Sexually Explicit Movies

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?

  1. I actually watched this one without reading any reviews and was quite surprised to find that critics generally panned it. ↩︎

  2. ‘Good Luck to You, Leo Grande’ Review: Pleasure Principles - The New York Times(↩︎

  3. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande review – Emma Thompson excels in stagey sex comedy | Comedy films | The Guardian(↩︎

  4. Emma Thompson Is Terrific in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande | Time(↩︎

  5. 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. ↩︎

  6. 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. ↩︎

The Truth of Me

The man who is aware of himself is henceforward independent; and he is never bored, and life is only too short, and he is steeped through and through with a profound yet temperate happiness. He alone lives, while other people, slaves of ceremony, let life slip past them in a kind of dream. Once conform, once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul. She becomes all outer show and inward emptiness; dull, callous, and indifferent.

— Virginia Woolf1

The other night, at photography salon, a young woman blew into the room after we had started reviewing work. She was lugging a pile of material. There was a framed something; there was a massive book; there were images in protective sleeves. She set them down on a chair and walked over to pet Charlotte, the pit bull/boxer mix that had accompanied a salon member. We were reviewing female nude images by one of our regulars. As we were wrapping it up, the photographer asked the young woman whether she thought the images were sexual or sensual. She said she thought they were neither. She told us she’d been the subject of nude photography since she was 2 years old; that she modeled in the nude herself sometimes; that she was a member of a nudist colony; that she was genuinely interested in photographing people, mostly women, in the nude; that her work centered around the female nude and the landscape; that her life was in turmoil; that she was being forced to move from her home/studio; that she was forced to take down her website because of accusations of child pornography (shades of Sally Mann); that she had come to the salon because she had been meaning to for over a year and needed a break from packing up her studio/apartment.

When her turn came to share work, she spread out an array of imagery in a variety of formats. The centerpiece was an enormous, one of a kind, hand made book, coptic stitched together. A scrapbook, artist notebook, whatever. There was also a framed photograph of a nude black woman standing with her back to the camera in a v shaped rock formation in a rocky landscape. The black woman became the vulva between the thighs of the rock formation. Later in her presentation, we would discover that she had a vulva series, which were cropped closeups of a vulva, probably hers, but she didn’t say. She had positioned these closeup vulva images near the center of large pages and drawn and painted all around them in a beautiful, colorful, flowering way. She shared an image of a nude woman lying in an undulating landscape which, on closer inspection, turned out to be the bodies of other nude women. There was a nude woman swimming underwater, laminated to a piece of wood with a thick polyurethane coating and shards of glass embedded in the coating. These, she explained, were maquette samples of much larger works, made for porting around to galleries. There was an image of a circle of nude women lying on the ground in a star shape, heads to the center, feet to the perimeter, faces, bellies, breasts, and vulvas up. She told us her life was a mess; that she was in transition; that she wanted to get her MFA at either Yale or RISDI, which suggested she had money, or wildly impractical dreams, or maybe both. The work, and her presentation of it and self, were suggestive of a chaotic woman creative. What one might call a force of nature. I could believe she would get into either of those colleges. I don’t know if we will ever see her again. Her life was spinning her out of town. She said she’d be back, but who knows?

We show the world what we want the world to see. For some of us, too many of us, what we want the world to see is a reflection of what we believe it wants to see. For this woman, it was unquestionably what she wanted the world to see. Not reflective, but the radiant source of a fundamental, if chaotic, honesty. A solar, or perhaps lunar, flare. She seemed unapologetically, herself, a tempest, which might be spinning out of control, might be barely and forever just under control. It’s hard to know from one brief encounter. Yet, she brought something home to me.

I have been operating at the edges of the territory of reflecting what others want to see for all my 68 trips around the sun, constrained by the powerful star, then death star, of my father. I defied him constantly, but never fully escaped orbit. I was unable to reflect what he wanted to see, but also unable to break free of the mirror and frame imposed on me. It would have, I think, been news to him that I was in any way bound by his expectations of me.

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades.

. —Ursula K. Le Guin2

So here I am, 68 years old, struggling to smash the mirror and escape the frame. I am stuck. Not s/he wolf enough to openly live my truth, not domesticated s/he dog enough to hide behind the reflective mirror.

