Queer Sex in Film
Anybody who’s seen straight romance movies knows that those types of films have no problem casually dropping a sex scene in the middle of a budding love story. These scenes are often expected and even revered as some of the most romantic in cinema, like the intimate sex scene between Jack and Rose in Titanic. However, the film industry seems to have a problem showing queer sex in the same light. Rather than being casual or romantic, queer sex is either grossly overdone or barely there at all.
Blue Is the Warmest Color, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, is a French drama about two girls who fall in love. This film gained critical acclaim for its intense story, and won the Palme d’Or when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. Despite this, it received a lot of backlash due to the nature of the film’s sex scenes. The problem derives not from the presence of sex in the movie, but from the way those scenes were filmed. Over the years, the scenes have been likened to pornography because of their camera angles and long, explicit nature. The movie features three sex scenes, which together add up to around twenty minutes. Although this is an indie, artsy film that totals up to about three hours, that amount of sex seems ridiculous in the big picture. Much of the backlash around those scenes was kickstarted when Julie Maroh, author of the 2010 graphic novel that the movie is based on, spoke about her feelings on the movie.
Referring to its sex scenes, Maroh said in an interview with the New York Times, “This is all that it brings to my mind: a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex, which turned into porn, and made me feel very ill at ease.”
Many members of the LGBTQ+ community felt the same way that Maroh did. There’s a certain kind of fetishization that comes with these long, graphic shots that make it feel like the actresses’ bodies are on display for the audience. As a queer audience member, the close-ups on their faces when they moaned and orgasmed and the long shots of their naked bodies made me feel uncomfortable. They made me feel gross.
This type of fetishization is apparent in other movies as well. Sexual discovery is a big theme in the 2010 hit Black Swan, which stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as professional ballerinas in a competitive dance company. This theme comes to a peak in the middle of the movie when there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis’ characters that feels seemingly thrown in. Later, the scene is revealed to have been part of a dream from Portman’s character, and it is laughed off by Kunis’ character as “some kind of lezzy wet dream.” This movie treats queer sexuality with such a derogatory manner, and seems to feature this scene only to serve the male gaze. Not only was it featured in many of the movie’s trailers, but it too contains shots that emphasize the actresses’ faces of orgasmic pleasure, exaggerated moans, and states of undress. The scene is vacant of intimacy and queerness, despite the fact that it portrays queer sex, and instead everything about it screams, “Watch these hot girls have sex!”
On the other hand, there are movies like Call Me By Your Name, which is a film that has recently been under fire for its lack of queer sex. While Call Me By Your Name, a movie directed by Luca Guadagnino that came out a few weeks ago, features more direct references to sex between the two male characters than quite a few other queer movies do, the only time explicit sex occurs is when it's between the main character and a girl. This is rather odd, considering that the focus of the movie is the main character’s relationship with the older man he falls in love with that summer. Sexual encounters between the two are also an important theme in the book written by André Aciman, which this film is based on.
The problem that comes with this lack of queer sex is evident in an interview with Guadagnino about his exclusion of the scenes. “I didn’t want the audience to find any difference or discrimination toward these characters.” Guadagnino explains, “It was important to me to create this powerful universality, because the whole idea of the movie is that the other person makes you beautiful—enlightens you, elevates you.”
Just the other day when I was listening to an episode of MTV’s podcast “Happy, Sad, Confused” where they interviewed the actors of this movie, the amount of times I heard the host reiterate how this film is one that everybody can relate to was exhausting. While a movie does need to be somewhat universally relatable to be successful, the exclusion of these scenes seems to suggest that by taking out any explicit queerness from the equation, the art becomes “better translatable to a wider audience.” These directors often cite that to not do so would be a betrayal to the art on their part, but perhaps we should start asking how they are betraying parts of their audience as well. After all, nobody has these reservations about putting straight sex into movies and they seem to be doing just fine.
I don’t mean to suggest that queer sex should be explicit or even exist in every LGBTQ+ movie, or that these movies are inherently terrible because of the way they deal with queer sex. The demand for queer sex in film is the demand to normalize queer sex, which is something that has been seen as sinful for so many years in media, pop culture, and society. Right now, we need to find the middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum. We can look to movies like Carol, which is a love story between two women in 1950’s Manhattan. The sex scene in this film is a soft and intimate affair, and is not shot in a way that oversexualizes the actresses’ bodies or puts them in positions to seem attractive for the audience. It feels natural, like an of course moment in the film’s narrative.
The way I felt watching Carol is the way I would like to feel when watching every queer sex scene. I did not feel like an aspect of my sexuality was being exploited or ignored. I did not feel ashamed or ridiculed. It’s entirely possible to represent queer sex without overdoing it or completely erasing it, and in a time where queerness is becoming more and more visible in media every day, the film industry needs to take steps toward more healthy and positive representation. No person of any identity or sexuality should feel ashamed or uncomfortable to explore sex, and being conscious of the way representation in art plays into the stigmas around queer sex is a step in the right direction.
Illustration by: Nicole Bae and Michael Vladimirov