When I see “Last Tango in Paris” inevitably land on some “best sex scenes” list, I’m always baffled. I mean, in what way is the word “best” being used? In that movie’s famous scene, Jeanne is raped. She screams “no” banging her hand against the ground. She cries. She doesn’t want this at all, but that doesn’t matter much to Paul, who, we tend to forget, “meets” Jeanne by physically coercing her into sex.
Though the film is 46 years old, the fact that it still ends up somewhere on these rankings suggests that our view of what’s erotic is still skewed. Which isn’t surprising, given that movies rarely gear sex scenes towards female pleasure, so there’s not a lot of foreplay, flirty chatter, or even a sense that those using (or filming) the woman’s body are particularly concerned with what her body likes. “Last Tango in Paris” emblemizes that, and somehow, people still find it hot.
“There’s an under-representation of good sexual behavior (in film),” sex coach and educator Kenneth Play tells me, adding that it would behoove us to make an effort to film sex scenes that “emphasize consent and safe sex practices.”
So I asked myself, and other people, what kind of consensual sex we’d like to see more of onscreen, if only to find a way to dethrone some of those disturbing scenes from the usual ranks.
Consent is Sexy, FFS
One way Kenneth Play incorporates consent into sex acts is to keep asking the partner, “may I?” at different stages. It’s simple to say, it doubles as sex-talk, and it doesn’t sound like a legal deposition. Not only would seeing something along those lines onscreen demonstrate what good sexual communication can look like, it would also show us how much enjoyment a person gets from the kind of pleasure they actually want to receive. Play would also like to see more scenes where women initiate sex, and ask their male partners for consent. It’s really about creating more “mutually satisfying sexual encounters,” he says, and incidentally, those are super hot!
In a real-life, healthy sexual encounter, a lot of communication takes place, and it’s part of what makes it gratifying because it helps you know how to move forward. Fellow RogerEbert.com contributor and filmmaker Scout Tafoya agrees.
“You have to be watching two people trying to actually understand the bodies of their counterparts, because in reality sex should always be about understanding,” he says. “Eye contact that says 'keep going,' the half-mumbled inquiries to make sure everything feels right, the whispers between two people sleeping together for the first time and finally being given the freedom to say everything they've felt. You know within ten seconds whether a director is being true to their own experience with sex or just aping other things they've seen.”
Bring on the Sex Toys
Both Miranda and Samantha on “Sex and the City” had their favorite toys, and when the characters of Gus and Mickey have sex in Netflix’s “Love,” she often pulls out her vibrator. These aren’t uncommon scenarios in real life, but they’re not often depicted on the big screen, which is odd when you consider that 75% of women can’t orgasm during intercourse without the help of a toy or manual stimulation. By portraying more sex toy use onscreen, directors would be showing us a character who knows their body well enough to understand how they work and what’ll get them off.
When critics focused on Lena Dunham’s body during her sex scenes in “Girls,” they often missed how much women enjoyed watching those scenes. It wasn’t just the comedic awkwardness of some of it; it’s that we were seeing women with developed sexual appetites enjoying sex on their own terms. Marnie runs to the bathroom to masturbate after an artist speaks to her commandingly. Jessa wears her sexuality like armor. And Hannah loves to experiment, even if it garners mixed results. They govern their sex lives, and they have fun doing it.
Elsewhere, “Basic Instinct” is a fucked-up film, and though it ultimately equates Catherine’s murderousness with her ravenous bisexuality, it also has the balls to show us a woman who loves sex and is in complete control of the sex she’s having. Not only is it hot to watch, the movie makes it quite clear that sex with Catherine is amazing.
They’re *That* Into You
“Desire is the ultimate orgasm for women,” says Pamela Madsen, founder and president of Back to the Body, which hosts sensuous retreats for women. “Women want to see men fall in love with our bodies, and not perfect bodies; all of our bodies … And yes, women love to ‘be taken’ when they feel safe.”
Similarly, arts and entertainment reporter Joyce Kulhawik enjoys experiencing the desire and anticipation as much as the act itself. In “Call Me by Your Name,” she says, “the build-up to the moment was exquisitely intense, and the Sufjan Stevens music just saturated the already-loaded air.”
Kulhawik cites other similar scenes in “The Notebook,” “Risky Business,” and “The Year of Living Dangerously,” saying that they’re not explicitly sexual, but “depend on a simmering build-up and the intensity of release.”
More Male Nudity, Please!
It’s completely paradoxical that in our otherwise patriarchal society, the full male form is somehow taboo. The fact is, those of us who find the male body attractive would love to see more full frontal in mainstream cinema. Plus, seeing more of it might help dismantle some decidedly wrong ideas about size.
Tafoya also finds it disingenuous to avoid nudity altogether in a sex scene. “There's so much dishonesty in the way those scenes are shot; men sitting just right to hide their packages, women constantly protected by clingy sheets,” he says. “Don't show the scenes at all unless they're crucial to understanding two people.”
When in Doubt, Ask
At this juncture, most of us can agree that the central relationship in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series is abusive and unhealthy. Many in the BDSM community worried that the novels and movies would further marginalize something that already meets with a lot of skepticism. If E. L. James had done any serious research on kink, she could have created a story that was all pleasure and no guilt.
While she’s laughing all the way to the bank, James’ portrayal of BDSM remains inaccurate and unsafe. So it would be great for the next director that tackles this to either be familiar with it already, or to have the humility and good sense to ask experts for guidance. Those who know a lot about it love answering questions, and their insights are often surprising.
Onscreen, what you know will show.