Let’s Talk About Sex (On Screen)

As everyone turned to consume content to escape the horrific reality of the pandemic over the past few months, so did I. Among the dozens of previously binge-watched shows I went back to was also a high school favourite – Wynonna Earp. I fell into the familiarity of the cliffhangers and the quick wit of the characters, finding the show unchanged as I caught up to the newest season. This was a show I knew inside out, I knew the dynamics, I knew the running gags and I knew how far the show was willing to go with WayHaught – one of TV’s most popular LGBTQ+ couples.  

Nicole Haught and Waverly Earp were reunited after being separated for more than a year, as couples are on dramas, and what followed the reunion was a cinematic, intense, no-holds barred sex scene. Despite Wynonna Earp being one of the more progressive shows on TV and having a female creator who is very receptive to the LGBTQ+ fans of the show, I was completely taken aback.

What surprised me wasn’t just the explicit nature of the scene (there is a lot of nudity, and it’s all lit well enough for there to not be any ambiguity), but the treatment it received – with the tastefully done slow-motion fades, the background music – it’s the kind of pure unrestrained romance I’ve seen onscreen only between cisgender heterosexual people.

Queer love in movies and TV is often sanitised, to make it easier for heterosexual audiences to watch. Modern Family, which was lauded by liberal audiences for including a gay couple on a family sitcom for the first time, did not show a single kiss between said couple for multiple seasons. Censorship and rating systems around the world make it almost impossible to show two women on screen together – case in point: in America, a woman receiving oral sex automatically makes the movie eligible to be shown only to those above seventeen years of age, but if a woman gives oral sex to a man, those above thirteen years of age can watch it. These double standards are both homophobic and sexist, and have had a deep impact on how LGBTQ+ people and their relationships are perceived.

The first time I saw two women have sex in a movie was in Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – I was a curious teenager and I specifically went looking for the now infamous six-minute scene after I found out about it in my very trustworthy Delhi Times, which framed it as “the talk of the town” at Cannes. I was all kinds of confused and had pinned my hopes of a revelation on my reaction to the scene. The experience was anti-climactic (pun intended). I figured out nothing, closed the incognito window and went to sleep, underwhelmed and even more confused. I would discover later that coming to terms with my sexuality would not be one single eureka moment. I would also discover that Julie Marloh, on whose book Blue is the Warmest Colour is based and a lesbian herself, definitely did not approve of the scene. Watching it now, it’s a clear case of the male gaze. The film is directed and written by a straight cis man. The focus is on the bodies, instead of the characters and it feels intrusive. I’m not going to get into the choreography of the act itself, but it’s definitely not very realistic. Marloh said it best when she called it “a brutal and surgical display, exuberant and cold, of so-called lesbian sex.”

Five years later, Desiree Akhavan, a bisexual Iranian American auteur would premiere her film The Miseducation of Cameron Post at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Her sexuality and lived experience lent an authenticity to the story that was rare at the time. Of course, this was a small indie film and that freed Akhavan from the burden of making the queerness of the film palatable to a mainstream audience. The film follows a gay teenager who is caught hooking up with her best friend and is then sent to conversion camp. Cameron and Coley hook up in the back of a car and are unceremoniously discovered by her boyfriend. The fervent, secretive nature of this scene is closer to the reality of LGBTQ+ people than the convenient comfort of a bed. The camera doesn’t linger on their bodies, doesn’t objectify them – both of them are in frame almost throughout the scene. The camera focuses on their faces, betraying the nervousness of the two best friends. There are no uncomfortably long lingering shots, the scene is not about the viewer and indulging anyone’s gaze. It’s about these two girls experiencing a first, and the cinematography centres that experience.

Akhavan revealed in interviews that the scene that made it to the final cut was the first take and that she had let the two actors improvise it, letting them rehearse in a parked car without any crew present. This is in stark contrast to what happened on the sets of Blue is the Warmest Colour, where the actresses said they “felt like prostitutes” while filming the gruelling scene.

This respect and consideration for the actors’ inputs that Akhavan showed has been emphasised in a post #MeToo world, especially when there are more LGBTQ+ actors and creators involved in projects. There is an authenticity and respect on screen, one that has grown to be more inclusive over the years.

Pose (2019), one of the most acclaimed shows on television currently, celebrates ballroom culture and the transgender community of New York in the 1980s and 1990s. It made waves for the attention it paid to representation – with transgender writers, choreographers and actors telling their stories. The show has been informative in many ways – never before has there been such an authentic portrayal of the trans community on mainstream TV. The highs and lows of their lives are a joy to watch. Pose places its characters as objects of desire, without fetishizing them or making them less trans or less queer in any way. When it comes to sex, Pose does not fetishize them or use their stories for shock value. In a quietly ground-breaking scene, Angel who is a trans woman and a survivor sex worker consummates her relationship with Stan, who is a cis man. The two start by making out on Angel’s bed, they pull their clothes off before Stan reaches into a drawer and puts on a condom. Before Stan enters Angel, the camera pans to the window. One of the co-creators, Steven Canals, who himself has a trans partner, explained why the scene wasn’t explicit, “…when it comes to any sex scene, everything has to be earned. Especially when one of the two individuals in this particular scene is trans and being played by a trans woman. There’s already so much focus on trans bodies. We were very aware of how we were portraying that moment, and how we were utilizing Indya as an actress. We didn’t want to expose her or her body simply for the sake of feeding into the curiosity of an uneducated audience member.” Pose normalises sex as a part of the lives of transgender people and focuses its gaze on the characters, not their bodies – something many did not even realise was lacking in other portrayals of transgender people.

This debate about how explicit queer sex on screen should be accompanies every LGBTQ+ film that breaks through to the mainstream. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) was critically acclaimed for its triumph in the “female gaze” and received a wide release. The film is set in 18th century France and follows two women who fall for each other and then have to go their separate ways. Celine Sciamma, the accomplished director of the movie, was questioned on why she didn’t include a sex scene in the movie. For the majorly heterosexual audience, a sex scene in a movie about LGBTQ+ people is preceded by anticipation that is drawn out throughout the course of the film. When it finally happens, it provides a narrative and sexual climax, that is rooted in voyeurism. This is what we’ve come to expect from films in this genre and style and Sciamma plays on our expectations. She insisted that there is a sex scene in the movie, further adding “maybe you haven’t seen it.” And she’s right, there are intimate scenes in the movie, blessedly shot with a clearly female gaze, but she still faced criticisms of not being “brave” enough to depict a proper sex scene. Critics in her native France panned the film for being “too tame.”

By saying “maybe you haven’t seen it”, Sciamma is asking us to consider how we look at sex in films and why we expect it to be penetrative and to end with a climax, physically or in the narrative sense. The reason goes beyond just the male gaze. We’ve all grown up watching very cisgendered, heterosexual intercourse on TV and in movies, that is created by and for a heteronormative gaze. This heteronormative male gaze is so pervasive that it has impacted LGBTQ+ stories too. Owing to the lack of sex education in most parts of the world, we replicate it in our lives and then on screens again. It’s a vicious cycle that narrows the kind of human experiences that are acceptable and understood on screen. Creators like Sciamma, Emily Andras (of Wynonna Earp), Akhavan and Stephen Canals and Janet Mock (of Pose) are challenging this cycle in their own ways. They’re not just tackling the male gaze but they’re also breaking down heterosexual narratives around sex and they’re doing it one well-lit, unambiguous sex scene at a time.

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Journalism student, pop culture lover and feminist in progress.
Shradhdha Das

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