We are on Block Island, enjoying a change of scenery. I wondered before we left, and continued wondering in the first few days of being here, what intention(s) I should set for this time away from the normal background of our lives. I feel the need for a reset. My life seems a jumble of mediocrity and successive near approaches to something like truth, without getting all the way there. None of it seems deep enough, or fundamental enough.

Lately, I have been seeking out erotic imagery of women, in writing and in photographs. Not the nasty and demeaning to the people involved stuff, but the soft core, sensual/sexual stuff. I am particularly interested in imagery, written and photographic, of intimacy between women. I am writing a story about physical and emotional love between two women. Does this erotic imagery drive towards some truth of me? Or is it a longing for things I have aged out of being able to have? I am way beyond the inflamed, sexual youth, whether it be male or female. Is it all longing to be what I can no longer be? Like a deep space probe, I am on a oneway journey out from the center of blazing passions; past the subdued, gently licking-flame passions of the mid-regions; out to the dying ember passions of the outer regions; soon to depart the realm of passions altogether. My connection to that blazing core is increasingly tenuous, my relevance ever diminishing. “Do not go gentle into that good night!” Dylan Thomas advises. I am too far out to be heard, even if I did rage.

Everything I do now seems a longing for something reachable only through memory and imagination. This aging body is of decreasing use to me and anyone else. It can’t fulfill my longings for that youthful blaze in anything like the way I remember the fact of it. I am an increasingly metaphysical being.

Simultaneously, I care less and less about what people think of me. I wonder if one of the things my father hated in me was the s/he wolf prowling around inside.

Metaphysi-me has been experiencing the application of lipstick to his lips as a deeply feminine thing. He has a fantasy about a woman lover who applies the lipstick to his lips, then kisses the s/he wolf that he is. Physical me feels good when metaphysi-me fantasizes this.

There is thunder outside. Is that the god I don’t believe in speaking to me about metaphysi-me? Repress, repress, repress.

Writing what I have written here has, for the moment, freed my mind. I feel relieved. I have welcomed metaphysi-me to the surface of my being. I don’t need for physi-me to manifest these things. What would be the point? It is enough to welcome metaphysi-me to the fold.

I am yin, I am yang. I am the blazing sun of day, I am the waxing and waning moon of night. I am woman, I am man. I welcome these complimentary parts of me to the fullness of my being.

  1. The Courage to Be Yourself: Virginia Woolf on How to Hear Your Soul – The Marginalian ↩︎

  2. Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man ↩︎

About Heteronormative Male Sexual Fantasy Tropes

A few weeks ago, I participated in the 1000 words of summer challenge, which was to write 1000 words a day for two weeks. I started a day late but managed to produce 15K+ words by the end of it. My approach was simple. Every morning I would write about the details of my morning, from the time I woke, to going out for a walk, to arriving at my favorite coffee shop. I wrote it in the third person as a fictionalized account. My plan is to further fictionalize and build out from this core of writing.

One of the mornings I wrote about, I had a particularly memorable experience on my walk. A beautiful young woman walked up to me, sporting an unlit cigarette between the index and middle fingers of her right hand, and asked me if I had a light. I am not a fan of smoking, so in my conscious mind I thought, “you shouldn’t smoke,” but this young woman was an astonishing vision. Producing a lighter and lighting her cigarette would have absolutely made my day, or rather, it would have prolonged for a few seconds longer this commune with feminine beauty and sexuality the universe had chosen to send my way. Primal me had taken over. I told her I didn’t have a light, she told me it was ok, she’d find one up the street at the gas station and walked off muttering something about Beacon and five years. I turned and walked to the end of the street, which was not far away, crossed to the other side, and started walking back up Main Street, half hoping I would see her again. She had, however, disappeared into thin air. There was no evidence of her anywhere I looked.

At the beginning of this past week, I decided that an interesting way to extend my writing project would be to write the stories of the people encountered on my walks. I would write them over the same, or similar hours of the morning, over the same 13 days. Their lives and the lives of my protagonist running in alternate universes, intersecting in the brief ways they did, then continuing on in their alternate universes. I decided to start with “cigarette woman,” as I now referred to her, and write backwards and a little forwards from the moment I had encountered her on the street. I had no idea where she had come from or was going to when I encountered her, but I wanted to write a plausible scenario into which the moment she walked up and asked me for a light fit.

