex’s repercussions by providing a glimpse of a moment between a young man and woman who are talking about whether to continue an unplanned pregnancy. The young man is “desperate to be good people” in the face of the difficult situation where the young woman’s Christian faith prevents her from ending the pregnancy and discourages her from having a child out of wedlock.
The young man also questions whether he truly loves her, thinking that if he had said “I love you” during their relationship there would be no question as to what he needs to do. If he had said “I do not love you” then there would be no question she would go to the clinic. He is careful not to commit himself to anything but he “knew something was required of him that was not this terrible frozen care and caution.”
In all, it seems that nothing good will result for his partner unless he decides to commit himself to her. If he doesn’t, she will either face the difficulty of ending a pregnancy or the difficulty of raising a child alone. And this all stems from the near universal and often connected impulses of people wanting to be good and people wanting to have sex.
What all these stories about sex point to is the idea that good, satisfying sex requires something of you that is not just the physical act. Whatever one’s idea of what good sex is, it requires the serious task of taking care of another person, whether it be through talking the same language, getting over the awkwardness of intimacy, or unconditional love. Without that care, what’s left is a merely physical sex fraught with guilt and empty questions like “Wanna hook up?”
Dan Valenzuela ([email protected]ge.harvard.edu) is a biweekly columnist for the Indy.