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March 4, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Soft Focus, Hard Bodies


Do Sexual Ideals Lead To Ideal Sex?

‘People like watching other people having sex—whether it’s as part of a dramatised narrative between the sheets on our favourite TV shows, or for another purpose on some shadowy, pixelated corner of the Internet. But when it comes to the real deal, what do these portrayals of sex do to the way audiences conduct themselves in the bedroom?’

Sex on screen is something that seems to make people as uncomfortable as it makes them excited. Depictions of sex in television and film are given brutal, unforgiving biopsies as soon as they are released and critics are quick to find faults: there is either too much sex or there isn’t enough sex or, as viewers are likely to complain, people don’t really have sex like that: the list stretches on and on and on.

The focus of discussion, albeit a divided one, is usually about the kids. It is hypothesized that if they are allowed to enjoy such material unchecked society will spin off its axis and, powered by untamed arousal, fly into the sun. There is, after all, evidence to suggest that exposure to such material leads to uneducated, harmful behavior. For instance, a frequently dredged up fact is that pregnancy rates among young people are higher in countries like the United States than in other industrialized nations—which is sometimes blamed on a higher saturation of media that ‘promotes’ that sort of behavior. On the other hand, conversations between parents and their children over things like AIDS, sexuality and consent are had only because a television show or a film provided the catalyst. That, however, is a discussion that is well trodden. Less frequently asked is what watching sex on television or at a cinema does to your sex life? Does it make you better at it? Can anyone actually be ‘better’ at it? Do the slender buff people humping under soft lighting to the cinematic soundtrack of an orchestra make you feel insecure?

What state is sex in, in this semi-liberated age? Is the grinding on television authentic? There are a few watershed moments that have been highlighted for particular ridicule or praise over the past two years or so, either for being comically raunchy or depressingly nunnish. Way back in late 2011 Steve McQueen’s Shame had Michael Fassbender bang his way through seemingly everyone in Manhattan for two hours. The popular Game of Thrones is filled with bouts of medieval corset ripping, including (but not limited to) the closest thing the world will ever get to a pornographic enactment of an M.C. Escher painting, where a man has sex with a prostitute while another man receiving a blowjob from another prostitute watches him through a hole while the brothel’s owner watches them through another hole. Girls, a show that is impossible not to read about even though it’s barely watched, features sex that is so self consciously quirky it’s impossible not to squirm. Mad Men continues to make sex in the sixties seem worryingly glamorous. The thrilling conclusion to the Twilight series taught us with its only depiction of sex that even if you get married first you’ll end up pregnant with a baby that will try to eat you from inside the womb.

A practicing sex therapist*, who works with couples and individuals to sort out issues affecting their ability to engage in intimate acts, says that it is important to “understand that nothing is as simple as watching something and then emulating it.” They do say, however, that “much like pornography, watching sex on TV can… be a factor… in making intimacy very difficult to navigate mentally.

“People often forget… how tightly choreographed everything is. Because the person directing the scene usually has something they want [the viewer] to take away, like that the sex was bad or good or awkward or risqué or meaningful or thematically relevant. It’s always there to make a point. While it wouldn’t usually be enough on its own to cause anything serious because it’s a reasonably prevalent thing, people can become anxious about intimacy because we’re told repeatedly that sex is either this very meaningful thing that you have to take very seriously, or if you’re going to have a one night stand then it better be mind-blowingly good or you did something wrong. On film and television there isn’t usually space for sex outside of those very specific dramatic moments.”

Also important is to remember that while it depends on the project, “there will always be a team of people devoted to making sure that what is happening on the screen looks at least a bit better that it would in real life, even if it doesn’t make sense for it to in the story.” Industry practices do, after all, span the understandable (for instance, lighting and sound) to the mildly ridiculous (painting abdominal muscles onto male actors.) What, then, is the essential difference between pornography, which is designed to arouse in the most efficient way, and a televised sex scene? “Porn is difficult because there are many schools of thought arguing over its merits and dangers but I do see the effects of it in the people I work with. Porn provides people, especially young people, with a visual guide to what to do. Of course, in most cases it’s not the sort of guide that you’d want to follow for most intimate interactions.”

That however, seems like something that could be rectified through experience—there are some effects, however, that possibly can’t be: “It turns sex into a very performative thing, which isn’t that much fun for some people. Introduction to sex through voyeurism can mean that when a person starts to do it themselves they are still ‘watching’ the scene that they’re now a part of which can be very stressful. In a drama, sex is at least usually contextualized which places it in a real-life context where there is an emphasis on the emotional aspects of the experience. Television also doesn’t have to be sexy in a generally accepted way, although it usually is. The differences aren’t that great.”

It seems as if there isn’t really a neat answer for this: the media both educates us and messes with us at the same time. It also seems that you can’t really learn how to fuck like a champ, and that, if anything, consuming sexual imagery might turn you into a pornographic cliché, entirely incapable of doing anything new and exciting.

So, just because your sex life doesn’t read like the pages of Cosmo, doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.


Patrick Hunn

*Asked not to be named due to the sensitive nature of their relationship with their clients.



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