Filmmakers explore and challenge what it means to be human—our own personal crises, how we interact with each other, how the world changes, and in so doing, changes us. A good film doesn’t need to be realistic so much as it needs to resonate on a basic human level. But sometimes, realism (or at least an attempt at realism) is important. Sometimes we want filmmakers to address an issue directly and in the most realistic means possible.
Not often, but sometimes, that issue is sex.
The problem of sex on the silver screen is one I’ve been considering for awhile, but has lately been brought to a head thanks to Canadian musician, filmmaker, and media personality Sook-Yin Lee. She was once a Much Music VJ, but is now better known as the host of CBC Radio One’s Definitely Not The Opera (a show I simply cannot recommend enough). In 2003, however, Lee was nearly fired from the CBC for starring in the film Shortbus, a sexually explicit comedy-drama wherein she performs non-simulated intercourse and masturbation. (I’ve embedded the trailer—while not quite green band, it doesn’t leave PG-13 territory.)
In their response to Lee’s role in the film, the CBC voiced an opinion that continues to be held by many Canadians and Americans alike: if the sex is real, then it’s porn, and therefore inappropriate. But if pornography is something that is created and viewed for sexual arousal, then Shortbus, which intentionally de-eroticized its sex scenes, is not pornographic.
To my mind, Shortbus is a compelling bit of cinema—it brings a level of humanity, vulnerability, and honesty to its narrative that is almost entirely lost in most Hollywood films. Indeed, Shortbus succeeds in its exploration of alternative sexual lifestyles where a film like Brokeback Mountain fails because it understands and captures the myriad of emotions and ideas that are involved (to varying degrees) in any relationship, be it sexual or otherwise.
Of course, Shortbus is not a perfect film (both my wife and I, for example, found the resolutions of the multiple character conflicts to be a little wonky). Still, it calls into question the ways in which we represent sex and sexuality in the arts, and, by its very explicitness, demands that we contemplate and wrestle with these means of representation. To spur such debate is a commendable achievement for any film.
But here’s the big question: is it ever necessary for actors to have non-simulated sex?
To be honest, I’m not sure. Would it have been a different film and therefore a different experience had the sex been simulated? I think that it would have been.
On the one hand, real sex doesn’t allow viewers to gloss over the often awkward physicality and all around messiness that lovemaking entails. Indeed, real sex can go a long way toward de-eroticizing the experience, and in so doing unveil the other aspects of sex and sexuality aside from arousal and orgasm. Human beings are complex creatures; is not a more complex understanding of our sexuality valuable? I think it is.
On the other hand, however, having actors perform non-simulated sex raises issues surrounding more than just art. We shouldn’t downplay the possibility for disease or pregnancy. Measures can be taken to reduce the risks, but the risks remain nonetheless. But risks aside, you could easily argue (as many would) that filming someone having sex devalues the act itself, and not just for the couple or group involved, but also for the filmmakers and audience. If sex is inherently a private and intimate experience (as many would argue it is), then do we lose that privacy and intimacy by exploring it so openly?
I won’t pretend to have definite answers to any of the questions I’ve raised here. But, after seeing a film like Shortbus, I do wonder about where the line should be drawn between art and pornography, and if there should be a definite line at all.
Rowing For Pleasure is a weekly opinions column written by Z S Roe. Please leave a comment or question—all opinions are welcome, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. If you like what you read here, please subscribe.