So, I wrote about her having hooked up with a redheaded woman in a bar and winding up sleeping with her. I picked up the story in the morning afterglow of a night of passion, when she wakes up and sees what time it is and realizes she has to get to work. The prose flowed out of me and within an hour or two I had the bones and a lot of the flesh of Lila, as I had named her. I knew I was writing something that could be perceived as a male fantasy trope, but I earnestly wanted to lift the story beyond that. I read a rough draft to my wife, who instantly proclaimed it a male fantasy trope. “Come on, she said, two beautiful women kissing up on each other? The stuff of every straight man’s dreams.”

In rewrites, I worked at toning down the two beautiful women kissing up on each other aspect of it a bit. I tried to depict the sensual and physical intimacy that two women might feel if they were sexually aroused by each other and basking in the afterglow of some great love making. I read the piece to my wife a couple more times as it evolved, and she kept having more or less the same reaction to it. Eventually, I asked my wife if the scene I painted was implausible. She said, as far as she knew, it wasn’t. I asked her if I had been disrespectful to women in the way I wrote it. She said I had not. So then, I suggested, the problem is that because a man wrote it, it can’t escape the male fantasy trope critique? She said maybe.

I continued to work daily at refining it. I tried to delve deeper into the moments of intimate contact, not just between the two women, but between Lila and the two elder gentlemen she approached on the street looking for a light.

When I told my wife I was planning to read it at a literary open mic event at the end of the week, she hesitantly endorsed the idea.

The day of the night I was to read, I had scheduled an appointment with my wife’s hairdresser to get my hair trimmed and put into a French braid. I wear a French braid for special occasions and when I want to play the part of an artiste. I had an art gallery opening the next day. During my appointment, the woman cutting my hair and I engaged in idle chit-chat. I mentioned that I was reading some of my fiction at a literary open mic that night. She asked what my story was about. I told her it was about two women having a one-night stand, explained the scenario, and mentioned I had read it to my wife. “And what did your wife say?” she asked, “that it was male sexual fantasy writing,” I said, whereupon she said, “I love your wife.” She had the same “oh brother” reaction my wife did.

That was fine. I knew how it sounded and had anticipated the reaction.

Later, when I read it at the open mic event, it met with, what seemed to me, a lukewarm reception. A reception that seemed more politeness than enthusiasm, and absolutely nobody came up to me to talk about it, as I had actually hoped some woman would do. I wanted to know, is it plausible? Did it get beyond the male fantasy trope bit? If there were gay women in the room, and there were, I wanted to hear from them about the plausibility and accuracy of the physical intimacy I described between my two female characters. It felt more like an embarrassment swept under the rug of audience politeness than anything else.

After the event, I stewed in my juices a bit. I was disappointed in the reaction I got, and disappointed that nobody commented on my French braid, either.

I’ve had some time to contemplate the situation and to realize that yes, my story actually is a male fantasy trope. What else could it be? It was grounded in a moment that was of the stuff that heterosexual male fantasy is made of. A beautiful young woman walks up to a past-his-young-women-days man and asks, in a beguiling, slightly flirtatious way, for a light. My god, centuries of capitalist psychosexual conditioning came screaming at me in that one brief moment. It was primal. My perception of the moment was that this woman had had some kind of late night, had spewed out onto the street from wherever. She wants a smoke and, perhaps, a cup of coffee too. She didn’t come from her place, I surmised. Why would she be without a lighter if she did? No, I decided, this young woman had been out late, maybe all night. Perhaps she had slept somewhere not her home. She was not unhappy, or hungover, or drugged up. She was flirtatious and knew her way around male sexuality. So, for the purposes of my story, I decided she was out on the street after a one-night stand. And then I decided it would be more interesting to set her flirtatious behavior with two random men she encountered on the street in the context of her being gay or bisexual. Ok, from my lizard brain male perspective, it was more arousing that way too.

But here’s the thing. I wrote a scene in which two women do kiss up on each other, but, nobody has told me that what I wrote isn’t a plausible scenario between two women who are sexually attracted to one another. And, nobody has told me I have disrespected women in the way I wrote it. The only difficulty in the situation, as it turned out, was the trouble I had admitting to myself that I had written a male fantasy trope piece. I have decided to embrace that when I tell people about it. I say it’s a male fantasy trope piece right up front. And then I try to describe to them how I think it’s a bit more than that.

But you can decide for yourself. Here’s a link to the story. Let me know what you think. Thoughtful critique is welcome.