I can still remember the first sex scene I ever watched: Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich gettin’ it on inside a regeneration chamber during The Fifth Element. As a seven-year-old, the world of sex was as alien to me as the superhuman, super-hot android Jovovich plays. Sex was the stuff of movies my parents wouldn’t let me watch and words on the playground I didn’t quite understand. Removed as I was, all the “couldn’ts” and “didn’ts” only heightened my curiosity for this strange yet alluring triple-x territory.
Some years following my cinematic introduction came my first real-life sex scene. On a sticky-hot August night, I entered into the elusive world that previously I had only accessed through movies, books, and TV. In my clumsy attempt at teenage lust, I had penetrated the alien world of Bruce and Milla, the steamy realm of Leo and Kate, the same one I had watched the original Degrassi kids awkwardly stumble into, and had read about Holden Caulfield nearly encountering. All I could think was: “This is it?”
Sex permeates every nook and cranny of our media. We are exposed, desensitized, aroused, and disgusted by the erotic on a near-daily basis. From suggestive preteen pop idols to foul Internet videos, it is thrust upon us at every turn from a very young age. Sex has become reified, almost deified, into an omnipresent, abstract idea. And on that late-summer night, I was first introduced to the dichotomy of sex. It is simultaneously a cultural concept and an instinctual act.
This is nothing new. Literature has explored gender and sexuality since ancient times, and as modern mediums like film were created, they followed suit. Censorship, however, restricted these explorations from proliferation and mainstream acceptance until relatively recently. In the early 20th century, classic works by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Henry Miller faced obscenity charges for their sexual content – tame by contemporary standards – while the trial for Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems took place as late as 1957. The motion picture industry didn’t officially abandon the Hays code until 1968 – restrictions included nakedness, excessive and lustful kissing, depictions of childbirth, and references to alleged sexual perversions like homosexuality. Compared to the past, the dominance of sexual content in mainstream media in recent decades undoubtedly alters conceptions of sex.
The combined effect of modern technology – the invention of film, television, and the Internet – and liberation movements put our generation in a precarious position. Politically and socially, sexual standards have changed, and along with that, depictions of sex have rampantly increased. Assaulted with representations and misrepresentations of gender and sexuality, negotiating one’s identity can prove a daunting task – not to say that it was ever an easy one, but the increasing predominance of sex in the media certainly changes the formula. Our grandparents, and even parents, never saw such an abundance of sex scenes before getting hot and heavy themselves. And for better or worse, the amount we see certainly affects how we relate to sex, sexuality, and the erotic.
Reconciling the sex that drips off the billboards and the sex we physically partake in is an ongoing challenge. At best, prosaic film scenes hint at genuine sexual experiences; at worst they lack any trace of authenticity – watching Bruce and Milla is almost as alien to me now as it was as a child. But as hackneyed as they are, these representations of sex are valuable in opening up discussion.
The prevalence of sex in the media can confuse us, with over-sexualized celebrities, contradictory ideals, and unattainable depictions of romance.But it is also an icebreaker for exploring our own sexual identities. Many mainstream depictions are troubling, as they often reinforce gender and sexual stereotypes; however, lack of censorship means that we are free to put forward our own representations of sex, gender, and sexuality. And freedom – whether to choose to have sex or to choose how to depict it – is always a beautiful thing.