This past weekend I was on my own, so I spent some time watching films billed as having sexually explicit scenes in them, which I found in articles like this one. I love watching movies with well-crafted sex scenes and will seek films using that as my first screening criteria. When I have a list to work with, I identify the plots that are most appealing, then look up what the critics say about them. I like well reviewed films because, well, good sex scenes need good story telling to develop the relationship and chemistry between the characters. The moment of consummation is much more compelling in the context of a well developed story. My wife is less interested in sexually explicit as a criterion, though she doesn’t mind sexual explicitness if it is natural to the context of a well told story. So, when I am on my own, I explore the sexually explicit film territory and, if I find one I think she will like, I recommend that we watch it together.
Of the films I watched, the four that stood out were, Portrait of a Lady On Fire, Elisa & Marcella1, Anaïs In Love, and Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. All were well-crafted and enjoyable films with good sex scenes. Portrait Of and Good Luck were exceptional.
Good Luck, while not being that explicit in imagery, was pretty explicit about the subject of sex and how uptight we can be about sexual pleasure for its own sake. I thought it dealt with its subject material in an admirably nuanced way. The film centers on the relationship between Leo Grande, a sex worker, and Nancy Stokes, a retired and recently widowed client who has never had an orgasm.
Upon Leo’s arrival, Nancy begins nattering — a lot. She has cause to: She’s a retired schoolteacher and widow; and she’s never done anything remotely like this. And by “this” we mean take her own pleasure seriously.2
The movie is, as one critic put it, “sex positive.” It contends that there is nothing wrong with seeking and giving sexual pleasure. It is also sex work positive. Assumptions about sex workers, set up in part by second-wave feminism, are challenged. That they are drug addicts, traumatized in some way, have no other choices, are abused and abusing themselves, are exploited. It must be acknowledged that all of these things are true for some percentage of sex workers. But, it doesn’t have to be, and isn’t always, that way. In Good Luck, we are presented with a character for whom it is made clear that, while he has a childhood trauma important to the story, sex work was a positive life choice. This, apparently, is the place that third-wave feminism reached about sex work for women. That it can be a way of seizing control of the narrative of their bodies. That it can be empowering.
Leo is an attractive, well spoken and intelligent young man who is very adept at understanding the needs and desires of his clients. Such a person in real life would probably have other options if he wanted them. Third-wave feminism aside, this concept of sex work is one that society still struggles to embrace and give the dignity of being a morally and legally acceptable choice to make.
“I want to play at being young again,” she tells her paid-for paramour, explicitly stating the film’s barely hidden subtextual intertwining of la petite mort with an awareness of impending mortality.3
There were many compelling moments in the movie for me. One is where Nancy declares that her only path to the experience of her full sexuality is through a sex worker because, “who’s going to be interested in this body?” Another is when Leo reveals his trauma, which involved his mom walking in on him and a number of friends all tangled up together, exploring each other’s bodies, and never forgiving him for his “indiscretion.” Nancy is a retired sex-ed teacher who spent the bulk of her life being that unforgiving surrogate mother to the young women she taught. She taught them they should repress their sexuality and slut-shamed them for the way they dressed and carried on. Nancy never had sexual fulfillment in life because she, no doubt, had been given the same message about sex as she gave the girls she taught. Sex is for making babies and something you are obliged to let your husband do to you.
Nancy seeks a sexual awakening and in the development of the story of achieving it the movie asks, what is wrong with pleasuring ourselves with willing partners or paying for it if there isn’t a relationship at hand to provide it? As long as it is consensual, and nobody is getting hurt, physically or psychologically, what is the big deal about sexual pleasure? Why shouldn’t we have abundant amounts of it if we’d like to? Why can’t we talk about it openly and honestly if we want to?
Older women’s bodies, not to mention their sexuality, are something no one wants to think or talk about, least of all older women themselves. What everyone tells you when you’re young eventually becomes true: at a certain age—maybe 50, maybe 60—you become invisible to most other people on the street, especially men.4
A compelling part of the larger story is that Nancy and Leo have to build a relationship for the experience to work for Nancy. Sex is at its most fulfilling and satisfying in the context of a relationship, even when paid for. This is one of the many reasons I seek sexually explicit movies and not pornography. The sex, when it arrives, is more satisfying to watch because the writers, directors, and cast have built a relationship between themselves, the characters, and the audience that moves it beyond prurient interest.
As I said in last week’s post, I have been exploring erotic imagery, written and photographic. A few days ago, I came across a short video clip of two women engaged in oral sex. No faces are shown, just two bodies, one pleasuring the other in a natural way. During the brief clip, we see the woman being pleasured climax. It’s unlikely she is faking it. It’s a beautiful clip. Watching human beings achieve sexual fulfillment in a loving and respectful way fills me with sensual warmth. And yet, a part of me felt that watching the clip was something nobody should know about, not even my wife.5
I lost my virginity when I was a junior in high school. I often think back on that early experience as both wonderful and reckless. We were lucky that we didn’t get pregnant, as we didn’t use protection the first few times and were probably sloppy when we did. I am not sure how it came about, but she went on the pill fairly soon after we started having sex. I can testify that I was totally unprepared for the consequences of pregnancy should it have happened. I don’t think I was an emotionally and psychologically mature adult until I hit my 30s.
The time of blooming sexuality, and its exploration, is a passage fraught with risk of consequences that teenagers are ill prepared to deal with. So, I get that this transition needs to be managed away from those consequences. I can see a good argument for teaching abstinence for as long as possible, coupled with a frank and thorough education on how babies happen, and how to keep them from happening to you until you want one.6 But, once we are firmly in adulthood, why should we be constrained in exploring our desires and fantasies, as society tends to do in many ways?
Why should I be afraid to tell my wife about my fantasies, even if they are a little weird sometimes? Why should it feel risky for me to write that I enjoy sexually explicit movies and erotic material? Why is it frowned on, at least in my generation and the ones that came before, to be an openly sexual being?
I actually watched this one without reading any reviews and was quite surprised to find that critics generally panned it. ↩︎
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande review – Emma Thompson excels in stagey sex comedy | Comedy films | The Guardian(https://www.theguardian.com/film/2022/jun/19/good-luck-to-you-leo-grande-review-emma-thompson-excels-in-stagey-sex-comedy) ↩︎
That this paragraph has made it into this post means my wife knows and has approved what I have written, and I don’t feel ashamed that anyone else knows. ↩︎
A frank and open conversation about sex with children seems even more important than ever, given that many children have seen a pornographic image by age 9, and the average age of exposure is around 13. ↩︎