tagReviews & EssaysSex-Positive Films

Sex-Positive Films


Hollywood has screwed up sex on film.

Honestly. I have a hard time watching it without rolling my eyes, laughing (not in a good way), or being disgusted and wanting to turn it off. And this is from someone who loves the concept of sex on film- on paper. Sex is such a vital part of life, and I hate it when movies ignore it, because no matter the situation, sex is there. If characters aren't having it, then they're wishing for it, seeking it, thinking about it, avoiding it, studiously ignoring it, feeling guilty about it, feeling they aren't worthy of it . . . you get the picture. You don't have to have explicit sex scenes- or even tame ones- whatsoever in your film. But to ignore sex completely, as if the characters' lives are sanitized, Disney-clean, well, that's not only offensive, but it's ridiculous.

But when I do see the sex that is in movies, I get depressed, because it follows about the exact same predictable routes every time: 1) sex without a purpose (the movie has really nothing to do with sex, but darned if we won't have a sexy, explicit scene just to be hot and to get people to want to see it), 2) fear of sex (cut away, fade to black, and show curtains billowing in the breeze, because heaven help us, we'd never actually show anything!), 3) sex as sniggering humor (modelled after Beavis and Butthead), 4) sex as drama and thrills (because what else can bring gossip and pulse-pounding excitement to an otherwise boring film that must resort to sex? )and 5) sex as a portrayal of all that is wrong in the world (prostitutes living a drug-addled life of misery, sex as a euphemism for empty and meaningless nihilism, sex as the go-to any time we want to show decadence, scandal, male chauvinism, evil, and the slow downfall of humankind). You'll be hard-pressed to find anything more meaningful. Even indie films, non-mainstream, avant-garde and off the beaten path, seem to treat sex disdainfully . . . they just include a lot more of it with much more explicitness and European nudity.

That's why you've got to celebrate the good, sex-positive movies that come along out of- gasp!- a mainstream Hollywood that so very often gets it wrong. This is my compiled list of films that celebrate sex in all its sacred beauty, its filthy fun, its confusion, with every emotion that comes along with it, the good and the bad:

1) Kinsey- The ultimate sex-positive movie, ever. Period. I don't know that anything can top a biopic about the father of all sex research, and I wouldn't want it to. The film is astounding, touching on all aspects, both positive and negative, about Kinsey's life and research. Watch it.

2) American Pie- This movie's true message unfortunately got blindsided by the raunchy gross-out gags like the film's namesake (apple pie, anyone?), but underneath the raunchy humor, it did so well because it has mass appeal for what it represents: a nostalgic look at teenage sex, in all its stumbling, faltering glory. Who can't sympathize with the characters- the pressures of sex, that overwhelming desire for it, the worry about when to do it, and who doesn't remember the awful, embarrassing moments it can create? Sex in this movie is portrayed in such a positive light. A surprisingly lovely movie hiding under a 'teen sex comedy' label.

3) The Notorious Bettie Page- For a movie about the queen of pin-ups, her name synonymous with kink, you wouldn't imagine the movie to be so utterly charming. Bettie Page, as portrayed by Gretchen Mol, is light-hearted and innocent even when the world tries to pull her down. The film leaves you light and happy-feeling, and is a beautiful testament to sex-related work and how it doesn't have to be negative. One of my favorites.

4) Mango Kiss- When film-makers decide to make a film dealing with lesbian S/M and polyamory as main topics, you have to get a little worried and on edge; it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, this movie is utterly perfect- thank God for its San Francisco attitudes and its lesbian aesthetics. This movie is anything but a smear campaign- polyamory, or non-monogamy, as they're calling it, and S/M are portrayed in all their problematic and beautiful ways, with both the good and bad sides shown. Not to mention that the movie is romantic and sweet, with, of course, a happy ending. Hip-hip hooray!

5) Secretary- Finally, after getting treated mainly as a perversion or the punchline to a joke, there comes a beautiful movie about BDSM in a positive light. Not only does the film manage to intertwine sexuality with love in a way that rarely happens, but the movie's message is one of sexuality as being healing and redemptive. This isn't just "one woman's erotic journey" meant to titillate viewers under the guise of 'empowering' female sexual exploration- it is truly the tale of how sexuality transforms the mentally ill Lee into a beautiful, blossoming sexual woman full of confidence and self-acceptance. Thank God for movies like this.

6) Calendar Girls- A bunch of lovely elderly British women taking it all off for charity? How could you not love a movie like that? Based on a true story, the film is utterly charming and, moreover, has a beautiful message about mature women's sexuality and attractiveness. My favorite line? "Annie, I am 55 years old! If I'm not gonna get them out now, when am I?"

7) Mrs. Henderson Presents- What a lovely, charming film. Also based on a true story (starting to see a trend here? Yup, real-life tales about sexuality seem a lot happier, on a whole, than what you normally see in the movies), this movie follows Mrs. Henderson as she puts on musicals with daring nudity during WWII. But the heart of the film is ensconced in Judi Dench's gorgeous speech near the end: "If we are to ask our youth to surrender their lives, then we should not ask them to surrender joy - or the possibility of joy! And, if along the way, we cause too many people to congregate in the street, who gives a fiddler's fuck?".

