I’ve written about this subject before, but I feel like I want to address the problem with sex scenes in TV shows and movies. Why is it that every sex scene I see these days has to be completely fucked up and dehumanizing to the women (and arguably the men) involved? I was watching a show last night called Breaking Bad (which I highly recommend you avoid like genital herpes) and there was a scene at the end of the first episode where the husband, who has been out cooking meth because he found out he has cancer and wants to provide a nest egg for his family (I know), comes home and spontaneously and aggressively porks his wife, who is so taken aback by the onslaught that she has a look of fear and surprise on her face even once the act is done (which comes at the start of the second episode, in case the bit in the previous episode wasn’t gross enough). I was fairly shocked that this all took place on a channel that still censors the “god” in “goddamn it,” but I guess I shouldn’t be, since it seems to be the standard way to depict sex in entertainment these days. Apparently people getting naked and getting busy just isn’t exciting enough anymore for our porn-crazed culture. Now it has to be coupled with emotional or physical abuse if it’s going to titillate.
Is this just another example of the race to the bottom media producers have entered into in their quest for ever more shocking footage with which to lure in prurient viewers? I’m inclined to think so, since in the second episode of the show the two main characters had to clean up a mess produced by their attempt to dissolve a corpse in acid, picking up flesh chunks and bits of bloody bone and waving them around for the camera. But it isn’t as if it’s the only example of gross sex I’ve seen in the media lately. The only place I’ve consistently seen sex scenes that don’t involve themes of humiliation, force, or general degradation in the past few years is in gay soap operas on Showtime. Why is that? Is the gay audience more interested in seeing people who want to be with each other, rather than watching someone dominate someone else emotionally or physically? Why do most sex scenes have to be either violent or animalistic in a way that I would think only people who are into Nine Inch Nails think is cool? Has the world’s conception of sex actually been so warped that depictions of people who seem to be into each other having sex (we’ll leave out the problem of objectification and the male gaze for now) are no longer exciting? It seems like sex just isn’t sexy enough anymore.
Maybe this case isn’t about titillation. Maybe this sex scene I’m referring to wasn’t meant to arouse but to illustrate the state of mind of the male character. A common trope in these stupid dramas is that a man who has had some bullshit “intense” experience that makes him question his path in life or whatever will come home and sort of rape his partner (I know, there’s no such thing as “sort of” rape). What in the fuck is that about? Why is sex used as a tool for expressing anger or aggression in entertainment media? Asserting one’s bullshit idea of manhood by forcing a woman to have sex when she doesn’t feel comfortable doing so is rape, even if she’s too shocked to object. Entertainment media writers just seem too eager to resort to this disgusting and fairly scary practice of depicting a male character using a woman’s body to make himself feel masculine or “putting a woman in her place” through violent sex.
Is that really the best way to communicate the ideas going on in a character’s head on screen? Actually, fuck that. Is that how people really act? Do normal men nearly crash their cars, then come home and rape their wives to celebrate the fact that they’re still alive? Does the average dude quit a job he hates, then come force himself on his girlfriend or use her like a blow-up doll because he’s feeling fucking rejuvenated? Do men frequently sexually abuse their partners to make themselves feel like real men? As much as I hate most dudes, and as underreported as partner rape is, I still find that shit a little hard to believe. So then why is it that this bullshit is so common in television shows and movies? Do I put it down to the same kind of general hatred of women that fuels the exponential growth of degrading and violent porn? Has the degradation that characterizes pornography really seeped into mainstream entertainment to such a large extent?
I think the proliferation of these sorts of depictions of sexuality is a manifestation of the central problem in American society with regard to sex: our cultural life is absolutely saturated with sexual messages, but there is still a huge amount of shame attached to sex. The long-term legacy of Judeo-Christian ideas about sex has brought us to a point where we give our kids dolls that pretend people don’t have genitalia, we don’t have suitable words to refer to sex organs, we lie outright to adolescents about sexuality, and we can’t have honest public discussions of sex, all of which points to a profound cultural discomfort with sexuality and the human body. I know very, very few adults who can talk openly about sex without resorting to juvenile language in an attempt to hide their embarrassment, yet we’re completely inundated with sexualized images in our daily lives, thanks to entertainment media, advertising, and the ever-expanding pornography industry. It’s no wonder people have developed warped and even hostile notions with regard to sexuality. Shame over natural desire is bound to create some cognitive dissonance. I believe that it’s this conflict that lies at the center of problems like sexual abuse and assault, pornography, and misogyny in general, and it’s the route by which elements of emotional and physical violence creep into our conceptions of sexuality.