Despite decades of progress, sex on screen might still be the most immediately polarizing issue for American film audiences. Unable to shake the last vestiges of the Puritanism (white) American culture founded itself on, depiction of sex in public spaces somehow rank as more offensive than gory violence or racially offensive tropes like blackface. American parents would rather show their kids The Saw Trilogy and Birth of A Nation on a 24 hour constant loop than expose their children to that crime otherwise known as sex. And if the depiction of sex happens to be non-straight, the revulsion is multiplied by 10. So while Linda Williams, in her essay Cinema Sex Acts, asks whether three recent “relatively explicit” films are porn or art, I say that answer would not even matter. Art or porn, keep it away from us and our children. This is not to say I’m exempt from squeamishness about on screen intimacy (I still would leave the room and get a snack than watch a sex scene with my mother), but I do find it a bit comical how on-screen sex is treated by in large as a cardinal sin—by the public and academics alike—in terms of evaluating a film.
Williams’ Cinema Sex Acts completely illuminated this phenomenon in a quantifiable way with its discussion of Blue is the Warmest Color, Stranger by the Lake, and Nymphomaniac. Comparing the critical reactions, Williams uncovered how the critical reception of a sexually explicit film is inherently tied to the cultural understandings of the groups the sex acts involve—where the sex acts in Blue sentence the film to condemnation under the name of misogyny, Nymphomaniac a film made by a known misogynist, is hailed as another masterpiece from an auteur. Refuting the critical vilification Blue received for its alleged sexual objectification for the pleasure of the heterosexual male, Williams analysis actually reveals how the film functions to form a female gaze (which makes sense in a film about female desire). Out of their performative concern for the truth of the lesbian experience, what I understood from Williams extrapolations is that these critics were not really afraid of the sex, but afraid of lesbians. Without an cultural framework to understanding lesbian desire, critics attempted to understand it through a still heterosexual lens allowing the intentions of the film to be entirely misconstrued. While it would be ahistorical to deny the skeevy connotations of a heterosexual male director shooting 6 minute long lesbian sex scenes, its also unfair to ignore and negate all the film does in order to establish a true space of female desire, love, and sex. And so, because lesbian sex is construed as the most non normative behavior lesbians engage in (due to the lack of the phallus and society’s obsession with the phallus), somehow the sex scenes in this film became scapegoats for a larger feeling of discomfort with the idea of two women in love. What Cinema Sex Acts’ discussion of Blue reveals is how it is still unclear for non-LGBT people whether queerness is defined by action or identity. Because somehow, when a film becomes understood as “queer,” the sex is all that people can bring themselves to talk about.