8) The Full Monty- Ah, another sweet and cute movie about taking it all off. The guys are great average Joes and the film is charming, funny, cute, and still manages to touch on some dramatic areas. It shows sex, or at least sexy stripping- positively and beautifully, and who doesn't have at least the theme song of "Hot Stuff" firmly cemented in their minds because of this movie?

9) Preaching To The Perverted- Another great BDSM film, albeit much different from "Secretary" and certainly a little bit of a stretch for anyone who knows the real underground BDSM London scene of that time. Still, the film is remarkably positive and gorgeous- anything that puts an uptight repressed Christian as a fish out of his sexual waters and pits censorship against personal pleasure and freedom- well, anything like that has my backing! Fantastic costumery and a delicious Guinevere Turner finish things out.

10) Exit To Eden- A terrible, horrid film that I'm putting on here only becuase its content really does put it on the list- it's really quite sex-positive. It is, however, so very different from the book by Anne Rampling (aka Anne Rice) by the same name; it did so poorly when it was screen-tested that they reworked the script, making it basically a sex-comedy cop film starring the two most unliklies of Dan Akroyd and Rosie O'Donell. Still, the story of a fantasy island of slaves devoted to your every whim is a hot one, and the movie is always trashy fun if you're in need of a laugh.

11) Shortbus- I'll be writing a few blogs later about Shortbus, because there's a lot of meat to the movie, and I do happen to have some problems with it. But nevertheless, it's still a revolutionary and very intriguing film by John Cameron Mitchell, famous for his creation of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch". So very controversial for its unsimulated sex scenes which, I might add, really peter down to almost nothing after the first ten minutes. In some ways, I don't know that this film is that sex-positive- the sex is purposefully "de-eroticized", as Cameron himself puts it, and when you're dealing with the hollowness and decadence of depressed post-9/11 New Yorkers, well, it can be pretty sex-negative. But in the end, I've got to give thumbs up to the tale of a woman searching for an orgasm.

12) Red Shoe Diaries- The near softcore-porn series that aired late night on HBO, and later the movie based off of it, have some element of cheesiness, but most of that is forgiven by the intriguing concept of a grieving man using sexuality as a form of therapy. Still a favorite for a lot of people, myself included.

13) Sexo Por Compasion- An amazing little gem of a film that I'd compare to "Chocolat" in mood and philosophy, only much more sexual. It's sex-positive, beautiful, and quite whimsical and just gorgeous. Watch it- you won't be disappointed, I guarantee.

14) The 40-Year Old Virgin- Aw, who doesn't love Steve Carrell as a geeky forty year-old virgin? The movie tackles the issue of long-standing virginity in a sweet and lovely way with its own particular brand of humor. The romance is adorable and Andy's sentiment of "I was waiting for you." is the best thing I've ever heard. A great addition to the canon of sex-positive comedies.

15) Another Gay Movie- The gay version of "American Pie", and just as raunchy and fun. Once again, this has all the nostalgia of first-time sex for gay teens, with all of the craziness that is inherent in it. And, of course, this film has the same sweet, romantic relationship in it between Griff and Jarod is akin to that between Oz and Heather in "American Pie". One of my favorites when I'm in the mood for a naughty laugh.

16) Quills- What an absolutely amazing film- truly. Once again, like with "Kinsey", it seems like biopics of the most intriguing sexual characters of our times create the best movies. This, a loose fictionalization of the life of the Marquis de Sade, the famous namesake for sadism (as in S&M), is a brilliant film that gets to the crux of things- pitting morally conservative forces against sexual freedom. Not to mention it being a lovely period piece with fantastic performances by Geoffery Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet, and Michael Caine. Seriously, one of my favorites.

17) Pleasantville- There's not a whole-movie focus on sexuality, but it's always simmering there in the background, and all the bursting into freedom and expression are really essentially sensual experiences. And there are some wonderful moments- the mother finally orgasming while masturbating in the bathtub, posing nude for a piece of art . . . very sex-positive, in my opinion.

18) 40 Days and 40 Nights- A moderately- not hysterically, though- funny movie about a guy who gives up all forms of sex for Lent because he's been having some sexual trouble getting over his ex. The whole thing is portrayed very realistically (well, as realistic as it can get) and funnily, and while it's nothing amazing, I'd count it as a nice addition.

19) Kama Sutra: Tale of Love- A stunning visual feast of period India about a harem and one concubine in particular. It really is a fantastic movie, one that offers a lot more than the vaguely pornish name "Kama Sutra" might evoke. Love and the empowerment of sensuality are explored, if not to a happy ending, then at least a thought-provoking one.

20) Bliss- I first saw this series late night on the Oxygen channel, and was impressed by the erotic shows made for women, by women, with their great themes (always sex-positive) that make for hot masturbatory material whether you're a man or a woman or something else entirely. Frankly, there's no show or other movie, even those rated NC-17 or XXX, that I'd rather see to turn me on and satisfy me on an intellectual and emotional level, too.

So those are the sex-positive movies that first come to my mind. I highly encourage everyone to seek them out and watch them for themselves- if we start to consume movies that portray sex in a positive and deep, challenging way, rather than falling back to the old tricks, maybe filmmakers will get the message that we're ready for more.

And remember- I'm no movie guru; I haven't watched 'em all. So can you think of any other sex-positive films? Go ahead- tell me about them!

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